Pope Francis and the Religious Right

The Religious Right

One in four Americans claims to be an evangelical Christian. Evangelicals hold strongly conservative positions on many social and moral issues, and form one of the most powerful voting blocks in American politics. They comprise the traditional base of what is popularly referred to as “the Religious Right.”

Although the Religious Right has often dreamed of being a dominant force in American politics – think of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s and the 1988 presidential campaign of Pat Robertson – it has never had sufficient breadth to form a true majority.

Jerry Falwell-bEven with the Moral Majority rising to national prominence in the 1980s, Falwell’s appeal never moved far beyond his own conservative Baptist base. He remained suspicious – even antagonistic – toward most other Protestant groups and was fundamentally distrustful of Catholicism. By the late 1980s, the Moral Majority had folded.

Pat RobertsonPat Robertson’s presidential bid never made it out of the primaries and he ended up casting his support to the incumbent, President George H. W. Bush. Robertson then used the remainder of his campaign resources to found a new organization to succeed the Moral Majority, to be known as the Christian Coalition. He appointed Ralph Reed to direct the organization and Reed worked diligently to expand the group’s base.

In particular, Reed formed an effective alliance with conservative Catholics around issues having to do with preserving traditional “family values.” Their efforts focused largely on opposing access to abortion and exempting gays from civil rights protections.

As Ronald Story and Bruce Laurie note in their book, The Rise of Conservatism in America, 1945-2000

book-Rise of ConservatismThe tenuous, sometimes troubled alliance between Catholic conservatives and Protestant evangelicals matured at the end of the 1980s into a more reliable partnership on moral issues. The influx of immigrants from Third World countries, hostile to gay rights and abortion, nudged Catholicism rightward. So did the appointment by Pope John Paul of conservative bishops unfriendly to the social justice ethos of Vatican II ….

Lay activists worked to unite Catholics and Protestants around a program of making religious conservatism a public issue. They formed Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), which issued manifestos endorsed by conservative clerics. (p. 27)

The authors note that despite these advances, the Christian Right received little support from the Republican President George H. W. Bush and even less from his Democratic successor, Bill Clinton. However, with the candidacy of George W. Bush, “The Christian Right in 2000 finally had one of their own at the head of the Republican ticket.”

Older stalwarts Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson … mobilized evangelical Christians through their broadcast outlets and voter guides. Catholic prelates encouraged votes for Bush… . Lay Catholics distributed guides urging voters to assess candidates on abortion, gay marriage, and euthanasia …. Such a broad coalition, armed with a great war chest, made the GOP look like a sure and easy winner. (p. 30)

Yet even with such a broad coalition of voters pushing for Bush’s election, the race was amazingly close. The Democratic candidate, Al Gore, actually won the popular vote and the Electoral College vote was a toss-up until the state of Florida (governed by George W. Bush’s brother, Jeb) was declared for the Republicans more than month later after the Supreme Court stopped a contentious vote recount by a 5 to 4 decision.

The Religious Right had won – but by the narrowest of margins. The challenge would be to keep that coalition of conservative religious voters united in future campaigns if victory was to be maintained. But after 2000 the Christian Coalition fell on hard times, was the subject of several lawsuits, and by 2004 it was technically bankrupt. It continues today as a 501(c)(4) organization focused on opposing abortion and same-sex marriage.

The Democratic candidate Barack Obama swept into office in 2008 on a broad surge of popular appeal and the promise of a new vision for America. Despite major losses for Democrats in the 2010 mid-term elections and fierce campaigning against his policies by the Religious Right, President Obama was re-elected in 2012 and Republicans suffered a net loss of seats in both the Senate and the House.

The question must be raised as to whether the Religious Right can still maintain a dominant position in national electoral politics. The level of support was insufficient under the limited appeal of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, but was more successful when it included conservative Catholics within the Christian Coalition.

Today efforts continue to keep conservative evangelical Protestants and Catholics together as a united force campaigning on the key issue of “family values.” This united front is now being jeopardized by a new and unexpected factor – the election this year of a new Pope.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis-cIn September, Pope Francis made waves with the publication of his statement that the Catholic Church had become obsessed with the issues of abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and needed to display an attitude of mercy rather than judgment. He criticized the Church for putting dogma before love, and stated,

We need to find a new balance, otherwise … the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.

