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GOP Insider: How Religion Destroyed My Party

In the new book, "The Party Is Over," veteran Republican Mike Lofgren writes about the rise of politicized religious fundamentalism and how the GOP devolved into anti-intellectual nuts.

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Some liberal writers have opined that the socioeconomic gulf separating the business wing of the GOP and the religious right make it an unstable coalition that could crack. I am not so sure. There is no basic disagreement on which direction the two factions want to take the country, merely how far it should go. The plutocrats would drag us back to the Gilded Age; the theocrats to the Salem witch trials. If anything, the two groups are increasingly beginning to resemble each other. Many televangelists have espoused what has come to be known as the prosperity gospel—the health-and- wealth/name-it-and-claim-it gospel of economic entitlement. If you are wealthy, it is a sign of God’s favor. If not, too bad! This rationale may explain why some poor voters will defend the prerogatives of billionaires. In any case, at the beginning of the 2012 presidential cycle, those consummate plutocrats the Koch brothers pumped money into Bachmann’s campaign, so one should probably not make too much of a potential plutocrat-theocrat split.

Most of the religious enthusiasts I observed during my tenure on the Hill seemed to have little reluctance to mix God and Mammon. Rick Santorum did not blink at legislative schemes to pay off his campaign contributors: In 2005 he introduced a bill to forbid the National Weather Service from providing weather forecasts for free that commercial forecasters—like AccuWeather, a Pennsylvania- based company which had contributed to his campaign—wanted to charge for. Tom DeLay’s purported concern about the dignity and sanctity of human life, touchingly on display during the controversy over whether Terri Schiavo’s husband had the right to tell doctors to remove her feeding tube after seeing her comatose for fifteen years, could always be qualified by strategic infusions of campaign cash. DeLay’s quashing of bills to prohibit serious labor abuses demonstrates that even religious virtue can be flexible when there are campaign donations involved.

One might imagine that the religious right’s agenda would be incompatible with the concerns for privacy and individual autonomy by those who consider themselves to belong to the libertarian wing of the Republican Party—the “don’t tread on me,” “live free or die” crowd that Grover Norquist once called the “leave me alone” conservatives. Given their profound distaste for an oppressive and intrusive federal government, one would think they might have trepidations about a religious movement determined to impose statutory controls on private behavior that libertarians nominally hold to be nobody’s business, and particularly not the government’s business.

Some more libertarian-leaning Republicans have in fact pushed back against the religious right. Former House majority leader Dick Armey expressed his profound distaste for the tactics of the religious right in 2006—from the safety of the sidelines—by blasting its leadership in unequivocal terms:

[James] Dobson and his gang of thugs are real nasty bullies. I pray devoutly every day, but being a Christian is no excuse for being stupid. There’s a high demagoguery coefficient to issues like prayer in schools. Demagoguery doesn’t work unless it’s dumb, shallow as water on a plate. These issues are easy for the intellectually lazy and can appeal to a large demographic. These issues become bigger than life, largely because they’re easy. There ain’t no thinking.

Armey had previously been an economics professor at several cow colleges in Texas, and when he came to Congress in 1985, libertarian economics was his forte. I do not recall religious issues motivating his political ideology; instead, economics was what gripped him, particularly the flat tax, which he tirelessly promoted. I believe his departure from Congress was impelled not only by the fact that he was not on the inside track to become Speaker, but also because of his disillusionment with the culture wars, as his passionate denunciation of Dobson suggests. But later, Barack Obama’s election and the rise of the Tea Party induced a miraculous change of heart in Armey, as no doubt did the need to raise money for his lobbying organization, known as FreedomWorks. By 2009, Armey had become a significant voice of the Tea Party. As such, he attempted to declare a truce between fiscal and social conservatives, who would thenceforth bury their squabbles and concentrate on dethroning the Kenyan usurper in the Oval Office. That meant soft-pedaling social issues that might alarm fiscally conservative but socially moderate voters, particularly women, who lived in the wealthier suburbs.

 
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