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The New Christian Right in America as a Social and Political Force / La Nouvelle droite chrétienne en Amérique, force sociale et politique. - article ; n°1 ; vol.52, pg 69-83


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Archives des sciences sociales des religions - Année 1981 - Volume 52 - Numéro 1 - Pages 69-83
15 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



Publié par
Publié le 01 janvier 1981
Nombre de lectures 26
Langue Français
Poids de l'ouvrage 1 Mo

Thomas N. Gannon
The New Christian Right in America as a Social and Political
Force / La Nouvelle droite chrétienne en Amérique, force sociale
et politique.
In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 52/1, 1981. pp. 69-83.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Gannon Thomas N. The New Christian Right in America as a Social and Political Force / La Nouvelle droite chrétienne en
Amérique, force sociale et politique. In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 52/1, 1981. pp. 69-83.
doi : 10.3406/assr.1981.2226
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/assr_0335-5985_1981_num_52_1_2226Arch Sc soc des Rel. 1981 S2/1 juillet-septembre) 69 83
as Social and Political Force
partir de diverses enquêtes et études récentes se demande
quelle influence réelle la Nouvelle droite chrétienne exercée
dans le domaine politique ces dernières années Il présente les quatre
organisations nationales formant la Nouvelle droite chrétienne puis
étudie affiliation religieuse des membres de ces organisations leurs
attitudes dans les domaines politique économique et culturel Il
compare ensuite ce mouvement actuel avec les revivais de his
toire américaine enfin il tente évaluer influence réelle de cette
Nouvelle droite chrétienne dans élection présidentielle de 1980
Pour A. influence mesurable de la Nouvelle droite chré
tienne est peu importante contrairement aux affirmations de ses
critiques Mais dans son conservatisme culturel plus que politique
et économique accusé ce mouvement paraît indicateur un
malaise profond de la population américaine vis-à-vis du plura
lisme en tant que créateur incertitude morale et sociale
Although neither religion nor politics admit of easy definition debate over
the relations between them continues to be key question for sociology The
dispute continues for several reasons Not only are the relations between politics
and religion both complex and varied and often embody struggles and conflicts
at several levels of social reality but the juxtaposition of kings and priests prelates
and presidents religious adherents and established regimes keeps resurfacing in
new shapes and forms in places like Iran Poland Russia Latin America North
America and Western Europe Moreover as the sociology of religion returns to
the larger concerns of sociology there has been renewed attention to politically
related issues This attention has taken several directions There is an interest in
the extent to which political ideologies like Marxism and nationalism can provide
functional equivalents to religion Then there is complementary Marxist interest
in the capacity of religion to draw off political energies or to provide an initial
mobilization for emergent groups There is an overlap here with the studies of
millenialist sects and new religious movements and the role of religion in
conducting revolutionary or disoriented youth back toward normality Above all
there is concern with the impact of the religious variable not merely as affecting
voting patterns in certain types of political situations but also as creating the
ground within which particular political cultures and structures are able to survive
and flourish 1)
One important element in the political dimension of religion is the role of
religion in sustaining national subcultures and cultural defense The defense of
subcultures is linked to the general maintenance of tradition and all the varied
and rich relations of center and periphery It is within this broad context that the
present essay is situated My topic concerns specific group of American Pro
testant Evangelicals that has come to be known as the Christian Right or the
Religious Right What makes these groups decidedly new phenomenon is
neither their political activities nor their conservatism it is rather their ability to
exercise an impact on masses of people through the skilled use of television and
Indeed according to one scenario of the 1980 U.S presidential election
it was the evangelical TV preachers who played decisive role Not only did they
elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency but even more alarmingly they also
managed to unseat number of liberal Senators through massive well-financed
campaign to brand their targets as un-Christian political sinners This campaign
mobilized the fundamentalist constituency which was decisive factor in the
conservative tide that swept the nation last year And so the scenario concludes
the worst is yet to come While this version of events is not entirely inaccurate
it contains several critical flaws First it misstates the relationship between religious
beliefs and political attitudes among American Evangelicals themselves Second
it overrates the political strength of the group associated with the New Christian
Right Third it distorts the real meaning of the U.S election results in 1980 by
too narrowly constructing their significance Nevertheless this scenario aptly
illustrates the kind of deep concern expressed by many American political and
religious commentators over what appears to be the growing political power of
orthodox Christian groups in the U.S
Even though it would be difficult to relate the growth of these groups
directly to the decline of liberal Protestantism or to the emergence of new
religions certainly in the sense of any direct transfer of members from one to
the other when viewed within wider social and cultural context the recent
and contemporary processes of declining influence doctrinal diversity and
doubt and organizational uncertainty within many mainstream churches have
conspicuous coincidence with the appearance of the New Christian Right In size
its numbers are noteworthy In quality of commitment the movement appears
even more impressive This intensity and certainty not only attract new allegiance
and excite public attention but also raise again some critical issues about the
relationship between religion and politics What should be the legitimate role of
religious bodies in free society To what extent do they as the moral conscience
of nation have an obligation to speak out on the crucial issues affecting govern
