Why the Christian Right Becomes More Extreme As America Grows More Tolerant
The rigidity of Christian Right politics has been a complicating factor in governing the United States for the past several decades, stripping away flexibility needed to negotiate on issues as diverse as policies in the Middle East, abortion, health care and the federal budget.
Gone is the more practical approach of assessing government actions based on what might help the country the most – and compromising with those who have differing opinions. Everything, it seems, gets measured by some Christian fundamentalist yardstick of what’s right and wrong.
Adding to this religious style of politics has been a deep sense of victimhood among right-wing Evangelicals, as if Christians were some persecuted minority in the United States, threatened by all-powerful Muslims imposing Sharia law or secular humanists banning Christmas.
Repeated endlessly on right-wing talk radio, these paranoid messages have become real to millions of these religiously inspired voters. So, political adversaries must not only be bested, but crushed. After all, they represent strategies of the anti-Christ.
What happens next with this religious/political phenomenon could dramatically influence the future direction of the United States, a nation founded on principles of religious tolerance and respect for free debate and political diversity.
Martin Palmer, Secretary General of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), sees hope in the shifting of some American Evangelicals away from hard-right anger in favor of life-affirming environmentalism. In an interview, Palmer notes that Evangelical environmentalists are the fasting growing part of American’s “green” movement.
However, Palmer accepts that American Evangelicals have been a key factor in creating today’s political acrimony. He describes the political movement as “revenge”-based, rather than rooted in any particular Christian philosophy.
Palmer, whose group interacts with religious leaders of all faiths on a global basis to develop environmental programs, is also a theologian and regular commentator on the BBC on ethics, religion and the environment.
The American Evangelical-political leaders, according to Palmer, are upset at not retaining the White House consistently after the presidency of Ronald Reagan. They see evil and the devil as the forces preventing them from creating a faith-based government.
At this point, the Evangelical Right wants the entire administrative structure of the secular state torn down in order to create a “New Jerusalem” and to hasten the Apocalypse.
To understand how this Christian Right movement evolved, Palmer said, one must look back at catastrophes that struck Christian Europe some eight centuries ago.
The Plague created disillusionment with the Church’s ability to protect the faithful. To counter those doubts, a school of thought emerged insisting that some other forces must be at work, with the devil and his agents doing battle with the Church, with goodness and with God.
This fear of the devil gave rise to witch trials and images of a cloven-hooved demons selecting victims and recruiting co-conspirators. It became common for populations to blame “evil” for virtually any failure of an endeavor, bad crops or disease. To eliminate these Satanic forces, the devil’s suspected agents were burned at the stake as witches.
After Europe lost its taste for witch burnings in favor of more scientific explanations, Evangelicals turned their religious passions toward converting heathens in distant lands, like China, India and Africa. The missionary movement came into full flower in the late 1800s.
But Evangelicals never entirely lost their obsession with the devil. In effect, Palmer explained, they found new devils among populations about whom they knew precious little.
“One of the reasons for the re-appearance of the devil or evil in those early missionary days came about through disappointment,” Palmer said. “The missionaries, when they went to China — China had more missionaries than the whole rest of the world put together — they found people really weren’t interested” in the Christian message.
“The dilemma facing the missionaries, primarily Protestants, … was that they were not terribly literate people. They were very much people who came out of working-class backgrounds who had had a dramatic conversion experience.
“That experience had given them an intense sense of the love of God and they felt ‘called’ to go to the mission field. Often they had never traveled more that thirty-five miles outside their home town, and now found themselves on a boat to China or to India. These were people who felt God had called them to leave everything and go to these strange countries.”
The missions were slow getting off the ground and the number of converts tiny. That was deeply contrary to the expectations of the missionaries who thought that the inhabitants of these dark lands would be profoundly grateful to receive the light of the gospel.
“And, that didn’t happen,” Palmer said. “It so didn’t happen on such a monumental scale that this raised huge questions. The missionaries were left with only three possible answers: that no one was interested,” which was unthinkable.
