Friday, January 7, 2005

Hofstadter on Christian fundamentalism in politics

Richard Hofstadter made other points in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965) that are helpful in understanding some of the dominant trends in today's Republican Party.  He talks about the role of Christian fundamentalists in rightwing politics, for instance.

Although fundamentalism as such had largely faded from national politics after the 1920s, it had never gone entirely away.  And he saw a "re-emergence of fundamentalism in politics," beginning around 1950, "invigorated by the conditions of the cold war and the stimulus of the affluent society."

He observes that there is a quietist strain in American Christian fundamentalism that sees politics as pretty much useless.  And also that many fundamentalists were open to governmental programs aimed at benefitting poor and working people.  This latter observation may have been more true in 1965, when the Roosevelt New Deal coalition was in its last years and last incarnation as Johnson's "Great Society."  But he also talks about aspects of the fundamentalist world view that make its adherent more receptive to authoritarian politics:

But on certain issues of cultural politics fundamentalists have always been rigid, and when such issues bcome more salient the fundamentalists become more responsive to the blandishments of pseudo-conservative prophets.  Moreover, the Manichaen and apocalyptic syle of thought prevalent in the fundamentalist tradition can easily be carried over into secular affairs and transmuted into a curiously crude and almost superstitious form of anti-communism.

In the secular crusade against communism, Protestant fundamentalists found ecumenical ground with Catholic ultraconservatives, so the anti-Catholic emphasis of Protestant fundamentalists in previous decades became more muted in the 1960s, although it has never entirely gone away.

Fundamentalists had not been prominent in national politics since the 1920s.  But they did maintain a notable presence among far-right political groups:

Fundamentalist leaders play a part in right-wing organizations far out of proportion to the strength of fundamentalism in the population at large.  Among them are Robert H. Welch, Jr., the founder of the John Birch Society; Dr. Fred C. Schwarz, the head of the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade; and Reverend Billy Hargis, of the Christian Crusade, which flourishes in the Southwest.

And, despite their relative eclipse in national politics, fundamentalists churches had been growing:

A large part of the rise of fundamentalist ultra-conservatism may be linked with the astonishing growth of the Southern Baptist Church, which increased from 2,300,000 members in 1936 to 10,000,000 in 1962.  A comparable growth has also been enjoyed by the right-wing Churches of Christ.  The increase in these groups has far outstripped that of more moderate Protestant denominations in the same period.  Such church groups have created a vast religious public, once poor and depression-ridden but now to a large degree moderately prosperous, whose members sometimes combine the economic prejudices of the newly well-to-dao with the moral prejudices of the revolt against modernity.

A couple of things are worth keeping in mind here.  One is that while Southern Baptists (then and now) are by no means of one mind on political issues, and despite the "Southern" in their name the membership is national, the Southern Baptists are heavily Southern and overwhelmingly white.  Similar considerations would apply to many other fundamentalist groups.  So in 1965, "fundamentalists" and "white Southern segregationists" were heavily overlapping groups.

The second thing is that, to a degree that may surprise those more familiar with hierarchical Christian denominations like with Episcopal Church or with the Catholic Church, is that Southern Baptists and many other fundamentalist churches put a high value on the independence of local churches.  (They are notorious for splitting off and forming new churches, as one result.)  So the views of ordinary churchgoers on many issues can be very different than the official positions of their donomination. (Based on the survey figures I've seen in the past, the same is true of the far more hierarchical Catholic Church in America, too.)  Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore are all Southern Baptists, and all seen by the Christian Right as enemies.

The following description of how far-right groups in 1965 processed the Cold War anti-communist message also sheds light on some of the seemingly bizarre preoccupations of today's Republicans, such as somehow managing to believe that Vietnam veteran John Kerry was some kind of North Vietnamese sympathizer.  It also gives an important clue to the ways that many conservatives meld "values" to a concept like the "war on terrorism."

People who share this outlook have a disposition to interpret issues of secular politics as though they were solely moral and spiritual struggles.  They are less concerned with the battle against communism in the world theater than they are with the alleged damage it does to politcs and morals at home.  The cold war serves as a constant source of recriminations about our moral and material failure, but as an objective struggle in the arena of world politics it is less challenging to them than it is as a kind of spiritual wrestling match with the minions of absolute evil, who, as is so often the case with Satanic powers, exercise an irresistible attractiveness. [my emphasis]

Part of Hofstadter's findings on the social composition of rightwing groups was that status anxieties played a large role in support for far-right politics.  He found, for instance, that a significant amount of that support came from people who were notably upwardly mobile and who were more afraid of social competition from the less affluent than others.  Because many fundamentalists were people in that situation, this is one factor making them more open to far-right politics.

But Hofstadter also makes an excellent observation about the way that Christian fundamentalist religious views may lead people to support economic policies that would particularly benefit them and their own regions of the country:

Christian economic moralism, to be sure, has often butressed benevolence and inspired social reform.  But it has another side: insofar as economic life is regarded as a sphere for the fulfillment of the ascetic Protestant virtues, Christian moralism has worked for right-wing discontent.  One strain in Protestant thinking has always looked to economic life not just for its efficiency in producing goods and services but as a vast apparatus of moral discipline, of rewards for virtue and industry and punishments for vice and indolence.  In the past, vocational life was supposed to inclucate prudence, economy, and diligence - andmany writers eem to have felt that economic discipline would be more effective in this task than sermons and exhortations.  The vocational life was a moral testing ground.  Today these assumptions have been flouted.  The modern economy, based on advertising, lavish consumption, installment buying, safeguards to social security, relief to the indigent, government fiscal manipulation,and unbalanced budgets, seems reckless and immoral, even when it happens to work.

It seems to me that the upcoming Social Security fight offers the Democrats a good opportunity to shake some of this kind of voters up a bit.  Especially if they can muster enough party discipline to have unanimous opposition to the Bush phase-out plan in Congress.  Even if the phase-out passes, the Democrats will have established a clear-cut image of "Democrats support Social Security, Republicans want to do away with it."

It's one thing for blowhard white guys, and more reserved devout fundamentalists, to worry about the corrupting effects of welfare on unwed mothers, especially black ones.  It's another to have to think, "Are the Republicans going to cut my Social Security when I retire in 10 years?  Oops, make that 12, because I just noticed that the Republicans two decades ago raised the Social Security retirement age for people my age."  Or to think, "Does this mean that I'm going to have to devote a big chunk of my salary to supporting mamma and daddy for 30 or 40 years when they get old?"  The Protestant virtues of lean government may not look quite so appealing in that light.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The fairy tale is over.

Obama's pixie dust is wearing off.

A few in the corporate media are finally starting to reveal some details about this man's judgment.

I speak of Obama's long association with his spiritual advisor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Obama says he didn't know Wright was far, far left. While that is hard to believe, it says that Obama is not a very discerning judge of character. And it shows poor judgment for a presidential candidate to allow such an extremist to serve on his campaign.

Rev. Wright says AIDS was created by the US government to kill black people.

Come on!

"I didn't know about that man, Rev. Wright." Is that what Obama is telling us?

But there is more to come.

Obama's friend, William Ayers, is an unrepentent terrorist.

An Obama fund raiser, Rashid Khalidi, supports terrorists.

Wait till these tidbits come out. Maybe they won't release them till after Obama wins the nomination.

These associations with radicals show that Obama does not yet have the judgment nor the experience to be at the top of the ticket.