ment and those elected to govern What kinds of coalitions and alliances are
possible desirable or inevitable between religious and political groups
These issues are certainly pertinent to the sociology of religion since
principal justification for the discipline rests on the premise that supplies
focus for the study of total societies Put differently the power of the socio
logical study of religion lies precisely in its specialized perspective It highlights
the distinctive reciprocal consequences of changes in the wider society on basic
forms of value identity and belonging and especially on the socialization of
successive generations Social research on religion requires the sociologist to
identify the real and symbolic boundaries in which people find meaning and
proceed through the life cycle Such research thus confronts the classic dilemma
of sociology how are the social structures and cultures intermediate between the
naked individual and the impersonal grid of the bureaucratic state to be main
tained Religion is one of the essential infra-structures which can either support
or corrode the total society Furthermore the tasks of the in the sociology
of religion must surely include careful attention to the relations between politics
and whether in the form of church-state issues the connections between
religion and civil society or the nexus between religious orientations and modes
of historical action To speak of changes in occupational structure social stra
tification or patterns of urban settlement without referring to the variety of
religious frameworks within which people find meaning is fundamentally to distort
analysis of the social organization of any advanced industrial society
In this essay am concerned with the nature and potential influence of the
emerging Christian Right in the U.S shall deal first with the groups that
comprise the movement their numbers religious affiliations their political
economic and social-cultural attitudes To interpret the meaning of this movement
which is the second topic for consideration requires some attention to the
relationship of the New Christian Right to previous major religious revivals in
American history In the final section want to offer tentative and preliminary
assessment of the actual and potential political impact as well as its
importance for the study of American religion today
Four national groups in the U.S. together with some local organizations
make up the movement which is loosely called the New Christian Right
Moral Majority is the largest of these groups and is led by Rev Jerry
Falwell It claims chapters in all 50 states mailing list of 400000 72000 of
them pastors) and first-year budget of 1.2 million Moral Majority repre
sentatives claim to have been responsible for registering million voters but
when asked how they arrived at these registration figures they respond vaguely
that they are calculated from estimates for state affiliates In two of the most
active states California and Alabama state directors admit that they merely
send voter materials to pastors but keep no actual records of the number of
voters registered
Christian Voice is based in California with lobbying office in
Washington D.C. claims 190000 members including 37000 ministers and
projected first-year budget of 1.5 million Its political arm Christian Voice
Moral Government Fund formed an avowedly partisan campaign operation
called Christians for Reagan
The Religious Roundtable is headed by Edward MacAteer and James
Robinson of Dallas Texas With 1980 income totaling about 750000 it has
concentrated on leadership training rather than grass-roots organizing and
spawned lobbying arm known as Roundtable Issues and Answers headed by
William Chasey Jr. former member of the campaign staff of Texan John
The National Christian Action Coalition is headed by William Billings
the son of the former executive director of Moral Majority who was on the
campaign staff of Ronald Reagan in charge of relations with the churches The
major concern has been the defence of private Christian schools against
the intrusion of government into school policies regarding racial integration and
curriculum The group has engaged in voter education and has mailing list of
some 1200 churches and private Christian schools
To appreciate the potential influence exercised by these groups consider
by way of example that Jerry Falwell has over 15 million viewers for his Old
Time Gospel Hour which is aired every Sunday over 400 TV stations the
U.S Falwell receives some million in contributions each week from his TV
and radio audiences Current estimates are that the fundamentalist and evange
lical Electronic Church includes at least 36 wholly owned religious TV stations
1300 religious radio stations and dozens of gospel programs that purchase time
on regular commercial Altogether these outlets may reach 100 million
persons each week
Another way to comprehend the membership of the Christian Right groups
is to view them in terms of their religious affiliation Overall this affiliation is
evangelical Who then are the evangelicals in America today and how do they
differ from other Americans
In the U.S. evangelicals generally fall into two broad categories orthodox
and conversionalist The orthodox evangelicals are distinguished first by their
belief in the literal word of the Bible and second by their belief that Jesus is
divine and the only hope for personal salvation According to 1978 Gallup Poll
over 40 per cent of the adult American population qualifies as evangelical
according to orthodox criteria These are the people commonly referred to as
fundamentalists The conversionalist evangelicals differ from the orthodox in
having had an explicit religious experience in which they asked Jesus to be their
personal savior These are the bom-again Christians and they need not be little over one-third of American adults qualify as conver-
sionalists by this criterion Both the fundamentalists and conversionalists share
commitment to reaching out with the message of salvation in order to convert
All told then there are three criteria for qualifying as an evangelical leaving
aside the question of denominational affiliation) belief in the literal word of the
Bible born-again experience commitment to proselytizing activity Various
polls taken in 1980 have found that between 20 and 25 per cent of American
adults qualify on all three counts This adds up to over 30 million adults Of
these 30 million about 10 per cent are Catholic about 25 per cent are black
little more than one-third are male about half live the South and about
quarter live in the Midwest Compared with the total population of the U.S.
