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June 05, 2006

The Christian Right: Not So Crazy

Darksyde writes:

I would add that most of the religious people I know, even those who would eagerly identify themselves as members of the Religious Right, don't seem as fanatical or as political as their leaders.

And I'll tell you what else: most of their leaders don't seem as fanatical as their leaders. The blogs are a booming, cacophonous echo chamber that takes the worst rhetorical excesses of our enemies and amplifies them a hundred times, then repeats them a hundred more. That's got its utility. And Pat Robertson, to be sure, is an enthusiastic conductor on the crazy train. But Robertson didn't arise through his inventive theories on the gays, and his television show doesn't attract advertisers on the strength of his political rants. Mainly, The 700 Club is about religion. And human interest stories. And interviews with authors. And Trinity Broadcasting Network, the source of a couple crazy quotes a week, mainly talks about redemption, companionship, and love. It's all rather inoffensive; Good Morning America with a bit more Jesus.

We in the blogs experience the Religious Right as a political force, waxing crazy on abortion and gays and modernity. But the believers powering that force don't experience it as a political venture at all. They experience it through community, or sermons on forgiveness, or charity, or neighbors. We look at the Christian Right and see crazy because, when we see them on Crooks and Liars or Kos or The Daily Show, they're acting nuts. But we're not watching the world's most representative snippets. The excesses exist, but were the bulk of these ministries not palatable and relevant to the everyday experiences of lower middle-class Americans, they wouldn't have the political relevancy that's forced us to perk up and notice. Darksyde says his theistic acquaintances seem normal. It's a pretty good bet that, to them, the Christian Right seems normal too.

Update: I worry the point here isn't as clear as I can make it. What we experience as a fully political operation is not, in nature, very political at all. Rather, it's a social organization, which derives its legitimacy and strength from its relevance to the more mundane aspects of life. But since we just see the worst rhetorical excesses, we tend to doubt its durability and be puzzled by its strength, leading either to frustration and contempt or efforts to start alternative political vehicles for believers.

Both responses, however, miss the strength of these organizations, which is their remarkable reach and impact in the more quotidian aspects of their believer's lives. They offer community, guidance, advice, charity, social capital, entertainment, and even the occasional shot at transcendence. And in return, their member's trust their politics. That's the conveyor at work -- but since we see only the politics, we just end up bewildered by how so many could support such a vicious movement. The movement, mostly, is not vicious, and the politics are a tiny part of the whole. And that's why it's dangerous -- because the politics gain legitimacy through primarily non-political ends, they're thus almost invulnerable to attacks coming from the political sphere. Pat Robertson can say something crazy and then move onto the recipe, and if the recipe is sound, the craziness of a moment before is legitimated, or at least forgotten.

June 5, 2006 | Permalink


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Of course the Christian Right seems normal to the members of the Christian Right. But that doesn't actually make them normal. Their rhetoric is loonier at some times than at others, but their beliefs are pretty consistently nuts from any reasonably moderate-to-liberal perspective, and if you don't think they prioritize their less savory goals (sex regulation, abortion bans, etc.) over their more sympathetic ones (charity, forgiveness, etc.) then you really haven't listened to them that much. Throughout the eighties and nineties the Dobsons, Falwells and Robertsons of the world weren't just opposed to gays and abortion - they were slamming the moral decay of the welfare state with a Calvinist zeal. Focus on the Family spent a lot of time smearing the Clinton health care plan for an ostensibly religious radio show, and the reason why was fairly obvious: advocating for charity and goodwill was less important than burning a political enemy.

It's not that everything is a political venture to the Christian Right, it's that politics is a religious venture for them - and that's become increasingly true in my experience over the last twenty years. I've listened to many, many conservative evangelicals - nice, normal-seeming conservative evangelicals who neither rant nor sprout horns nor spit blood at the sight of unbelievers - patiently explain why Democrats could never be real Christians.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Jun 5, 2006 1:26:02 AM

Lungfish, I think Ezra's point is that the dangerous political side of the movement is much more visible to people like us, while the more banal side (or at least, the side where the dangerous stuff is more diluted) is seen by ordinary folks who call themselves supporters.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jun 5, 2006 1:49:26 AM

The less public and less strident may seem to be normal neighborly people, but what is in their head about some issues either got there by them thinking things through and arriving at the same conclusions, or it got there because they accepted the rantings of more public leadership people. The later seems far more likely, and dangerous because it indicates that they can herded into voting with the leaders without thinking things through. It has probably always been so for a substantial fraction of people.

