How Christian Tribalism Empowers Hardliners Against the Wishes of Most Americans


The Christian right has long understood that in order to get the power they desire, they need to portray themselves as a group that is working for a majority. Sometimes they claim to speak for a majority of Americans and sometimes just for the majority of Christians, but either way, they understand that positioning themselves as spokespeople for a majority is an excellent way to push forward their agenda, even when that agenda is absolutely against what the majority actually wants. More than any other group in America, the Christian right knows that you can shove through a massively unpopular policy by appealing to people’s sense of identity and solidarity. Indeed, you can often get people to support you who would be utterly repulsed by your actual agenda.

How do they do it? They understand better than anyone how, in politics, identity trumps grittier concerns like actual policies. Labels like “conservative” or “Christian” create intra-group loyalty that allows the radicals within a group to push their agenda knowing that while the majority in their group may disagree with them, they won’t fight too hard because they don’t want to be accused of not being Christian or conservative enough.

Understanding how identity often matters more than belief is key to understanding how the religious right manages to gather so much power while pushing an agenda completely out of lockstep not just with the mainstream of America, but the mainstream of conservatism.

A good example of how this works is with the recent attempts by the anti-choice movement to undermine women’s access to contraception. Will Saletan, recently writing for Slate, denied that the anti-choice movement is any real threat to access to contraception, because the majority of self-identified pro-lifers, who are almost entirely self-identified Christians, actually support contraception. He triumphantly declared that one cannot believe the “pro-life” movement is really about misogyny.

The problem with that argument is that, in the real world, the anti-choice movement is, in fact, chipping away at access to birth control just as they’re chipping away at access to abortion. (Saletan admitted that there have been attacks on contraception access, but basically hand-waved that off as irrelevant.) And they’re quite successful at it!

A number of lawsuits trying to kill the mandatory contraception coverage policy in the Affordable Care Act have been successful, suggesting that it’s going to go to the Supreme Court soon. The anti-choice movement successfully kept emergency contraception off drugstore shelves for years, for no other real reason than it was a new contraception and therefore easier to politically organize against. And anti-choicers have successfully slashed family planning funds earmarked for pregnancy prevention and convinced the Republican party to repeatedly use the threat of a government shutdown to attempt to destroy contraception subsidies permanently. 

What Saletan also fails to acknowledge is that many people who identify as pro-life also disagree with bans on abortion! Fifty percent of Americans call themselves pro-life, but 77% of Americans believe abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances. In other words, there’s a lot of people who identify as pro-life because they believe that’s what good Christians do—but they actually believe abortion should be legal in some cases. 

What’s going on here is that, simply put, the hardliners in the Christian right are able to pressure other people into going along with them by using in-group loyalty. Your average pro-lifer wants abortion and contraception to be legal in some cases, but they will continue to give money and political support to anti-choicers trying to get rid of legal access to both because, at the end of the day, expressing solidarity with the movement matters.

Time and time again, we see this dynamic play out: People identify with the labels “Christian” or “conservative." The leaders of these communities push for extremely radical right-wing agendas the ordinary, workaday people in the community disagree with. But the ordinary people refuse to push too hard against their leaders, because their loyalty to the label trumps their concerns about embracing harmful policies or stances. It’s true when it comes to big serious issues like reproductive rights and true when it comes to sillier issues.

Part of what makes this work is that the Christian right has spent decades establishing a well-funded campaign to equate the label “Christian” with right-wing politics. A favorite tool to do this is to argue that Christians are being oppressed by the forces of secularism.

Take, for instance, the 2012 campaign to show loyalty to the Chick-Fil-A executive who went on the record saying that gay marriage would bring “God’s judgment” on the nation. Interestingly, the justification for the call to show “appreciation” for Chick-Fil-A was not framed by organizers as a show of solidarity for the idea that gays were evil. Oh no, it was a show of solidarity for Christians who were supposedly oppressed by meanie liberals with their meanie criticisms. By framing the issue as one of religious solidarity instead of homophobia solidarity, organizers were able to turn more people out than if they had bluntly named it Hate The Gays Day.

