As Ben pointed out yesterday, the Republican presidential ticket consists of a Mormon and a Catholic. This is remarkable given that the GOP has been home to the vast majority of America’s large white evangelical population: by many counts, almost 80% of white evangelicals voted for Nixon in 1972, and almost 70% for Reagan in 1980. Reagan’s 1980 electoral haul of white evangelicals particularly demonstrated GOP strength with that demographic since his interest in B’hai, astrology, and the Shroud of Turin, not to mention his divorce, hardly made him theologically palatable to white evangelicals in relation to his white, born-again evangelical counterpart Jimmy Carter (even given Reagan’s Hal Lindsey-inspired propensity for premillennial dispensationalism). But what is more remarkable than the theological diversity of the GOP ticket is that this fact seems rather unremarkable to so many people. What explains this?
|Whose Family Values?|
It’s the culture wars, stupid. That is, the culture wars are the reason that the American right—including conservative white evangelicals—is fine with the GOP’s relatively newfound love of religious diversity. As James Davison Hunter pointed out more than two decades ago in his now classic book, Culture Wars, religious Americans gave up their sectarian prejudices in order to form political and ideological alliances in the culture wars. Conservative evangelicals came to love, or at least tolerate, conservative Catholics, Jews, and even Mormons. These “orthodox” Americans, to borrow Hunter’s language, found that they had more in common with each other than they did with “progressive” Americans, more even than with progressive coreligionists. This was also, remarkably, true of most Protestant fundamentalists, those whose identities were formed earlier in the twentieth century by sectarian strife and doctrinal dispute. Many fundamentalists, for example, believed that the election of JFK signaled the end times in 1960. And yet, the vast majority of fundamentalists eventually came around to the view that conservative Catholics were their spiritual allies against the secular humanists who ushered in legal abortion. This is why, as I argued last week, a modernist fundamentalist like Francis Schaeffer was so important to the Christian Right. He helped make a limited form of ecumenicalism palatable, especially over the issue of abortion. Jerry Falwell and Randall Terry both claimed that Schaeffer convinced them anti-abortion was not just a Catholic thing.
Abortion was just one issue over which conservative religious Americans found common cause in the 1970s. During that decade theocons were faced with what seemed like a perfect storm of secular power that they deemed a threat to their way of life, and to the Christian nation they believed the United States once was and should be again. Some of the issues that animated them were explicitly about church and state. Not only had school prayer been rendered unconstitutional, for example, but the IRS was coming after the tax-exempt status of the Christian day schools where millions sent their children for Christian inculcation (not where they sent them, in most cases, to avoid black children). Other issues, less explicitly religious and more about sex and gender, were equally offensive to conservative religious Americans, including abortion, feminism, and gay rights. Combined, these sex- and gender-related issues fell under an umbrella referent new to the 1970s: “family values.” Family values, more than anything else, gave life to the culture wars of the Christian Right.
There is now a growing historiography to help us deal with the rise of family values. I will briefly describe two new additions to this literature. The first book is J. Brooks Flippen’s Jimmy Carter, the Politics of the Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right. In terms of analysis, Flippen does not offer anything new to the larger body of conservatism historiography. Rather, it’s a narrative of how the politics of family values brought conservative Christians together in the political arena during the 1970s, and how issues like abortion became strictly partisan, even virtual Rorschach tests. Like I said, nothing new analytically, but Flippen’s book is extremely well researched and, as such, a good chronological primer on the topic.
The second new book on family values is Robert Self’s All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s. Self’s book is different than Flippen’s in that it’s grander in chronological scope. But more importantly, Self seeks to analyze the most important political transformations of the last fifty years using family values as an analytical window. He argues, to put it in simple terms, that family values rhetoric helped shift American political culture rightward. This narrative is not necessarily new, but Self uses some fresh elocutions. From 1964 to 2004, Self contends that there was a shift from “breadwinner liberalism” to “breadwinner conservatism.” This transformation tracked with the shift in the centripetal rhetorical force in American politics from “equal rights” to “family values.” Like Flippen, Self documents the conservatives who rallied around the family in the 1970s. But he also argues that those who challenged mainstream assumptions about sex and sexuality in the 1960s and afterwards—feminists, gay rights activists, and assorted cultural radicals—unintentionally helped pave the way for “breadwinner conservatism” by rendering “breadwinner liberalism” indefensibly patriarchal. I find this argument compelling—ironic?—and have said so at this blog on several occasions, beginning with this post on a Nancy Fraser articlefrom a few years back, in which she contends that feminism helped pave the road to neoliberalism.
Whether or not the cultural left gave way to neoliberalism is arguable. But what is irrefutable is that the cultural left helped give us the culture wars. In other words, the ways in which the left helped remake the national culture animated its dialectic cultural force, the religious right. And these political, cultural, and religious realignments—the realignments of the culture wars—now matter much more than the old sectarian divisions that often gave rise to American cultural politics.
And here I just wrote a whole blog post implicitly about Paul Ryan without once mentioning Ayn Rand.