May 19, 2005

What Drives the Conservative Christian Movement?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:05 pm

My bricks and mortar life has been interfering with my digital life lately, so blogging (as well as participating in the Spiritual Progressives Conference) has suffered. But, with a few minutes free, I find much to comment on regarding Michelle Cottle’s latest piece in The New Republic, in which she expands on some themes from her last article on progressive Christians. I’ll save some of my disagreements with her for a future post, but I at least want to comment on her depiction of the motivations driving the Christian right.

Cottle provides an incredibly cynical view of conservative evangelicals made all the more credible because of her quotes from insiders on the Christian right. First, she says that gay rights and abortion are the right’s hot button issues because they deal with sex.

In modern U.S. politics, however, personal piety has proved the more compelling rallying cry for a variety of reasons–perhaps the most basic being that sex sells. “Sex always gets people’s attention,” says Marvin Olasky, godfather of compassionate conservatism and editor of the religious magazine World. Talk of sexual sin “goes to the gut,” agrees conservative columnist Cal Thomas (who, in his younger days, served as vice president of communications for the Moral Majority). “It goes to the emotions, to feelings. It produces a visceral reaction.” By contrast, issues like health care and homelessness, while arguably more pertinent to more people’s lives, lack the same sizzle and, as such, are unlikely to capture the imagination of the grassroots, not to mention a drama-loving press.

Secondly, these issues allow conservatives to criticize others instead of looking within.

As a bonus, says Thomas, opposing abortion and gay marriage generally has more to do with changing someone else’s behavior than one’s own. He points out that, as far as the decline of American culture goes, Christians are just as guilty as non-Christians when it comes to high divorce rates, out-of-wedlock sex, and rampant materialism. (Supporting data for this and similar trends can be found in Sider’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.) But addressing this embarrassing reality would involve too much self-scrutiny, says Thomas. “People would much rather watch a video of someone else exercising than go to the gym and do the sweating themselves,” he quips.

Third, these issues point to an evil enemy, which stirs the passions of hatred.

Similarly, issues like poverty and racial reconciliation don’t lend themselves as neatly to the same good-versus-evil, us-versus-them political paradigm as gay rights or judicial activism, the right’s latest bugaboo. Sociologist Tony Campolo (who recently conducted his own spiritual sit-down with Democratic lawmakers) likes to quote from philosopher Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book, True Believer: “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil.” Hitler had the Jews, and the communists had the capitalists, says Campolo. “I contend that it’s easy to rally people around opposition to gay people. In the minds of many, they have become the devil that must be destroyed if America is to be saved.”

Next, the “enemy” is important to keep the cash coming in.

The uncomplicated, emotionally driven nature of the right’s message gives it a fund-raising edge over the non-right. “Big-time TV evangelists tell people, ‘Send us your money so we can stop abortion, stop gay rights,'” snorts Thomas. “If they were to go on and talk about how Christians needed to fix what’s wrong in their own house, they wouldn’t raise a dime.”

Lastly, these issues don’t conflict with the rest of the GOP.

Moreover, if evangelicals seriously began pushing for tougher environmental regulation or higher Social Security taxes, it would strain the base’s comfy relationship with the wing of the GOP that cares less about social than economic policy but that has, over the years, proved amenable to helping finance the crusade for personal piety. While many big-money Republicans may not share the right’s passion for banning abortion, such a cause doesn’t directly conflict with the party’s laissez-faire, pro-corporate economic stance. Notably, neither do the foreign policy achievements cited by the NAE, such as legislation involving religious freedom or child sextrafficking. Mucking around with domestic economic policy, however, such as calling for an increase in the minimum wage or for new pollution-control standards, could provoke intraparty rifts and put Republican politicians in a jam–yet another reason for the right to fight to maintain the status quo.

So there you have it. The Christian right clings to abortion and gay rights as their “Christian agenda” because of:

  1. Sex
  2. Condemnation and Hypocrisy
  3. Hate
  4. Money
  5. Political power

So, do these look like fruits of the spirit, or fruits of the flesh? Of course, these are sources of sins for all of us, for me as much as any conservative Christian layperson. What I find contemptible, though, are the leaders of the Christian right that prey on these very human weaknesses to further their agenda. Cal Thomas seems to be bragging about it (although it’s tough to tell the context of his remarks — is he confessing and asking for forgiveness?) I believe that many leaders of the Christian right are aware of these base motivating factors for their agendas, but rationalize them away, since they are “doing God’s work”.

