GOPer Confesses: Republicans Have Gone 'Nuts' With Religious Fundamentalism
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For 28 years, since Ronald Reagan's first term, Mike Lofgren served as a Republican Congressional staffer on Capitol Hill. He was one of the many people who work behind the scenes on the nitty-gritty of governing while the politicians they work for are out making speeches and raising campaign funds.
But in 2011, after a wave of Tea Party ideologues had stormed the Hill, Lofgren had seen enough. A few months after quitting his job, he wrote that the party he had belonged to for his entire career had become dominated by “lunatics.” The big problem, in Lofgren's view, was the pervasive fundamentalist theology that had gained so much influence in the GOP over the years Lofgren served in Congress. Last year, he wrote:
It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th-century Europe.
Lofgren has penned a new book, The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless and the Middle Class Got Shafted, that offers an insider's view of the extremism he saw among his colleagues. Lofgren appeared on this week's AlterNet Radio Hour. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion (you can listen to the whole show here).
Joshua Holland: Mike, in the book you argue that the Republican party’s extremism these days is fueled by politicized religion, by the religious right. Before we get into that, I kind of want to locate you on the political spectrum. These days you're writing things that are somewhat similar to what those of us on the left have been saying. Have your political views changed, or to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, has the Republican party simply left you? Do you still identify yourself as a moderate conservative?
Mike Lofgren: Well, I would say that in today’s GOP, Ronald Reagan would be considered too moderate. After all, he pleaded with Congress to pass a clean debt relief bill when the deficit threatened to get out of hand. He passed several tax increases. So I think maybe the GOP has maybe passed me by.
JH: He also of course signed an amnesty bill for undocumented immigrants. I agree with you very strongly that in today’s party, Ronald Reagan would probably be called a RHINO (Republican in name only).
We should be clear that we’re not talking about people of faith who are in politics. you’re writing about fundamentalists, biblical literalists.
ML: Right. I am not criticizing religion per se. I’m criticizing the fusion of politics and religion, which debases both politics and religion.
JH: It seems to me, and it comes through very clearly in the book, that religious fundamentalism is by definition incompatible with democracy, because democracy requires some compromise. When you believe your position is the word of God and the other guy’s position is the work of Satan you can’t really meet in the middle, can you? How did this ideology play out when you were working on the Hill?
ML: You kind of saw that and it was one of the reasons that led me to retire from the Hill. In early 2011, I saw that this whole new infusion of Tea Party Republicans, particularly in the House, they were going to use the debt limit increase issue -- which had been passed without too much crisis something like 87 times previously since World War II -- use it to ransom the government of the United States to their ideology. That little stunt caused Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the nation’s credit rating. According to the Government Accountability Office, it cost $1.3 billion in transaction costs alone.
The reason I bring that into the religious discussion is that if you believe in Armageddon, and that we will all sleep in the bosom of the Lord, by and by, then it really doesn’t matter if you blow up the government or cause some terrible crisis, because of what you consider to be your principles. Well, that accounts for some of the behavior. I think Michele Bachmann, who was a darling of the religious right, basically said "bring it on" in terms of a default of the United States government.
JH: She also questioned whether the United States government would go into default, when every single budget expert was saying this is an obvious thing. It was so striking to me, the debt limit standoff. We were talking about paying past debt. We weren’t talking about accruing new debt. As you point out, it cost us a fortune just to have this standoff for the sake of their constituents -- to show that they were "towing a hard line" on budgets and deficits.
You have an excerpt from the book on AlterNet. In it, you wrote, “the rise of politicized religious fundamentalism may have been the key ingredient in the transformation of the Republican Party. Politicized religion provides a substrate of beliefs that rationalizes—at least in the minds of its followers—all three of the GOP’s main tenets: wealth worship, war worship, and the permanent culture war.”
I’d like you to unpack that for us. We can all get why that fuels the culture wars, but I don’t think Jesus worshipped wealth or permanent war.
ML: If you read the Sermon on the Mount, that would probably be the case, however there’s a certain "health and wealth, name it and claim it" wing of the fundamentalists that believes wealth is a sign of God’s favor, and therefore the wealthy are to be considered blessed. And if you’re not rich, well then, too bad. This seems to rationalize in some ways the domestic fiscal policies of the party, which is principally devoted to maintaining very low tax rates on wealthy contributors.
JH: How does the religiosity play into this idea that we should be permanently at war? Is that because we have, in recent years, been going to war in Muslim-majority countries?
ML: There’s something to that. Some of the fundamentalists saw the invasion of Iraq as an invasion of ancient Babylon, and Saddam as the anti-Christ. They tend to rationalize any foreign foe as some religious enemy. In fact, Jerry Falwell once wrote an article saying that God is pro-war, which I think would tend to contradict the message of the Sermon on the Mount.
