When Religion and American Politics Became One

    The Republican presidential platform was built on a specific brand of Christianity. Where did it come from and how did it happen?

    By Tim Rymel, M.Ed. | 21 February 2016
    The Good Men Project

    There was a time, according to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, when someone could vote for a political party and not also be identified by their religion. In 1972, there was no mention of God on the presidential platform of the Republican Party. But in 1976, after the court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, Laureen Feeney said, it was the Republican Party that asserted,  “Our great American Republic was founded on the principle: One nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.” These sudden religious values didn’t come out of nowhere; they were designed to ignite a flailing Republican party back into power.

    * * *

    In his book, From the Bible Belt to the Sun Belt, Plain Folk Religion, Grass Roots Politics and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, historian Darren Dochuk tells how Southern fundamentalists, previously unaffiliated with politics, made their way to California. “By 1969,” he said, “California claimed more Southern residents than Arkansas.” The change began happening during the Great Depression and the dust bowl, when over six million southerners relocated to major cities like Detroit and Los Angeles, looking for work, according to Dochuk.

    Until the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the Republican and Democratic parties were similar. But when the 1964 Civil Rights Act gave equal rights to blacks, an outcry arose among those who believed the federal government overstepped its bounds. That’s when Barry Goldwater, who supported Civil Rights before running for president, instead took the position that state rights were violated. While the party lost many black voters, it won the votes of Southern whites. Many conservative Democrats also changed sides and moved to the right. A firm distinction between the two parties was established.

    However, in a landslide victory, Lyndon Johnson won the election. This “signaled the Republican Party’s need for reinvigoration and a long-term strategy,” says author Kathy Baldock. In her book, Walking the Bridgeless Canyon, Baldock says that Goldwater’s political strategist, Paul Weyrich, was looking for ways to unite the political right. He found it by tapping into the largest voting block in America: unregistered conservative and fundamentalist Christians.

    Goldwater was opposed to the idea from the beginning. The New York Times reported a 1981 speech he gave to the U.S. Senate, which said in part:

    On religious issues there can be little or no compromise. There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs… The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout without wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both.

    In spite of Goldwater’s warnings, Weyrich, over a 35-year period, “created or co-founded many of the most prominent conservative organizations in the political and religious arenas,” says Baldock. By 1976, the fundamentalist Christian giant began to wake up.

    Many first voted for Jimmy Carter, who declared himself “born again,” a term that wasn’t often heard in mainstream society. Neither was the word “evangelical.” “When Newsweek declared 1976 to be ‘The Year of the Evangelical,’ the publicity helped to create a sense of potential among evangelicals, who began to think of themselves as a political force,” said author George Marsden.

    The problem for Weyrich, however, was that evangelical’s were aligning with the wrong party. But as Marsden points out, conservatives were quickly becoming disillusioned with Carter because, “He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, he did not take a stand against abortion, and he was friendly to the Democratic Party agenda to guarantee rights for homosexuals and to broaden the definition of the family.”

    Fortunately, for Weyrich, televangelism was taking center stage. Fundamentalist preachers, such as Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 and with his weekly television show, The Old Time Gospel Hour, he reached audiences of 15 million, said authors Robert Abelman and Stewart Hoover in their book, Religious Television: Controversies and Conclusions. Falwell, and his ilk, offered a new kind of religion, blended with politics and commentary that united and ignited evangelicals to get involved in government. In that same year, the National Religious Broadcasters reported audiences as large as 100 million, across all of their affiliated networks.

    Still, causes were needed to get people involved. Roe v. Wade had passed. Jimmy Carter was not the right kind of Christian, and the conservative party was looking ahead. The fledgling gay rights movement was on the radar.

    In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. After years of research and debate, mental health professionals began to come to the conclusion that homosexuality was simply a variant in human sexual expression. The ex-gay movement, or conversion therapy, started in the same year, but remained primarily part of the underground of the fundamentalist church.

    In 1974, Michael Bussee, co-founded EXIT ministries, which later became Exodus International, at Melodyland Christian Center, one of the first megachurches to exist. Melodyland Christian Center was founded by evangelist Ralph Wilkerson. The church frequently hosted well-known traveling evangelists who took the church’s “ex-gay” message around the country and on the airwaves, spreading the idea that homosexuals could find freedom through Christ.

    When the aids epidemic hit, it became the perfect opportunity to denounce the gay lifestyle. Falwell was quoted as saying, “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals, it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”

    By 1980, the religious right had found their man in Ronald Reagan. Formerly the governor of California, Reagan worked closely with the southern fundamentalist transplants in Southern California, while he was governor between 1967 and 1975. Historian Darren Dochuk noted, “Southern evangelicals celebrated with fellow conservatives the election of their favored son Ronald Reagan to the Oval Office.”

    Billy Graham preaching at Madison Square Garden, 1957. (Photo: Cornell Capa / International Center of Photograph)

    Writer Allen White notes of Reagan’s partnership with Falwell’s Moral Majority, “AIDS became the tool, and gay men the target, for the politics of fear, hate and discrimination.” White said, “Reagan’s communications director Pat Buchanan argued that AIDS is ‘nature’s revenge on gay men.’”

    Throughout the ‘80s, ‘90’s and beyond, conservative Christian ideologies have dominated the Republican Party. Unabashed fundamentalists, such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Mike Huckabee, integrate and spread their brand of theocracy into the political scene, while fellow believers sign up in droves to propagate, proliferate and subjugate their religious point of view on the masses.

    * * *

    The danger, as Barry Goldwater pointed out nearly 30 years ago, is that if politics are decided by religious affiliation, we are headed down a slippery slope. In the Middle East religious factions destroy the members of society who dare to disagree with their view and interpretation of God and his Word.

    The culture war, largely led by the religious right in America, continues to divide the nation into two distinct groups, believing that human rights are only meant for those who agree with their position. Opposition to their point of view, as they see it, is nothing more than religious persecution. While it may seem like a noble cause, the religious right is really being used as a ploy for power by those who know how to work the system.

    Reprinted with permission from the author.

    Tim Rymel, M.Ed., is the author of Going Gay (2014), and the upcoming book, Rethinking Everything When Faith and Reality Don’t Make Sense (2017). He is a former minister and a member of the American Psychological Association, APA Division 15 Educational psychology, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual Issues. Buy Going Gay at: http://GoingGay.net. Follow him on Twitter: @TheRealTimRymel

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