“There is a religious war going on in this country,” declared Pat Buchanan at the Republican National Convention in August 1993. In the impassioned, game-changing speech he added, “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”
With that speech, Buchanan launched the current round of the culture wars three decades ago. Today, white Christian conservatism has matured into a unified religious, political and social movement exercising power at both the federal and state levels.
And “the soul of America”? This question is, once again, being fought over. Among those battling over the definition of America in the 21st century is those who can best identified as the new Last Ditchers.
“Last Ditcher” is a 19th century concept that needs to be recalled these days. Donald Nicholson Smith, a noted translator and Situationist of the 1960s, invoked it to frame the political/culture struggle now shaping America. As a Brit, he drew upon English history to recall the nobility who engaged in “Last-Ditch” or “Diehard” campaigns against mid-19th century government reform.
One source, rationalizing the concept, notes: “A last-ditch action is done only because there are no other ways left to achieve something or to prevent something from happening. It is often done without much hope that it will succeed.”
The Last-Ditcher’s ethos is embodied in political/culture campaigns being waged by today’s radical right. It developed over the last half century, first promoted as a counter-voice to the secular counterculture of the 1960s. It gained momentum during the 1970s and 80s, and, since the 90s, has been the defining feature of hardline conservatism.
Many of the Last Ditchers are Christian nationalist, a social movement uniquely combining traditionalist values, religious nationalism and rightwing Republican politics with powerful financial support from elements of the upper classes.
Can the Last Ditchers win this round of the political/culture wars? Can they return America to a mythic post-WW-II nation of Pres. Eisenhower, Ozzie-&-Harriet and white suburban prosperity? – or some postmodern version of it? Or has simply too much changed in terms of demographics, social values and capitalist globalizations to make the Last-Ditcher’s vision unviable?
But if, somehow, they succeed, will Americans end up living a 21st century nightmare? Will the country become a postmodern, Christian Iran?
Today’s culture wars are a long-fought reaction to the social disruption that was the tremulous 1960s. For more than a quarter century, the nation saw
globalization remake the nation’s economy, accompanied by increasing life expectancy, earlier age of retirement, shorter work week and women redefining the job market.
During this era, the culture wars were relatively contained by neo-liberal social policies, a moderate Supreme Court and a marketplace that encouraged a “freer,” more sexualized popular culture. But now, globalization has ended, and economic and social uncertainty has deepened.
As the era of relative prosperity faded, the religious right gained political influence and, ultimately, power at both the state and federal levels. Over the last three decades, the right successfully forged an integrated culture-wars campaign that became increasingly politicized, successfully integrating conservative religious groups within a well-funded – and white-identified — Republican Party. As it moved to gain political power it sought to impose its vision of Christian fundamentalism on American society.
Until Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the right’s scope of struggle narrowed to two key issues — abortion and gay rights. When Trump and other top administration officials took office, they pledged to fulfill the 2016 Republican Party’s platform that asserted:
Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values. We condemn the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor, which wrongly removed the ability of Congress to define marriage policy in federal law.
However, his election renewed anti-secular moralist campaign, energizing conservatives of every stripe, including white Christian nationalists.
Trump’s election occurred as Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress and, once in office, he appointed two conservatives to the Supreme Court — Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – and later followed with Amy Coney Barrett, a member of People of Praise, “a secretive Christian faith group.”
Trump lost the November 2021 election and, to reverse its outcome, helped organize the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. On January 5th, Greg Locke, founder of the Global Vision Bible Church, in Mount Juliet, TN, issued a call supporting Trump’s coming demonstration. “May the fire of the Holy Spirit fall upon Washington DC today and tomorrow,” he ranted. “May the Lamb of God be exalted. Let God arise and His enemies be brought low.”
Numerous rightwing groups participated in the attack, including neofascist, white supremacist, NSC-131, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, 3 Percenters, the Groyper Army, QAnon and various neo-Confederates played a visible role in the Capitol attack.
Many “J-6” rioters shared a belief in Christian nationalism. Some rioters carried crosses and Christian flags, some held Bibles, some prayed together and other chanted “Jesus Saves.” Samuel Perry, a sociology professor at the University of Oklahoma, noted, “The Capitol insurrection was as Christian nationalist as it gets.”