they are somewhat less likely to be college graduates or to be in the upper income
brackets though factors of race region and sex account for more of this socio-
economic discrepancy than does religion Male southern white high-school gra
duates who are evangelical for example will show about the same economic
pattern as male southern white high-school graduates who are not Still the fact
remains that white evangelicals have an aggregate economic/educational position
slight below that of the rest of the country If there is an economic decline they
are the ones who feel it most
While these social characteristics help to delineate American evangelicals
they acquire more sociological meaning when viewed in conjunction with attitude
patterns that carry potential behavioral consequences Here the picture becomes
more nuanced since with regard to political economic and social-cultural atti
tudes there are some issues on which the evangelical population differs from
non-evangelicals and others on it does not On general economic and
political issues the evangelicals are themselves substantially split When asked
by Gallup Poll in August 1980 for example whether there should be more
government programs to deal with social problems key question for philoso
phical conservatives) slightly over half the evangelicals answered the
affirmative Presented with two other such key questions about support of
firearm registration and support of the Equal Rights Amendment i.e.
rights slightly over half the evangelicals again replied positively In fact the
poll showed there was no statistical difference between evangelicals and non-
evangelicals on attitudes toward firearm registration and nuclear power plants
Some differences were recorded on support of ERA 53-66 and increased defense
spending 78-68) but they were comparatively small
As these data make clear the term evangelical is rather meaningless when
interpreting reactions to general political issues Blacks for example are dispro
portionately evangelical comprising from one-fifth to one-quarter of the
evangelical population Yet black evangelical attitudes toward the key questions
mentioned earlier differed sharply in the liberal direction from those of their
co-religionists And if the effect of blacks religious orthodoxy is submerged by
their other life circumstances then the political effect of the religious
orthodoxy cannot be assumed either Their other life circumstances must also
be taken into account
The profile become sharper however when we come to the area of social
and cultural attitudes Over decade ago the Survey Research Center SRC
of the University of California did study attempting to correlate religious beliefs
with attitudes toward the role of the state in economic affairs and toward cultural
change specifically in the area of manners and morals Members of funda
mentalist denominations which include most Baptist groups as well as the
Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church were compared with members of
liberal Presbyterians and Methodists In general the SRC
survey found that fundamentalist-church members were somewhat more conser
vative on economic issues than liberal-church members although the difference
between the two groups tended to flatten out when one adjusted for educational
attainment But in the matter of cultural conservatism the story was very
different At each educational level the gaps between fundamentalist-church
adherents and others were much greater than in the area of economic attitudes
The overall percentage of cultural conservatives with high religious commitment
was radically larger than the percentage of those low
Nevertheless while the total evangelical population is evenly divided on
such indicators of political conservatism as state intervention in economic pro
blems it is fairly united on certain measures of cultural conservatism especially
those directly related to religious belief Thus according to the September 1980
Gallup survey about four out of five evangelicals would require prayers in the
public school and would also bar homosexual teachers from the schools Only
small majority of non-evangelicals favor these policies
In order to correctly interpret what the emergence of politically active
Religious Right may mean we must bear mind that religious fundamentalism
and cultural conservatism have long gone together the U.S Religious identity
after all is bound up with cultural tradition as part of total way of life When
the security and status of that way of life appear threatened its religious and
moral content typically become rallying points of defense Political figures who
seem indifferent or hostile to these values will be seen as messengers of wickedness
while those who appeal to them are likely to be invested with an aura of moral
goodness Of course this has been recurrent pattern in American history It was
not in 1980 but in 1800 that pamphlet was published in the U.S with the
ominous title Serious Considerations on the Election oi President and Voice
of Warning to Christians in the Ensuing Election It warned that immorality would
flourish if Thomas Jefferson were to be elected Another pamphlet of the period
predicted that election would mean the consequent wonderful spread
of infidelity impiety and immorality
At several different times in the past such negative reactions have been
strongly linked to religious sentiment These periods have come to be known as
Great Awakenings and have previously played significant role in shaping
American culture and political history As defined by William McLoughlin
awakenings are period of cultural revitalization that begin in general crisis
of beliefs and values and extend over generation or so during which time
profound reorientation in beliefs and values takes place In America these
awakenings have typically begun with religious revival movements
The First Great Awakening from roughly 1730 to 1760 preceded and
laid the groundwork for the American Revolution the Second Great Awakening
