The true story of the religious right

Abortion was only ever a subplot in conservative evangelical attacks on liberal protestantism in the US, but the tide is turning

The Guardian, UK/August 17, 2010

The evangelical activist and historian Randall Balmer spilled the beans back in 2006 about what he called "the abortion myth": Contrary to what its leaders would have you believe, opposition to legalised abortion was not the organising principle behind the religious right. Abortion was an after-the-fact justification – and sustaining principle – of a movement mobilised largely in response to a 1975 IRS attempt to lift the tax-exempt status of racially segregated Christian schools such as Bob Jones University.

In the years since the Carter administration, which ended in 1981, religion in the public square has taken an undeniable and deliberate turn to the right. The hard right. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority emerged in the early 1980s as part of a broader initiative to promote fundamentalists' values and influence in society. Its successor, the Ralph Reed-led Christian Coalition put a gentler face on much the same agenda, while solidifying the role of evangelicals as "foot soldiers" for the Republican party, a role they were happy to play as long as they believed it would bring them influence within the party. Later, they may have come to regret the deal, as Reed drifted into ignominy, crossing the line from advancing the conservative movement to shilling for the corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, sometimes against the very evangelicals he claimed to represent in public.

There were other currents. Under Pope John Paul II and his enforcer Joseph Ratzinger, the Catholic church suppressed liberation theology in Latin America and packed the US church hierarchy with increasingly dogmatic opponents of abortion. The Catholic bishops' crusade against pro-choice Democrats was enough to convince ambitious Republicans that the Catholic church was a beneficial ally and a timid Democratic party to shy away from engagement with religious voices.

That wasn't the only way Democrats managed to shoot themselves in the foot. According to the journalist and historian of the radical Religious Right Frederick Clarkson, neo-conservative Democrats, opposed to the liberal trajectory of the party under George McGovern, formed the Institute for Religion and Democracy. Founding members included Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. The IRD quickly garnered financial and ideological support from conservative foundations, as well as an ongoing mission: to attack progressive positions taken by mainline Protestant denominations and their umbrella advocacy group, the National Council of Churches (NCC). They successfully did so through "smear jobs", such as the 60 Minutes segment that "revealed" the NCC was funding Fidel Castro and Marxist rebels in Zimbabwe; and by fomenting divisive controversies within the churches around homosexuality and abortion.

The IRD has been, and continues to be, relentless in hounding mainliners to recognise that their liberal leaders are out of touch with the righteous conservatives in the pews. Only when the leaders are correctly aligned with the laity (by the standards of the IRD), can mainline denominations begin to grow again. Meaning the hierarchy folds and endorses a conservative social agenda.

It has been a struggle for religious lefties to come back from these four decades of organised assaults. But they are finally finding themselves. In recent years, the United Church of Christ has endorsed same-sex marriage, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has admitted gay clergy to its ranks and the Presbyterian Church (USA) has inched toward the same position. Most famously, the Episcopal Church has stared down conservative schismatics, elected two gay bishops and played Archbishop Rowan Williams to a draw as he works to keep the Anglican communion together, even at the cost of sacrificing tolerance as a core value.

Aren't these just interchurch ping-pong? Not entirely. They are also firm responses to the depredations and fake controversies sponsored by the conservative movement. They are signs that the denominations that have been a major voice for liberalism in the past 50 years are ready to shrug off the burdens imposed upon them by a hostile conservative movement. They are reclaiming their prophetic voices. The next step is effective organising on the issues, as the avowedly liberal Unitarian Universalist Association has begun to do with immigration reform, for example.

"Behold," in other words, "I am doing a new thing."

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