When asked specifically about the issue of homosexuality, he said,

Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.

Francis has called on the church to be more caring toward the ostracized, the suffering, and the needy. “I see the Church as a field hospital after battle,” he said. “You have to heal [the person’s] wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

He has called on the Church to offer itself as a “home for all,” and has, as reported by the New York Times, “criticized the church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor and marginalized.”

All of this could be bad news for America’s powerful Religious Right. If a significant number of Catholic voters follow the Pope’s example, they may move away from the kind of “culture war” issues that currently define much of conservative American politics to focus on other matters.

Pope Francis definitely wants them to give priority to other matters. Not only is he noticeably shifting the focus away from the divisive social issues emphasized by religious conservatives, he is redirecting the discussion toward critiquing areas normally considered sacrosanct by conservatives, namely capitalism and the free market economy.

This past November, Pope Francis issued a lengthy “apostolic exhortation” (Evangelii Gaudium, literally, The Joy of the Gospel) in which he laid out a mission statement for the Catholic Church. It contained bold language and sweeping calls for change on many issues, including the way the Church addresses economic policies. It provided a harsh critique of “trickle-down” economics and unrestricted free markets that disadvantage the poor. The pope lamented the growing trend of income inequality under capitalism and called on political leaders to adopt financial reforms that will lift up the lower classes.

trickle-down economics

Among Francis’ more memorable statements in this document:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power …. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?

Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. 

When Rush Limbaugh states that “This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope,” or Sarah Palin complains that his statements “sound kind of liberal,”  they display their ignorance of traditional Catholic teaching.

Pope Francis is no Marxist and he is not a liberal. He is a traditionalist, steeped in the teachings and approved practices of the Catholic Church. In his statements he is pointedly reaffirming the positions laid out in the official papal encyclicals of his predecessors including:

  • Rerum Novarum: On the Condition of Workers (1891) – addresses capital, labor, and the condition of the working class
  • Quadragesimo Anno: On the Reconstruction of the Social Order (1931) – on the dignity of labor, the rights of workers to organize, and the immorality of keeping economic control in the hands of a few
  • Laborem Exercens: On Human Work (1981) – states that work should not be dehumanizing but a means for participating in God’s ongoing creation
  • Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: On the Twentieth Anniversary of Populorum Progressio (1987) – adopts a critical attitude toward both capitalism and communism
  • Caritas in Veritatae: Charity in Truth (2009) – calls for linking charity and truth in the pursuit of justice, the common good, and authentic human development.
  •  Mater et Magistra: Mother and Teacher (1961) – places responsibility for social justice not just in the hands of the individual but also in the hands of the State
  • Populorum Progressio: On the Development of People (1967) – advocates a pluralistic, decentralized approach to addressing economic problems

Pope Francis has not changed the Catholic Church’s doctrine or policies on any of these matters. He has, however, definitely changed its tone. And his message seems to be going over well. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll has shown that not only is Francis popular among progressive Catholics, even 91% of politically conservative American Catholics view their new pope favorably. There is remarkable interest in his weekly pastoral addresses, and he has some 3.3 followers on Twitter. Time magazine recently named him “Person of the Year.”

Pope Francis’ appeal is considerable. He is widely seen as a force for renewal and revitalization within the Church. The question is, as Catholics follow the lead of their Chief Bishop and turn their attention to addressing other pressing social issues such as high unemployment, rising poverty, social inequity, and care for the disadvantaged and marginalized in society, will it affect their political ties with Protestant Evangelicals and the Religious Right as a whole?

Will Evangelicals come to be seen as badly out of step with their Catholic compatriots? Will the Religious Right in America devolve back to its former state of representing only a narrow sliver of the religious spectrum? Will it be capable of sustaining itself, much less generating broader appeal, or will it, like the earlier Moral Majority, fall by the wayside?

