Volume , Number
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
The Distored Populism of the Christian Right
B efore and after the midterm elections in 2006, our oligarchic pundocracy declared that white Christian evangelicals had abandoned “moral values” for other issues such as the economy, jobs, political corruption, and the war in Iraq. What nitwits. For Christian evangelicals—both black and white—concern over poverty, pilfering, and peace are part of their “moral values.” So are health care and the environment. The vote shift in 2006 instead represented a transformation of their order of priorities of moral values concerns.
Steven Waldman on BeliefNet wrote about this shift: “Keep in mind, this is not ‘religious right’ voters who shifted. It’s moderate and liberal evangelicals who were concerned about the war and corruption. They’re also conservative on gay marriage and abortion but were more worried about these other issues.”
What I find interesting is the evidence that there is a block of white protestant evangelical voters who are swing voters who can be teased out by looking at the shift in the “God Gap” from election to election. Ideally, in the chart below, the 2000 figures would be the House Congressional vote, but I just couldn’t find them. Between 2002 and 2004 there was a plus 4 percent shift in the God Gap. Between 2004 and 2006 there was a minus 7 percent shift in the God Gap. Some analysts dismiss these numbers as too small to matter, but I disagree, especially given the importance of voting shifts in specific states that help swing national elections.
The votes of the swing shift white Protestant evangelical voters are up for grabs in 2008. There is no reason they might not swing back to Republicans if the Democrats fail to find a message that resonates with white Protestant evangelical voters.
A lot of these folks are working class whites who have been mesmerized by right-wing rhetoric—both religious and secular. How is this done? Thomas Frank, in his book What ’ s the Matter with Kansas , nimbly navigated the conservative scene in Kansas, but slipped when he implied that people in the white working class who vote against their apparent economic self interest did so because they didn’t really understand the complex issues. Also some, we are led to believe, are simply addled.
There is no evidence that white evangelicals are any more stupid or crazy than the rest of us—at least in terms of percentages of the populations being studied. Nor are they simply the manipulated puppets of a Karl Rove strike force. Large groups of white evangelicals are mobilized through the rhetorical style of right-wing populism. Jean Hardisty refers to this process as “mobilizing resentment.” The common styles and frames used by a wide range of right-wing political organizers include:
- Apocalyptic style
- Populist anti-elite rhetoric
Authoritarian assertion of
All of these appear across wide segments of the Christian right. Populist anti-elitism as a rhetorical style often takes the form of attacks on liberals, secularists, intellectuals, the news media, and Hollywood. Allegations that these elites are part of a vast conspiracy against the common people are frequently interwoven into the fabric of the stories that are told—sometimes with references to satanic End Times plots tied to prophecies in the book of “Revelation.” Linda Kintz, discussing dualistic apocalypticism, argues the “resonance of traditionalist conservatism, both religious and secular, is the apocalyptic narrative whose influence on the myths of American history is not new,” and she adds it “depends on fear and because fear is undependable, it must be sustained.”
Right-wing populism often is based on racialized, patriarchal, and heterosexist narratives that buttress a sense of privilege and entitlement among a targeted audience of straight white Christian men. It tends to frame economic questions in terms of hard working producers pitted against parasites above and below. This technique was used to mobilize poor and working class whites against newly-freed black former slaves after the Civil War. It was utilized by George Wallace in his first presidential campaign and later borrowed by Richard Nixon and the Republican Party to create the “southern strategy.” It exists in stories of “welfare queens” where race need not be mentioned. Ironically, today racial anti-elite populist rhetoric is used by Republicans to invert the historical account and claim that the Democratic Party is the enemy of true civil rights.
There is also a natural historic congruence between the Calvinist-based theology of many white evangelicals, and the ideology of free markets and less government regulation fostered by the Republican Party. Doug Henwood points out that the work of historian Richard Hofstadter (despite accurate criticisms of some of his overly-broad conclusions) helps explain this connection: “Hofstadter underscores the radical departure of the New Deal from the individualist roots of historic American social and political movements for something much more collective. That kind of collectivism, which lasted into the 1970s, is exactly what the New Right has been trying to reverse all along and they’ve accomplished a good bit of the task.