Iron lungfish is likely right: politics is a religious adventure (or a cause where they believe they have a moral duty). They NEED a crusade to make them fulfilled, and arguments from reason just make them more convinced they are fighting the devil. It is all a matter of degree, since the crusader drive isn't equally distributed any more than in any public policy committment in any population. Voting is the maybe the second easiest thing to do to deliver this committment, telling their fellow congregants is surely even easier. It makes them part of something bigger and morally more important than their everyday lives, and makes a unstable life and world more stable.

But change is gonna come....

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jun 5, 2006 2:28:11 AM

Thanks for posting this. It's helpful to be reminded of this from time to time.

Posted by: Gutter Monkey | Jun 5, 2006 2:28:26 AM

Okay, sure, but that's so obvious as to almost be tautological, isn't it? I mean, someone who believes X isn't going to consider X crazy or bizarre, no matter how far out of the mainstream X may be.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Jun 5, 2006 2:30:51 AM

The above was a response to Neil, obviously.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Jun 5, 2006 2:31:47 AM

But..Justice frickin' Sunday.

Posted by: Sandals | Jun 5, 2006 2:34:11 AM

Lungfish, the other interpretation would be that the rank and file are crazy foaming-at-the-mouth right-wing political activists who see the same face of the religious right that we do -- and like it.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jun 5, 2006 3:12:57 AM

Of course like any form of media from newspapers to blogs mainly the interesesting bits make it to the light of day. Most of us dont want to know when the rightists or leftists make breakfast, but each time they make a run at a new law instead.

This fashion of handling things would be fine in the idealized form of our country. One where where freedom is paramount and live and let live is the bedrock of our existance. Trouble is the extremes on both sides dont believe this, substituting instead the thought that their own belief systems are best.

Each side needs to pounce on the actons of the other in order to countract their advances. Its unfortunate that we work that way, but it is the impetus behind hte pendulum effect in american politics and society.

Posted by: david b | Jun 5, 2006 3:29:12 AM

I was watching a documentary on the Christian Coalition and when they showed the part where George Bush's mug was put on a large screen projector next to the altar in the church as an object of reverance and prayer.....well, that said it all...they've done a good job of blurring the lines between religion and politics to manipulate significant amounts of people...and 9/11 just added fuel to the fire.

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Jun 5, 2006 4:16:34 AM

Amen, Brother Mudge...and it was jet fuel, as it turned out.

Posted by: Shecky Blue | Jun 5, 2006 6:02:25 AM

Well, you kind of had me up until the update... so religion is a social movement that has an impact on many aspects of the believer's life? Alert the media! Sometimes that includes political activism? Shocking!

I've long thought there's less to this than meets the eye - there are a group of committed believers who are pushing a viewpoint and trying to get political success to influence how government operates... well, that's kind of like liberals, really, isn't it? The problem with the "religious right" - for those who don't share their beliefs - is really what they're trying to accomplish, not the means by which they go about it. Giving church folk a rough time for organizing in their congregations, talking about the issues that concern them, finding candidates and friends who share their views seems to feed into a persecution complex that's already too far gone. I don't mind that they organize, I mind that they want, at times, to take a narrow, strict view of people and behavior and try to push it into how we govern. I think they're wrong, I think they've been proven wrong repeatedly, and I think a majority of voters generally reject their more extreme views.

I just think we should be clear here - I think too much is done to whip the "religious right" into a bogeyman of vast proportions bent on installing a theocratic state. It's neither that big nor necessarily that extreme, really. And I think until less religious people grant that the social life some people find in a religious community is not just something to be understood, but indeed something that can be viewed as a positive, we'll continue to make matters worse by implying some dark, nefarious purpose to something that's really rather mundane and ordinary. And that's part, I think, of what's been pushing people to "red state/blue state" type extremes. It is really possible that there's common ground here. I, for one, kind of like a church social. I don't want to rid the world of them.

Posted by: weboy | Jun 5, 2006 9:30:53 AM

Ezra, I am not sure it is as banal as you say. To be sure, there are plenty of people who identify as religious right, who also go to churches that are incredibly boring from blogging perspective. However, as a recovering Southern Baptist myself, I have listened to Christian Radio and watched Christian TV enough to say that while there are innocuous moments, many of these people are intensely political. Listen to any of D. James Kennedy's programs (daily). I would say that almost all of his discussions are political--even his sermons. James Dobson is less that way, but even his shows are probably (by my rough guess) half political, half self-help. Listen to Marlon Maddoux's Point of View radio show, or Concerned Women for America, or Jay Seculow live, or any of the other very religious, very political shows.

