In 1993, Washington Post writer Michael Weisskopf infuriated evangelical Christians when he described them in a front-page news story as “poor, uneducated and easy to command.” Most of this group is not obtuse and a number of them are quite wealthy. However, the “easy to command” label probably emanated from the fact that many of these individuals seemed eager to throw money at televangelist charlatans like Revs. Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, and Jimmy Swaggart.
In the mid-1970’s this brand of religion reached the nation’s consciousness when Jimmy Carter ran for president as a “born again” Christian. His faith made headlines in a Playboy interview when he said, “I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times….This is something that God recognizes, that I will do and have done, and God forgives me for it.”
By the late 1970’s and early 80’s Jimmy Carter was out and Republican moral scolds were in. Anita Bryant took center stage with her anti-gay crusade in Florida and Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority reached prominence by helping Ronald Reagan get elected. Direct mail guru Richard Viguerie, whose fiery letters lambasted homosexuals and abortion providers, helped create a movement that thrived on demonizing opponents and profited from divisive wedge issues.
The next leap forward came when Rev. Pat Robertson politicized his 700 Club television show and used it as a platform to run for president in 1988. Although he lost to George H.W. Bush, he turned his campaign mailing list into the Christian Coalition and hired a young issues entrepreneur, Ralph Reed, to run the organization. This group was quite successful at using stealth tactics to take over local school boards and state Republican parties.
By 1992, the evangelical voting bloc was a kingmaker in Republican politics. This new reality was reflected in that year’s incendiary GOP convention in Houston – where Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and Dan Quayle declared a culture war on America. Fortunately, the rhetoric was so overheated that it helped swing the election in favor of Bill Clinton.
Today’s religious right is more diffuse and lacks any single leader with the charisma of Robertson, Falwell, or Focus on the Family’s founder James Dobson. Much of the energy has also been absorbed by the Tea Party – which is basically the same extremist Republicans who rebranded themselves by wearing funny triangular hats.
Eighteen years after Weisskopf’s article, the evangelical demographic is just as difficult to define. The larger question, however, is what does this group – and their Catholic counterparts on the far right – actually stand for? It certainly isn’t the original goal of promoting “family values.”
The hollowness of the far right’s agenda was driven home by a presidential straw poll taken by attendees at last week’s The Awakening 2011 conference, in Lynchburg. Rep. Michele Bachmann won the straw poll with 23% of the votes. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee came in second at 22%, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich placed third with 21% of the votes.
It is bewildering to see Gingrich score so high among this “family values” crowd, considering he is on his third marriage – and served his first wife with divorce papers as she recovered from cancer in the hospital.
Furthermore, for a group that bristled at being called uneducated, they sure seem to have an affinity for blundering, unqualified candidates such as Bachmann, Palin, Huckabee and George W. Bush.
There is also an addiction to sounding really dimwitted on gay issues, despite the fact that there is ample information available and LGBT people are everywhere for evangelicals to meet. Unfortunately, instead of choosing to grow as human beings, many have elected to calcify their minds and listen to the inane ramblings of hucksters like Ryan Sorba.
“‘Gay’ is a left-wing socio-political construct designed to create grounds for fundamental rights [based on] whimsical capricious desires,” said Ryan Sorba, chairman of the Young Conservatives of California at The Awakening conference. “Gay identity does not exist.”
So, all those late nights I spent in my youth dancing at gay nightclubs trying to meet guys were just socio-political construction work? That’s news to me, and it certainly seemed more fun at the time.
Right-wing Catholic leaders appear just as hapless and empty. For instance, the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue has embraced his role as chief apologist for the unthinkable crimes committed against young people at the hands of trusted clergy. In a full-page ad in the New York Times this week, he even attacked some abuse victims as phonies, which seems neither conservative nor Christian.
In 2011, the Religious Right has been reduced to angry people in weird hats that embrace multi-divorced politicians, cheer anti-intellectual candidates, stubbornly refuse to learn about LGBT people even as mainstream conservatives increasingly support equality, disdain compromise, demand tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and bash victims of pedophile priests.
I’m not sure how Weisskopf would describe such people today, but I’m pretty sure I know how Jesus would.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”