There’s a woman I work with who grew up in rural Vermont. She is nearing sixty and is an evangelical Christian. In a conversation a couple days before the election between another co-worker and her, she told him that she would never vote for a Democratic presidential candidate unless her pastor told her to. Now, her pastor is one of five or six pastors at a church in suburban Burlington. The congregation numbers around 2000 adults and actually was one of a small group of organizations (churches and business associations) who sponsored George Bush’s first appearance in the state of Vermont during the 2000 GOP primary campaign. The other co-worker (a liberal Democrat) was appalled at how openly she admitted to deferring her political decision to (in his words) “some guy who thinks he has a personal hotline to God.”
My father is a very conservative Catholic. He was raised in the Church that came before Pope John XXIII and truly believes that one must follow the Pope’s directives, especially those that concern personal behavior. Like many Catholics of this type, he is able to ignore some of the Pope’s other utterances about capitalism, war and poverty. His adherence to this train of thought has caused him much anguish as he raised my siblings and I during the 1960s and afterwards. Although my dad was leaning towards casting his vote for Kerry on November 3rd because of Bush’s education plans, his lies about the war and his seeming lack of planning for its aftermath, he expressed some concern over the fact that Kerry was not strident in his denunciation of same sex marriage and abortion. Many other Catholics of his conviction voted for Bush, even though they shared my dad’s misgivings on the war.
One of my sisters who is three years younger than me became a born-again Christian a couple years ago. Like our other siblings, she partook of the joys and excesses of the 1960s counterculture. Indeed, she and I used to party pretty hard. According to another sister, the many years of living in the Midwest combined with some personal hardship caused her to turn to this particular version of Christian worship. We assume she voted for Bush because that’s what her pastor told her to do.
As the post-election analyses begin to trickle in, the overriding consensus seems to be that it was the conservative Christian vote that turned the tide toward Bush. These folks, many of them from what demographers like to call the working poor, voted against their economic interests because of their concerns about abortion and same-sex marriage. Sure, there were voting machine “irregularities” and it is quite possible that these irregularities actually represent genuine cheating, but the fact remains that these folks voted against their class interests.
Why would people do this? It’s not just because they are Christians. As anyone who was involved with the movement against the legalized racism, the US war on Vietnam or the movement against the US wars in Central America in the 1980s can tell you, Christians played an important role in opposing these wars, helping resisters and refugees get to Canada and providing a moral argument against US imperialism. So, it’s not the mere fact of their Christianity that is the problem, it’s the brand of Christianity that they practice. As has been said before, the most extreme versions of this Christianity differs from the more fundamentalist brands of Judaism and Islam only in how they approach their godhead and which other religions they consider to be the infidel. Those who are not so extreme merely want to live in a world where everybody goes along with their belief system. They prefer to create this world by voting it in, but will use other means if they have to. In recent history, those means have included the court system, direct actions in front of Planned Parenthood offices, and the harassment of abortion providers, to name just a few of their favorite tactics.
An important difference between those Christians in the antiracist and antiwar movements and those who put Bush back in office is the nature of their Christianity. The former seems to be more interested in social justice, the latter in personal mores. A good reason for this emphasis on the personal by the evangelicals is the nature of their belief. It is based on a personal experience, an experience that comes from personally “knowing” God. Indeed, critic Harold Bloom makes the observation in his book, The American Religion, “I find two characteristics invariably present in every authentic version of the American Religion, whether it be Pentecostal or Southern Baptist or Mormon or whatever… The American finds God in herself or himself, but only after finding the freedom to know God by experiencing a total inward solitude.” It is this peculiarly individualistic approach that goes long in explaining the desire of the evangelicals to impose their will on every individual in US society, believer or not. In addition, this emphasis on the individual as part of god plays into the ideal capitalist world of individualized consumerism and one “holiness’ being directly related to one’s “godliness.”
Another revealing source for the evangelical political mobilization can be found in our nation’s founding tracts. Dr. Joseph Schafer of the Penn State University Bible Fellowship writes in an article about Puritan John Winthrop’s beliefs:
“If any nation observed God’s laws and commands, God would give protection, prosperity, and the spiritual blessings of knowing him and living as his people. On the other hand, if a people rejected God’s decrees and turned to idolatry and sin, God would eventually reject them. The Puritans of seventeenth-century England were greatly concerned about the future of their nation; they saw the corruption of government and church officials, growing immorality, materialism, and lack of concern for the poor as signs that their nation would either have to repent or experience the cleansing fire of God’s wrath.”
In short, since the evangelical way is the only tue one, than it is imperative that they impose their beliefs on the world that they live in, if only to save themselves from the fire and brimstone that they fear. It was the Puritans, too, that created the model of faith-based charity currently prescribed by the government. Indeed, one of Winthrop’s most famous tracts is titled “A Model of Christian Charity.” Therein, he describes the requirements a good believer must follow when it comes to helping the poor. Before doing so, however, he states clearly, “GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of’ mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.” Once one accepts that some are rich and some are poor because god made them so, there is little in the way one can do to argue that class interests are more important than spiritual ones. This, then, is the United States that our evangelical fellow citizens see when they look to the coasts of this country. This is why they vote against their economic interests. The Republicans, especially under George Bush, have been able to convince these believers that they are the party of their god and that every other political party is not.
The left cannot change the minds of those who have already made the leap of faith required to become an evangelical Christian. Nor should they stop supporting equal rights for all, including gays and lesbians. They must continue fighting against imperial war and the installation of a police state. They must also continue to address the growing economic inequity and the destruction of the world’s environment. We shouldn’t ignore or belittle religion, but should educate ourselves as to how it works. We can’t argue rationally with those who base their beliefs on faith, but we can reach out to those who have no faith in anything-the system or religion. Whether it’s done with arguments based on economics or arguments based on moral witness, this organizing must be done. A Christian theocracy would not be a shining beacon for the world; it would be a pall of darkness deeper and danker than that found in the depths of JRR Tolkien’s Mordor.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org