The story of a country built on very different views, and how that unites us.
Like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, increasingly, our country bifurcates into two houses predicated on moral mandates intrisic to who we are: House Conservative and House Liberal.
Most of us realize this, but we don’t often consider that this is by design. Why is the Republican platform and Evangelical Christianity linked in the minds of most Americans? Why are Democrats the social justice progressives? Can they co-exist?
The Original Rift
Early on, deeply held beliefs divided us into two camps. Federalism and statism competed for control to shape our nation. We started a “firm league of friendship” with the Articles of Confederation, a pact loosely uniting us without an executive branch or any strong central power. It became clear that in our search for national unity, our young republic needed strong federal leadership. Under the British parliamentary system, all power originated from a central administration.
America wanted the opposite: Federalism- In which the states give power to the federal government. Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Adams all fought bitterly to define this balance. Too much power to the states led to disunity and no nation at all. Conversely, too much power to the federal government puts us right back in the grips of the kind of tyranny from which the revolutionary war delivered us. We need both sides championing the values in which they believe to achieve equilibrium. (Take a moment and thank your politically different friends.)
It is crucial to note that the Civil War’s predicate was the south’s belief that our republic’s balance favored federal power when their economy’s backbone, namely slavery, was threatened. Today we see the same debate, different flavors of the same ice cream, discussions about states’ rights and the need for a unifying central power.
The Modern Rift
Historically speaking, The Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision outlawed the segregation of public schools. In turn, several white evangelical communities opened private schools to oppose school desegregation, framing their hostility to Brown v. Board as an expression of religious freedom rather than a defense of racial segregation. Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Lynchburg Christian School and colleges such as Bob Jones University became known as “segregation academies.”
In 1965 President Johnson outlawed this kind of segregation. “The federal government,” evangelical leaders such as Reverend Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich argued, “was not only invading local autonomy, but was turning its back against whites and favoring African Americans and Latinos.”
The history of the effort to divide the US voting population to consolidate political power takes an even darker turn during the Civil Rights era. President Nixon employed what he called the “southern strategy,” a campaign that harnessed white evangelicals’ anger specifically and whites more broadly, who had formerly voted for the Democratic party. Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips argued in 1966 that the keys to political success were to bring together the largest number of white ethnic prejudices into one party without fragmenting the existing coalition. “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South,” Phillips noted, “the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans.” In other words, push the African American community into one party and watch the white flight.(1)
Phillip planned to temper the language to become less extreme and support morality, decency, law and order, and family values. This new language was understood to be anti-negro in the south but could pass in the sunbelt and northern states as just good old fashioned values. The plan worked amazingly. White Christians quickly began to identify with the party of values, willfully ignoring the glaringly racist implications, even though those ideas were on display blatantly in the south. Republicans quickly painted the Democratic Party as a godless tyrannical minority party in favor of an over reaching federal government and set on displacing whites.(2)
In the ’70s, the southern strategy found its golden goose- abortion. Abortion was a unifying cause that led to the rise of the single-issue voter. The leaders of the anti-abortion movement were stakeholders in segregationist schools and needed a rallying cry. In 1979, Jerry Fallwell created the Moral Majority, cementing the Republican hold on Christian identity, six years after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.(3) Even though many Republicans supported the procedure, the party urged everyone to fall in line in opposition. The message was clear for Republicans when it comes to abortion; you are either in or out. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, was equally split on abortion issues, but with no push for unity.
In the 80’s we saw the rise of the Religious Right. The strategy was to capitalize on fear to build a consensus. Prayer in school, birth control, the war on Christmas, Muslim invasions, immigrants stealing jobs, sex education, transgender bathroom issues, and gay marriage became the party platform.(4) It solidified the base built by previous efforts. I have previously written about the issue of identity stacking; this is the origin.
Soon, strategists realized that this fear had separated Christians from their Biblical foundations and that candidates no longer had to seem morally perfect, as long as they soothed the Religious Right’s fears. Machiavelian religion had supplanted the “perfect love that drives out fear.”(5) Personal disagreement as to the integrity of this, especially as it concerns our faith’s self-assessment, is inevitable. The fact remains political strategists accept this as fact.(6)
I’m not going to speak against our president. Still, as a matter of illustration, there was a time that “grab them by the pussy”, hush money to porn stars, and previously supporting same-sex marriage would have been disqualifying for a potential candidate amongst the Religious Right. It took establishment republicans a while to realize that the Religious Right no longer held morality higher than fear.(7) Nixon strategist Roger Stone knew better. And he was right.
In many Americans’ minds, the Republican brand is Christianity, and, although the majority of them are Christians,(8) Democrats are, to many, the enemy of morality. As long as fear is the driving factor, the Religious Right’s polarizing hold on conservative voters will continue to grow.
The Future Rift
Our country has always divided into two camps. The tragedy is the co-opting of our spiritual journey into the political conversation. Nevertheless a change is coming. Large Christian publications have denounced this moral divide, and many conservative organizations have broken from the mainstream trends. Christianity Today and The Lincoln Project come to mind. Our modern disagreements may be temporary, and we may be seeing the end of the southern strategy. If that is true, we can all get back to fighting for State’s power versus Federal power. A fight that genuinely needs to happen; anything else is a distraction that brings imbalance.
- (Clarke Roundtree- Venomous Speech [2 volumes]: Problems with American Political Discourse on the Right and Left.)
- (Benedetto Fontana- Love of Country and Love of God: The Political Uses of Religion in Machiavelli)
- (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171114142334.htm) (1 John 4:18)