In his new book, The Hijacking of Jesus, longtime journalist and author Dan Wakefield turns his sharp analytic eye on the religious right. Through careful research and interviews with religious leaders across the country, Wakefield has developed a unique understanding of the rise of this new political juggernaut and thoughtful insights into what can be done about it.
When did the religious right enter the political arena, and how did they become such a force in the United States?
Well, I think they really entered it at the lowest point for the Republicans, which was the Barry Goldwater defeat in 1964. There were a couple of very savvy young guys at that time, Republicans, who saw the potential of the conservative, fundamentalist religious people. One of them was Morton Blackwell. When he looked out imagining all the numbers in their ranks, he said that he saw “virgin timber.”
Paul Weyrich, another of the guys who was in on the beginning of this, saw a kind of backlash in the 1960s from people who were fearful and upset about communes and young people smoking dope. He went after conservative parents who were worried about their children. He also teamed up with Jerry Falwell, and really thought up the term “Moral Majority.” Moral Majority then became big, and after that the Christian Coalition was created, and it just grew from there. Probably the key point, however, was in the 1970s. The oil man Lamar Hunt and Nelson Baker Hunt got together with other millionaires and pledged $1 billion to, as they put it, “win the nation for Christ” by the year 2000. That money funded a lot of these very powerful right-wing foundations and think tanks and organizations that have helped build this up.
How is it that so many in the ranks of the Christian right are missing the message of love in the New Testament?
They’ve missed the words of Jesus. One of the most hopeful developments is that just recently a group of progressive evangelicals led by Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo and people from a movement called the Emergent Church have gotten together, wanting to distance themselves from the Pat Robertson/Jerry Falwell crowd. They call themselves “Red-Letter Christians,” which refers to the fact that in many versions of the New Testament the words of Jesus are printed in red letters. So they are saying: “Let’s just get back to what Jesus himself actually said.” If you were to do that, then there would be a much greater focus on the Sermon on the Mount, treating your neighbor as yourself, helping the Samaritans and everything else that was in Jesus’ message.
In your book you write about the precarious relationship that the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) has with the televangelists.
The NAE–from what I’ve been told by some evangelicals–is afraid that they would lose their base if they separated themselves from Falwell and Robertson. They have mass appeal. However, there are people still in the NAE who are embarrassed by them. So while the NAE has advocated on paper a lot of good things, as Tony Campolo told me, “They don’t then carry it out.” He said that he and Jim Wallis could stay and work within the NAE, but that it could take years to get them to change to some real activism. That’s one of the reasons why they split apart with this new movement.