The Republican Party has left the building; or, where did all the conservatives go?
Politics makes for strange bedfellows and Covid-19 has pulled back the sheets on the strangest, yet most predictable of couplings. The latest in America’s culture war pits American conservatives against liberals and wearing face masks in public. The surprising part is that it is the conservatives who are against the masks.
Multiple studies have shown conservatives are usually the ones to take the lead with communicable diseases. In regions with high risks from pathogens, governments and cultures tend to lean on the conservative and even authoritarian side. Conservative values are well tuned for dealing with threats like pandemics: an emphasis on caution, sticking to tried and tested methods instead of betting on the possible future breakthroughs, and being conservative with resources in anticipation of future rainy days.
But this isn’t the real story. The public narrative of conservative versus liberals is missing the fact that the conservatives left the conversation years ago. For 40 years, America’s conservative movement has been under attack from the inside; and outside, liberals have been watching in befuddlement. The Republican party has been locked in a decades long battle for its soul and now their failures in the face of Covid-19 have laid bare a party that is in chaos and unable to lead.
40 years ago, Ronald Regan got into bed with Billy Graham, on an expediant path to unlock a huge block of white evangelicals voters. Regan understood that no single issue would mobilize white evangelical voters like abortion and Republicans were ready to make promises in a culture war that they didn’t have to keep. Thirteen years after he signed California’s most liberal abortion law, Regan came out as pro-life.
White evangelicals saw the Republicans as the lesser of two evils. Regan was a divorced actor, but Democrats were the clear enemy in their culture wars to create an evangelical Camelot, which like its namesake is a mythical land that never existed. Christian evangelical ideology gave way to realpolitik and the Republican party found itself in a hostage situation. In the four decades since the alliance began, white evangelicals have been pushing their agenda and the American conservative movement lost control of its ideology of small business, personal responsibility, and rugged individualism. White American Christian evangelicals are, to be blunt, a death cult.
For a group unified under the banner “pro-life”, white American evangelism has an uneasy relationship with the value of life. The term “pro-life” was coined by Scottish educator and the founder of the Free School movement, Alexander Sutherland Niell. As a progressive in the 1930’s, he rejected the concept of original sin and religious dogma. He advocated for schools where children would vote to set their own rules and curriculum. He used the term “pro-life” to describe an ethos of promoting life, allowing children to explore their own sexuality, and rejecting the death penalty, punishments for homosexuals, and the American penal code in general.
During the 1960s and 70s, his ideas were popular with the “make love, not war crowd.” In 1971, an anti-war group of Chicago students announced that being anti-abortion was the logical extension of their anti-war, pro-life stance. By 1973, during Roe-vs-Wade, the “pro-life” label was adopted over “anti-abortion” by the evangelical grassroots movements.
Evangelicals focus more or practical results that ideological purity and evangelical “pro-life” is a branding effort, not a description of their values. Counter to being pro-life, life is not sacred nor the basis of right and wrong. Evangelicals hold that taking the life of a fetus is wrong, but taking the life of someone convicted by a jury of his peers for a capital crime is not. In a 2014 pole, white evangelicals had the highest support of all religious groups for the death penalty. They hold a higher truth which makes executions ethical.
White evangelicals also like their guns, 41% of them own a gun compared to 30% of the general American population. Each bullet has the single purpose of taking life, whether justified as self-protection or an accident; evangelism values the freedom to use deadly force more than the sanctity of protecting life — other cheeks will not be turned.
Unlike conservatives, evangelicalism doesn’t emphasize life, rugged individualism, or personal responsibility. Instead of personal responsibility, all things are part of God’s plan. If children die in a school shooting, He has a plan for them. You are not accountable for preventing or treating disease, faith will protect you. Vaccines and prevention are for the unfaithful.
Evangelicals are not pro-life, they are pro-faith. Evangelicalism values salvation. What brings about salvation is good, and anything that risks or prolongs its arrival is bad.
The problem with salvation is that it only arrives in the next life, which is problematic when you are trying to govern a society that is in this world. Civilization is the long term management of society beyond the lifetime of its individual members. As the Greek proverb goes, “Society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” But what is the point of civilization and planning for the future if it is all in God’s hands. Even more disturbing, why sacrifice today for a future you don’t believe will come.
A 2010 Pew Research pole found that 58% of American’s white evangelicals thought Jesus would return by 2050. Why worry about climate change when you believe that man’s rule on earth won’t last another 30 years? White American Evangelicals are obsessed with the eschaton, the afterlife which can only be reached after a painful delay in this life.
