GOP Insider: How Religion Destroyed My Party
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The following exceprt is reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from "The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless and the Middle Class Got Shafted," by Mike Lofgren. Copyright © 2012 by Mike Lofgren.
Having observed politics up close and personal for most of my adult lifetime, I have come to the conclusion that 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.
Religious cranks ceased to be a minor public nuisance in this country beginning in the 1970s and grew into a major element of the Republican rank and file. Pat Robertson’s strong showing in the 1988 Iowa presidential caucus signaled the gradual merger of politics and religion in the party. Unfortunately, at the time I mostly underestimated the implications of what I was seeing. It did strike me as oddly humorous that a fundamentalist staff member in my congressional office was going to take time off to convert the heathen in Greece, a country that had been overwhelmingly Christian for almost two thousand years. I recall another point, in the early 1990s, when a different fundamentalist GOP staffer said that dinosaur fossils were a hoax. As a mere legislative mechanic toiling away in what I held to be a civil rather than ecclesiastical calling, I did not yet see that ideological impulses far different from mine were poised to capture the party of Lincoln.
The results of this takeover are all around us: If the American people poll more like Iranians or Nigerians than Europeans or Canadians on questions of evolution, scriptural inerrancy, the presence of angels and demons, and so forth, it is due to the rise of the religious right, its insertion into the public sphere by the Republican Party, and the consequent normalizing of formerly reactionary beliefs. All around us now is a prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science. Politicized religion is the sheet anchor of the dreary forty-year-old culture wars.
The Constitution notwithstanding, there is now a de facto religious test for the presidency: Major candidates are encouraged (or coerced) to share their feelings about their faith in a revelatory speech, or a televangelist like Rick Warren will dragoon the candidates (as he did with Obama and McCain in 2008) to debate the finer points of Christology, offering himself as the final arbiter. Half a century after John F. Kennedy put to rest the question of whether a candidate of a minority denomination could be president, the Republican Party has reignited the kinds of seventeenth-century religious controversies that advanced democracies are supposed to have outgrown. And some in the media seem to have internalized the GOP’s premise that the religion of a candidate is a matter for public debate.
Throughout the 2012 Republican presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was dogged with questions about his religion. The spark was a hitherto obscure fundamentalist preacher from Texas, Robert Jeffress, who attacked Romney’s Mormonism by doubting whether he could really be considered a Christian. The media promptly set aside the issues that should have been paramount— Romney’s views on economic and foreign policy—in order to spend a week giving respectful consideration to an attention-grabbing rabble-rouser. They then proceeded to pester the other candidates with the loaded question of whether they thought Romney was a Christian. CNN’s Candy Crowley was particularly egregious in this respect, pressing Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann for a response and becoming indignant when they refused to answer. The question did not deserve an answer, because Crowley had set it up to legitimate a false premise: that Romney’s religious belief was a legitimate issue of public debate. This is a perfect example of how the media reinforce an informal but increasingly binding religious test for public office that the Constitution formally bans. Like the British constitution, the test is no less powerful for being unwritten.