“The second one was that somehow they had failed,” Palmer said. “They were not able to communicate the gospel, and were failing Jesus. Quite a few of them had monumental nervous breakdowns. … The average life of a missionary in inland China in the second half of the Nineteenth Century was just two years.
“Many of them just fell apart and had to be shipped home and were basically wrecks thereafter, because they felt they personally had failed their commission.”
Or the missionaries could see the challenge in a way less disparaging of the Christian message or their own abilities.
“The third option was … the devil,” Palmer said. “They were not dealing with ordinary human beings who were not accepting the gospel. They were dealing with the devil. And, the devil in the form of anything you wanted, in the form of statues of other gods, Taoist, Hindu shrines or holy men who wandered the countryside, it didn’t really matter.
“These forces of evil were actually blocking the poor people who all wanted to convert but the devil was in the way.”
In Palmer’s analysis, a similar phenomenon has been occurring in America. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Christian Right foresaw a national conversion, with Americans accepting the Bible in the way fundamentalist Christians interpreted its teachings. With America providing that light onto other nations, Christianity would be on a triumphant march.
However, that failed to happen. Despite right-wing gains in terms of tax policy and other benefits for the rich, the nation has continued its gradual evolution toward a more tolerant and a more secular society. For instance, polls show growing acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage, two hot-button issues for Christian fundamentalists.
The American Evangelicals felt that after Reagan, they were entitled to power, Palmer said. That is why, they couldn’t understand the election of Bill Clinton. In the Evangelical mind, Clinton was an interloper to “their” White House.
The election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, came as a particular shock to many white Evangelicals, especially because of his Muslim father and his Muslim name. This resistance to accepting Obama as a “legitimate” president was part of what fueled the hysteria over his supposedly forged birth certificate.
“Obama,” Palmer said, “left them bewildered,” thus the non-negotiating position taken by the right-wing Evangelicals on almost all of the administration efforts.
“I think what you are now witnessing, and it’s not among the majority, is a group of people that thought they were within grasp of taking power and making America once again a holy country, a holy city, the new Jerusalem,” Palmer said.
Their failure would be a rejection of God and must not be tolerated. However, Palmer said, in reality, “this was not the rejection of Christianity, but rather the rejection of this rather narrow kind of Christianity. I think it has driven them to ask why.”
So, the search for the devil continues, with Obama filling the bill and his allies – liberals and Democrats – serving the role that witches once did. There can be no thought of negotiating with these forces of “evil,” as far as the Christian Right is concerned.
“Any manifestation of contemporary society that they feel does not fit their vision of how the world should be is the work of the devil,” Palmer said.
Yet, Palmer believes the Christian Right does not see all obstacles as equally evil:
“I think you need to distinguish those who are active agents of the devil, such as Islam, over those whose misguided compassion is exploited by the devil. For example homosexuality itself is wrong, but homosexuals do not necessarily have to be wrong: they can be saved.”
Put in simple terms, Palmer said Evangelicals see, “A cosmic struggle for the world. The apocalypse is always next. History is irrelevant. … Time is temporal. All you need is the Bible. There is always a conspiracy against God and a weakening of the white family.”
Given the evil perceived by the extreme Evangelical Right, the only solution for the U.S. is to “strip the government to the bone and start over,” Palmer said.
However, Palmer thinks the hard-core Evangelical movement will eventually “burn itself out” because of its unwillingness to search for compromise solutions.
Palmer believes, the movement will “go to sand” as more and more Evangelicals focus their efforts on environmental issues. According to Palmer, “Quite a lot of people in that movement have disavowed themselves from the socio-evangelical political goals … and gone off and become active in the environmental movement.”
Palmer and fellow religious environmentalists will be meeting at the White House in December to discuss the religious approach to preserving the environment.
Palmer is a regular contributor to several BBC programs on ethics and religion, most specifically “In Our Time” hosted by Melvyn Bragg. He explained the evolution of the devil, evil and the missionary movement in a segment, “The Devil.”