Alan Fox reviews ‘Onward Christian soldiers?’ by Clyde Wilcox
By the standards of Western Europe the United States is a highly religious society. According to a US national election study of 1992, more than half those questioned stated that god played an “extremely important part” in their lives. More than 25% of adults attended church at least once a week and only one third said they would ever consider voting for an atheist.
Against this background Clyde Wilcox provides a useful assessment of the present strength and influence of the religious right in American politics. He outlines how bourgeois commentators have alternated between grossly overestimating and totally writing off this political movement over the past couple of decades. However, Wilcox estimates that during this time its support has remained constant at around 10 to 15%.
Nevertheless it remains a highly important pressure group, particularly its most influential component, the Christian Coalition. This organisation’s weight within the Republican Party is so pronounced that all six 1996 Republican presidential hopefuls addressed its conference the previous year.
The Christian right movement has a social agenda of the most reactionary kind. It calls for religion to be placed at the centre of public life, particularly in state schools. It wants to end sex education and calls instead for children to be taught the biblical ‘theory’ of creation. It believes a woman’s place is in the home looking after her children, and of course it is virulently anti-abortion and anti-gay.
The Christian Coalition’s founder, Pat Robertson, himself a Republican presidential candidate in 1988, has been prone to extreme, not to say unhinged, statements. Wilcox quotes a 1995 fundraising letter sent out to activists under Robertson’s name: “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practise witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians” (p9).
The author gives many other examples of statements and actions by those who might be termed ‘loony righties’: such as the attempt to have The wizard of Oz banned from schools because one of its characters is a ‘good witch’; or the picket of a seaside bakery which sold “anatomically correct cookies” deemed to be pornographic. More seriously some Christian groupings have been linked to violent attacks on medical workers providing abortions.
Yet he shows that such actions do not enjoy the support of most activists, let alone broad sections of the public as a whole. Robertson’s extremism is more than balanced within the Coalition by the pragmatism of co-leader Ralph Reed, who projects his organisation as a “Christian chamber of commerce” or a “Christian AFL-CIO”. Whereas Robertson appears to want to impose his own version of ‘Christian family life’ on an unwilling US society, Reed portrays the movement as a defensive struggle and uses the language of victimisation. According to Wilcox, Christian right leaders “frequently lace their speeches with quotations from Martin Luther King Jr, and often compare their movement with the civil rights movement of the 1960s” (p53).
They are able to get away with this by portraying themselves as oppressed by the secular US state. The first amendment of the constitution is democratically light years ahead of Britain: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” - a sentiment which communists heartily endorse. Prayers and bible readings are prohibited in US state schools - unlike in the UK, where they are a legal requirement.
Leaders like Reed play down the Christian right’s desire for “the establishment of religion”, claiming instead that the school ban is an infringement of the clause “prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Here their support is firmer, as fewer than half of American adults support the supreme court ruling that precludes classroom prayer.
Although support for the Christian Coalition comes overwhelmingly from “white evangelical Christians”, who according to Wilcox make up approximately 25% of the US population, it is making strenuous efforts to embrace the mainstream churches and black evangelicals. It also seeks support for its policies from religious Jews.
However, it is handicapped in its attempts to win over blacks by its ultra-right socio-economic policies. The “economic individualism that comes from the Calvinist heritage” (p126) leads it to call for a sub-minimum wage and the ending of all welfare. Nevertheless the backing of the organised Christian right has, from the point of view of US capital, been most welcome for the implementation of welfare cuts.
But Wilcox demonstrates that on social issues it has made no real progress, being unable to claw back the inroads of the women’s movement or ostracise homosexuals. Bourgeois society continues to promote its own version of female equality (for middle class careerists), and gays are more accepted in all spheres of official US society. Evolution and sex education continue to be taught in most state schools.
Only over its vicious anti-women campaign against abortion has it forced some reactionary change in a few states, causing some women to cross state lines when obstacles have been erected. While these outrageous attacks should not be underestimated, even in this sphere the Christian right is very far from its goal of banning abortion under all circumstances. Only a small minority of US Christians, including catholics, support that.
Where rightwing Christians have managed to win control of school boards (sometimes using ‘stealth’ tactics - ie, concealing their views), they have usually been voted out after trying to implement their policies. Only within the Republican Party have activists succeeded in gaining a foothold, winning control of some states’ nomination processes.
Wilcox’s own position is one of a mainstream bourgeois liberal, asking, “Is the movement good or bad for America?” (p149). He believes it to be positive in that it has managed to draw a section of society previously contemptuous of the bourgeois political process towards participation (presumably just like millions of other alienated citizens). But this will only be consolidated if the pragmatic wing of the movement succeeds in exercising a moderating influence over its fundamentalist colleagues. In the meantime, “the tone of political discourse would be improved if both sides [Christian extremists and their radical opponents] would calm down a bit” (p151).
Thus Wilcox comes to the contradictory conclusion that it is possible for the Christian right to become fully accepted in the American mainstream - but only if it ceases to be the Christian right. As only a small minority of citizens accept their programme, organisations such as the Christian Coalition could never hope to force through their reactionary extremism, he says. Just as those other extremists - communists who call for workers to take control over their own lives - can never gain a mass following of course.
Wilcox’s static thinking leaves him blind to both possibilities. Politics is viewed as a process decided by passive voters with virtually unchanging opinions. The possibility that millions can be drawn into mass action - reactionary or revolutionary - totally escapes him.
We communists do not share his smug complacency. When societies are thrown into crisis the ‘extreme’ can suddenly appear to the masses as the only sensible option. All sections are drawn to the poles of revolution or fascistic counterrevolution. In the USA, where religion holds such sway, fascism could well take on the appearance of the defence of Christian family values, necessitating the bloody suppression of all those deemed to threaten them.