If they are willing, evangelical Christians and political conservatives as a whole might learn a lesson from Pope Francis. As a recent article appearing in The Atlantic noted,

The Republican Party, according to polls, is viewed by many in the United States as insular, intolerant and lacking compassion for the poor while consorting with the rich. The Catholic Church has the same “brand problem”—and since his election in March, Pope Francis has ruthlessly tackled it.

The parallels are striking. But it remains to be seen whether American social and religious conservatives will prove able to change their message and rebrand themselves as nimbly as Pope Francis has done. If not, their influence may well continue to decline.

photo credit: Reuters


The Genesis of Radical Right-Wing Politics

I was 15 years old when in 1961 a mysterious group appeared at my high school in San Diego, CA to present an evening film series. The first night several hundred students, along with parents and some teachers, filled the bleachers in the school gym and watched grainy black and white film footage of the Joseph McCarthy’s Senate hearings.

Joseph-Mccarthy-1The film was intended to educate us on Communist infiltration in government, the media, and higher education. I remember the film graphically showing the police using force to break up demonstrators who dared to oppose McCarthy’s cause. The film was very clear about being vigilant to guard against Communist sympathizers who might be present in our own communities.

Blue Book-1After the second film night a meeting was held to organize a student club so we could educate ourselves further about this Communist threat. I joined with others and received my very own membership card. At the end of the meeting, one of the organizers presented a teacher with a gift for our school library: The Blue Book of the John Birch Society, written by the Society’s founder Robert W. Welch.

In his writings, Welch accused President Dwight D. Eisenhower of being “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” and claimed that the United States was “under operational control of the Communist Party.”

Birch Society billboardWelch definitely believed in a Communist conspiracy.  In fact, he promoted a wide variety of conspiracy theories. He claimed that the United Nations was plotting to impose a one-world socialist government, that the burgeoning civil rights movement was organized by Communist agents, and that water fluoridation was a Communist-backed plot to poison and weaken the minds of Americans.

A few days after our local student club had been organized, school faculty and administrators held a meeting of their own. They reviewed Welch’s views and prudently decided to remove the donated Blue Book from the library. They also decided to disband our student club.

This was my introduction to the John Birch Society (JBS), perhaps the best-known and most influential radical right-wing political organization in America. Welch founded his Society on December 9, 1958 in Indianapolis. By January 1960 the Society had grown to 75 chapters and 1,500 members. By September of that year there were 324 chapters and some 5,300 members.  Many would agree with the claim of a former insider that,

The John Birch Society built the most effective, best-funded right-wing populist organization in the United States of America.

RobertWelchWelch had been an executive in sales and advertising before becoming involved in politics, and he proved to be something of an organizational genius. He is said to have pioneered the practice of grassroots lobbying through educational meetings, petition drives and letter writing campaigns – activities that are a staple part of grassroots politics today.

Welch decided that to be effective in opposing Communism, he must use some of the same techniques he believed the Communists were using. This included organizing his movement into small cells whose leadership could not easily be penetrated, working through front groups, and infiltrating other organizations to take over their leadership.

In 1960, Welch advised JBS members to “join your local PTA [Parent Teachers Association] at the beginning of the school year, get your conservative friends to do likewise, and go to work to take it over.”

The JBS was particularly successful in recruiting younger members. By 1960 Welch had launched a program to organize student groups in high school and college campuses across the nation. In 1962 supporters succeeded in getting one of their members elected as chairman of the college campus based California Young Republicans. Soon National Republican leaders were being advised that, “There is a definite, well-organized, well-financed program … to repeat this California situation in state after state.” (Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin, 64)

That same year Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater complained, “Every other person in Phoenix is a member of the John Birch Society,” and by this he meant people of high political influence. buckley-williamThe staunchly conservative thinker and author William F. Buckley, Jr. became so alarmed over the rapid growth of the JBS that he published a 5,000-word essay in his magazine, the National Review, vehemently denouncing Welch and the John Birch Society and urging the Republican Party to purge itself of Welch’s influence. Welch responded by attempting (unsuccessfully) to take over Young Americans for Freedom, the conservative youth organization that Buckley had helped found. (Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin, 206)

The influence of the John Birch Society on the Republican Party continued to grow. By 1963 right-wing political organizations, including JBS, had effectively taken over the California Republican Assembly on a platform that opposed civil rights, the United Nations, and called for the abolition of federal taxes (Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin, 87) Many Birchers were delegates at the 1964 Republican nominating convention, and the majority threw their support behind Senator Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election.

