The Religious Right Has Come Out of the Closet

Steve Bannon at the 2017 Values Voters Summit.

There’s a certain satisfaction for those of us who came of age at the time of the Christian Right’s ascendency to see such widespread acknowledgement of what many of us knew all along—that the so-called Christian Right was always a scam, a caustic combination of patriarchy and big money interests scamming the country behind an edifice of “family values” and “morals.”

It was, after all, Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the Christian Right coalition, who admitted that it was much easier to get folks ginned up about tax cuts for the rich if you conflated them with moral issues like abortion and “scare” issues like crime and gun control.

The ultimate denouement came with publication of a poll that found that nearly three-quarters of evangelicals are now OK with a politician with personally compromised morality, up from just 30 percent five years ago, a convenient twisting of moral perspectives to fit the exigencies of Trump. It seems that one can be sinner in their personal life as long as they promise to appoint anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court.

But now, even conservatives have to admit the Christian Right is everything its worst critics claimed it was. Here’s Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post:

For years, Democrats accused Christian conservatives of being closet theocrats, seeking to impose Christianity on the country and refusing to accept, let alone embrace, American diversity. That was a generalization, but it turned out to be more true than not.

She quotes Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute as noting:

One of the most astounding shifts in modern politics has been the utter transformation of white evangelical Protestants from being confident self-described ‘values voters,’ who measured candidates for office against a high bar of moral character, to anxious and unwavering Trump supporters who have largely dropped these standards for a candidate they believe will deliver policies that benefit them.

But it’s easy to argue that that concern about “high moral character” was always a veneer over political expediency because “moral character” was so thoroughly fused with two issues: opposition to abortion and, later, same-sex marriage.

The result is a shape-shifting political animal described brilliantly by Jane Mayer in her New Yorker profile of Mike Pence, a man animated equally by political ambition and a quest to restore his particular vision of morality, which looks more like patriarchy—women who know their place (not out alone with men), reproductive control by the state in the form of illegal abortion, and the re-marginalization of gay people—fused with the big-money interests of the Koch brothers.

Pence, Mayer reports, was on the board of a far-right policy organization called the Indiana Family Institute that “supported the criminalization of abortion and campaigned against equal rights for homosexuals,” and argued that “unmarried women should be denied access to birth control.”

In fact, Mayer quotes one of Pence’s political opponents in the Indiana state legislature as saying, “What these people are really after is contraceptives.” She asserted that Pence’s real goal was to “reverse women’s economic and political advances.”

But Pence faltered in his political ambitions, stumbling over the signing and then the reversal of Indiana’s controversial “religious freedom” law. Nearly broke, with a dim political future, his career, and his mission, was salvaged by the most unlikely of saviors: the thrice-married self-admitted groper Donald Trump, a man depraved in both personal and political morality. It’s hard to imagine any self-professed serious Christian such as Pence even considering a place on the Trump ticket, but when it was offered, he didn’t think twice, yoking the Christian Right to Trump in exchange for a promise to appoint conservative judges and let the right have it’s way with anti-abortion legislation.

While publicly Trump presented himself as an ally of the religious right, in private Mayer reports he gleefully mocked their most dearly held goal—banning abortion:

During a meeting with a legal scholar, Trump belittled Pence’s determination to overturn Roe v. Wade. The legal scholar had said that, if the Supreme Court did so, many states would likely legalize abortion on their own. “You see?” Trump asked Pence. “You’ve wasted all this time and energy on it, and it’s not going to end abortion anyway.”

And now the Christian Right has made clear what it gave away in this devil’s bargain—any last shred of a legitimate claim to moral leadership with, as Michael Gerson wrote in the Post, its embrace of “angry ethnonationalism and racial demagoguery”:

At the Family Research Council’s recent Values Voter Summit, the religious right effectively declared its conversion to Trumpism. … There is no group in the United States less attached to its own ideals or more eager for its own exploitation than religious conservatives. Forget Augustine and Aquinas, Wilberforce and Shaftesbury. For many years, leaders of the religious right exactly conformed Christian social teaching to the contours of Fox News evening programming. Now, according to Bannon, “economic nationalism” is the “centerpiece of value voters.” I had thought the centerpiece was a vision of human dignity rooted in faith. But never mind. Evidently the Christian approach to social justice is miraculously identical to 1930s Republican protectionism, isolationism and nativism.

The once-proud Religious Right, which bullied the country—and the often-cowed Democratic Party—with its claims of moral superiority and family values is now “a pitiful appendage” to the “squalid” Bannon–Trump agenda, “seeking preference and advancement from a strongman.”

In a last, desperate gamble for power, to ban abortion and put gays back in the closet, the “Christian” Right has shed any pretense of Christianity. Whatever moral authority it had is now gone. The Christian Right is dead; long live the Trump-Bannon-ethno-nationalist right.