Why Cliven Bundy Wasn’t A Religious Right Hero

Phillip Bump asks why Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson became a hero of the religious right, and why the rancher Cliven Bundy is being dumped like a hot potato by conservatives (some rather belatedly) who lionized his supposedly brave stand against the big bad federal government, until his racist statements were published in the New York Times.

As Jamelle Bouie chronicles, Bundy’s view that blacks were better off under slavery are “fairly common within the conservative movement,” the only difference being he “isn’t sophisticated enough to couch his nonsense in soundbites and euphemism.”

Adam Serwer adds:

This all trickles down from somewhere. Slavery analogies are common among conservative figures like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, and it’s one of the reasons many conservatives have fallen in love with Ben Carson. In Washington, the critique of the welfare state is finessed into a more sophisticated argument that lacks references to slavery, and where race is usually discussed through euphemism or not at all. That’s when we begin to hear things like Rep. Paul Ryan speaking of “generations of men” in “inner cities” who don’t know “the value and the culture of work.” Then again, sometimes you have multimillionaire former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney railing against the “gifts” Barack Obama promised to “the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.”

At best, these kinds of statements combine a genuine desire to sympathize with the black poor with many conservatives’ pre-existing ideological views about government. At worst, they reflect ancient myths about black people that predate the welfare state and reassure white conservative audiences of their own innocence when it comes to racial disparities–not to mention an startling blindness about the brutal realities of chattel slavery.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, the Iowa religious right group The Family Leaderincluded language that an black child born into slavery was more likely to be raised by a mother and a father than one born in contemporary America in a pledge signed by Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. (The language was later removed.)

It’s also worth observing that defenses of slavery were not uncommon in reactionary theological expositions of Christian nation mythology after the Civil War, and that the religious right was, in its early incarnations, motivated by school desegregation and the IRS’s revocation of Bob Jones University’s tax exempt status because of its racially discriminatory policies.

As Bump notes, Robertson’s racist statements got buried in his religiously-charged anti-gay rhetoric. Robertson became a poster child for “religious freedom” campaigns—even though, unlike in Bundy’s case, the offending (to conservatives) “tyranny” was that of proponents of LGBT equality aimed to oppress his religious expression. The supposed persecutor was not the government, but a group of people that Robertson’s defenders claim are the false victims, the real victims being Christians whose beliefs allegedly are being suppressed.

It’s hard to say what would have happened had more attention been brought to Robertson’s view of “pre-entitlement, pre-welfare” blacks who “were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues,” or if he had used the word “Negro” rather than “black,” or if he had more explicitly pronounced them to be happier under slavery. His invocation of his religious worldview served to insulate him from conservative flight.

Bump writes that Robertson’s “comments about black Americans were buried under a rush to defend the right of Christian Americans to express disapproval of gays,” and that, compared to Bundy Robertson “did a much better job leveraging political sentiment in his favor after his controversial remarks.” But Robertson didn’t have to do much leveraging; his comments came at a time when religious conservatives were panicking over the rising tide of marriage equality, and the efforts, in their view, to “silence” Robertson played directly into their political strategy.

It wasn’t only Robertson’s anti-gay rhetoric that drew the religious right to his side. His entire worldview hinged on his proclamations of the supremacy of Christianity. (“All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I’ll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero.”) Those comments got buried as well, and they probably served more to bolster his religious right cred than to cause conservatives to run out of fear of being associated with him.

Bundy, on the other hand, tried to play the religion card with an Easter interview from outside his church with a little-known conservative talk radio host, during which he claimed to “put my faith in our heavenly father” over his standoff with the government.

In the end, of course, the conservative flight from Bundy has everything to do with political expediency, not religion. It’s true that Bundy hasn’t expressed a Christian worldview that, in conservative minds, is being suppressed either by the government or a marginalized group that conservatives believe is imposing its ideology on them. That makes it easier to dump him when he says something that frequently (if less coarsely expressed) passes for polite conversation, but that undermines your efforts to “rebrand” conservatism.