1800-1830 romanticized the common man and argued for the perfectibility of
human nature it thereby supplied moral element to the claims of Jacksonian
Democracy and the motive energy for the anti-slavery movement The Third
Great Awakening 1890-1920 was response to industrialization and the social
violence and economic conflict at the end of the 19th century it was fought out
in the struggle between evangelical fundamentalism led by William Jennings
Bryan and later Billy Sunday and the Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch
and the Protestant Progressives Its legacy was to be found both in the camp
grounds and revival tents of the preachers and the social reform organizations
and civic associations of the Social Gospel Politically the latter legacy was by
far the more lasting After campaign speeches and sermons
were half-forgotten echoes the liberal Protestant reformers were in command
of vast network of institutions dedicated to finding scientific principles by
which to moralize and rationalize society One easily forgets that the American
Economic Association now little more than fraternity of persons arguing over
regression equations was founded by ministers and others as reform movement
with quasi-religious mission Almost the same may be said of the American
Sociological Association
These awakenings occurred at times when the prevailing set of moral under
standings seemed inadequate to shape human behavior or make legitimate existing
institutions Traditional patterns of family life were challenged by new opportu-
nities available to young persons customary standards of communal life were
flaunted by rising level of urban violence and public disorder value dislo
cation occurred an acute sense of personal stress that made people receptive
to new religious appeals which to be sufficiently responsive to the shared sense
of lost direction could not confine themselves to calls for individual salvation
but had to address the social and political circumstances that created this stress
It was when religious revival became generalized and powerfully felt cultural
critique that we can say an awakening was under way These awakenings of
course did not have single theme often traditional and nativist preachers vied
with progressive reformers for moral leadership But one consequence seems
clear the major political realignments of the pre-civil war period the Jacksonian
era and of the were shaped in part perhaps in very large part by the
religious and cultural upheavals that preceded them
We do not have the historical distance to know with any degree of certainty
that the value dislocations of the and in the U.S amount to the
equivalent of Fourth Great Awakening Some people suggest that they did
agree that some of the usual features of an awakening were present suddenly
enlarged youthful segment of the population that defied conventional morality in
life and conventional standards in art and music growing sense of alienation
from existing institutions notably but not only the government rising levels
of public disorder and urban crime and decline in traditional political party
loyalties But two elements are missing the awakening did not for many caught
up in it involve religious revival and there has not been as yet partisan
realignment There was certainly shift in voting patterns but it is really too
early to tell about genuine realignment
Moreover the secularization of educational and occupational elites in the
U.S has been underway for at least half century By the it produced
large group of educated young persons for whom religion had little significance
and who would respond to value dislocation almost wholly in secular terms
That profound reexamination of nature and searching réévaluation of
society could occur almost entirely outside the religious framework of Protestant
theology in which such matters had traditionally been embedded was symbolized
by the election of the first Roman Catholic John Kennedy at the very
beginning of this era just two years before the Students for Democratic Society
SDS produced their radical political Port Huron statement At about the
same time some theologians were announcing that God is dead others were
celebrating the secular city the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer were popular
suggesting that Christians should act as if God did not exist and various sages
were beginning to explain the virtues of situation ethics Policy became the
goal of cultural revitalization and power its source of energy Almost the
only major social activist to make explicit use of any religious formula was
Martin Luther King Jr. and he invoked Mahatma Gand
Perhaps it was the almost wholly secular nature of the youth move
ment that helps explain the bitter opposition it evoked Some people have
remarked that the are over and that the mood has changed This implies
that what happened was merely passing fad But it was not Notice for example
the continuing vitality in the U.S of feminism gay rights unfettered self-
expression Even though other movements may have lost some of their virulence
the Reagan movement was animated in large part by desire to contain and
force back the legacy of the and to make clear that those who challenge
traditional values must be prepared as many are not to pay high price
Modernism then was the perceived threat in 1980 as it was also the
fear in the through the Then modernism meant rapid urbani
zation and industrialization and this implied that more immigrants would be
entering the country and demanding their share of political and economic power
the old world was breaking up and the older established population was losing
control Then as now modernism also meant waning church influence
disintegrating parental control and discarding the old-fashioned moral code
In both cases the group most vulnerable to these changes was the fundamentalist
and evangelical Protestants not because they were evangelical or
