Following the unlikely election of Donald Trump as POTUS, I’ve been subjected to a resurgence of scorn from my academic colleagues for the American “religious right.” This term seems to serve the same kind of boogeyman function as “Social Just Warrior” in conservative circles: a cornucopia of undesirable traits in an unattractive* package (fat old white bigot vs. hysterical pixie-cut millennial). In that sense it’s short-hand for a coded set of meanings that could be generally translated as “the other” and provides a sort of foil for the largely secular, urban, academic community.
As someone with American relatives from the “religious right,” I find the scorn in this designation irritating. The religious right is a political movement that mobilized in the 1970s to advocate for socially conservative government policies under the leadership of firebrands like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. It has aligned itself with secular conservatism in many respects, but it cannot be argued that all conservatives are religious or that American Christians would mostly consider themselves to be members of the “religious right.” In fact, it was the non-religious members of the Republican party who enabled Trump to make it out of the primaries, and the non-religious Democrats who largely backed Bernie Sanders, turning him into a significant force.
The alt-right, as well, is not a religiously-inspired movement. I have both personal and journalistic evidence for this, although it’s basically obvious to anybody who had studied European history that fascist movements reject Jesus and Christianity as weak ideologies that glorify the untermensch. This has not stopped conflicted nationalists from trying to embrace both at once, but it does suggest that authentic Christianity and authentic fascism cannot flourish at the same. Chris Hedges, of all people, even seems to recognize this, arguing that the alt-right is ‘junior varsity’ compared to the true Christian right:
“The Christian right is much more sophisticated than (the alt-right) … There is a strain of deep cruelty, savagery even, fascism, intolerance, within the Christian right that is institutionalized in a way that makes it far more dangerous than the alt-right.”
Smart readers will notice that Hedges does use the word “fascism” to describe the Christian right, but I don’t think I’ve read anything by Hedges in my life that doesn’t liberally use the ‘f’ word, whether he’s describing fracking or meat farming. As my favorite description of Chomsky reads, he’s “like an angry, drunk Noam Chomsky.”
Okay, maybe I shouldn’t mention Hedges. After all, he wrote a 2008 book called American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. Still, I think my point stands, since Hedges uses the word “fascist” as a sort of interjection, like us non-Pulitzer Prize winners use “as” or “um.” Trust me, I’ve read quite a bit of Hedges.
The point is that the way we use “religious right” in academia is a sort of Orientalist dismissal by proxy of a number of distinct demographics that do not necessarily cohere to the same political agenda. As pointed out in the article above, if one begins to sort the religious right by church attendance, rather than simply belief in God, different trends emerge. Regular church-goers are less affirming of same-sex relationships than minimal church-goers, but far more tolerant of different races, ethnicities, and religions. Research suggests this is so because, even though churches still tend to be informally segregated by race, they still provide exposure to people from a variety of demographics, and encourage inclusive thinking. As I’ve written about before, the concept of universal human rights has its basic foundation in Christianity. That can be ignored, but not forgotten.
Consequently, the term “religious right” implies a couple of falsehoods. First of all, that to be religious is to be conservative, which denies the possibility of a religious left (which very much exists in both the U.S. and Canada). Secondly, that to be conservative is to be religious, which denies the existence of a significant secular cohort within the Republican Party that were instrumental in pushing Trump to power. Thirdly, that conservative Christians are a sort of cohesive block operating by groupthink, which is the sort of problematic assumption that academics are quick to disprove when dealing with other minority groups in society.
This isn’t to argue that cohorts of the religious right aren’t partly responsible for the rise of Trump, since they tended to hold their nose and vote for him as a lesser evil than the dreaded Clinton. It also isn’t to imply that there aren’t ideological issues within those cohorts that have negative implications for our current neo-liberal stances on race, gender, and sexuality. But I do believe that the pejorative use of the term “religious right” in academic contexts does a disservice to the complexity of the demographics involved, and normalizes an Orientalist dismissal of the ideological and theological discussions embodied in those demographics.
I suspect this trend is probably a result of the American “culture wars” and draws from the prioritization of race, gender, and sexuality issues above all others. I also know that my American relatives have engaged and supported their communities in sacrificial ways that I suspect that I and my academic colleagues will have difficulty matching. It would be a deep loss for our society if the various elements of the religious right were to be suddenly converted to the alternate paradigms that many academics seem to so deeply wish for, even if it would have probably been advantageous for our society if some of them had shown a little more Christian rigour in evaluating the character of the new president of the United States.
* In terms of poses and facial expressions. I’m not here to have an argument about the subjectivity of physical beauty.