Michael Brendan Dougherty‘s analysis of the Religious Right and its impact on the GOP makes several convincing points. One, white Evangelical Protestants, who constitute almost a third of the electorate, contribute mass support for signature neoconservative policies that neoconservatives could not generate without this assistance. Two, Evangelicals, and more generally the Religious Right, are disproportionately present among the Tea Party voters, and what often looks like a mass movement directed specifically against higher taxes and Obamacare is in fact the Religious Right in a different form. Three, in their pro-Zionist politics, Evangelical Protestants match if not exceed in their fervor even the neocons and (if humanly possible) the Wall Street Journal. Evangelicals are perpetually behind the Israeli Right, and even if they elicit undisguised contempt from their allies, the American Israeli lobby and its Middle Eastern agenda can depend on their unqualified support.
But I do not ascribe the zeal of the Evangelicals to their Protestant Christianity or to their lack of a natural law tradition, pace Darryl Hart, who has been arguing this point for years. Like their hero George W. Bush, the members of the Religious Right whom I’ve known are intellectually lazy. They prefer sloganeering to thinking. In this way they ‘re like the Republicans I’ve encountered, people who recite party lines and who cheer for those carrying the proper party label. I’m also not sure that their anti-abortion enthusiasm is as great as Michael suggests. Pat Robertson touted Giuliani as a presidential candidate on his television program, despite Giuliani enthusiastic advocacy of a pro-choice position throughout his career. Robertson liked Giuliani because he was good on Israel. Leaders of the Religious Right have also had many nice things to say about Joe Lieberman, whose Zionism and advocacy of foreign wars seem to trump his support for third-term abortion. Bill Bennett backed Lieberman for president in 2008, without forfeiting (as far as I know) his credentials as an opponent of abortion beloved to the Religious Right.
Moreover, when the GOP occupied the White House, the Religious Right was not exactly out ahead the crowd attacking Bush’s (record) spending. Fiscal waste only became a vexing problem for this group when the Democrats took power.
The RR, everything being equal, act like white-bread Republicans. They vote predictably for the GOP and can be counted on to second the party’s neoconservative advisors. They are opposed to abortion but GOP party leaders and advisors can please their followers by making rhetorical gestures and by appointing federal judges who will chip away at Roe v Wade. The Religious Right’s opposition to gay rights may be less of an obstacle. Although by now quite a few Republican politicians (not to mention neoconservative journalists) have openly endorsed gay people serving in the military, this position has not cost the GOP Religious Right support.
Presumably as long as we plunge into military adventures to help Israel or to advance “human rights,” the Religious Right will go along with piecemeal concessions to the social Left. Indeed having the GOP embrace a sufficiently pro-democracy foreign policy may count for more with our family-value crowd than what Republicans champion domestically. In this respect the religious Right is simply mimicking the neoconservative masters of the GOP media. As a newspaper columnist, I regularly receive letters from Religious Right enthusiasts that state all the predictable Fox News/GOP positions. One particularly exasperated member of this group has warned me that I may be going to Hell for disagreeing with “such a wise man as Charles Krauthammer.” Like other neocons, it seems that Krauthammer has a direct pipeline to Heaven.
My biggest problem with Michael’s interpretation, however, is his attribution of a biblically driven ethic to the Religious Right that defies human reasoning. In this case we are speaking specifically about Evangelicals, as opposed to Catholics and traditional Reformed Protestants, who do not operate from this moral perspective. Unfortunately there is nothing identifiably biblical about the way the Religious Right formulates most of its positions. What in the Old or New Testament requires Sarah Palin to be in favor of lowering taxes or noticing the government’s deficit spending when the Democrats are in office? Are these decisions the result of reading certain biblical passages—or are they driven by partisan considerations and the desire to win office as a member of a party that claims counterfactually to be “getting government off our backs”? Where in the Bible do we discover that the US should wage wars against other countries, not because as in Judges they are idolatrous but because they do not grant women equal rights? Pray tell, how did the war in Iraq help Christian interests in that country, let alone fulfill any biblical precept?
Michael would be on firmer ground if he pointed out that the Religious Right favors a foreign policy that has little to do with the Bible. Once we get beyond the numerology and the end-of-days narrative peddled by the Dispensationalists, which not all Evangelicals in any case seem interested in, we find at work a progressivist ideology. Richard Gamble addresses this human rights-enthusiasm in his monograph The War for Righteousness, which lays out the ideology of global democratic transformation that influenced American Protestantism on the eve of the Great War. At this time Biblical eschatology was reshaped into an imperative to spread our democratic way of life beyond our borders; and in World War One the same secularized eschatology was put into play in opposing the enemies of “Anglo-American democracy” in the form of the Central Powers.
American exceptionalism, the doctrine of human rights, and the idea of historical progress were joined to produce a bastardized Protestant Christianity; and the eventual result was the liberal internationalism that Republicans, and especially the Evangelical ones, have signed on to. Thanks to the neoconservative-guided Republican Party, those who are the true descendants of the progressive Protestants of the early twentieth century have found a home, and it is one they are not likely to leave in the foreseeable future. The recycled Trotskyism of the neocons and the global democratic boosterism of the GOP presidential frontrunners are giving the Religious Right what they want programmatically.
But it is not the Evangelicals but the neocons in the media and in think-tanks who “drive the discourse.” What the religious Right does is deliver homilies on “values,” budgets, and the right of the unborn. They then go on to support the Bushes, Doles, and McCains whom their party provides them with in presidential races. Although in primaries they sometimes kick up against RINOs, once the nomination is settled, they typically rally around GOP candidates, and usually attribute conservative virtues to those their party gives them as leaders. In this respect Evangelicals are like divine –right monarchists, who accept any sovereign that Providence sends them. The idea that the neocons and party bosses are quaking in their boots lest this Stimmvieh (voting cattle) desert their banners seems hardly credible. The people Michael writes about are likely to go on voting for the party of Dole, Bush, Cal Thomas, and Charles Krauthammer, unless the world does suddenly come to an end.