The undead religious right

July 29, 2010

The religious right, as you may have heard, is dead. Its death has been
pronounced every so often for years. Meanwhile, it manages to continue
exercising considerable influence over U.S. culture and public life.
Like Tupac Shakur and Johnny Cash, the religious right has led a pretty productive death.

course, activists and public figures use language differently than,
say, news writers. Often the goal is to make something so by saying so.
Therefore, "there were 100,000 marchers at the protest," not 30,000 as
the media reported. "The leadership has the votes lined up to pass the
bill," however implausible the math. And the religious right is dead.

linguist might classify this as a type of "implicit performative
utterance." A faith-based activist might put it under the umbrella of
"being prophetic," or maybe even "living into the already/not yet of
the reign of Christ."

I’m more inclined to call it "saying something that isn’t entirely true." So I enjoyed this bit from Frederick Clarkson:
a quiz called "Who thinks the culture wars are over?" Can you match the
prominent person with the specific quote echoing the "RIP religious
right" meme? I had some trouble—it’s a formula that hasn’t varied all
that much in recent years.


Meghan said... The

Meghan said...

The religious right must not include the Catholic right, who unfortunately are very not dead.

Very entertaining post, by the way!

Marissa Baker said... I

Marissa Baker said...

I find your defense of the life and health of the Religious Right and your assessment of its proclaimed death as merely an intentional misrepresentation unconvincing (and for the sake of time and space I will not address the problems with equivocating the significance of the deaths of Tupac and Cash).

Perhaps, to say “the Religious Right is dead” is more of a pronouncement of the passing of a political ethos, rather than a religious one. Some have noted that the emergence of the Tea Party movement, which is conservative to the point of being libertarian but not religious, marks a shift in the public, political debate, a debate from which the Religious Right currently seems conspicuously absent.

One problem may be that the terms ‘Religious Right’ and ‘Culture Wars’ have become detached from their original context. 'Religious Right' is not a simple descriptor so much as a historically situated term which describes a large, if not disproportionately influential, group of Christians who supported Reagan's conservative agenda. The same is true for 'Culture Wars' which was largely an argument in the 1980s among Reagan’s administration, scholars and pundits over the progressive shifts in university curriculum which some believed would undermine Western civilization (And btw, Fredrick Clarkson, this argument predates Buchanan’s speech). And this is not to say that there were no politically active Christians before or since Reagan, nor that arguments over the superiority of Anglo-culture originated or were resolved in the 80s. While clashes over the place of religion in politics, and more importantly in policy, is older than the United States, this debate had a particular tenor during Reagan’s prominence and its most active supporters was the Religious Right.

It seems that the reticence to the Religious Right’s “death” comes from a fear that religion (that is, conservative Christian morals and values) is no longer an influential factor in the political debate and in policy-making. I do not believe that this is the case, especially because many of the Left have started putting their religious values (i.e. social justice) at the center of their arguments. Perhaps then to say “the Religious Right is dead” is to open up room for another kind of discussion in which all those who want their religious values to be considered in political debates, whether from the Right, Left or even the radical Center (gasp!), can participate.

Travis Trott said...

Travis Trott said...

@Marissa: I think the big difference between your argument and Steve's is a matter of capitalized "religious right." You are talking about a specific movement, which yes, could be considered dead or ephemeral. Steve's use of the phrase is an umbrella that, while it may have its origins in the movement, still very much exists.

Also, and not to derail, but how would you define a radical center?

@Steve: I thought the Tupac and Cash analogy was an inspired bit of tongue-in-cheek.

Steve Thorngate said...

Steve Thorngate said...

What Travis said.

To which I'll add that the Tea Party may be mostly economic in focus, but it's hardly free of the religious right's influence. Card-carrying libertarians don't tend to oppose abortion and gay rights. And Ron Paul may be popular in this circle, but not like Sarah Palin is. Meanwhile, religious conservatives continue to make their presence known in the statehouses (to say nothing of the Catholic bishops' near-sinking of national health care reform over quibbles about abortion language).