In October of 1964 an editorial in the Idaho Statesman expressed concern over the American public being inundated with thousands of weekly “ultra right radio and television broadcasts,” estimated to cost $10 million annually. The editorial warned that by virtue of these saturation tactics,

radical, reactionary propaganda is producing an impact … on large numbers of people who, themselves, are in no sense extremists or sympathetic to extremists’ views. When day after day they hear distortions of fact and sinister charges against persons or groups, often emanating from organizations with conspicuously respectable sounding names, it is no wonder [w]hat the result is: Confusion on some important public issues; stimulation of latent prejudices; creation of suspicion, fear and mistrust [of] their representatives in government.

Old Ties and New Allies

Barry Goldwater was resoundingly defeated in the election, and the extreme right wing of the Republican Party bowed out of the public spotlight. But their influence continued behind the scenes. In 1968 Welch and the Birchers threw their support behind third party presidential candidate George Wallace of Alabama.

By the mid-1970s a new right-wing coalition of Protestant Evangelical conservatives emerged. They helped elect Ronald Reagan as President in 1980. This new conservative movement eclipsed the John Birch Society, and the JBS became further marginalized after attacking many of Reagan’s policies.

Many in this new generation of conservative political activists had their start in the John Birch Society.

koch_brothersFred C. Koch, the founder of Koch Industries, was one of the charter members of the John Birch Society. His two sons, Charles G. and David H. Koch, grew up thoroughly influenced by their father’s Bircher philosophy and anti-Communist libertarian leanings. They later used their vast family fortune to found and support dozens of conservative foundations and think tanks. The best known of these are FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and the Cato Institute. They are also major donors to The Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

David Koch ran as a Libertarian Vice-Presidential candidate in 1980. He advocated the abolition of Social Security, the FBI, the CIA, and public schools. Between 2007 and 2011 the Koch brothers poured over $100 million into conservative lobbying and advertising campaigns. During the 2012 election the Koch network spent an estimated $400 million.  Through their foundations the Koch brothers also helped to organize the early libertarian Tea Party movement and they continue to actively promote its causes.

Phyllis SchalflyPhyllis Schlafly, the well-known anti-feminist and “family values” campaigner was associated with the John Birch Society in the 1960s. (Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin, 204) Robert Welch referred to her as “one of our most loyal members.” (Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin, 90) In 1964 Schlafly published her influential book, A Choice, Not an Echo, which was used extensively to mobilize support for the Goldwater campaign.

In her book she outlined a grand conspiracy theory: “America’s so-called democracy was controlled by ‘secret kingmakers,’ a shadowy group mostly made up of internationalist New York investment bankers [who] dominated the media.” (Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin, 89) Their operations were coordinated internationally through the Bilderburger banking conferences with the overall goal of ushering in a “global Communist conquest.” Schlafly’s grand conspiracy theory resembles a script taken from Welch’s own writings. At age 88 she continues to be a featured celebrity speaker at conservative Republican gatherings.

tim-lahaye-preachTimothy LaHaye, best-selling author of the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels has lengthy ties with the John Birch Society. In the 1970s, as pastor of Scott Memorial Baptist Church in San Diego, CA he regularly lectured and ran training seminars for the John Birch Society, a fact he openly acknowledges in his book No Fear of the Storm (later reissued under the title Rapture Under Attack). 

Familiar Bircher conspiratorial views are reflected in LaHaye’s 1980 book, The Battle for the Mind, in which he “asserts that ‘secular humanists’ have taken control of all American institutions, including public schools and universities, the political system, the news media and the entertainment industry, with the aim of driving Christianity from American life and creating a totalitarian state.” He further charges in this book that

since World War II, most members of the House of Representatives, Senate, presidential cabinets and the State Department have secretly been humanists who have labored to disarm the nation and deliver it up to the Soviets.

