It’s not often that I am enlightened by an article in a refereed scholarly publication–I am one of those curmudgeons who sees the proliferation of academic journals as the surest sign of the impending intellectual apocalypse–but I read a piece this morning which really clarified some dilemmas.
The article is entitled “Jerry Falwell’s Sunbelt Politics: The Regional Origins of the Moral Majority,”* by Professor Daniel Williams of the University of West Georgia.
It starts by calling attention to a well-known conundrum in the study of Religion and Politics in the United States. In 1980, with Jerry Falwell riding herd, Evangelicals and Fundamentalists decamped for the GOP. Few expected that they would last long among the secular Republican party they were joining (yes, you read that right, the secular Republican party).
Yet the truth of the matter is that this was one of the most consequential political alliances in 20th century American politics. Sure, it decimated the Secular Right and precipitated the virtual extinction of liberal Republicans.
But insofar as the GOP proceeded to win 5 of the next 7 presidential elections (between 1980 and 2004) those folks were just road kill. Commentators are generally agreed that Jerry Falwell may have brought about one of the most monumental electoral realignments in modern American history.
The conundrum for scholars lay in explaining why Conservative Christians with their seemingly single-minded obsession with abortion, gays, porn, drugs and other national vices meshed so seamlessly with the “secular” concerns of the 1980s GOP.
Those concerns included a pro-business agenda replete with anti-regulatory fervor and a deep disdain for government agencies like the IRS. Not to be forgotten was a certain exuberance for militarism and defense spending in the face of the Soviet threat. And topping it all off was a seething dislike of the welfare state.
To which many scholars have asked: why did Bible-believin’ Christians warm to that utterly godless agenda? Williams opines:
The leaders of the Christian Right in the early 1980s were Sunbelt religious entrepreneurs who combined a faith in business and a suspicion of federal regulation with a commitment to the evangelical religion that they had made a business of preaching.
I will leave it to readers to find out how Williams explains the elective affinity that existed between Falwell’s interests as a businessman mastering the power of the private sector to rake in souls and profits and the positions of the Secular Right.
For our purposes the question of interest concerns why “fiscally conservative” agendas are so dear to today’s Conservative Christians.
The traditional reading has been that, outside of political expedience, there is no rational explanation for why conservative Evangelicals are anti-tax, anti-government, anti-regulation and so forth. (On the basis of Scriptures like Romans 13: 1-3 or 1 Timothy 2:1 or 1 Peter 2:12-14 one would expect them to be respectful of, but apathetic toward, government. The hostility seems unusual, as is their desire to be part of the government.)
Williams’ article suggests that these “secular” positions are not solely predicated on mere political convenience and rank hypocrisy. Rather, they are rooted in deeper theological impulses peculiar to the Christian Right.
The next time you read about a Tea Party activist who dashes off to an anti-tax protest after attending church (in his Tri-Corner hat), chalk it up to Reverend Falwell and his extremely cunning and supple theology–a theology which had little reluctance to ignore well-known biblical injunctions.
*Journal of Policy History 22 (2010) pp. 125-147.
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