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Suckers for Jesus

August 19, 2004
By Ernest Partridge, The Crisis Papers

The Republican party, once the home of liberals, conservationists, internationalists, and moderate Christians, is now dominated by an improbable alliance of libertarians, free market absolutists, greedy plutocrats, and Christian fundamentalists.

The first three, "the secular right," clearly gain a great deal from their alliance. But how have the Christians, "the religious right," been persuaded to cast their lot with the Republican party?

How does one convince millions of devout Christians to accept a secular political-economic philosophy developed and articulated, in large part, by atheists?

How does one, in addition, enable this same multitude of Christians to disregard how their political allies are taking cash out of their pockets and redistributing it upward from the middle class and the poor to the already wealthy, at the cost, in addition, of impoverishing essential social services, aid to the poor, and placing a crushing debt upon future generations?

Finally, how are these Christians persuaded that the moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are somehow consistent with aggressive foreign wars, the increased enrichment of the wealthy, the denial of relief to the poor, comfort to the afflicted, education for the young, and employment for the jobless?

No small accomplishment. But the political geniuses of the radical right who have captured the Republican party have brought it off. They had to. For without the inclusion of the religious right in their coalition, they would lack the foot soldiers - the votes - that are essential to their political power.

Here are the players:

The libertarians are champions of "limited government," believing that the only legitimate functions of government are the protection of life, liberty and property - by means of the military (defense against foreign enemies), the police (defense against domestic enemies), and the courts (protection of property). Taxes in support of anything else - schools, the arts, environmental protection - are regarded by the libertarians as unwarranted seizures of private property, in a word, theft. (For more about libertarian doctrine, see my "With Liberty for Some" and "Environmental Justice and ‘Shared Fate'").

The free market absolutists - the phrase is from George Soros - embrace and promote the economic program of the libertarians. The FMAs believe that all social problems and government functions can best be dealt with if all national assets are privatized, and if the free market exchange of goods, services and investment assets is allowed to proceed without impediment. In other words, the FMAs believe that the optimum social order is obtained, "as if by an invisible hand" (Adam Smith), through the summation of individual self-enhancing "capitalist acts between consenting adults." (Robert Nozick). (See my "The New Alchemy").

The plutocrats' governing ideology can be distilled down to a single word: More! Like George Bush, they "don't do nuance." Plutocrats hate governments because governments impose taxes and because they regulate the plutocrats' enterprises. Plutocrats recognize no "public interest." As Commodore Vanderbilt famously proclaimed, "the public be damned - I work for my stockholders." Plutocrats defend and promote free enterprise and competition - among their rivals. For themselves, they much prefer monopolies. Despite their proclaimed enmity toward government, they seek control of government as an instrument of their personal wealth-enhancement.

(There are still other components of the Radical Right alliance, such as the neo-conservative imperialists and the "paranoid right" of militias and skin-heads. But for the sake of simplicity, we will leave them aside).

Together these factions plus the religious right constitute a formidable political force. The plutocrats supply the money, the libertarians and free marketeers articulate the political dogma, and the fundamentalists provide the votes. (Kevin Phillips writes that "according to national polls in 2000, evangelicals and fundamentalists cast fully 40 percent of Bush's vote, and his 84 percent support among committed evangelicals was higher than any previous Republican nominee.) Without those votes, the political clout of the right-wing regressives would collapse, and the right would be appropriately relegated the fringes of the body politic.

This is a very agreeable arrangement for "the secular right" - the libertarians, the free-marketeers, and the plutocrats, who have little to dispute amongst themselves. But the alliance of the secular right with the religious right is a marriage of convenience - convenient for the secular right, which prefers to keep its pious partners barefoot, ignorant and pregnant. "Barefoot" in the sense of being impoverished and ignorant of how they are being exploited, and "pregnant" in the sense of being vote-producers.

For close inspection reveals that the secular and religious right have little in common, and because this is so the secularists are anxious that the religious right refrain from such close inspection.