I have certainly argued that there is a huge gap between the religious right's leaders and many of their followers. I think, for example, that there are many who are counted as religious conservatives (because they are in most instnaces) who hate the idea of theocracy and really don't believe they are advocating it. For them, James Dobson is just a kindly doctor who gives them advice on child rearing. Tim LaHaye is just the author of their favorite books.

Posted by: Streak | Jun 5, 2006 9:36:49 AM

They offer community, guidance, advice, charity, social capital, entertainment, and even the occasional shot at transcendence. And in return, their members trust their politics...but since we see only the politics, we just end up bewildered by how so many could support such a vicious movement.

That sounds eerily like Hamas.

Posted by: ajay | Jun 5, 2006 10:03:34 AM

The blogs are a booming, cacophonous echo chamber that takes the worst rhetorical excesses of our enemies and amplifies them a hundred times, then repeats them a hundred more. That's got its utility.

It works both ways. Few in the Democratic party are as crazy as the bloggers who, again, take the worst of the left and amplify it beyond reality. Take a look in the mirror sometime when you write these observations.

Posted by: Fred Jones. | Jun 5, 2006 10:19:59 AM

Both responses, however, miss the strength of these organizations, which is their remarkable reach and impact in the more quotidian aspects of their believer's lives. They offer community, guidance, advice, charity, social capital, entertainment, and even the occasional shot at transcendence.

What you're describing here is nothing more than church, which provides "community, guidance, advice, charity, social capital, entertainment, and even the occasional shot at transcendence" without necessarily politicizing the same. What you're failing to take into account is that the phenomenon we call "the Christian Right" has fully politicized all of this, to the point where most of its adherents simply accept that their regular dose of Christian community and transcendence is going to come with some gratuitous Clinton-bashing and some dire words of warning about America's murder of the unborn. Hell, I've sat through a Christmas sermon structured around an elaborate metaphor comparing Christ's birth to the Iraq War ("Operation Human Freedom: God's Invasion of Earth." I swear, I wish I were making that up), and that congregation wasn't all that extreme. I'm not saying it was always like this - conservative Christianity as I've known it has gotten more and more politicized over the last decade and a half - but even the relatively innocuous social functions you describe have been politicized now - as should be expected (how many religious conservatives does the typical liberal hang out with on a regular basis?).

"Lungfish, the other interpretation would be that the rank and file are crazy foaming-at-the-mouth right-wing political activists who see the same face of the religious right that we do -- and like it."

Neil, what makes you think this isn't true? Do you have any reason to believe rank-and-file conservative evangelicals don't want to ban abortion, teach theology as science in public schools, eliminate homosexuality and rigorously regulate sex? Because each and every one I've known has put an agenda like that at or near the top of their list of priorities. And we shouldn't be surprised that they want to do this stuff; they tell us this is exactly what they want to do on a regular basis.

I can understand that many liberals, insulated from encounters with actual conservative Christians, might tend to think "these people can't actually believe this stuff." But really, honest-to-god, they do, and it's patronizing to assume that no one could be loony enough to believe what their leaders say just because we think their leaders are loons.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Jun 5, 2006 10:27:41 AM

I agree in large part with your analysis of the social movement behind the politics, but all of that is compatible with the whole movement being vicious. While you can conceptually separate the social from the political, the connection is not accidental. Religion fosters a dangerous irresponsibility, encouraging wishful thinking and blind trust in authority and tradition. It indoctrinates people to put reasonable doubts aside and rely on naive emotional convictions absorbed from whatever their immediate culture tells them. The masses may be different in character from their leaders, but they are still weak, pathetic and contemptible.

I think the comparison to Hamas is not too far off. For many of these people, it is only a matter of luck that they weren't born into some radical Islamic culture or Nazi Germany and absorbed those crazy beliefs. Their beliefs might not be quite as dangerous, but they can be just as blameworthy. Someone who fires an unloaded gun with intent to kill is just as blameworthy as one who fires and succeeds.