JH: That’s kind of an understatement. The idea that wealth is a sign of God’s grace is part of what’s known as Dominionist theology. It’s kind of frightening.
Mike, a lot of liberals think that the Republican coalition is on shaky ground these days because the distance between the social-cons and the more libertarian wing of the party has become so great. You think that’s an inaccurate analysis, right?
ML: Well, it’s an incomplete analysis. We just don’t know how this is going to play out. I just haven’t seen too much indication that it’s hobbling the GOP. For instance, the Koch brothers were contributors to the campaign of Michele Bachmann. If they were purely concerned with fiscal issues I don’t think that would be the place to go. Michele Bachmann believes we need to go back to the tax rates of the time of Ronald Reagan, meaning make them lower. Well, they were actually higher 25 years ago.
JH: You’ve been in the Congress until very recently. At least in the current Congress, isn’t the greater divide between the unyielding zealotry of the Tea Party wing and the traditional pro-business Republican establishment? I guess another way to put it is that the conventional wisdom is that John Boehner would really like to cut a “grand bargain” with Obama and the Democrats -- or at least be able to negotiate some of these budget impasses -- but he can’t because he can’t muster the votes within his own party. Is that your view?
ML: That is exactly my view based on what I’ve seen. I do think he wants to cut a deal because at the end of the day the point of government is to govern. However, he has this Tea Party caucus that’s pretty intransigent and he has this majority leader, Eric Cantor, who I’ve noticed on a number of occasions, once Boehner had spoken, would subtly undercut him.
JH: We’ve always had a lot of religious fundamentalists in this country, but until the Reagan years they were kind of on the margins of our political life, weren’t they? Many evangelicals believed they shouldn’t even bother with such temporal matters as politics. How did they emerge as a driving force within the Republican party? I know that they were a counterpart to the unions, as far as the party's ground game was concerned. They walked precincts, turned out to vote and drove seniors to the polls.
ML: I think it’s a synergistic process. To some degree, people like Falwell took the religious right and brought it towards the Republican party. On the other hand, Republican operatives actively recruited them to the Republican party. I think by 1988 in the Iowa presidential caucus -- when we saw Pat Robertson’s very strong showing – there was an indication that the whole process was being cemented together.
JH: One of the interesting things about the transformation of Republican politics over the past 30 years or so is that while the religious right was emerging as this driving force, so too was what you refer to as “the cult of Ayn Rand.” Rand, of course, was the second-rate novelist whose philosophy stressed that the world was divided between “moochers” and “producers,” and the former bring us all down by leeching off the wealthy. Isn’t this something of a contradiction, given than Rand was a militant atheist who absolutely despised Christianity?
ML: It is absolutely the case, and it strikes me as a premiere example of double-think that there are so many operatives and elected Republican officials who can claim to the faithful what good, practicing Christians they are -- but also say they are of strong adherents of Ayn Rand. She had contempt for Christianity. It was nothing more than a religion for weaklings in her view. Somehow this bounces off the consciousness of most of the Republican faithful. This is an enormous contradiction that they would be extolling this atheist materialism.
JH: There was a recent study of public attitudes done by the Pew Research Center which I think is related to the Ayn Rand point. It found that in 1987, 62 percent of Republicans said, “the government should take care of people who cannot take care of themselves.” That number has now dropped to 40 percent.
This seems like a monumental, tectonic shift to me. I think about the Republican debate last fall in which one of the moderators asked the candidates if someone gets cancer, and doesn’t have health insurance and can’t afford to get covered in a high-risk pool, should he just be allowed to die. A fair number of people in the audience screamed, “let him die.”
How do they square that with their religiosity?
ML: Again, it’s an example of Orwellian double-think. I saw that debate. That was the same one where they were cheering when Rick Perry was bragging about how many executions occurred during his administration in Texas. Of course they booed in another venue when a call-in question from a soldier in Iraq happened to be gay. I noticed that not one Republican candidate on the stage said those folks ought to be ashamed of themselves. Whatever they think of this person, he served his country and that should be respected.
JH: Right, that was another very telling moment.
There’s been a bunch of polling out in recent months showing that there’s a growing generational gap here. Younger Christian evangelicals are in fact leaving the church. They say that they identity the church mostly with homophobia. Another recent poll shows that they’re tiring of the culture wars as well. Do you think we’re going to see the GOP move away from the religious right as we see another generation emerge?
ML: I don’t know about the GOP, but I do see some hope with the millennial generation. They seem much more practical, and they’re not hung up on the culture wars one way or another -- as the baby boomers are. As that generation slides into senescence, maybe there will be some hope for this country.