Consider the contrasts:

Many of the most prominent promoters of libertarianism during the past forty years have been avowed atheists; among them Ayn Rand, Nathaniel Brandon, John Hospers and Robert Nozick. Yet this appears not to bother the evangelicals.

In addition, libertarians share with many liberals a determined opposition to government interference in the private lives of individuals. Accordingly, the libertarians endorse the legalization of marijuana, pornography and prostitution, and they oppose anti-drug laws, restrictions on abortion and discrimination against homosexuals. Strange, isn't it, that the fundamentalists appear not to notice this agenda of their libertarian allies?

Furthermore, the secularists are, of course, generally well-educated and scientifically sophisticated, and thus they accept evolution and reject biblical literalism. They may, however, occasionally pretend otherwise in order to mollify the fundamentalists.

Next, there is the issue of economic justice. It is a safe bet that the socio-economic-educational status of the average fundamentalist is markedly below that of average American citizens. This means that many fundamentalist families are one paycheck or one serious family illness away from financial disaster. Can they not appreciate that their wealthy allies on the right are not "their brothers' keepers"?

Under the right-wing economic policies, the rich get richer while the middle class and the poor hold their ground - if they are lucky - and lose ground if they are not. And there is the ever-growing threat of unemployment. For the vast majority of our fellow citizens, the pittance of Bush's federal tax refunds are more than offset by the necessary increases in state and local taxes and in the loss of government services - fire and police protection, health care, public schooling, financial aid for higher education.

We all know the sorry economic conditions brought on by right-wing policies. Why then do the victims, who happen to adhere to "old-time religion," meekly support their oppressors? And why does Jesus' admonition to the rich man - "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me." (Matt. 19:21) - not apply to their political leaders, or, for that matter, their "spiritual leaders"?

The most jarring disconnect, however, is between the morality of secular-right policies and behavior on the one hand, and the clear message of the ethics of Jesus on the other hand. For those who need reminding, read once more The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: (Matt. 5)

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God.

Fundamentalists like to ask: "What would Jesus do?" Good question! So let's ask them:

  • Would Jesus launch a war of choice against a non-threatening country?

  • Would Jesus cut back on school lunches for poor children?

  • Would Jesus decline to comfort those who mourn as the soldiers' caskets arrive at Dover Air Force Base?

  • Would Jesus sign 155 death warrants, giving the clemency appeals only a cursory glance?

George Bush wants to tell the world that he's been "born again." But "born again" to what? To pacifism, humility, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, frugality? The Bible teaches that "By their fruits shall ye know them." (Matt: 7:20) It seems that Mr. Bush has not learned very much from his favorite political philosopher. (See my "What Would Jesus Do?").

Why, then, do religious fundamentalists follow, and vote for, wealthy and powerful individuals who openly violate the basic moral teachings of their Lord and Savior? True, there are bloody and brutal chapters in the Bible, and the millennial ("rapture") fundamentalists often preach as if the Book of Revelation were the only book in the Bible. But the fundamentalists also believe that the recorded words of Jesus in the Gospels are the words of God Himself. And the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount that contains it, are the central foundation of Christian ethics.

What fundamentalist Christian would deny that Jesus said, and meant, "Blessed are the Peacemakers?" If they believe this, then if they would "do what Jesus would do," they must come to terms with its full implications.

Given these clear and unyielding foundations of Christian morality, how has the secular right managed to seduce the fundamentalists so completely? Surely this must stand as one of the most amazing accomplishments in the history of marketing!

The tacticians of the right began, as all good salesmen begin, by identifying the "hot buttons" of the "mark" (customer), and proceeded to push those buttons.

Fundamentalists crave strong and charismatic leadership. So such leaders were sought out, and then lavishly funded, enabling them to establish colleges, publishing houses and broadcasting networks. Hence the spectacular growth of such subsidiaries of Jesus, Inc. as Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, Pat Robertson's Regent University - and, before they were busted - Jim and Tammy Bakker's "PTL Club" ("Pass the Loot").