This is not a new phenomena. The Great Awakening of the late 1700s is considered the birth of the American evangelical movement. It gave rise to Baptists, Methodists, and a plurality of non-denominational churches led by lay people and not theologians. Instead of history and intellectual debate, these new churches gave authority to personal faith and revelations.
In 1844, Baptist preacher William Miller had a revelation and predicted the day of rapture. An estimated 100 to 500 thousand of his followers prepared to celebrate the end of the world — 3% of America’s 17M population at the time. The Great Awakening thus also birthed The Great Disappointment, as on the appointed day, the world and daily life simply continued.
One hundred and sixty eight years later, radio preacher Harold Camping built a $75M dollar empire on donations by predicting the end of the world. He predicted the end times twice first May 21, 2012, and when that date passed, he revised it toOct 21, 2012. Since then, he has taken the money and retired.
Deep in the evangelical core is a death wish, a wish to escape the suffering and sorrow of this life and be reunited in a heavenly afterlife. With suicide a sin, there are no short cuts. But also nothing to worry about. Life on this earth is part of His mysterious plan. Every earthly misery is another jewel in your future crown in heaven. It is a message that appeals to people who see life as unfair and themselves as the victims. Their rewards will come in the afterlife. Any attempts to improve this world are at best fleeting, and at worst, in defiance of His great plan.
This appealed to Ronald Regan. You can make promises to white evangelical voters and not have to keep them in this life. Many of them expect the world to end in their own or their children’s time. Evangelicals see themselves as soldiers in a righteous war, and like all soldiers, they accept death, suffering, and see any other point of view as enemy propaganda. There can be no negotitaion or compromise when you have absolute faith and righteousness on your side.
Regan’s election sparked a culture war that he never intended to fight. It was a battle cry of political expediency, which gained him quick votes. Four decades later, those votes are coming home to roost. Evangelicals are demanding to see progress in their culture war. They want to stop abortion, unlock the death penality, prevent gun control. Years of “Godless Socialism” propaganda has made them rabid allies for laissez-faire capitalism. Evangelical Jesus is on the side of the rich and taking care of your own. They don’t worry about tax repeals at the cost investments in future infrastructure, education, or social services. God will provide. With the end times ahead, they are not concerned with conservation of the environment or depletion of natural resources.
Now we enter the current phase of the conservative implosion, a second wave of ideological infiltrations. White Evangelicals, who are ready for the end of the world, found themselves in bed with people who want to see the world burn. Steve Bannon and the neo-cons see culture war as a way to short circuit the American political system and bring enduring change. Instead of bothering with policies and three branches of government; they would push for a new agenda by shifting the culture wars from faith and salvation to conspiracy theories and push for mob violence.
Through savvy leveraging of social media, soon aunts and uncles who had been sending out prayer requests and daily affirmations with pictures of kittens and footsteps in the sand; now, were forwarding outlandish stories about Hilary Clinton’s involvement with a child sex ring in a pizza parlor, Barack Obama’s secret muslim faith, Bill Gates is using Covid-19 to track people, and how migrants were flooding our borders with rapist and criminals.
Most Americans, and our media, saw this as the same weird fringe that has always been there, lurking on AM talk radio and the bizarre corners of the Internet. Just like most people didn’t see the Republicans shapeshift from small government to big faith; we didn’t notice people who felt ignored for their religious beliefs now feeling even more scorned for their fear of bizarre conspiracies. Alienated, White evangelicals retreated from public media and found themselves welcomed into the alt-right conversations.
Their culture was appropriated, no longer about building a nation founded on faith, it is now simply about tearing down the government. “Draining the swamp” is the nice way of saying it, but they are really calling for “Boogaloo,” a violent civil war against mainstream America, which resonates with a religion that celebrates the idea of end times.
From Jim Jones to the PTL, white evangelicals seem to flock to these cults. Members of these movements are told that they cannot trust the media, the news, or what unbelievers are saying. They are given alternative information channels, whether targeted Facebook ads or the 700 Club and CBN News. They are easily mobilized to raise funds, show up at protests, or even commit acts of violence.
Now we watch the bizarre spectacle of “pro-lifers” putting people’s lives at risk by refusing to wear a mask. In some places, they are even requiring people who want to wear masks to remove them. They are the poison pill of democracy. They subvert the institutions of free speech, assembly, and votes. They are not interested in discussion, or compromise, or governing with their fellow citizens.
They show up to rallies with gun to intimidate. The carry confederate flags to say that they are patriots. They refuse to participate in public health to prove their freedom. These are distractions. They are group of faithful, fighting for salvation; being used by cynical rich men to tear down America’s social contracts for their own benefit. Nowhere is the party that once stood for life, individual dignity, and an America unified through personal responsibility and civic duties — and we are a poorer nation to have lost that Republican party.