Theo Hobson

The religious right’s historical fraud

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It’s very telling that, in a debate earlier this week, Christine O’Donnell seemed not to know that the separation of church was in the Constitution.

The wider point is that the religious right, which underlies the Tea Party movement (as a recent study shows), is built on a skewed version of American history. It depends on the pretence that the nation was originally, and is naturally, a theocracy. It claims that, as in ancient Israel, or a Muslim state, religious law is the rightful basis of politics. This was the ideology of the Calvinists who came over in the Mayflower. But this vision was rejected by the nation’s founders, who were various sorts of liberal Protestant. They daringly created a more-or-less new phenomenon: secular political space.

So the nation opted for a liberal form of Protestantism, which informed anti-slavery and the ‘social gospel’ movement that influenced the New Deal, and the civil rights movement. But something went wrong. Liberal Protestantism proved far less popular than fundamentalism. America became the most religiously unbalanced country in history. Its official ideology is directly at odds with the form of religion that is most popular. Its official ideology is liberalism. Its popular religious ideology sees liberalism as Satanic, literally.

This motivates the Tea Party more than racism (which most liberals assume is the real impulse). What it most fears is not racial equality but liberal theology. It fears that the liberal Protestant vision, which is patently more in tune with the American constitution, might revive. Its very life depends on vilifying liberal Christianity, painting its open-mindedness as inauthenticity, demonic betrayal. That is why abortion is so important. Abortion is its most cherished proof that the liberal state is evil, illegitimate; that only a theocracy can save us.

The religious right hates Obama because, in his campaign (less so since), he dared to revive the liberal Christian account of America, more effectively than any other politician in a generation. He threatened to expose the fundies as fundamentally un-American. Judging by O’Donnell’s gaffe they can be trusted to expose themselves.