Except that any work that relies on these means to accomplish their end can not be of God. Any Christian movement that must appeal to the worst in humanity instead of the best can’t be truly Christian.

Cottle argues that, because of these five levers, progressive Christians can never unseat the Christian right as the dominant voice of Christianity in the US. I really hope and pray that she is wrong. I pray that a progressive Christian movement can succeed using some other forces to motivate their followers:

  1. Hope
  2. Forgiveness and Repentance
  3. Love
  4. Charity
  5. Servanthood

But, I’m just a wild-eyed idealist.


  1. I am not a progressive, just a Christian Democrat who finds herself in the middle on most issues. But, I agree a lot with what has been written on the motives of the Religious Right. And, like you, I am a idealist. I would like to see a return to Christ and what the Bible says. Goodness knows the Bible is both conservative and liberal, depending on the subject matter. Unfortunately, I think we will continue to see a rift amongst Christians and extremists on both sides getting more attention than they deserve.

    Comment by Angel — May 20, 2005 @ 8:13 am

  2. As one who is both evangelical spiritually and conservative politically I join you in praying that the Christian movement can motivate all to Hope, Forgiveness and Repentance, Love, Charity, and Serventhood. These are not unique to the Progressive movement.

    I belive that being a follower of Christ transcends political boundaries of Progressive vs Conservative (whatever those terms really mean). All too often we are taking up sides based on our politics rather than what our Lord calls us to do. We read and interpret scripture based on what we want them to say to suit our own desires.

    Together let us seek the God who is rather than the god we want.

    Comment by bobk11 — May 20, 2005 @ 10:00 am

  3. Wow! REAL original article. Do you think she may have yanked it directly from Berkeley’s “scientific” research on what conservatives? . Its one thing for “liberals” to be losing universal credibility, its another for “Christians” (so-called) to be feeding into it. Sorry, but you folks really need some new material.



    Comment by Jack — May 20, 2005 @ 10:10 am

  4. Bob, I’ve known you your whole life. You are an idealist. Perhaps some would say that you are naive. But, you’ve never, ever been wild-eyed.

    Comment by Brother-of-the-Blog Lance — May 20, 2005 @ 12:32 pm

  5. Great post. This is why I can no longer be a part of the fundamentalist or conservative evangelical movement. I don’t think Jesus would be a part of it either.

    Comment by Rich — May 22, 2005 @ 11:43 am

  6. I clicked on the link in Jack’s earlier post, and I don’t see
    that close a relationship between the two articles. Berkeley
    mostly discussed a conservative’s dislike for ambiguity and need
    for closure, whereas the most disturbing thing in this article is
    the fact that these conservatives choose issues to complain about
    that they don’t have to face. I guess resistance to change is a comm
    theme in both articles, but I don’t see any others. There was certainly
    no reason to call this article “unoriginal” or
    “so called Christian”. Hit the road, Jack.

    Comment by Donna — May 22, 2005 @ 6:14 pm

  7. Great post. I’ve written something on the subject: Sadly, I doubt that the radical Christian right can be woken up from their delusions of a crusade to save America. Kyrie Eleyson.

    Comment by Stephen — May 22, 2005 @ 8:15 pm

  8. […] The Christian Right God and Public Policy — Bob @ 8:24 am

    I have been accused of being naive, a charge to which I freely admit my guilt. But my naivete is by choice, […]

    Pingback by I am a Christian Too » The Naivete of the Christian Right — May 24, 2005 @ 8:29 am

  9. I can’t remember whether I’ve recommended this book or not, so if I have, please forgive me for sounding like a broken record. But I think Tillich’s The Courage to Be is a useful book to read on this subject (and it’s much more accessible than some of his other books). He describes a pathological reaction to various anxieties (the one relevant to this question is the anxiety of guilt and condemnation) that is strikingly similar to fundamentalist reactions to cultural issues.

    Comment by Chris T. — May 24, 2005 @ 2:11 pm

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