Some folks are no doubt afraid of the religious right's losing influence in politics and policy. I'm certainly not one of them; I'd welcome it. I'll even acknowledge that it's started to happen--but only started. Perhaps saying it's dead already opens up room for another kind of discussion. But too often I think it just opens up room for wishful thinking.

Also: I certainly didn't mean to compare Tupac's death to Cash's. Just an aside about their prodigious posthumous output.

@Travis: While Steve didn’t

@Travis: While Steve didn’t capitalize the Religious Right in his post, I took his comments to engage the current larger conversation about the Religious Right (and if you simply google “religious right is dead” you will find a lot of discussion on this matter which capitalizes it even as it is deployed in different ways, Jim Wallis being the most notorious as of late). Perhaps it was my confusion, but the Frederick Clarkson article that he linked to as further support for his argument used the capitalized terms Religious Right and Culture Wars, and while he may not have meant to equate (not equivocate! as I flubbed previously) the two that is how I understood it.

I am not arguing that there are no longer people who still identify with the Religious Right and maintain the ideology of the movement, especially since I am related to many of them. Nor am I arguing that there does not exist religious people and happend to be on the right politically but don’t think too much about the movement. I am arguing that when people/bloggers/pundits/journalists say, “the Religious Right is dead” they mean that the movement is no longer in the forefront of political debate, and I agree with that. Perhaps they should say “the Religious Right is being very, very quiet at this moment” but that might not get them hits on their blog.

I took the idea of the radical center from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, which is a wonderfully hopeful book on activism and politics. It is simply a different strategy from much current politics and activism which frames issues in oppositional terms, as in Right vs Left or local vs global, instead its a strategy that seeks to make allies to achieve common goals (which should not be confused with moderates who are just more flexible with their oppositional ideologies).

@Steve: There are many influences and overlaps with the Tea Party movement as with any other movement, and religious fervor is certainly getting mixed in with anti-government sentiments, but I would caution against conflating two movements which though they arose from similar ideologies are unfolding in very different historical moments. Understanding the historical moment, the specific factors which contributed to the origination and evolution of a movement or group, and more importantly how group’s identify changes over time (i.e. the Republican Party of Lincoln is not the same one we have now) is important.

And yes, Steve, unfortunately we will always have religion in our politics.

Anne-Marie Hislop said...

Anne-Marie Hislop said...

Funny, because the folks on the right are sure that progressivism/liberalism whether in religion or politics is a 'total failure' and is rapidly dying, if not already dead. Who says only little kids can believe fantasy is somehow reality!

Frederick Clarkson said...

Frederick Clarkson said...

Thank you Steve Thorngate for the shout out. It is indeed amusing (if frustrating) when the pooh bahs of punditry make radically unsupported statements like the ones I wrote about. When opinion leaders have broken free of the need for factual support for their opinions, the result is more like the National Enquirer than what journalists like to call the rough draft of history.

Meanwhile, Marissa Baker presumes a great deal about the intentions of those who declare the Religious Right dead and/or the Culture Wars to be over, when she writes:

"I am arguing that when people/bloggers/pundits/journalists say, “the Religious Right is dead” they mean that the movement is no longer in the forefront of political debate, and I agree with that."

There are links to the sources for each quote in my quiz, and people can seek to discern for themselves the motives of the writers.

IMO, the Religious Right remains one of the most significant social/political movements of at least the past century. It is nowhere near done, the various battles of the culture wars remain hot, and it remains at the forefront of American public life, if for no reason than being one of the main faction in the GOP and having elected many candidates to state and federal office.

Anonymous said... Like an

Anonymous said...

Like an aborted baby at a chicago hospital, the religious rights best chance for survival may be if it is presumed dead.

Anonymous said... It

Anonymous said...

It seems that Clarkson presumes a great deal from decontextualized quotes.

Frederick Clarkson said...

Frederick Clarkson said...

Dear Anonymous,

Full context is provided in the links to the original articles. (Click on the year beside the quote.) I chose these quotes BECAUSE they not only illustrate my point but are accessible online.

So the presumptions, madam or sir, are all yours.

Print Friendly and PDF

Email this page