In 1981 LaHaye joined with ex-billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt, a member of the John Birch Society’s national council, to co-found the Council for National Policy. The Council meets three times a year in secret, bringing together conservative Christian activists (such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell), right-wing Republican politicians and wealthy patrons to advance a “theocratic” agenda. (LeHaye advocates a society ruled by “ biblical” principles where abortion and homosexuality are outlawed, women are kept subordinate to men, and public schools offer fundamentalist religious education.)

The Cause Continues

Membership in the John Birch Society declined during the 1980s as the Religious Right gained increasing power and influence. When Robert Welch died in 1985 a power struggle ensued within the Society over who would be in control. Active membership dropped even more. Many thought that the Society’s raison d’etre had passed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But new conspiracy theories took shape, and between 1988 and 1995 membership in JBS doubled; by some estimates it even tripled.

ron-paul.nIn 2008 Ron Paul, the Republican House Representative from Texas and three-time candidate for President, spoke at the John Birch Society’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. He praised the group for its many accomplishments saying,

Anyone who has been in the trenches over the years battling on any of the major issues – whether it’s pro-life, gun rights, property rights, taxes, government spending, regulation, national security, privacy, national sovereignty, the United Nations, foreign aid – knows that members of the John Birch Society are always in there doing the heavy lifting.

In 2010 the John Birch Society gained renewed prominence as one of the official sponsors of CPAC, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington D.C.

The ideals of the John Birch Society live on, taken up now by Tea Party activists, conservative members of Congress, and the Christian Right. Whenever you hear allegations of secret Communist plots to undermine American superiority, assertions that the United Nations wants to establish a one-world government, that current human rights causes are part of some nefarious greater plot, or that secular humanists are out to subvert fundamental Christian values, think back to Robert Welch and the conspiratorial theories he promoted a half-century ago.

Times may have changed but these old ideas live on. And they are as dangerous and delusional as ever.

Duffy’s Downfall

Yes, Canada has its political scandals too. You can always count on Rex Murphy to provide the definitive smack-down on the usual political hubris in Ottawa.


Margaret Thatcher – Icon of Conservatism

Margaret_ThatcherTributes are pouring in from around the world today remembering Margaret Thatcher and her accomplishments. She is an icon of conservatism and, along with Ronald Reagan, is greatly revered by political conservatives today.

But how conservative are her ideals by today’s standards? A post yesterday by Annie-Rose Strasser helps to put things in perspective. She writes:

[W]hile Thatcher stands as a role model for modern conservativism here in the United States, her policies likely wouldn’t hold up under the scrutiny of a modern-day GOP:

She supported socialized medicine. The modern-day GOP is so obsessed with trying to repeal Obamacare that they’ve held nearly 40 votes to do so. But Obamacare is actually a much more conservative health care policy than the socialized National Health Service, which Thatcher lauded as an accomplishment of the United Kingdom. “I believed that the NHS was a service of which we could genuinely be proud,” she wrote in her book, “It delivered a high quality of care — especially when it came to acute illnesses — and at a reasonably modest unit cost, at least compared with some insurance-based systems.”

She increased taxes. Spending actually rose during Thatcher’s first seven years in office, … and taxes took up a larger percentage as share of gross domestic product. Indeed, even by the end of her time in office taxes were still a higher percentage of GDP than they were when she arrived. … Thatcher also increased the Value Added Tax (VAT), which Newt Gingrich described as “European socialism” during the 2012 election cycle.

She believed in climate change. Thatcher was an early adherent to climate change and once warned, “The danger of global warming is as yet unseen but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.”

She recognized that gun laws can limit gun violence. After a deadly shooting rampage in England, Thatcher said, “If [gun laws] need to be tightened up, or if we think that it could prevent anything more like this, then of course that will be considered.” A year later, the government passed the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which outlawed semi-automatic weapons, changed requirements on registering guns, allowed police to refuse a weapon to anyone they saw unfit, and allowed the Home Secretary to add other guns to the list of banned firearms.

Strasser concludes saying, “Thatcher’s old school conservatism would never mesh with the ideology of the modern Republican Party in the United States.”

How times have changed.

Addendum: As a British MP, before becoming Prime Minister, she also voted to decriminalize homosexuality and legalize abortion. Need we say more?