Can the U.S. Republican Party Really Split From Political Christianity… and Still Win Elections?
In the first part of this series, we looked at the reasons why the American right-wing desperately needs to get a divorce – the Individualist, rationalist, small-government, free-market, socially tolerant and ‘libertarian’ side needing a split from the Collectivist theocratic politicized “Christian Coalition” on the other side. In the second part, we looked back on a retrospective of just what Christianity’s role was in the evolution of Western Civilization (short answer: it was the middle part). We clarified that – while important and significant – Christianity is not in and of itself solely synonymous with civilization, or even ‘Western Civilization’, which had its foundations before Christianity and reached its full manifestation after the period of Christianity’s absolute dominance over culture (and because it moved beyond that).
Today, in the final installment in this series, we get down to the brass tacks. As free-thinking conservatives, we should not be utopian, it is important to be pragmatic. There is no question that a “divorce” from Political Christianity would be very difficult, no one is denying that. It also would require a political will on the part of leaders (or a grassroots movement of sufficient power) that might not exist quite just yet – but might not be as far off as people imagine. The question is: can this divorce actually happen, and could a Republican party not largely controlled by Political Christian Theocrats end up winning elections? Is the hard-Christian vote (that is, the vote of people who are voting based on their fundamental Christian beliefs first and foremost, rather than other issues like social policy, the economy, personal freedoms, etc.) so essential to conservative chances of victory in a sharply divided electorate? Or is it perhaps one of the causes why that divide is so close, rather than seeing elections where a liberty-loving people consistently come out in majorities for the side of personal freedoms?
When we look at the kind of Political Christianity that dominates the U.S. Conservative movement today, it’s worth bearing in mind that it does not really reflect the best of Christianity itself. It isn’t really that Christianity which was so crucial to Western Civilization. The “Reverend Billy-Bob Podunk Church of Young Earth Creationism” is a far cry from Augustine, Scotus, Erasmus, or Luther. These are people who look back to a mythical version of medieval Christianity as a utopia that never was (not unlike how the Wahabis have created a reactionary mythical utopian vision of early Islam), and dream of a ‘restoration’ to that kind of society where any of us who don’t share their particular views would be forced to comply with their tastes by a powerful and authoritarian government. They have no particular interest in human liberty if it isn’t the ‘liberty’ of choosing their particular brand of dogma. They have no interest in the idea of individual freedom because to them this is largely associated with “devilish” rebellion against God and threats to the institutional church’s authority. They want to create a society where anything they don’t personally like is outlawed. I wouldn’t want to live in (or even with) an America governed by the likes of Rick Santorum or William Donohue any more than I’d want to live in one governed by Rob Reiner; because any of these share the quality of thinking they know better than I what’s best for my own life. They are, in other words, Collectivists.
Note that I’m not saying that we shouldn’t welcome Christians who subscribe to individualist ideals, but the authoritarian and Collectivist Christian-Right is pretty much a hindrance at this point, and was never really an ally to free-thinkers. And as I pointed out in the first article of this series, even many within the devout Christian, Catholic, and Evangelical movement are moving away from that type of Political Christianity. From a purely pragmatic perspective, the “Religious Right” is a spent force.
All that said, the last question is whether the American right can actually get such a divorce and hope to be electable in the future? I think to answer this, we must again look at the past.
American politics are not nearly as bound-to-tradition as some people may think. The Republican party was originally the party of abolition (of slavery, that is), and the Democrats the party of first slave-owners and later segregation, for quite a long time (from just before the Civil War until the 1960s, in fact). Then this changed; and today, whatever you might want to say about them, it would be unthinkable for most Democrats to imagine themselves belonging to a party of segregation (and some would be shocked to conceive of the fact that this is what their party was for a very long time), while the Republicans are still paying a price with minorities for having been the party of “Southern Strategy” in the 1970s.
