Why the Christian Right Becomes More Extreme As America Grows More Tolerant
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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.