Political Chapter, Bible Verse | The Nation


Political Chapter, Bible Verse

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After writing this, her fourth book on the Christian right, Sara Diamond donated fourteen years' worth of research--right-wing pamphlets, fliers and position papers--to the University of California at Berkeley's Bancroft Library and called it a day. It was time to write about something new. In some ways that is a pity. She completed Not By Politics Alone before the Monica scandal played itself out, and there is no mention of the M-word within its pages.

About the Author

Abby Scher
Abby Scher is a sociologist and writer who has researched women's politics of the McCarthy period.

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Yet the world she writes about--evangelical Christian circles that are beyond the line of sight of those who don't listen to Christian radio or watch Pat Robertson's 700 Club on Christian television--was a central backdrop in sustaining the sense of crisis about Clinton's sex life and his ethical shortfalls during the scandal. Just as during Joe McCarthy's first years, when a Republican Congress hounded a Democratic President with its investigatory powers, the grassroots movement supporting the extreme partisanship in Washington was at first discounted as nutty by liberals and mainstream elites, when it was noticed at all.

Far from discounting this subculture, Diamond treats it more respectfully than most analysts on the left (the Promise Keepers, for example, to her reflect a sincere desire among white evangelicals to create a nonracist brotherhood; its financial base does not represent a conspiracy of big right-wing foundations but primarily the many small donations of regular church folk). Diamond also exposes its enormous size. Evangelical churches--those believing that Christians must be born again and enter into a direct relationship with God--had 6 million more adherents in 1990 than in 1971. Its members support a $1 billion Christian-music industry--10 percent of all music sales--and 2,500 Christian bookstores. This growing world of evangelical Christianity is neither left nor right, she tells us, yet it provides the vast ocean within which the much smaller numbers of the Christian right "swim and spawn." The evangelical subculture is the healing bath within which the right can soak after a setback. It accounts for the Christian right's longevity, now two decades old.

With its missionary mindset instilled liturgically, the Christian right sees itself as fighting "an eternal struggle between the forces of good and evil," ever the political outsiders to the forces of Satan and the unbelievers who have not yet been saved. They see themselves as outsiders, Diamond points out, "even as they wield political strength disproportionate to their numbers." Conservative white evangelicals made up 24 percent of registered voters in 1996, up from 19 percent in 1987. Fifteen percent of those polled in 1996 said they were supporters of the Christian Coalition.

The Christian right's growing electoral strength developed as its political focus shifted. Its antiabortion and "pro-family" politics have been a constant since the seventies. Now faded is the support it shared in the eighties with the more secular New Right--a support for reactionary regimes abroad in the name of fighting godless communism. Even its "pro-family" politics have changed since 1979, when Concerned Women for America formed to oppose the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. Then, the Christian right could attack the ERA by attacking gender equality, raising the specter of women in combat and rampant abortions. That's not so easy now, Diamond reports. In the broader evangelical movement, fathers remain the God-given heads of families, but evangelicals often hedge by saying that, like Jesus, men must be servants of their wives as well. Now "pro-family" is more likely to mean a defense of "parental rights" against a government run amok. While one wing of the Christian right supports an autocratic, even theocratic, government enforcing "family values" against gays, premarital sex and the like, the parental-rights framework appeals to a broader crowd, including, for example, some of those who are home-schooling their children.

Diamond introduces us to the big players on the Christian right. It is no accident that two of them are media moguls (Pat Robertson and James Dobson) who built the postwar world of evangelical broadcasting. There are now 257 full- or part-time Christian television stations and 1,648 full-time Christian radio stations (up from 399 radio stations in 1972). Diamond cites religious broadcasting as "the single most important ingredient" in the rise of evangelicalism in recent decades. She credits much of that success to Robertson--part TV entrepreneur, part minister--who introduced the more casual, Johnny Carson-style talk-show format to Christian broadcasting with his 700 Club and who mixed Christian and secular shows on cable to build what is now called the Family Channel.

Robertson's counterpart in radio is James Dobson, a psychologist and head of the group Focus on the Family. Dobson offers Christian advice on family problems to nearly 2 million listeners on 4,000 radio stations. Dobson reveals a new direction of the antiabortion movement toward a more "medical" model, in which services are actually provided to women who seek abortions. In this approach, women are not sinners but "victims" of abortion doctors or the men in their lives; as such, what they need is to be provided with ultrasound images of the life within them as part of their regular medical care to convince them to bring the pregnancy to term. Both Dobson and Robertson are fundamentalists, those "hard" evangelicals who believe in an inerrant Bible, yet they are far more "profane" than the first-wave fundamentalists, whose roots are in the early twentieth century and who are antimodern. The second-wave fundamentalists of the late twentieth century dive into contemporary culture, engage with it and use its artifacts, like rock music, rap or television, for their own purposes.

Diamond's strength as a researcher is in the details. Through her careful case studies--of, among other subjects, home schooling, millennialism and antigay activism--you see the Christian right blending its religious arguments with ones deployed by the secular elites they despise. Since the Progressive Era, liberal elites have built their politics around their expertise. The Christian right draws more and more on "experts" too--those like Dobson and Paul Cameron, who founded the "Family Research Institute"--and often resorts to a pseudoscientific rationale in slandering homosexuality. Another strategy is more legalistic: to talk increasingly of "rights"--not just "parental rights" but the "special rights" gays are said to be seeking for themselves (really just a perverse way to describe the effort to secure equal protection under the law).

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