Political Chapter, Bible Verse

Political Chapter, Bible Verse

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 Californ

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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.

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).

Yet Diamond cannot always be counted on to think through the significance of these details, particularly for the progressive politics she values. For instance, liberals who wonder why their defense of “rights” no longer seems to speak to the rest of the country as powerfully as it once did might consider how Christian co-optation of the language has stripped away its former meaning. Even the ACLU faces competition from the Christian right: from a nonprofit defending “parental rights” in the courts, led by Jay Sekulow, yet another Christian-broadcasting television star. Similarly, the facts of liberal academics and think tanks must compete with those gathered by the secular and religious think tanks of the right, which are busy marshaling data in support of their cause.

Diamond is at her best in reminding us of the Christian right’s uneasy home within the Republican Party. That relationship, in her mind, is one in which the secular GOP elites largely thwart the Christian right’s agenda. Although the Republican Party platform includes support for a “human life” amendment, it is on the back burner among its legislators, she points out. Furthermore, when Christian-right activists become officeholders on, say, local school boards, they are often voted out once they attempt to translate their agenda into action. Far from being the “farm team of future officeholders,” as Ralph Reed (former executive director of the Christian Coalition, now a political consultant) called them, they often end up like the school board members of Vista, California, who were ousted in 1994 after voting to teach creationism and refusing government funding for a breakfast program for poor children.

The Christian right can sustain its mobilization in the face of these defeats because of the support it receives from the evangelical subculture, Diamond argues. While Diamond’s points hold in a certain limited context, in fact the Christian right also maintains power by exercising it vigorously. It has won veto power within the Republican Party on the abortion issue in both presidential and state races. It has not managed to achieve a full legislative agenda, but it has managed to restrict the choice of candidates. Secular Republicans can stage-manage the Christian right out of the camera’s eye, as they did during the 1996 national convention, but that does not reduce its influence behind closed doors. And its activists won that influence through the grassroots politicking necessary to be elected as party delegates. Even as secular Republicans now squirm at the idea that they have to play ball with the Christian right in yet another presidential election, it is doubtful that they can do without the electoral margin hundreds of thousands of conservative evangelicals provide at the polls. One-quarter of the new class of members of Congress elected during the GOP sweep of 1994 identified themselves as evangelicals.

While reading Diamond, it struck me that this is a Republican Party that, since Reagan, has become more like the Democrats of old–more an amalgam of interest groups than party regulars. The Christian right is now the counterweight to the corporate types backing George W. Bush; it thus fills a role no longer played by small-town, Taft-style Republicans. And any corporate type willing to finesse antiabortion and more authoritarian family-values-style politics can make it to the top of the party and perhaps the country. In turn, Christian-right organizations do their job by linking a defense of the traditional family to conservative economic policy–as one Christian-right supporter told me, “Let’s cut families’ taxes so mothers can return to the home.”

In reviewing the changes in the Christian right’s political program over the past fifteen years, Diamond’s book has great value. I was not quite as satisfied with her analysis of how the huge evangelical subculture supports the Christian right. Her research is limited to broadcasts and written documents produced by the movement–the public face of evangelicalism. This public face is leadership driven, with an institutional and male bias. Yet evangelicalism is defined by its individualistic nature, by Christians having the power to develop a direct relationship with God outside of churches, pastors and even the mass Christian public that Diamond believes is abetted through religion-based media. What of the women interviewed by Brenda Brasher, author of last year’s Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power, an ethnography of a pair of fundamentalist churches? These women were uninterested in their pastors’ efforts to mobilize them politically and provided little support to the church’s antiabortion ministry.

Brasher spent six months with women at two fundamentalist megachurches in Southern California, one in a suburban, mostly white, middle-class area and the other in an urban, working-class neighborhood where 28 percent of the parishioners are Latino and 65 percent are white. In both churches, women had drawn on the intense gender segregation of the movement to build women-only ministries, attending their own Bible study groups and retreats, promoting their own leadership and intimate neworks to “work out their emotions…and come to an accord on the meaning of faith.” The segregated ministries also give women a power base the pastors hesitate to ignore, undercutting the church’s authoritarian message. Both churches are part of a new Christian movement, where worshipers dress casually and draw on rock, rap and Latin jazz to pay tribute to God. Brasher does warn against generalizing from these examples, because fundamentalism is far from the cohesive movement portrayed by both the media and academia.

The questions Diamond is unable to answer because of her focus on the documentary record are better understood through Brasher’s book. Diamond mentions in passing that one-third of evangelical voters did not cast ballots for Republicans in 1994, that more evangelicals are divorced than in the population as a whole and that they often draw on the latest cultural styles to express their faith. Brasher understands these seeming conundrums because she has discovered a more varied world than outsiders would expect, one with sympathetic ties to the personal-growth movement. Its women often turn to the church after experiencing some personal trauma like divorce, and in their separate women’s ministries they speak freely of marital troubles and abuse and resolve them through their relationship with God. They are embarked on a search for meaning (to assert values against materialism) and order in a world that they experienced before their conversion as one of chaos. Women’s power within the congregations flows from these segregated ministries, and if they don’t support a church headed by women, many support egalitarian marriages. Some are even pro-choice.

In this context, Brasher speculates, fundamentalist ministers’ “dominant teaching on sex roles…should be considered a rhetorical effort to sway the behavior of highly independent, diverse congregations rather than a description of or prescription for authority and power patterns.” By engaging more with popular culture, fundamentalism is continually changed by it–leaving preachers seeking to win adherents to a more rigid political position while the cultural ground is continually shifting.

Diamond looks at evangelical culture only to provide an explanation for the longevity of the Christian right. Her book would have been richer if she had viewed it as a mystery to unravel, as do those more attuned to the inner language of the new Christian movements.

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