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The Rise of the New Confederacy: How America-Hating Right-Wingers Took Over the GOP

The rhetoric of Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Rick Perry about the “real America” is not imagined: They and those who oppose them live in different Americas.

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Bourne’s critique ultimately proved correct. But if Dewey was wrong in that case, and if he behaved appallingly toward Bourne, the essence of his vision won out. He and other progressives had been hopeful about the potential of harnessing knowledge to power for the purpose of reconstructing society; and from that point forward, for better and worse, progressive hopes for social reform have been heavily invested in educational and governmental institutions, and a loose, complicated alliance of the two realms.

GOP: God’s Only Party

Religious conservatives pushed back by mobilizing and building a parallel universe of institutions to preserve what they believed to be the truth.

The cause of their exit from mainstream American institutions was religious liberalism–“modernism,” as it was called. Religious modernists accepted scholarly work about the human origins of the Bible while still valuing scripture as a source of wisdom. They accepted evolutionary theory while still holding out the possibility of divine purpose in the universe. They tried, in general, to reconcile religious truth with the knowledge emerging from the academy.

Modernists felt at home within America’s mainstream, but religious conservatives felt betrayed. They built their own network of institutions to defend the old-time religion. Bob Jones University, founded in 1927, emerged from this era.

Two developments added energy and power to this wave of conservative Christian institution building. One was the new technology of radio, which in the 1930s opened the way for freelance evangelists to build their own ministries based on charismatic appeal.

The other crucial development was the popularization of a new account of humanity’s fate: premillennial dispensationalism, or p.d. for short. It posits that human history can be divided into several ages, or dispensations, and that the current age will conclude with the Battle of Armageddon. However, seven years before that battle, Jesus will return to earth for the redeemed, and they will be “raptured” to heaven.

Much more than a theological perspective, p.d. is among the most potent and important political ideas of the last century. Its first great popularizer in the United States was Cyrus Scofield, whose annotated Scofield Reference Bible was published in 1909. Since then, p.d. has grown ever-more influential. It was the subject of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s; and it was the plot-driving device in the Left Behind books, which are among the bestselling works of fiction in the 1990s and 2000s.

The political influence of p.d. is located in its premise that all human institutions are irredeemably corrupt. Since conditions in this world will steadily deteriorate, the duty of the true Christian is to remain faithful to the gospel as the world descends into godless chaos.

Skeptics regarding p.d.’s influence rightly note that a relatively small minority of the population actually adhere to the theology. But unified and highly galvanized groups wield outsized power in American politics. The hard work of actually getting things done, whether for good or ill, depends on the energy and organization of “marginal” groups who represent minority opinions and which, more often than not, are fired by religious faith. That truth has been driven home with frightening clarity by the recent debt-ceiling debate and by the radicalism of the leading Republican presidential candidates–nearly all of whom, not coincidentally, profess faith in some variation of p.d. theology.

Today, the currents of victimization, separatism and fatalism coursing through p.d. have spread beyond the true believers to dramatically reshape the GOP. What has recently come to the fore within the Republican Party, but has been building within it for decades as the religious right’s influence has grown, is a new Confederacy: a nation within a nation, certain of the degeneracy of the usurper “United States,” hostile toward its institutions of education and government, and possessing a keen sense of its own identity as a victimized, righteous remnant engaged in spiritual warfare. As Michele Bachmann put it when explaining her position as a tax accountant for the IRS, she took a government job because she wanted to infiltrate “the enemy.”