By Robin Marie on August 16, 2012
I recently rewatched the last two installments of PBS’s excellent documentary, God in America, which I’ve seen before. These final episodes deal with the rise of the Religious Right, from its origins as a Cold War creature and reaction against the secular excesses of the 1960s all the way through the Bush administration.
The final portion of God in America seems to make the argument that the political clout of the Religious Right hit an apex with the election of Ronald Reagan, and while evangelicals have remained an important part of right wing politics ever since, they have never really regained the optimism they once had that if only they could get someone in the White House to represent the “Moral Majority,” the legislation that they all craved would finally become a reality.
Renewed hope blossomed shortly with the election of George W. Bush, a sincere evangelical who, unlike Reagan (a believer but hardly a devout evangelical himself), was one of them. However, as his term unfolded it became clear that whether or not he had a personal relationship with Christ, President Bush was not going to put his political neck on the line to seriously prioritize the evangelical agenda. Not that this kept him from starting two wars on the assumption that God put him in the White House to make sure a clear-headed decider was around when the devil struck the USA.
But the remarkable thing about most of the commentary in the last two episodes is how disappointed most of the commenting evangelicals sound. We’ve sold our soul to the Republican Party, they more or less assert, and look what we’ve got for it? Prayer in school is still illegal, abortion on the other hand is not, and in several states, homosexuals are allowed to get married and have children. Certainly on the gay rights front, the grip of evangelicals on the culture and on our politics has done nothing but degrade in the past two decades.
All of which occasioned, for me, a pleasing realization – despite all the money, all the excellent organization, and all the heart-felt terror, ignorance and hatred coming out of the Religious Right, there are apparently powerful political and cultural forces usually strong enough to match them and often to beat them back. Reagan proposed an amendment to make abortion illegal, but then dropped it quickly when he decided to spend his political capital elsewhere. Bush likewise talked about an amendment to ban gay marriage during his campaign, but never really pursued it after his election.
At first blush, this seems odd – aren’t we constantly reminded how much the Americans love their Christianity, and don’t we all know how well organized the conservative evangelical vote is? How is it that they have not gotten at least some of what they really started out wanting back in the 1970s?
First, there is the reality of numbers. Although more than 9 out of 10 Americans still believe in God, this does not mean that they all believe in a Christian God, nor that they believe in the Christian God who cries a little every time a gay couple achieve orgasm. On the issues, the numbers are less lopsided; although Americans who identify as “pro-choice” is at a record low, the number of Americans who think abortion should still be legal at least in some circumstances is holding steady at just over 50 percent. The numbers for prayer in school look much less promising – as of 2005, 76 percent of Americans favored “voluntary” prayer in school, but 69 percent of those merely want a “moment of silence” to be made available, rather than a spoken prayer or a clearly Christian prayer. So although you see relatively few Americans understanding why it is inappropriate and unethical to have prayer in school, the majority of them appear to merely be sentimental for the idea that obscure faith has some role to play in education, and the majority of those supporting prayer in school are probably not the Bible-thumping evangelicals which would have each classroom have a framed image of Jesus on the wall, as well.
The numbers on gay marriage are, of course, the most encouraging of all; as of 2012, 54 percent of Americans consider gay and lesbian relationships to be moral, up from 37 percent in 2002, an amazing rise. Just half of Americans currently think gay marriage should be legal. In the 1970s, conservative evangelicals were openly putting homophobic legislation on the ballot in several states, and sometimes winning. Today, almost no main stream politician argues, for example, that gay people should be banned from teaching in public schools.
Therefore if a politician wants to actually turn some of these more classic issues of the Religious Right into enacted legislation, they will have to face at the least a sizeable number of people who do not prioritize these issues or have more moderate (if still not secular or liberal) views on them. A smaller but dedicated group of people, moreover, will be intensely offended. It is a risky expenditure of political capital – especially since what the largest donors of the Republican Party really want, after all, is to continue redistributing more and more of the national income upwards to the 1 percent. Do not doubt that many of those who pull the strings in the Republican Party put up with the evangelicals only to obtain their votes, and put their influence to work whenever they believe an elected official is going to risk losing support for another tax cut in order to turn America back towards its mythical Christian past.
Finally, and perhaps just as important, there are very strong and powerful organized interest groups that surround each one of these issues on the liberal side, and go into hyper protection mode whenever they feel them threatened. While not as rich or powerful as those which fuel the Republicans – don’t we wish – NOW, the ACLU, and dozens of other organizations like them provide the pressure needed to keep most Democrats pro-choice and roughly secular, if still not nearly as much as we atheists might wish. Moreover, I believe there is a lot of grass-roots apathy which would be activated should any of these goals actually be obtained – I can tell you for one that if any legislative body or conservative Supreme Court took away my right to an abortion, I would be out on those streets in a hot second and would aid and assist the breaking and ending of the new law in every way I ethically could. And I imagine many women would have the same response; preferring not to call yourself “pro-choice” because the Right has won the discourse war is one thing, but imagining staring at a stick in the bathroom and feeling absolutely trapped is quite another.
Atheists tend to feel, for good reason, isolated and embattled in America. But considering what a minority we are, we seem to have powerful political and cultural trends on our side. Isn’t it comforting to think that despite all the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robinsons, and Moral Majorities of this country we have still held onto most of the best secular developments since the 1960s? And even when the Religious Right gets a president with their politics and identity in common, they still can’t get him to expend political capital in reaching any of their goals? I think perhaps we all allow the Religious Right to get away with defining secular values and policies as inherently embattled in this country, seeing as they apparently have the “majority” – because if this was true, then they are one of the least effective majorities in the history of American politics.