For a long time, it was clear the white Christian Right in the United States was waging a war of reaction (sometimes open, sometimes clandestine) against just about every social, cultural and legal change that has taken place in our country since about, say, 1962.
If we take the time horizon that far back, these changes would cover the following:
- The Supreme Court banning state-sponsored prayer in public schools
- The legalization, use and spread of the birth control pill and then other contraceptives
- SCOTUS overturning state bans on interracial marriage in 1967
- The sexual revolution
- The gay rights movement
- The Civil Rights movement for Black Americans
- The feminist movement
- The rise of sexual cohabitation before marriage
- The rise in the divorce rate
- The protests challenging the Vietnam War, rejecting unquestioning patriotism and doubting the integrity of the U.S. government
- The 1965 Immigration Act and other immigration-loosening laws
- The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide
The conservative Christian resistance against these social changes has taken various forms. When I came of age in the early 1980s, the most publicly visible form was seen in the electoral-political efforts of the Christian Right.
Already by 1980 that movement, led by folks such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, had claimed a signal victory by helping engineer the election of Ronald Reagan over the born-again Southern Baptist president Jimmy Carter.
Ever after, the political marriage between the Republican Party and the Christian Right was set in stone. It continues to this day.
But in retrospect, if you look back over the list, the actual accomplishments of the Christian Right-GOP marriage yielded few concrete victories — at least, not until recently.
American society continued to liberalize, democratize and pluralize. The Christian Right lost battle after battle.
- The sexual revolution was not reversed.
- LGBTQ people became increasingly accepted. Gay marriage was legalized in 2015 by the Supreme Court.
- Women continued their march toward equality and political, social and economic power.
- Marriage remained more and more optional and dissoluble.
- Patriotism declined — certainly unquestioned patriotism declined dramatically.
- State-sponsored Christian observance ended or at least declined in most places.
- More and more immigrants came, along with more and more intermarriage, and a less and less monoracial, white-dominated society resulted.
- Abortion became a routine social practice, although the rate of abortions gradually declined.
In my new book, Defending Democracy from its Christian Enemies (out in October), I will argue that reactionary-conservative Christian political engagement has been visible not just in the U.S. but in other historically “Christian” lands as well, and that the trend goes back not just decades but centuries.
“What is increasingly visible in the U.S. these days is an authoritarianism allied with this reactionary Christian conservatism.”
What is increasingly visible in the U.S. these days is an authoritarianism allied with this reactionary Christian conservatism. Right-wing white Christians are not settling for the normal wins and losses of the political system. They want to win, they want to win now, and at least some of them are not too troubled by the niceties of constitutionalism, rule of law and election results.
That is one reading of the meaning of Donald Trump. He articulated (or dog-whistled) negative reaction to all the social changes just listed, and he was willing to move in authoritarian directions to give his constituency what they wanted. After losing the 2020 presidential election, Trump took a fateful turn in an even more authoritarian direction by attempting a variety of strategies to overturn the election results, culminating in January 6.
Today, the Christian right wing — often labeled Christian nationalist, although I prefer my vocabulary of authoritarian reactionary Christian — still contains an extremist militant wing, seething with threats of violence, although some of its original warriors are in jail and the federal government is on the lookout now. But others are using unprecedented exercises of state power to give the Christian rightists everything they want, whether it’s by executive action, legislative vote in red states, or decisions of the conservative-dominated Supreme Court.
I still believe dictated state conservatism — not to mention authoritarian coups or militia violence — cannot and will not reverse deep cultural trends. Instead, authoritarian reactionary politics appears to be deepening the commitment of progressives, especially of the younger generations, to these very social changes.
This, however, may only intensify the spiral of radicalization on the right. And that is truly frightening.
This article originally appeared in Baptist News Global.