“Hofstadter’s emphasis on the individualism of American white Protestantism is highly relevant now—it illuminates what’s the matter with Kansas, since American white Protestants love ‘the market’ as an instrument of reward and discipline. That love is not some recent confidence trick perpetrated by Karl Rove, but has deep roots.”
Margaret R. Somers and Fred Block identify this as part of the growth of “market fundamentalism” as an ideology promoted by conservatives. They studied two examples of legislation—in 1834 and 1966—in which “existing welfare regimes were overturned by market-driven ones.” They concluded that, “Despite dramatic differences across the cases, both outcomes were mobilized by ‘the perversity thesis’—a public discourse that reassigned blame for the poor’s condition from ‘poverty to perversity.’
“…[S]tructural blame for poverty is discredited as empiricist appearance while the real problem is attributed to the corrosive effects of welfare’s perverse incentives on poor people themselves—they become sexually promiscuous, thrust aside personal responsibility, and develop longterm dependency. This claim enables market fundamentalism to delegitimate existing ideational regimes, to survive disconfirming data, and to change the terms of debate from social problems to the timeless forces of nature and biology.”
Many white working class voters, and even white middle class voters can be persuaded at times to vote against their arguable economic self interest by appealing to their sense of morality and casting “family values” and “moral values” in terms of societal struggles over issues such as gay rights, gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research, and pornography.
In any election, sometimes social issues trump economic issues, sometimes economic issues trump social issues—and how Republicans and Democrats are perceived by Christian evangelical voters who are weighing the pull of those two sets of issues can determine the outcome of an election.
According to sociologist S. Wojciech Sokolowski: “What is at stake here is not reason vs. irrationality or stupidity but different cognitive frames that manifest themselves, among other things, by a preference for bucolic rural life or for urban diversity. Both are pre-rational, that is, they frame and direct the rational thought process.
“So if we drop the charge of irrationalism, Hofstadter’s thesis that traditional American culture tends to be anti-urban and rather local, with all the accoutrements of that localism—navel gazing, suspicion of outsiders, suspicion of high culture, suspicion of big organizations and government, love of small business, religiosity, etc.—still stands.”
S okolowski stresses the interplay of factors with a basic right- wing frame, the “perception of imminent danger,” which creates a need to organize for “safety and protection.” According to Sokolow- ski, this fear factor activates a strong response when added to the constellation of other beliefs of the right: “The Manichean dualism of good and evil, right and wrong, us and them; the vision of apocalyptic battle between good and evil; the need for vigilance and unquestioned support of ‘our’ side and a militant posture toward ‘them.’” Sokolowski explains that “only within the context of their perception of an imminent threat do their activities and rhetoric appear as rational defensive reactions rather than wanton aggression.”
It is this very unique way of perceiving the world that drives the Christian right to engage in a guerilla culture war against mainstream society—seen as increasingly sinful, secular, cynical, and threatening.
What we see from the detailed studies of polls is that a small, but important, segment of the white Christian right can rise above this frame. The inside-the-beltway brains advising the Democratic Party, however, have decided that caving in to white right-wing evangelicals is a better way to attract votes than doing actual grassroots organizing. As you read this, they are crafting messages that signal a willingness to barter away basic human rights tied to abortion and GLBTQ equity. This is morally wrong, Constitutionally unacceptable, and totally unnecessary.
Instead, we need to reframe the debate to focus on crafting equitable, ethical, and effective approaches to poverty, health care, the environment, war, and education in a way that appeals to the already existing moral values shared by most Americans. In this way we can continue to shift the God Gap in our favor while gaining an opportunity to talk face to face with Christian evangelicals about our disagreements over abortion and gay rights—without backing down on these issues.
Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates. The views expressed here are his own. This article grew out of his research for “Running Against Sodom and Osama” written with Pam Chamberlain (www.publiceye.org).
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; email@example.com; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: email@example.com; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; email@example.com.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.