On the rise of the radical religious right and the breakdown of democracy in the United States

Several mistakes are commonly made when thinking about the radical religious right. The first is to assume that the religious right shares the values held in common by most Americans.

Note from the author

A few years ago, when I wrote this essay, I felt that few people understood the radical religious right in the United States.

Since then the radical religious right has become more prominent, but its beliefs and values are still very poorly understood.

If mainstream Americans really understood the religious right, they would be shocked.

My aim is not to ridicule or attack the religious right, but to bring its beliefs and values into the open.

- Michael Webb

In fact, the religious right has an entirely different cultural and ideological background that basically regards those shared values as irrelevant. Fundamentalist Christianity teaches its believers to be "in the world but not of the world"; that is, to live among secular people but to reject their way of thinking.

Among the values shared implicitly by all Americans are 1) that persons ought to be free to do as they please so long as they do no harm to others, and 2) that every person is entitled to hold an opinion, and that no person's opinion is necessarily or intrinsically more valid than any other's.

The radical religious right does not play by those rules at all. From their point of view, those assumptions are secular ("worldly"), and therefore simply wrong.

The notion of compromise is alien to the radical religious right, because from their point of view either a belief comes from God, and is therefore absolutely and eternally true, or it comes from the secular world and ultimately from Satan, and is therefore utterly false, no matter how reasonable it may seem.

In fact, fundamentalist Christians believe that Satan (considered a completely real being) uses reason to deceive the sinful human mind. Reason is bad, faith is good.

Because of those attitudes, most people are totally at sea when trying to understand the religious right. The core perspectives are too different.

Another common error is that many people who consider themselves Christians, but who are not part of the radical religious right, feel that they can understand the radical religious right based on shared Christian beliefs.

In fact, the religious perspectives of the religious right differ markedly from those of moderate, nominal Christians.

Extreme fundamentalist Christians actually regard moderate, nominal Christians, "having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof" (II Timothy 3:5), as worse than unbelievers. "I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth." (Revelation 3:15-16)

They may pity unbelievers, but they distrust or even despise moderate Christians, in whom God has invested more of his grace and light, but who have chosen not to respond wholeheartedly. "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." (Luke 12:48)

The radical religious right has gained power only by keeping its true intentions under wraps, by using the Republican Party as a cover, and by portraying itself as conservative rather than radical.

A further marked difference between the fundamentalist Christians and others is that most people are motivated by the desire to find happiness. Those who adhere to Christian fundamentalism do not regard the pursuit of happiness to be a valid motivation, but instead consider "doing the will of God by submitting utterly to the Lordship of His Son Jesus Christ" to be the only acceptable reason for living.

Those two motivations lead to very different choices and personal values.

. . .

How could a group with such distinct values have become so powerful in the United States, a society where power derives from political appeal?

The answers to that question are complex, but part of the success of the radical religious right has come by infiltrating a mainstream political party -- the Republican Party. The religious right has been able to gain a foothold in that party by playing down its more radical leanings.

Many people who consider themselves Christians mistakenly feel that they can understand the radical religious right based on shared Christian beliefs.

For their part, the Republicans in the United States have been happy to see their party energized by the fervor and commitment that religious right true believers can bring to the political process. Since the late 1970s the religious right has steadily transformed the Republican Party from a basically secular, conservative, civic-minded party to become the public face of legitimacy for the otherwise alien values of the radical religious right.

The radical religious right is not conservative at all, however, in that it does not wish to conserve the status quo; it seeks to overthrow many longstanding American traditions and institutions or at least to radically change their outworking.

For almost three decades the leaders of Christian fundamentalist groups have increasingly radicalized their followers by using certain explosively emotive issues. Principal among those has been the legality of abortion, which they consider to be the murder of unborn children.

As driven home by leaders of the radical religious right, any society that legally sanctions the murder of children must be unreservedly perverse. That conviction further hardens the position that no compromise is possible with the deluded mainstream, and that only radical change is acceptable.

A second area of radicalization has been gay rights and the gradual acceptance by the American mainstream that gay people can be good citizens, and a third area has been the issue of prayer in public schools and the teaching of biological evolution.

