Magazine article Conscience

The Diverse Sources and Invented Causes of the Religious Right

Magazine article Conscience

The Diverse Sources and Invented Causes of the Religious Right

Article excerpt

Over the past few years, people around the world--including many Americans--have been astonished by what seems to be a massive turn to the religious right in the United States. The role played by conservative religious voters in the 2004 presidential election, the success of a film like "The Passion of the Christ" and the significant involvement of religious groups in bioethical debates about stem cells and end of life care (e.g. the case of Terri Schiavo) are all signs of this surprising cultural revolution.

There is a widespread belief that latent conservative political forces in the US have been awakened from their lethargy by a series of religious-ethical issues like abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage. Recent events have revealed what scholars of American religion have long known: Many Americans hold religiously conservative attitudes about everything from the age of the Earth to the reality of the devil. One recent poll indicates 54 percent of Americans do not believe human beings evolved from earlier species, and more than half believe Darwin's theory of evolution has been proved wrong.

It is true that over the past two decades, the large group of Protestant evangelical ("born-again") Christians has moved away from avoidance of political involvement toward active engagement with it. This is partly a result of the rise of Christian broadcasting in the 1980s and 1990s and the emergence of politically committed evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson.

The idea that a sleeping conservative Christian minority was provoked into action by hot-button religious-ethical issues, however, really has it backward. In fact, a newly forming and growing conservative religious community has chosen to use these hot-button issues to provoke the surrounding culture, to mobilize and enlarge its membership and to signal its presence and power.

Driving this phenomenon is a cultural uprising of the marginalized against those they regard as the ruling elites. Some of these marginalized people belong to traditionally disfavored economic groups, but many others are of middle- or upper-class background: Economic factors are less significant than a newly forming cultural ressentiment, used as an instrument for group self-assertion, in driving these events.

Conventional wisdom has it that hot-button ethical and moral issues have awakened the sleeping giant of the religious right. The real story is in long-term, large-scale demographic and social changes that have increased the reach and strength of conservative Christian attitudes. Traditional southern attitudes have spread throughout the population, Republicans have capitalized on antagonisms left over from the civil rights movement, and Catholics who once defined themselves by ethnic-religious affiliation have transferred their loyalty to conservative ideology.

THE ADVENT OF AIR CONDITIONING

A major geographical and cultural shift occurred during the last third of the 20th century whose reverberations we are now experiencing: the rise of the American South as an economic and cultural powerhouse.

Well after the end of World War II, the attitudes of the South and culturally related parts of the West and Southwest remained at the fringe of American life. Starting in the 1960S, however, the availability, of air conditioning--along with social and economic factors such as the decline of labor--shifted America's demographic center of gravity toward the South and Southwest. More than 84 million people, or three in ten Americans, live in the 11 states of the old Confederacy. The region's population grew in the 1990s by 19 percent, compared with 11 percent in the rest of the country, and its congressional delegation expanded in 2002 from 125 to 131 seats. Meanwhile, aspects of southern culture have not only gained status in the New South but also been exported to the rest of the US. One of the largest congregations in my own town, Hanover, N. …

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