How the GOP's 'folk libertarians' and 'cynical irreligious right' clashed in the midterms: historian
When the Christian Right movement associated with White evangelical fundamentalists like Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, James Dobson and the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell, Sr. became prominent in the Republican Party in the early 1980s, one of the United States’ most influential conservatives expressed total disdain for the movement. The late Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, railing against Falwell, made it abundantly clear that he believed the Christian Right was bad for the GOP and bad for conservatism.
Ironically, the arch-conservative Goldwater found himself in agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and shared their view that the last thing the U.S. needed was to become the type of theocracy that Falwell and other evangelicals wanted the U.S. to become. Goldwater, the ACLU and television producer Norman Lear’s People For the American Way weren’t anti-religion but rather, realized that a strong separation of church and state was necessary to protect religious freedom.
Falwell and Goldwater were both part of President Ronald Reagan’s fragile right-wing coalition of the 1980s, but the animosity between the two Republicans was considerable. And that tension between the secular right and the fundamentalist right continues to exist in 2022.
In a think piece published by The Bulwark on November 22, historian Joshua Tait takes an in-depth look at the secular/fundamentalist rivalry on the American right — a rivalry that, according to Tait, is as intense as ever.
“On the illiberal right, there’s a divide between religiously motivated conservatives and their secular allies,” Tait explains. “This divide will likely grow, and be felt at both the elite and popular levels. In one sense, this is not new: There has long been a religious/secular fault line in the conservative coalition. But as hypocritical as the Religious Right can be, religious — generally Christian — impulses have, at times, tempered American conservatism. Now, however, we already see signs of a cynical irreligious right and how its ideas and attitudes have infected politically minded believers.”
According to Tait, trying to get the secular right and the fundamentalist right to find common ground is as difficult in 2022 as it was during the 1980s when Goldwater vowed to “fight” the Christian Right “every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of ‘conservatism.’” Tait emphasizes that although “folk libertarians” are quick to express their contempt for “woke” ideology, that doesn’t automatically make them allies of the Christian Right.
“It’s hard to imagine that religious conservatives’ eternal commitments and their genuine belief in sin will allow for any sort of long-term alliance,” Tait argues. “As soon as Christians are perceived as a more censorious threat, the folk-libertarian impulse of this cohort will swing left, as we saw in the midterms.”
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