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From the new Christian right to Christian nationalism, part 1

Up first, the 20th century.

President Ronald Reagan meets with Jerry Falwell in the Oval Office on March 15, 1983. Image courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

(RNS) — When I first began studying religion and American politics 40 years ago, the new kid on the block was the new Christian right. Its avatar was the late Jerry Falwell Sr., pastor of an independent Baptist church in Lynchburg, Virginia, and a self-promoter eager to lead an evangelical crusade against feminism and gay rights.

In the 1970s, white evangelicals were in thrall to the premillennialism of Hal Lindsey’s mega-bestseller “The Late Great Planet Earth.” It taught that moral corruption had taken over the world, America was no better than any other country and Christians should content themselves with going to church and evangelizing others in preparation for the imminent End Times.

In countering his co-religionists’ political quiescence, Falwell flew something of a false flag. His social values were not “Christian” but “Judeo-Christian,” his organization, the nominally inclusive Moral Majority, Inc. This was not to look like a Christian political crusade.

But when other evangelical leaders joined GOP operatives to activate evangelicals as Republican voters, it was impossible to doubt what this movement was about. And with the election of Ronald Reagan and the defeat of a clutch of Democratic senators in 1980, the New Christian Right became a thing to be reckoned with.

Reagan himself steered clear of the rhetoric of crusade, conjuring up instead the restoration of an idealized America he liked to call “the shining city on a hill.” This was, as he put it in his farewell address, “a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

By the 1988 election cycle, the Christian Right (no longer new) had established itself as an essential component of the Republican coalition. That year witnessed a surprisingly successful run for the GOP presidential nomination by pentecostal Pat Robertson, proprietor of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of its daily newsmagazine, “The 700 Club.”

Republican presidential candidates in 1988 included, from left, Vice President George Bush, Rep. Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, and Sen. Robert Dole after a debate in Atlanta on Feb. 28, 1988. (AP Photo)

Republican presidential candidates in 1988 included, from left, Vice President George Bush, Rep. Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson, and Sen. Robert Dole after a debate in Atlanta on Feb. 28, 1988. (AP Photo)

Robertson’s campaign slogan, “For God and Country,” injected a nationalistic theme into the Christian right that would swell over time. After Vice President George H.W. Bush defeated him for the nomination and then won the presidency, Robertson established the Christian Coalition, which quickly replaced the Moral Majority as the movement’s marquee organization, doing serious grass-roots organizing under the direction of GOP wunderkind Ralph Reed.

The strategy of both the Reagan and Bush administrations was to give the Christian right — or religious right, as Falwell among others called it — a good deal of lip service but limited concrete action. This left a sizable cohort ready to follow former Nixon speechwriter Pat Buchanan in his insurgent effort to wrest the presidential nomination from Bush in 1992.

Buchanan’s campaign slogan, “America First,” harked back to the America First isolationists who opposed U.S. entry into World War II and whose most prominent figure was Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh. Speaking in support of Bush’s renomination at the 1992 Republican Convention, Buchanan hurled down the gauntlet of religious nationalism.

“There is a religious war going on in this country,” he declared. “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.” Where Reagan’s vision was that of an open and inclusive American civil religion, Buchanan invoked what the Italian scholar of Fascism Emilio Gentile calls a “political religion” — an intolerant and exclusivist sacralization of the nation for use as a weapon in partisan combat. 

Four years later, Buchanan was out on the presidential hustings again, and while he was only modestly more successful against the establishment’s candidate (Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas) than he’d been against Bush in 1992, shrewd insiders like William Kristol, then editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, perceived him, rather than the pro-Dole Ralph Reed, as the real leader of the Christian right.

“Pat Buchanan has now taken over a movement that Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed spent eight years building up,” Kristol told The Washington Post early in the 1996 primary season. “Ralph Reed thinks the way to win the culture war over the long term is to damp down the enthusiasm of some of his followers and lead a long march through the institutions. Pat Buchanan wants to lead a fixed bayonet charge on the elites right now. It is a very different political strategy and implies a different agenda.”

That strategy would have to wait 20 years to come to fruition. The story next time, in part 2.