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In God's Country | The Nation

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In God's Country

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Before rushing to assume such people are Bush supporters, it's worth noting that there is no evidence the more pious members of minority groups have been drifting into the ranks of the GOP. In fact, the opposite may be true. As sociologists Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout point out in their new book, The Truth About Conservative Christians, the most devout African-Americans--those who read the Bible daily and view it as the "word of God"--were also those most likely to support Democrats in the 1992-2000 presidential elections. The same religious zeal that pushes some whites to the right, in other words, leads blacks in the opposite direction, and not only at the polling booth. A generation ago, it was churchgoing black people who spearheaded the civil rights movement, a faith-based struggle that historians like David Chappell have likened to a religious revival.

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Eyal Press
Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer and the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict...

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How, Greeley and Hout ask, do pundits routinely equate biblical Christianity with right-wing politics when African-Americans, "who are in nearly every respect as religiously conservative as whites," nevertheless "vote overwhelmingly for Democrats?" By, it appears, mistakenly assuming all Bible-believing Christians are reactionary white Southerners who write monthly checks to the likes of Jerry Falwell. As a survey by Religion & Ethics Newsweekly found, a majority of evangelicals actually hold an unfavorable view of Falwell. A large number appear to care more about jobs and the economy than issues like gay marriage and abortion. Greeley and Hout provide strong evidence that among white conservative Protestants--a category that includes denominations such as Southern Baptists, Pentecostals and Mormons--class indeed matters a lot more than most pundits think. Between 1992 and 2000, 80 percent of the affluent members of these denominations voted for Republicans, but fewer than half of those who are poor did so. Even on abortion, such voters hardly speak in one voice. According to the National Opinion Research Center, the number of conservative Protestants who oppose abortion under all circumstances is a whopping 14 percent, less than the 22 percent who are consistently prochoice. Most hold views somewhere in the middle. These are the scary inhabitants of "Jesusland" many analysts wrongly assume march in lockstep with the religious right.

To point this out is not to deny that America is awash in right-wing preachers who invoke the Bible to promote a range of reactionary causes. As he drove from George Bush International Airport in Houston to Longview, Texas, not long ago, Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College and an evangelical Christian, tuned in to the radio and heard, among other things, that the case for evolution is crumbling, that "Satan wants the United States to be kind to pluralism" and that the Constitution provides no guarantee of personal privacy.

Such rhetoric has become the stock in trade of conservative talk-radio and now permeates large swaths of an evangelical subculture whose members tended to look askance at politics only a few decades ago. The influence of this newly mobilized constituency is distressingly apparent in everything from the debate about stem-cell research to the appointment of federal judges to US policy toward Israel. Even so, exaggerating that influence serves little purpose, save to reinforce the impression that America has fallen prey to a reactionary form of dogmatic Christianity and that the religious right has a popular mandate for its agenda.

The latter notion developed into a veritable dogma after the 2004 election, as pundits seized on an exit poll showing 22 percent of voters ranked "moral values" as their top priority, above such issues as the economy and Iraq. The Dark Ages, apparently, had arrived. The Moral Majority had finally become a majority. Only later was it noted that a comparable percentage of voters had listed values as their foremost concern in 1996 (the year Bill Clinton was re-elected), and that Bush almost certainly defeated Kerry because of his large edge on national security. A few months after this came Congress and Bush's intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, which again prompted observers to marvel at America's startling turn toward right-wing Christian fundamentalism. Yet 82 percent of Americans opposed Congress and the President's action.

As the Schiavo fiasco showed, many members of Congress do march in lockstep with the religious right: According to Bill Moyers, forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th Congress received an approval rating of 80 percent or higher from the most powerful Christian advocacy groups. That is an alarming fact. In Welcome to Doomsday, an expanded version of an essay that originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, Moyers goes on to argue that the religious right is so powerful these days it now has a hammerlock on environmental policy as well. Belief in the biblical prophecy predicting the impending onset of the Rapture, he notes, has led some ministers to insist there's no point in worrying about things like global warming, since life as we know it will soon end anyway.

"You can understand why people in the grip of such fantasies cannot be expected to worry about the environment," writes Moyers. But if this is such a problem, why do a clear majority of Americans back strong environmental protections? The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, bills protecting federal wetlands: All these things enjoy robust support from the same population breathlessly awaiting the Rapture. The rollback of environmental laws in recent years is real enough (and has been documented on television by nobody more thoroughly than Moyers, it must be said). But, as Moyers himself notes, in 2004 the National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement affirming that the government "has an obligation to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation." Earlier this year, a group of eighty-six evangelical leaders published a joint declaration echoing this. "Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis," it stated. The problem is not the stranglehold evangelical Christians have on environmental policy (if only this were so!) but the one exerted by corporations and antiregulation zealots like Grover Norquist.

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