A similar thing happened with the outcry when Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” made homophobic comments to a reporter from GQ. Christian right organizers swiftly reframed the issue not as a debate about homosexuality, but instead about the supposed oppression faced by Christians. The message was clear: To be a good Christian, one should stifle any concerns about hatefulness toward gay people and rally behind Robertson. Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana issued a statement that was the epitome of using religious solidarity to stifle internal criticism:

The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with. I don’t agree with quite a bit of stuff I read in magazine interviews or see on TV. In fact, come to think of it, I find a good bit of it offensive. But I also acknowledge that this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views. In fact, I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment. It is a messed-up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended.

Jindal was unwilling to go on the record agreeing with Robertson’s views of gay people. The support for Robertson was framed as a pushback against the supposed oppression that Christians face, with the implication being that, in order to fight against the oppression of Christians, it is important to go along with homophobia even if you disagree with it.

Once you understand how loyalty to the tribe causes people to squelch their objections to what the leaders of the tribe want, it becomes much easier to see how the Christian right convinces people to go along---or at least avoid fighting them---when the leaders decide to push radical right-wing agendas.

This is one reason that, no matter how often the courts try to kill it off, creationism ends up being presented again and again in classrooms as if it’s a scientific theory. The majority of Americans agree that evolution is how humans came to be. Despite this, as Slate recently reported, Texas students in charter schools are not only being incorrectly taught that evolution is a scientific “controversy” (it’s actually not controversial among scientists at all), but are being given religious instruction in the classroom. It’s not subtle, either, with one popular science workbook opening with a Bible quote, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.”

Only about 21 percent of Americans reject the label of Christian, which means that the majority of people who accept evolution is a fact are actually Christians. So, if there’s so much Christian support for the theory of evolution, why is this such a struggle? The problem is that the Christian right has successfully framed the issue as a matter of atheists and secular humanists against Christians. While some pro-science groups like the National Center for Science Education, try really hard to avoid talking at all about religion—except to say it should not be taught in science class—the truth of the matter is the pro-evolution side is strongly associated with atheism and secular humanism.

A lot of Christians actually believe that creationism is not true and should definitely not be taught in the classroom, but coming out and saying so can feel like you’re siding with the atheist team instead of the Christian one. Unsurprisingly, then, the notion that pro-evolution forces are atheist and secularist becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nearly all the most prominent voices on the pro-science side of this issue are atheists or agnostics, because they, for obvious reasons, aren’t particularly worried about being perceived as not Christian. Once again, identity works to scare Christians into toeing the party line even if they privately disagree with what the leadership wants.

This tendency to put identity and group loyalty ahead of actual beliefs helps explain one of the most amusing statistical discrepancies out there. Thirty-eight percent of Americans say premarital sex is wrong, a group we can safely say is spouting the religious teachings about the issue. But 95% of Americans have had premarital sex. While it’s possible that the people who object to premarital sex but also had premarital sex deeply regret their decision and would like to take it back, the truth is probably rooted in these issues of identity vs. reality.

What these numbers demonstrate is that there are a lot of Christians out there who are saying premarital sex is wrong while still choosing it for themselves. Being perceived as a good Christian—even to an anonymous phone poll-taker-trumps their own experiences, choices and beliefs.

You see this problem in all sorts of areas. Liberals and Democrats and atheists also feel pressure to toe the party line set by leaders, even if they strongly disagree. However, the concept of a “good atheist” or a “good liberal” doesn’t hold as much power as the concept of a “good Christian." For radical right-wingers, the threat that someone is being disloyal or betraying their identity is a powerful weapon. More importantly, people’s eagerness to align themselves with the desirable labels of “Christian” or “conservative” or “pro-life” means that they will frequently set aside their actual policy objections with the movement in order to be a part of it.

If more Christians were willing to fight the hardline right-wingers on everything from science education to abortion to even the war on Christmas, the Christian right would lose most, if not all, of their power. Unfortunately, the power of conformity ends up being a thick armor that protects the Christian right, no matter how radical they get. 

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