The Rise of Christian Nationalism in the U.S.: What Do We Do Now?

By Clarkson, Frederick | Free Inquiry, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Rise of Christian Nationalism in the U.S.: What Do We Do Now?

Clarkson, Frederick, Free Inquiry

The Christian right is the most ideologically focused, coherent, and best-organized movement in American politics today. It is growing in sophistication and in its ability to renew itself and grow. Nevertheless, the news is good. The Christian right is beatable, and it is time to get serious and specific about how to do it.

I'd like to offer two related thoughts. The first is that the Christian right is a self-conscious minority, seeking to gain political power vastly disproportionate to its actual numbers. It therefore can be outnumbered at the ballot box and every other arena in most of the country most of the time. Second, although the Christian right claims to advocate religious freedom, in fact religious bigotry in the form of Christian nationalism is one of its main characteristics. Important elements of the Christian right advocate theocracy that would deny equal rights to those deemed biblically incorrect. Christian nationalism arises from virulent combinations of conservative, mostly Protestant Christianity and right-wing nationalism, resulting in notions of the theological and national destiny of the once and future Christian nation. Anyone else is, by definition, at best a second-class citizen. These are moldering hypocrisies that cannot stand the light of day.

Tuning In or Turning Out

The Christian right's own analysis shows that it is making up in strategy and a disciplined use of resources what it lacks in numbers. At the first national conference of the Christian Coalition, then - National Field Director Guy Rogers explained that its task was simple: "We don't have to worry about convincing a majority of Americans to agree with us," he declared. "Most of them are staying home and watching 'Falcon Crest.'"

Although the top television shows have changed since 1991, what became known as "the 15 percent solution" remains the same. Even in high turn-out presidential election years, Rogers explained, only 15 percent of the eligible voters determine the outcome. Of all eligible adults, only about 60 percent are actually registered. Only half of those cast ballots. "So," he continued, "only 30 percent of the eligible voters actually vote. Therefore only 15 percent of the eligible voters determine the outcome."

"In low turn-out elections," he concluded, "city council, state legislature, county commissions - the percentage of the eligible voters who determine who wins can be as low as 6 or 7 percent."(1)

Meanwhile, the Christian Coalition and its allies are systematically registering and mobilizing voters, as well as grooming and fielding candidates from its ranks for local office and beyond. Further, instead of cranking up a voter registration campaign six months before an election, it works all across the calendar, registering and identifying sympathetic voters by precinct, and constantly updating computer files of voters and activists. One key component of the strategy has also been the systematic takeover of the Republican Party by packing party caucuses and swamping low turn-out party primaries.

The efficacy of this strategy is suggested in a recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People & Press, which found that white evangelical Protestants now comprise 25 percent of registered voters, up from 19 percent in 1987. Over the same time-span, the percentage of this group identifying themselves as Republicans jumped from 35 to 41 percent. Only 30 percent of all respondents in the study currently identified themselves as Republicans.(2)

While the "social issues" get most of the attention, the long-term meaning of Christian nationalism is clarified by Christian right theorist Gary North. Writing in 1989, North identified a classic "dilemma of democratic pluralism" which could be exploited by the Christian right - namely that the same constitutional doctrines that protect political and religious expression also protect those who oppose pluralist, constitutional government.

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