Fundamentalists are most comfortable with a Manichean world view - a concept of the world as a battleground between unalloyed good (us) and evil (them). ("You are either with us or against us." - GWB). For several decades, Communism fit the bill supremely well. But with the fall of communism, new evils had to be identified, and so they were: Islam abroad, and liberalism at home.

The demonization of liberalism is a text-book example of "branding" - piling emotions and attitudes onto a label. Until recently, "liberalism" was a honorific term, as indicated by its dictionary definition: "favoring reform or progress ... specifically favoring political reform tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual." (Websters Unabridged, 2nd ed.) And, in fact, when a cross-section of the American public is asked about such liberal advancements as the minimum wage, social security, Medicare, racial integration, environmental protection, etc., a large majority approves.

But the word "liberal" itself has been so besmirched by the right that in self-identification polls, "liberal" generally comes in a poor third to "conservative" and "moderate."

The right has, in effect, established a separate and distinct definition of "liberal," so that it is effectively equated with "libertinism" - sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. In addition, the right's use of "liberal" connotes the stifling of religion, welfare cheating, profligate government spending (as in "tax-and-spend-liberals") and even, in the hands of such uninhibited ranters as Ann Coulter, treason.

In short, this redefined "liberalism" serves well as an embodiment of evil to the religious right. And when this sense of "liberalism" is associated, through constant repetitions, with the Democratic party - well, you know the rest.

Finally, the tacticians of the right have learned that fundamentalists are typically much more sensitive to personal immorality (sin) than they are to social immorality (injustice). Thus when, for example, George Bush speaks to the religious right, his themes are "right to life" (anti-abortion) and opposition to gay marriage, but rarely economic injustice, ethnic discrimination or civil liberties. Recall that on the contrary, secular libertarians are very tolerant about private personal conduct, provided that it is "victimless." But the libertarians also take care not to make a point of this in the company of their allies of the religious right.

It follows from the preceding account that if the Democrats are looking for a wedge that might disable the political clout of the regressives, then here it is. The fundamentalist Christians have been "had" - suckered - by the libertarians and oligarchs. Thus the fundamentalists have worked diligently and faithfully toward their own disadvantage and undoing.

If the rank and file of fundamentalist Christians in the religious right can somehow be shown that they are being used to further the interests not of themselves but of their oppressors, and that by so doing they are violating the central moral precepts of their Lord and Savior, then the political power of the radical right will collapse. (Assuming that our public offices continue to be founded on the consent of the governed, through free and open elections. If not, then all bets are off.)

Accordingly, Christian conservatives should be prime recruitment targets of progressive political movements, including the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.

How might the fundamentalists, the foot soldiers of the radical right, be persuaded to abandon their service in behalf of their exploiters on the Right?

First of all, moderate and liberal religious leaders must shed their reluctance to involve themselves in politics. Normally, such reluctance is justified, for it is responsive to our tradition of the separation of church and state. But these are not normal times, for there is no such reluctance on the part of the religious right to throw themselves into the midst of our politics. Thus, when the field of political contention and debate is abandoned by one side, the other side prevails, and much of the public comes to believe that the fundamentalists must be right because no religious leaders see fit to disagree.

And so, it is past time for liberal and progressive religious leaders to speak out - and to act out, by participation in peace protests, by personal involvement with and assistance to the poor, and with active support of progressive candidates and participation in the political process. In particular, liberal evangelicals should, like Jimmy Carter, take the lead in preaching and demonstrating by example the Christian virtues of compassion, charity, humility and passivism.

The hypocrisy and venality of prominent leaders of the religious right must be exposed. The fall of Jimmy Swaggert and the Bakkers threw cold water on the over-heated fanaticism of their followers. It is past time to expose Pat Robertson's investments in African diamond mines and his dealings with African despots like Liberia's Charles Taylor.

Finally, constant attention and exposure must be given to the un-Christian behavior of the plutocrats, and the un-Christian implications of their policies. Cruelty, callousness, greed and aggressive warfare are not Christian virtues.

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes the website, The Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website, The Crisis Papers.

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