One cannot help but observe a sharp rise in religious belief and anti-science feeling in American politics. Almost all the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination either wear their religion on their sleeves and proudly proclaim their religious fervor at every opportunity (Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain) or support at least some policies that are counter to science and seem to be religion-based (Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich). Only Jon Huntsman seems to be exempt from this particular feature although his policies in general are extremely pro-oligarchy. The fact that he’s getting nowhere, at least in 2012, shows how strong this religious feeling is.
This has created a sense of alarm in some circles, with people fearing the emergence of some kind of theocracy if any of these candidates should win. When people see Bachmann praying lyrically about the end times in the clip below, they get fearful of what she might do if she were to become president.
On the radio program Fresh Air, Terry Gross recently interviewed Rachel Tabachnick about her series of articles on the rise of the Dominionist movement in American politics. This religious strain says that it is the duty of Christians to take over the government and run it on Christian principles. These Dominionist groups are close to Rick Perry and helped sponsor his recent day of prayer. (See the box for links to Tabachnick’s articles.)
But despite the increasingly visible and vocal role that religion is playing in politics, I myself am not too alarmed about the seeming rise of the so-called religious right. Rather than seeing it as a precursor to a revival of religious obscurantism or the establishment of a theocracy, I see it instead as the last gasp of a dying movement, a fire that burns brightly just before the flame sputters out. This does not make it harmless because a bright but short-lived flame can still cause serious burns. But it does mean that we can afford to be more measured in our response and not over-react.
The reason that the religious right has been able to achieve the current level of prominence is because their beliefs have been given legitimacy in the public sphere, as if they were deserving of being taken seriously as part of the national dialogue on important questions, rather than as holders of fringe beliefs akin to astrology. The public and media have treated religion talk in politics with kid gloves. If a politician says, “My faith requires me to promote policy X”, that is treated as something that cannot be questioned, when the proper response should be, “Why should your faith have any relevance in this discussion?”
It is often the case that movements take their most extreme form when they feel they are under siege and that the end is near. The leadership tends to fall into the hands of the true believers who tend to double down, becoming more rigid and doctrinaire, adopting an increasingly Manichaean mindset that sees the world split between friend and foe, true believer and heretic, with so-called ‘moderates’ weeded out as being unreliable allies. For a brief time, the movement gains cohesion and purpose and strength, before finally collapsing.
This is what I see happening in American religious politics. The Republican candidates mistook the rabid enthusiasm by some for Sarah Palin and Tea Party ideas as a sign of a mass movement and started catering to them, when in reality they are a minority and an increasingly disliked one at that. While this attracted more true believers, it also alienated others who felt this was too extreme. This has led to a negative spiral where party events have turned into almost cult-like religious events where the candidates who say the most extreme things get the most enthusiastic response, inspiring them to even greater extremism. This is what seems to be happening in the Republican debates and caucuses. This essay by a Republican operative who left/was forced out from the cult (thanks to readers Peter G. and Norm for the link) and this cartoon by August J. Pollack pretty much says it all.
While one reason why I think that truly religious politicians will ultimately be defeated is due to the general decline in religion, the other is that the oligarchy has little patience for this kind of thing. While the oligarchy is ruthless, greedy, and self-serving, they are not stupid. They are quite willing to use religious zealots as foot soldiers in their campaign to get the government to serve their needs, but they do not want these people to actually occupy the seats of power because they want political leaders who take their directions from them and not from god. What we will see in the coming days is a slow and steady campaign to undermine the candidacies of those who seem likely to really believe the religious rubbish they utter, as opposed to someone who adopts a religious stance out of political expediency. (The verdict on where Rick Perry stands on this spectrum is not yet in.) The process has already started with Republican functionaries and even Fox News and other conservative outlets starting to leak negative stories and provide negative commentary about Palin and Bachmann.
If, by some remote chance, a truly religious nutter manages to overcome this internal opposition and actually become the Republican nominee, watch the oligarchy swing its support behind their reliable ally Barack Obama.