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Tea Party Movement Returns Christian Right to Its Racist Past

For years, the religious right tried to lose its racist image, reverting to homophobia as its hatred of choice. As it joins the Tea Party fray, it may once again have to own both.
 
 
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Now that popular conservatism has given itself over so avidly to racial resentment, it's curious to remember how hard the right once tried to scrub itself of the lingering taint of prejudice. Indeed, for a decade and a half the Christian right -- until recently the most powerful and visible grassroots conservative movement -- struggled mightily to escape its own bigoted history. In his 1996 book Active Faith, Ralph Reed acknowledged that Christian conservatives had been on the wrong side of the civil rights movement. "The white evangelical church carries a shameful legacy of racism and the historical baggage of indifference to the most central struggle for social justice in this century, a legacy that is only now being wiped clean by the sanctifying work of repentance and racial reconciliation," wrote Reed.

"Racial reconciliation" became a kind of buzz phrase. The idea animated Promise Keepers meetings. "Racism is an insidious monster," Bill McCartney, the group's founder, said at a 39,000-man Atlanta rally. "You can't say you love God and not love your brother." The Traditional Values Coalition distributed a video called "Gay Rights, Special Rights" to black churches; it criticized the gay rights movement for co-opting the noble legacy of the civil rights struggle.

Throughout the Bush years, homophobia and professions of anti-racism were twinned in a weird way, as if the latter proved that the right wasn't simply still skulking around history's dark side. At a deeply surreal 2006 event at the Greater Exodus Baptist Church, an African American church in downtown Philadelphia, leaders of the religious right invoked Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks on behalf of gay marriage bans and Bush's judicial nominees. At the end of the evening, several dozen clergymen, black and white, joined hands in prayer at the front of the room. "Black Americans, white Americans," said a beaming Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council. "Christians, standing together." The whole premise of compassionate conservatism -- which shoveled taxpayer money towards administration-friendly churches like Greater Exodus Baptist -- was that the right cared as deeply as the left about issues like inner city poverty.

What a difference an election makes. Even if you believed that compassionate conservatism was always a bit of a con, it's amazing to see how quickly it has vanished, and how fast an older style of reaction, one more explicitly rooted in racial grievance, has reasserted itself.

Today's grassroots right is by all appearances as socially conservative as ever, but its tone and its rhetoric are profoundly different than they were even a year ago. For the last 15 years, the right-wing populism has been substantially electrified by sexual anxiety. Now it's charged with racial anxiety. By all accounts, there were more confederate flags than crosses at last weekend's anti-Obama rally in Washington, DC. Glenn Beck has become a far more influential figure on the right than, say, James Dobson, and he's much more interested in race than in sexual deviancy. For the first time in at least a decade, middle class whites have been galvanized by the fear that their taxes are benefiting lazy, shiftless others. The messianic, imperialistic, hubristic side of the right has gone into retreat, and a cramped, mean and paranoid style has come to the fore.

To some extent, a newfound suspicion of government was probably inevitable as soon as Democrats took power. At the same time, with the implosion of the Christian right's leadership and the last year's cornucopia of GOP sex scandals, the party needed to take a break from incessant moralizing, and required a new ideology to take the place of family values cant. The belief system analysts sometimes call "producerism" served nicely. Producerism sees society as divided between productive workers -- laborers, small businessmen and the like -- and the parasites who live off them. Those parasites exist at both the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy -- they are both financiers and welfare bums -- and their larceny is enabled by the government they control.

 
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