Those points have been used to radicalize the radical religious right in the United States in the same way that Islamicists have long used the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to radicalize their own people. In fact, we can draw many parallels between the radical religious right in the US and Islamic radicals in the Middle East.

Like most radical movements, both are unwilling to compromise or coexist with their adversaries. In their minds, the continuing presence of political or ideological adversaries can only be bad. Radicals feel they must persist in their struggle until the world is completely purged and free of the adversaries.

That political reflex differs dramatically from moderate democratic values, which emphasize tolerance, dissent, competition among ideas, and the formation of alliances based on negotiated compromises.

The radical religious right is not conservative at all, however, in that it does not wish to conserve the status quo; it seeks to overthrow many longstanding American traditions and institutions.

The influence of the radical religious already right exceeds its size. It still faces challenges to its rule, although that may change during the next few years as it consolidates its strength, and begins to exercise the prerogatives of its growing power.

As that happens, the United States will begin to look quite different.

What kind of place will the United States be if the radical religious right continues to consolidate power and enforce policies of its choosing?

An obvious change will be that children in public schools, or private schools publicly funded through vouchers, will receive religious instruction based on the ideology of Christian fundamentalists. That policy will perhaps be presented as a way to strengthen the fabric of society, reduce crime, and so on.

Of course, the scientific view of biology will no longer be taught in public institutions, except as a cultural oddity to be rejected.

Those are perhaps some of the least dramatic changes, although they will eventually lead to the United States slipping from its preeminent role in science. In the eyes of the fundamentalist, "the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God" (I Corinthians 3:19).

Regions where religious fundamentalism prevails can sometimes produce good science, and very occasionally might even produce excellent science, but arguably almost never brilliant or groundbreaking science.

A society under the strict control of the religious right would arguably suppress the cultural factors that support a dynamic and innovative knowledge-based economy. For that reason, a political coup by the religious right would likely be regarded by capital markets as being unfavorable to long-term growth.

Although it might seem that the rise of the religious right would be unfriendly to the kind of secular, hyper-consumerist society that global capitalism seeks to invest in, that is not entirely true in the United States.

American Christian fundamentalists during the past few decades have increasingly embraced a view that Jesus wants them to be wealthy. Conspicuous consumption by believers is regarded as a beneficial display of God's power and His love for His people.

. . .

A more troubling and perhaps less obvious effect of the exercise of power by the radical religious right will be the rise of militant nationalism in the United States.

Many people fail to understand this because, again, they are thinking of the religious right as being Christian, and that Christianity is a religion that teaches peace. That view misses the mark on several levels.

Christian fundamentalists believe in biblical literalism, and the Judaeo-Christian bible is actually full of references to war and an angry, aggressive God, and certainly does not condemn war.

Also, the religious right is rooted in the American South, which has a longstanding culture of militarism. Many people in the South have lived as professional soldiers or in communities that support military bases, and have done so for generations.

For the radical religious right, an American foreign policy based on militant nationalism has an almost holy virtue. They believe that the United States has been specially dedicated to Jesus Christ for His purposes. To question or resist militant nationalism is to be unpatriotic, and to be unpatriotic is to be un-Christian in the eyes of the religious right.

This perceived connection between the United States and Jesus Christ is important to understand, as it motivates much of the political activity of the religious right.

Another more troubling and perhaps less obvious effect of the exercise of power by the radical religious right will be the rise of militant nationalism in the United States.

Until the late 1970s, Christian fundamentalists were not particularly involved in politics. From the fundamentalist perspective, however, Christian believers are the "salt of the earth, but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men." (Matthew 5:13)

That scriptural injunction, along with others, is taken by fundamentalists to mean that they are held accountable by God to stem social rotting and corruption (like salt in meat) and to actively promote the sanctity of the United States.

Christian fundamentalists understand that God does not want them simply to be passive in the political sphere, minding their own business and practicing their religion in private. They believe that their God has solemnly enjoined them to force their biblical beliefs upon all levels of government, from local school boards to Congress and the Supreme Court.

