Monday, May 25, 2009

Frederick Clarkson and Chip Berlet: Is the Religious Right Really Dying?

Yesterday, as I summarized Frank Rich’s analysis of the timidity that seems to govern the Democrats’ approach to gay rights issues at present, I noted that Rich finds the stalling of the Obama administration on gay rights hard to understand at a time in which “the power of the religious right to undermine the new administration seems especially limited.”

What Rich says, to be exact, is the following:

It would be easy to blame the Beltway logjam in gay civil rights progress on the cultural warriors of the religious right and its political host, the Republican Party. But it would be inaccurate. The right has lost much of its clout in the capital and, as President Obama’s thoughtful performance at Notre Dame dramatized last weekend, its shrill anti-abortion-rights extremism now plays badly even in supposedly friendly confines.

It is important to note Frederick Clarkson’s countervailing view about the waning power of the religious right. Several days ago, in a posting at Talk to Action, Clarkson offered some compelling reasons to doubt the imminent demise of the religious right. Clarkson notes that, though some younger evangelicals appear to be be softening the hard-right religious stance on gay issues, this demographic group remains, on the whole, stridently anti-abortion.

In Clarkson’s view, it would be premature for progressives to conclude that the religious right’s power to skew the political and cultural direction of the country has vanished. Clarkson and Chip Berlet note that some progressives’ strategy of outreach to moderate evangelicals runs the risk of importing into the progressive agenda positions on reproductive rights that may move that agenda to the right. In Clarkson and Berlet’s view, a thoroughgoing commitment to human rights demands that progressives not mute their appeal for rights in one area while celebrating forward movement in other areas.

In my view, Clarkson and Berlet deserve serious consideration—though I am undermining the argument I made yesterday in noting this. I would like to second Frank Rich’s contention that the power of the religious right is waning. But I suspect that Clarkson and Berlet may be quite correct in their caution about the continued potential of the religious right to exert strong influence in the political sphere.

That potential resides, I think, in the ability of the religious right to impede rather than to determine. Though the numbers of its adherents may be waning, and though demographic trends do not bode well for its future, the religious right has created a well-oiled propaganda machine, and that machine still has tremendous power to crank out disinformation on a daily basis. It seems naïve to imagine that the political and religious right will avail itself of the resources of that disinformation machine whenever possible, as it seeks to probe weak spots in the new administration and craft pain for the new president. And it seems equally naïve to imagine that a significant number of citizens will remain unmoved by that disinformation, as it pours forth.

I sometimes suspect that those who are confident that the religious right is dying have never lived in places in the United States in which this movement is strongly represented, and therefore do not appreciate its tenacious hold on the lives of many Americans. From the standpoint of New Haven or San Francisco, the religious right may well look like a behemoth heading for extinction. From the vantage point of Amarillo or Topeka, Spartanburg or Little Rock, however, it looks like a vital critter still very much alive and kicking.

And that’s to say that it does continue to have the power to make the lives of many gay and lesbian Americans intently miserable, on an ongoing basis, in some places in our land. It continues to do so through disinformation campaigns designed to stir hatred against them among their fellow citizens which have great cultural power in some areas of the coutnry. As I noted yesterday, many of us who happen to be gay and lesbian also happen to live in places in which there are almost no legal protections against discrimination—places dominated by the religious right.

I noted, as well, that in such dark places in the land in the 1960s, it would have been impossible for hatred to be unchecked and a new course to be set, had the federal government not intervened decisively through the Civil Rights act of 1964. While there may have been widespread revulsion against racism in much of the country in the early 1960s, in the heartland of the religious right—in the American Southeast—the will to discriminate remained exceptionally strong, and plebiscites to challenge that will repeatedly confirmed the majority’s intent to deny rights to a minority.

The critical factor that tipped the scales, as many Americans repudiated racial discrimination while many others clung bitterly to their “right” to discriminate, was the decision of the president to intervene and to exert strong leadership. Certainly that decision did not end racism forever. What it did accomplish was very significant, however. It began a process of confining the “right” to discriminate, of exposing that “right” as indefensible prejudice, and of marginalizing those intent on clinging to this “right” so that the culture as a whole could move beyond the vise in which an angry, defensive minority wished to place it, while claiming religious sanction for its noxious agenda.

At tipping point moments, when strong indicators suggest that a growing number of citizens are changing their minds about deep-seated cultural practices of discrimination, whether on grounds of race, gender, or sexual orientation, and when powerful religious movements do all they can to resist such cultural shifts, decisive leaders with morally cogent platforms can make a world of difference.

Or they can choose not to do so, and allow some scapegoat groups within their culture to remain the object of derision and prejudice. But in making such a choice, they also ask an entire culture to pay a high price for their inaction, when circumstances have placed in their hands the ability to effect positive change. Even when savage, overt discrimination is confined to select geographic areas within a nation, it tears at the soul of the entire nation.