Radical right conflates religion and politics

Conservatives incorrectly polarize the debate as being between a Christian right and an atheist left.

When an instructor in our department recently polled her class as to her political orientation, the students split as to whether she was conservative or communist (neither of which being accurate). We puzzled over this disparity for quite some time, as these two political identities seem polar opposites, until we realized students had labeled her a communist because of her outspoken support of social justice and a conservative because she discussed the role of religion within these movements.

We concluded many students do not make a distinction between Christianity and conservatism, nor do they seem to distinguish between those who recognize social injustice from so-called “anti-American leftists.” In confronting this problem, we did what any good historians would do: We asked ourselves why, how and so what? Here is our conclusion.

Why? The hard-line conservative right recognizes and promotes simplistic, reductionist and monolithic conceptions of the Founding Fathers and Christianity – definitions to which they claim complete ownership.

Because of this, the right labels any attempt to historically analyze these ideas as biased and revisionist, or anti-Christian and anti-American. This incorrectly polarizes the debate as the two “sides” are presented as the Christian right and the atheist left. Thus, many people who consider themselves Christian-Americans feel compelled to accept wholesale this ahistorical position without appreciating the wide range of Christian denominations and responses to social, economic and political issues.

How? This over-simplification has resulted from a 30-year campaign by certain corporate-funded think tanks, political action committees and religious-political advocacy groups such as “The Moral Majority” to co-opt Christian faith into an all-or-nothing political identity. In their quest to transform political and religious discourse into binary opposites, they aggressively silence the diversity of opinions and ideas.

Yet in this process, they use the very same rhetoric that they purport to denounce; although they claim objectivity and neutrality, this stance merely disguises an overt and militant agenda. In reality, conservative ideologues like Bryan Freeman (“Remember our Christian roots,” Nov. 29) advance this claim only as an excuse not to engage with arguments that do not fit within their black-and-white worldview.

This hard-conservative campaign combines and then attacks the supposedly liberal bastions of academia, the media and Hollywood. Of course, this too is an unfair polarization that fails to acknowledge the corporate-conservative component of the University (for example, how many “communists” currently reside in the Carlson School of Management?) as well as the power the conservatives wield in overall society. (Does it matter, for instance, that most chief executive officers are conservative?)These hard-line conservatives use distractions, scare tactics and straw men, thus confusing the issues and drowning out reasonable discourse. We must instead engage in honest, responsible debates and make informed critical arguments – how else can we promote accountability?

So what? There isn’t “one” view of Christianity now nor has there ever been in the past. The Founding Fathers recognized this, which is why they referred to a nondenominational “god” in the Declaration of Independence. The conservative right does not “own” Christianity now nor did it in the past. The Pledge of Allegiance was written by a Christian socialist – who purposefully left out “under God” when composing it.

The left is not atheistic now nor has it ever been. Radical abolitionism and the Black Freedom movement drew heavily on Judeo-Christian teachings to secure basic human rights.

The conservative right divorces history from politics in an attempt to over-simplify and distort political and cultural debate. Success now seems to come to the side with the loudest, most aggressive and most frequently repeated spin-points.

As historians, we prefer to promote arguments and evidence rather than ideology and libel.

Sarah Crabtree, Don Leech and Franz Young are graduate students in the history department. Please send comments to [email protected].