At the same time, Christian fundamentalists believe that because of their active presence in the US political process, and because of earlier generations of pious Americans, the United States is special in the sight of God. Therefore, patriotism and militant nationalism are consistent with fundamentalist Christian beliefs.

Such thinking is remarkably similar in tone to that of the National Socialists in Germany. The Nazis held the absolute conviction that what was good for Germany and German supremacy was always right and was to be vigorously pursued at all costs, no matter how detrimental that might be for individuals, smaller groups.

Christian fundamentalists understand that God does not want them to be simply passive in the political sphere, minding their own business and practicing their religion in private.

The radical religious will seek to restrict not only freedom of thought but ultimately even freedom of religion itself.

In particular, once the radical religious right succeeded in establishing totalitarian control, it would likely make moderate forms of Christianity the targets of surveillance and persecution.

Fundamentalist Christians regard the "religious left," which includes Christian groups seeking to improve human rights and social conditions for the poor, as being under the influence of the spirit of Antichrist.

From the fundamentalist perspective, the spirit of Antichrist seeks to replace the gospel of Christ with liberal, secular thinking that appeals to the "unsaved" but that does not lead to true salvation.

In their view, only Christ can save the world from its problems. Any attempt to replace Christ with other solutions is ultimately motivated by Satanic forces. Socially progressive or charitable groups would find their freedom to operate and to express their views restricted.

. . .

Many pentecostal or "charismatic" Christians believe in demons, which are disembodied spirits in the service of Satan. Those spirits commonly enter human bodies and make people think or do sinful things by strengthening their "sinful nature."

Such Christians openly believe that liberal Christians are inhabited by demons of Antichrist that deceive them into playing into Satan's desperate attempt to keep the world from seeing the light of Christ's Word.

It is ironic that the religious right would seek to restrict religious freedom, because their own success in the United States has partly come from a liberal legal foundation that restricts state interference in religious affairs.

It is also ironic because many of the complaints made by Christian fundamentalists have been that the public school system forces their children to acquire secular humanist values.

The religious right may impose its cultural ideology through a national public school curriculum that will begin as an attempt to bring standards to education, but will grow steadily restrictive and prescriptive.

Education will perhaps be limited to teaching basic skills and moral lessons. Critical thinking will probably be explicitly eliminated from the new national curriculum. Christian fundamentalists have a bias against intellectual development and toward manual labor: "work with your own hands, as we commanded you" (I Thessalonians 4:11).

Fundamentalists believe that Satan is a fallen angel who has the power to "steal the seeds of faith" from God's children through the clever intellectual reasoning that he plants in the minds of educated unbelievers.

We only need to think of the intolerance of Puritans in colonial New England to realize that religious freedom in the United States has more often meant that the state could not interfere with the prevailing religion, and not that all religious practices or beliefs would be tolerated.

It's interesting that the type of American modeled by the Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin what the radical religious right seeks to extirpate. Franklin was a scientist, intellectual, publisher, the founder of the first public library, an internationalist in the context of his times, and a rationalist.

Fundamentalist Christians regard the "religious left," which includes Christian groups seeking to improve human rights and social conditions for the poor, as being under the influence of the spirit of Antichrist.

As do most radicalized political movements, the radical religious right considers itself to have been persecuted by mainstream society.

Christian fundamentalist leaders teach their followers that the educational, legislative, and judicial institutions of the West are in the hands of what they refer to as secular humanists, who are determined to curtail the rights of true Christians, either overtly through public policy or more stealthily through relentless exposure to the corrupted "worldly" media.

Just as Nazis claimed that Germany had been aggrieved by Communists and alleged Jewish internationalist conspirators, the belief in having been aggrieved by the American coastal urban establishment will be used as justification for the restrictions that the religious right will begin to impose on freedom of thought and expression in the United States.

Similar also to the Nazis, the religious right will seek to uphold what they deem to be the morality of common people, railing against degeneracy (as the Nazis railed against entartete Kunst).

Once fully in power, the religious right will regard alternative viewpoints as unacceptable rivals in their efforts to control the cultural life of the nation.

