Challenging the Christian right in rural America

OPINION

Polls from the recent presidential election showed that many working-class voters support Bush’s Christian right “values agenda.” Why?

From 1994 until 2002, I worked as a pastor at various Lutheran congregations in rural Iowa, and so have observed this trend firsthand. It’s debatable exactly how much the Christian right movement helped Bush’s re-election. But it has been extremely effective in its longer-term effort to convince working-class voters (many of whom attend church on a regular basis) that their enemy is a liberal/left agenda working to undermine moral values.

As the Christian right tells the story, an elite class of liberals and other “leftists” have banned God from public classrooms, taken take away their guns, “forced” gay marriage on their communities, and let women “kill” human life through abortion. Some commentators have dubbed this view — especially as expressed in some parts of rural, working-class America — “God, guns and gays.”

A recent book by George Lakoff (“Don’t Think Of An Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate”) offers insights for combating the Christian right’s domination of the values debate in America. The Christian right has developed a religious ideology that Lakoff aptly names “strict Father morality.” Under its influence, many working-class families (especially in rural America) have come to see their difficulties as having a moral, not economic, basis. “Strict Father morality” paints the world as governed in a top-down fashion by religious/moral values through which God rules heaven and earth, while Dad rules the home. To mess with this view of life, Christian rightists would say, risks bringing American society to the ruin of moral bankruptcy.

By implication, “special rights” for gays and lesbians need to be turned back since the traditional God-given moral order implies marriage as legitimate only between a man and a woman, with the husband as unquestioned head of the household. Any other human partnering is seen as unnatural and a violation of the top-down morality given to American society by God.

This moral order also implies that a woman must unquestioningly “support her husband,” and not be allowed the freedom to make her own reproductive choices or any other real choices for her life. This view can be seen in the theology of a Christian right group called the Promise Keepers, and in the writings of Dr. James Dobson. To allow a woman freedom to make decisions for herself would remove the wife from the moral authority of the husband and lead to a larger breakdown of the God-given moral order ordained for family life.

Or, consider another supposed implication of “strict Father morality”: organized prayer needs to be restored in public schools, as it represents public adherence to the moral order by all individuals and families in a community. Banning organized prayer from public schools, Christian rightists believe, has unleashed all kinds of social problems.

This top-down religious ideology obscures the very real economic chaos, financial insecurity and sheer worker exploitation that is an integral part of capitalist life for working families. In addition to being sexist and homophobic, it is ultimately an authoritarian view of American life. Left activists are portrayed as threatening the very foundations of our society’s religious/moral order. To counter this, “order” is presented as providing working people with “security” in an insecure world.

We on the left need to engage the working class in an honest and direct discussion about this ideology. We need to ask questions like: What is really happening in your life? Who are the political and economic elites that promote this religious ideology, and what are their class interests?

From my experience with church life in rural Iowa, I believe this kind of political discussion and involvement with working-class people — even in church halls — can indeed unmask the ideology of the right in all of its political/economic and religious/moral dimensions. This political work can also motivate working people — religious and non-religious — for the important tasks of organizing coalitions for fundamental political, economic and social change. This may seem like an overwhelming task, but it can and must be done for the advance of socialism in America.



Paul Nelson (larnel@peoplepc.com) teaches philosophy and world religions at Des Moines Area Community College in Boone, Iowa, and is an ordained Lutheran pastor.