Religion and Democracy in the United States: Danger or Opportunity?

By Alan Wolfe; Ira Katznelson | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT AND CIVIC VIRTUE

CLYDE WILCOX

THE ISLAMIC REVOLUTION in Iran in 1979 and the rise of the Christian Right in the United States sparked an interest among political scientists in the power of religion to influence politics (Wald and Wilcox 2006). The Iranian revolution came as a surprise to a discipline that accepted the inevitability of secularization (Wolfe, chapter 1, this volume); Iran had been perceived as an exemplar of secular modernization. The establishment of a new regime where religious authorities had veto power and the use of apostasy trials to squelch dissent made clear the potential for illiberal religious movements to undermine and destroy democratic institutions (Wald et al. 2005).

As the Iranian revolution was gathering momentum, Christian conservatives in the United States were preparing for their own incursion into politics by building social movement organizations (Martin 1996). After Ronald Reagan’s surprisingly easy victory in 1980, Rev. Jerry Falwell claimed credit on behalf of a network of Christian Right groups that had worked to mobilize fundamentalist and evangelical voters. The emergence of the Christian Right surprised journalists and scholars alike and set off an avalanche of research and writing.

Many academics saw similarities between this new Christian Right movement and the Islamist movement that had come to power in Iran and was active in other countries (Almond et al. 2003; Marty 2003). The media portrayed the members of the Christian Right as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command” (Weisskopf 1993) and described in some detail the intolerance of movement activists. The successive waves of Christian Right mobilization that followed led many academics and political activists to fear that a horde of uncivil, uncompromising citizens were invading the body politic, winning control of the Republican Party, and pushing the nation toward intolerant policies.

Christian Right leaders fueled these fears with bold promises. In 1991 the Christian Coalition Board of Directors ratified a Ten Year Plan that proclaimed the goal of having “effective control of at least one political party” by the year 2000. The Coalition’s founder Pat Robertson announced that year at the group’s Road to Victory convention that he sought to win control of legislatures in 35 states and to eventually expand

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