In an earlier blog, I used evidence and the historical record to make the case that the US was not founded as a Christian nation. While it is true that our Founding Fathers carefully omitted any reference to Christianity and its God from our most revered documents, they were, contrary-wise, great believers in the importance of religion in binding us together as a nation with a strong moral code and commitment to justice. Franklin spoke and wrote of the importance of having “virtuous” citizens and he believed that the surest (but not the only road) to meeting that need was religious training and development.
While men like Franklin and Jefferson held the day in making sure that we were established as a secular nation, they had to face down some dissenters; notably clergy centered in the northeast who never abandon their sectarian views. Through decades, their voices became softer, but were never muted as successive new, like-minded generations took their place.
Over time throughout our history, men of strong religious conviction sought to bring the country back to God, typically as a response to one or another liberal development that supposedly had set the nation on the path towards damnation and the loss of our special place in God’s eyes. Such was the case with the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. That landmark case galvanized the religious right. Unable to overturn it by the force of their moral argument, a movement began among fundamentalists to elect to office, individuals who shared their position, not just on Roe v. Wade, but progressivity more generally. Indeed, opposition to the abortion rule became part of a litmus test designed to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable candidates for office. At one point, and to better advance their cause, leaders of the movement even threw their own hat in the ring. A notable case in point was the presidential candidacy of Pat Robertson.
Looking back, we can now see this period as representing a tipping point in the role of religion in our politics, At this juncture, we had a group of people seeking to advance at least one aspect of their morality through the legislative process; i.e. elect to office only those individuals with a commitment to passing laws that coincided with those religious beliefs.
When Ronald Reagan was elected, the foes of abortion believed that they had in him, the one person with the power to advance their agenda. Ironically, over the next eight years, his record of legislative accomplishments showed that he did very little on behalf of the very voters who were his most ardent supporters.
If Reagan failed to live up to social/Christian conservatives’ expectations, his successor, GHW Bush, was just as disappointing and Bill Clinton was an unmitigated disaster. The election of GW Bush would surely put the movement back on track. It did not though the younger Bush often spoke supportively of the goals of his right-wing base.
The level of distress in this latter bloc of voters ramped sharply upwards with the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. They were joined by members of the new Tea Party movement, many of whom shared their religious beliefs including an anti-abortion sentiment. Now, adherence to a pledge to shrink the federal government and reduce taxes became part of the aforementioned “litmus test” that would define a candidate’s suitability.
Interestingly, some political observers opined that by joining the Tea Party, the religious right had simply re-branded themselves so as to attract more centrist voters who would find the smaller government/lower taxes message more appealing than the socially conservative agenda and consequently, would vote accordingly. If true, it was a neat ploy because in getting the small government/lower taxes crowd into Congress, the social conservative agenda would be propelled forward as well by those same representatives.
In the short term, it worked. Whatever voters’ motivations, the 2010 midterm election saw a sea change in the composition of the House of Representatives as dozens of Tea Party members were swept into office. Once there, they immediately began to push the socially conservative agenda. But, by 2012 and the general election, there was evidence that these same members of Congress had overplayed their hand as the Democrat party retained not just the presidency, but gained seats in both houses of Congress. With a midterm election slated for 2014, it will be interesting to see if this recent development expands or there is a reversal back towards social conservatism.
Given significant demographic changes and the liberalizing of social attitudes, the latter is unlikely which, in at least one respect, is a good thing. It is one thing to promote for elected office, individuals who share your views on matters of public policy. It is quite another to take the same tack as a means of forcing by means of the legislative process, something that the Founding Fathers would have objected to vigorously; i.e. the imposition on others, of your particular religious views.
By way of concluding, let me say that in this blog, I have drawn on the thinking and writing of John Meacham in his book American Gospel (cited in a previous blog), and William Martin’s With God on our Side. Any “brief history”, because of its brevity, usually results in the omission of important events and significant shapers of them. Such being the case, I am open to and will acknowledge with gratitude, any/all comments that include “Well what about….?” Such contributions will surely serve to more fully flesh out the history I have sketched over.