Perhaps most unexpected, some January 6th rioters played shofar horns, the ancient Jewish musical instrument. According to one source, “blowing the shofar, in the Pentecostal-charismatic orbit, is a call-to-arms to prepare for spiritual warfare.” It signaled that the riot was a postmodern “Jericho March” to banish the “darkness of election fraud” and ensure that “the walls of corruption crumble.”
David Hollinger, a University of California historian, points out that the Christian nationalism “popular among white evangelicals today was developed over many decades in response to a Christian Globalism advanced by the more liberal, ecumenical wing of American Protestantism.”
Hollinger distinguishes between “evangelical” Protestantism represented by Martin Luther King, Jr., and “ecumenical” denominations represented by Billy Graham; in a 1963 speech, Graham said that white and black children of Alabama would walk hand-in-hand “only when Christ comes again.”
Christian nationalism is a deeply charismatic movement that includes elements of the Pentecostal, Evangelical and Demonist faiths as well as some Catholics and what are known as Christian Zionists. It is grounded in three key principles: (i) America was founded as a Christian nation by white Christians; (ii) American laws and institutions are based on the Christian – i.e., Protestant — Bible; and (iii) and America is divinely favored nation
Since Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, embraced Israel in the 1980s, there has been a strong support by charismatic Christians for Israel. As Leah Payne argues, many believed that the establishment of the state of Israel was “an essential step toward the Second Coming of Christ.” In 2021, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) announced on Twitter: “There have been two nations created for God’s glory, Israel and the United States of America. We will glorify God!”
A New America
Can Last Ditchers – especially religious nationalists — reverse the profound changes that have remade the nation over the last half-century? Their belief system is anchored in a traditionalist notion of the two-parent family where the mother and father fulfill gender-specific roles.
For decades their primary focus was on banning abortion and prohibiting same-sex marriage. That focus expanded to target transgender youth, school curriculum, library books and non-white immigrants. Still other divisive traditionalist beliefs like patriarchy, authoritarianism, racism, antisemitism and anti-Muslim sentiments are being increasingly expressed.
Yet, the Last Ditchers know America is changing; the demographic clock is ticking against them. As the 2020 Census documents, they are being superseded. The racial/ethnic composition of the country is changing and, by 2050, the U.S. is projected be a “majority-minority” country, with white non-Hispanics making up less than half of the total population.
Equally critical, the U.S. is becoming an ever-increasing urban nation with about 83 percent of the population living in cities. Rural America is losing it population to more attractive urban and smaller-city centers, most often supporting Democrats. It seems that as their relative proportion of white people in the U.S. population declines, rage for some increases.
Over the last half-century, the “face” of the nation has been remade through the changing composition of new immigrants. Pew Research reports that in 1960, 84 percent of immigrants living in the U.S. had been born in Europe, Canada or other North American countries, while only 6 percent were from Mexico, 3 percent from the rest of Latin America, while 4 percent from Asia and 3 percent from other areas.
Perhaps most disturbing, the 2020 census found that 34 million Americans checked off the “Two or More Races” box when listing their racial identity – a decade earlier, only nine million Americans did so. That’s a 276 percent increase! As the American Prospect points out, “That reflects the rise of cross-racial coupling and resultant childbirths, of course, but it probably also reflects more Americans’ willingness to acknowledge racially mixed parentage or ancestry.”
Will Last Ditchers Triumph?
Can – will – the Last Ditchers reverse the demographic and other changes that have reshaped the nation?
One indicator could be reactionary decisions by the Supreme Court in the wake of its reversal of Roe with the Dobbs decision. Will it reverse U.S. v. Windsor (2013) or Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), permitting gay marriage, or Bostock v. Clayton County (2020) that protects employees against discrimination because they are gay or transgender? And what about Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) granting unmarried people the right to possess contraception? And alsoEngel v. Vitale (1962), that ended school prayer and School District of Abington Township v. Schempp (1963), that prohibited mandatory bible reading?
Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers, warns that Christian nationalism is a movement that aims “to replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity . . . that also happens to serve the interests of its plutocratic funders and allied political leaders. It seeks to control all aspects of government and society.”
She adds, “Its successes have been stunning, and its influence now extends to every aspect of American life, from the White House to state capitols, from our schools to our hospitals.”
There is a great fear that haunts the Last Ditchers – that the U.S. is becoming hell on earth. And to save, purify, the nation, a new morality needs to be adopted – or imposed – that “returns” America to the Christian nation that it never was. For Last Ditchers, today’s immoral, un-Godly nation can only be safe by being forcibly refashioned into a 21st century Christian Iran.