Posted by: Ku | Jun 5, 2006 10:38:52 AM

Boy, does this not matter very much.
As someone pointed out above, when the kindly old TV preachers point the way, these folks march the rest of us all into retrograde politics and superstitous hooey. Their effect on the country's politics and culutre is almost universally toxic. To me, it doesn't matter a damn if "most" of the content is made up of God-saved-my-puppy banality. That doesn't affect my life one way or the other. But, while American soldiers are stuck in the middle of a civil war, and the Executive is running amok, the US Senate is about to spend three days debating an amendment to the Constitution that has no chance of passage, and which is geared toward energizing the purely political energies of these people in order to make the society in which I live less free and less just. So, I'm sorry if I'm not open-minded enough to appreciate their softer side.

Posted by: Jim Madison's Dog | Jun 5, 2006 10:39:36 AM

Very seldom, almost never really, do I hear any of the fundie members of my family mention anything about the extremely socialist wine drinking drifter version of Jesus that the New Testament so thoroughly describes. Indeed when I ever bring up the Jesus that threw the money changers out of the temple, or the Jesus that declared that the last shall be first, I am routinely reminded that the poor are just lazy drug addicts spoiled on "government handouts" that can not be trusted. But hey, that's just my personal experience here in the Bible Belt.

Posted by: sprocket | Jun 5, 2006 11:08:28 AM

Ajay, you are, of course, right, it does sound like Hamas. However, I'm not sure whether your point is to rehabilitate Hamas somehow or denigrate the Christian Right. Either of these implicatations make me a little sqeamish. The case of Hamas more or less supports Ezra's point. Probably when your average Hamas sympathizer thinks of the group they are more likely to be thinking of the school down the street than suicide bombings. Hamas gains support for their political agenda through their other work, much like churches. Just like the religuous right however, I'm not sure this means that your average believer is somehow being duped, they probably believe in the political agenda that the organazations are advancing.

It is a good point, however. We have reached a point where for many people, serious religuous membership and serious religuous comittment seem like almost entirely alien. (I would put myself in this group) Reading through some of the comments that seem to invariably appear when the religuous right is under discussion, I get the impression that this disconnect really does lead a lot of progressives to see these people as wild eyed zealots or at best as misguided rubes. I don't think either of these characterizations is helpful. Totalizing systems of belief are powerful sources of meaning for human beings. Before I hear about brainwashing its worth pointing out that religuous comittment has inspired its share of progressive goals.

Posted by: Student | Jun 5, 2006 11:11:50 AM

It seems awfully patronizing to put it that way. "The members of the religious right are normal people who trade a social support network for their vote on all kinds of crazy things their leaders dream up." So... the people who are being led, they don't have any say in this? They're just being manipulated? That's just as bad. Your post may be instructive in how to change their minds, but it certainly does them no favors. Your approach seems to be removing any responsibility from them. As if all they need is a new leader to lead them off a different cliff.

Anyway, I lived with a houseful of rightwing religious people, the kind who think prayer in public school is a fundamental right, that you can't be a real Christian if you don't vote for George Bush (I heard that one on numerous occasions), and many other ridiculous beliefs. They are nice people in most things, but if you get them talking about politics, they are as completely nutty as their leadership.

Posted by: spike | Jun 5, 2006 11:14:38 AM

Amen, Ezra.

And for the commentators who'd like to argue that the whole religious thing means these folks are crazy anyway--It's worth remembering there's a huge population of folks in traditionally Democratic voting goups that derive many of the same things from their religious communities and beliefs as the "religious right" do. The politics just happen to play out differently there.

Posted by: flippantangel | Jun 5, 2006 12:15:24 PM

My experience is similar to Spike's. My conservative Christian friends are nice people under most circumstances. But when the subject turns to politics or some other hot-button culture war issue, they turn from Dr. and Mrs. Jekyll into Mr. and Mrs. Hyde. It's downright disturbing how nasty they suddenly become.

Posted by: Rosie the Riveter | Jun 5, 2006 1:27:45 PM

Ajay, you are, of course, right, it does sound like Hamas. However, I'm not sure whether your point is to rehabilitate Hamas somehow or denigrate the Christian Right.

Neither really - just pointing out that the apparently extremist politics of a social movement may be the most obvious feature to outsiders, but not necessarily to its constituents. They may well agree with the politics, but not strongly - just as I may or may not agree with my tailor on politics.

Posted by: ajay | Jun 5, 2006 1:39:42 PM

Mundane & quotidien...yes.
And nice folks, a lot of them too...yes.
But as for thinking out of the box in which they house themselves...ever?...no.

Posted by: jasé | Jun 5, 2006 2:03:52 PM

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