Surely, however, the Republicans were always the party of Christianity, right? Not really. They were certainly the party of Abolitionist Christianity back in the days of Lincoln. But by the turn of the 20th century, the Republicans were generally the party of progressive thinkers and technocrats, while the Democrats were the party of socially-conservative Christian Populists. William Jennings Bryan, who may today be most famous for having argued an intense Bible-based opposition to the teaching of evolution during the Scopes Monkey Trial, was a famous and popular DEMOCRAT, who served as a congressman, three-time Democrat presidential candidate (1896, 1900, and 1908), and was Secretary of State under Democratic president Woodrow Wilson.
The Republicans, meanwhile, wouldn’t go back to being thought of as the ‘more Christian’ party until 1980 or so. Not because the Astrologer-consulting Reagans were more devout than the strongly-religious-Baptist evangelical Jimmy Carter (Reagan himself was a sunny somewhat-transcendentalist Presbyterian who was much more intensely devoted to anti-communism than to the tenets of fundamentalist Christianity), but because the Republican party saw an opportunity to use the “Moral Majority” movement’s disillusionment over Roe v. Wade to turn Political Christianity away from the Democrats. It’s worth remembering that in 1976, no less than Pat Robertson himself had endorsed Democrat Jimmy Carter against Gerald Ford, because the Democrats (particularly under Carter) were still thought of as the more “Christian” party. So while some of you younger fellows or people with shorter memories might not realize it, this shift to the Democrats being godless and the Republicans being the Jeeeesus Party happened in living memory – my living memory, for starters.
History demonstrates that a significant shift in the cultural allegiances of a political party in the United States can sometimes be as easy as a grass-roots pick of a presidential candidate, a policy decision among campaign organizers, or at most, a gradual change in the cultural paradigm. And as we’ve already established in the first part of this series, the utility-vs-cost formula of the Political Right has stopped showing positive returns even in terms of votes, and I’d argue it was never better than a Faustian bargain (again, pardon the ironic pun) from an ideological perspective to any of us who actually value the ideas of small government or individual liberty. When a political alliance not only fails to strengthen some of your core values but also starts to bleed away potential votes at a faster rate than it attracts them, it’s long past due time to cut the cord.
Finally, you might ask what of those areas where there is agreement, where there is common ground between either the Political Right as a movement, or individual Christians, and the goals of free-thinking, free-speech, small-government, pro-science, free-market conservatives? Where there is agreement, then great, let’s agree! There’s nothing to stop individual Christians from being free-thinking conservatives who adhere strongly to their faith while still supporting free speech/expression and a government that doesn’t interfere in people’s private lives (and recognizing the importance of not allowing their religious institutions to become tainted by the money-grubbing and power-mongering of political lobbying). Those people (especially the younger generation) are not going to go anywhere just because we stop catering to the likes of the “Christian Coalition” – they don’t seem to like the policies of the institutional Political Christian Right any more than the rest of us.
And think about it, they don’t really have anywhere else to go; they are unwanted by the Democrats and their values will still more strongly align with the Republican party regardless. We stand at the cusp of a potentially beneficial shift in American politics, if the American right is the side to take advantage of it. The Democratic party isn’t going to get any less radical, any less interested in identity politics or in pushing a strong Nanny-state agenda. Dominated by University-indoctrinated critical-theory Ideologues, it gives lip service to but barely listens to the grassroots (much less the minorities) it already has under its aegis. But were the Republican party to just be capable of breaking away from the loony-bin theocrats who have insinuated their way into the American Right, it has a golden opportunity to become the saner, broader, more tolerant party of absolutely everyone that doesn’t want a government to tell them how they have to live. And if you get rid of the obstacles that keep people away from that core message, I’m pretty sure you’d find a significant majority of Americans will be – as they have always been – behind that rallying cry.
Kasimir Urbanski doesn’t write on a specific subject; he’s EveryJoe’s resident maniac-at-large. A recovering Humanities academic and world-traveler, he now lives in South America and is a researcher of fringe religion, eastern philosophy, and esoteric consciousness-expansion. In his spare time he writes tabletop RPGs, and blogs about them at therpgpundit.blogspot.com.
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