but because they were by region history and education the group most rooted
the past the one with the least capacity for adjusting to change More
significant than their religion and morality was their traditionalism They were
taking stand against the whole sweep of modernity itself and all the changes
it signified and in doing so they spoke for many other traditionalists who did
not share their particular religious beliefs This suggests then that political
orientation in America is not just an economic or religious question but is also
matter of mood Negative political sentiment has often been generated by
sense of imminent deprivation or diminishing status on the part of substantial
segment of the population 7)
In attempting to ascertain the role of religion in all this we must recall again
that frustration over loss of status is concentrated as it always has been mainly
in that sector of the white Protestant population that is disproportionately evan
gelical This population as have noted already is much more conservative
culturally than the rest of the country But except when it feels especially vulne
rable or threatened it is no more conservative politically Thus the evangelicals
supported Franklin Roosevelt heavily in all four elections they voted for
Adiai Stevenson in the same proportion as the rest of the nation and incidentally
in higher proportion than white non-evangelical Protestants and they backed
Johnson over Goldwater again in the same overwhelming pattern as the rest
of the country They did not prefer Kennedy in 1960 but this was largely because
of the Catholic issue Moreover the most drastic defection of the white evan
gelicals from the Democratic party occurred in the late and in
the era of the counterculture During this turbulent period their votes for
Humphrey and McGovern dropped to around one-third or less Carter by
contrast received about two-fifths of their vote in 1976 clearly because he was
perceived as one of their own by many smalltown evangelicals and white Sou
therners of similar background
The traditionalism of the evangelicals therefore does not impinge on their
political orientation except when some aspects of modernity radically threaten
their status and security Then more than others they tend to express themselves
in terms of outraged morality which comes to symbolize everything they feel they
are losing But while the terms in which they couch their protest may be somewhat
different from those of the rest of the country they are not alone in their larger
sense of loss
It is precisely this recourse to moralistic expression which gives rise to so
much apprehension where the evangelical movement is concerned echoing as
it does the language of past right-wing extremist movements But even more
ominous than its moralistic terminology to historians of extremism is the
connection frequently made in current evangelical doctrine between morality and
political ideology Remarks like those of preacher Jerry Falwell or groups like
the Christian Voice that the wicked are bearing rule or that the standards of morality in America are under increasing attack from Satanist forces
or the rule of darkness in this world appear to be only one step away from
full-fledged conspiracy theory in which cabal of evil men conspire secretly to
thwart the popular will In fact the concrete political efforts of these groups are
aimed less at such global evil than at more limited issues like allowing voluntary
prayer in public schools and restricting federal intervention in private mainly
Christian schools
In other words thus far at least the activity of right-wing evangelical poli
tical groups has centered on moral issues rather than on general political ones
As we have seen these are the only matters on which the positions of the evan
gelical political groups have reflected the opinions of the general evangelical
population Whenever attempts have been made to stretch the Christian dimension
beyond these specific religiously related issues they have provoked internal dissen
sion When for example the Harris Poll of October 1980 asked whether it
is impossible to be both political liberal and good Christian both the general
population and the white evangelical population overwhelmingly disagreed as
did number of evangelical leaders
If as we have seen the right-wing evangelicals are not effective in seriously
influencing their co-religionists on general political issues what can be said about
the actual impact and importance of their activity Although the sheer volume
of time and money poured out by these groups may have had some practical
political consequences especially in primary elections and in certain targeted
congressional districts where name-recognition was factor it is important not
to overstate that effect if we are properly to understand the 1980 U.S election
Probably the most appropriate example of this need for caution is the outcome
of the presidential vote itself One of the consistent messages of the politicized
preachers was that their evangelical constituency should vote for Reagan But
according to the New York Times/CBS election-day poll of voters as they left
the booths slightly smaller percentage of born-again white Protestants 61 per
cent than of other white Protestants 63 per cent actually voted for Reagan
comparison of the 1976 and 1980 votes also indicates that Carter lost less
support among his fellow born-again Protestants than among others In the
election-day study he retained larger proportion 82 per cent of white evan
gelicals who said they had voted for him four years earlier than of other white
Protestants 78 per cent This was true of the South as well where the propor
tions were 86 per to 76 per cent The decline in support among
Catholics and Jews was somewhat greater than among the bom-again Christians
Results of the Senate elections cast further doubt on the assumption that
the politicized evangelical groups and their New Right allies had significant