Admittedly, the legal tradition in the US makes it difficult for a government to directly curtail freedom of expression, but the radical religious right will work relentlessly to weaken legal protections and to impose their restrictions through any means possible.

Quite possibly the political proxies of the religious right in the executive branch of government will use security concerns as a cover for clamping down on freedom of expression.

The cycle will have come fully around when the radical religious right begins to prohibit competing religions. This is not as surprising an outcome as it may seem.

. . .

Many Christian fundamentalists take a dim view not only of nominal moderate Christians, but also of Catholics, whom they regard as Mary-worshippers and idolaters, and certainly of Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, and Muslims, all of whom they consider to live in spiritual darkness.

The attitude of Christian fundamentalists to Jewish people is noteworthy. Fundamentalists recognize that Jesus was Jewish and that Christianity grew out of Judaism. In fact, they believe that Christianity is the fulfillment or "perfection" of Judaism and the answer to the Abrahamic promises made by God to the Jewish people.

In that sense, fundamentalists consider Jews to be God's chosen people, but that they are lost in spiritual darkness until they accept Jesus as their Messiah. Christian fundamentalists see the Jewish religion as an obstacle to Jewish salvation.

That explains the odd problem that the Israeli government has long faced with extremist millenarian Christian fundamentalists coming to the State of Israel and attempting to make converts.

One of the fascinating facts about the radical religious right, and a fact that many opposing political activists will fail to realize, is that direct opposition only makes it stronger.

In the end, the radical religious right will brook no opposition to its total control of the United States. The religious right will use patriotism and national security concerns to solidify its grip on power.

The religious right is a grassroots movement as well as a national one. Local "cells" operating in churches run disciplined campaigns to win local offices by taking advantage of voter ignorance and apathy.

One of the fascinating facts about the radical religious right, and a fact that many opposing political activists will fail to realize, is that direct opposition only makes it stronger.

There is no way around this. The belief system of fundamentalism is constructed to sustain a perpetual siege mentality, and this siege mentality in turn makes the belief system seem even more real and urgent to fundamentalists when they perceive themselves to be under attack.

Many fundamentalists consider that their attackers may be empowered by trans-human, Satanically-aligned intelligences. "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places" (Ephesians 6:12).

Overt opposition will only radicalize the radical religious right even further. In fact, if they fail to get their way through legitimate political means, they might eventually turn to terrorism, as some have done in bombing abortion clinics and shooting physicians who practice abortion.

When groups become radicalized, they start to believe that the nobility of their ends justifies any means, and they slip into thinking that any action, including violence and lying, is necessary and appropriate.

The best hope we have of taming the radical religious right is to bring it out of the shadows. If mainstream Americans understood what the radical religious right actually stands for and plans to do, they would be shocked.

Further, one of the engines driving the fundamentalist right is Pentecostalism.

Pentecostalists are convinced that Christ will return to earth in bodily form within the next few years. They believe that when he appears his followers will be instantly transformed and given immortal bodies. Many even believe in a "rapture," in which Christ's believers will be physically snatched up and will fly into the sky at the moment Christ returns.

People who hold such beliefs feel little commitment to improving present institutions or to working to solve ecological problems. Many feel that global ecological disasters are inevitably part of the "end times" that were supposedly predicted in biblical verses.

The only way to stem the rising tide of Christian Nationalism and the religious right is for ordinary Americans to better understand what the religious right is and what it truly stands for. It has gained power only by keeping its true intentions under wraps, by using the Republican Party as a cover, and by portraying itself as conservative rather than radical.

Extreme political movements are a social disease, a symptom of weakened overall health in a society. Societies that are open and at peace do not fall prey as easily to political extremism.

The best hope we have of taming the radical religious right is to bring it out of the shadows. If mainstream Americans understood what the radical religious right actually stands for and what it plans to do, they would be shocked.

There is no appreciable difference between Islamic fundamentalism and the radical Christian right.

Indeed, it isn't too great an exaggeration to say that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a fairly clear model of where the religious right wants to take the United States. Only the details differ.

Michael Webb, 2003

home ]