Threats to Democracy: Religious Fundamentalism

Republican Senator and 1964 Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater understood the threat that religious fundamentalism posed for democracy, and he warned the Republican Party about becoming too closely aligned with the fundamentalist movement in the United States:

Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.

For a more thorough analysis by Goldwater of the dangers of the religious right, I encourage everyone to read his remarks on the topic that were inserted into the Congressional Record on September 16, 1981 in which he goes into significant detail about why he sees the insertion of religious extremism into politics as a threat to the well being of the republic.

Unfortunately, the Republican Party did not heed Goldwater’s wisdom to keep religious fundamentalism out of politics and to keep church and state separate from each other. One of the first flirtations of the Republican Party with religious fundamentalism came in the 1950s when Eisenhower and others began pandering to the religious right under the guise of fighting Godless communism. It was during this time that Eisenhower saw the political influence that fundamentalist religious leaders like Billy Graham possessed and that they could become a reliable base for the Republican Party.

It was also during the Eisenhower administration in 1954 that “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, and it was in 1958 that the radically conservative and fundamentalist John Birch Society was formed and became a growing force in the Republican Party, though still somewhat of a fringe element throughout the 1960s.

The influence of the religious right on the Republican Party grew when Richard Nixon decided to use what has come to be known as the Southern Strategy by appealing to the religious fundamentalism of the South as a way to secure a block of the more religiously conservative southern states. Ronald Reagan further embraced the Southern Strategy and the support and political power of the religious right, most prominently seen in the power of the “Moral Majority” movement led by Jerry Falwell and others.

By the end of the 1980s, the Republican Party was no longer the party of conservatives like Goldwater who desired to keep religion out of politics. It had become the culture war and right wing religious party, a party that gave religious fundamentalists like Pat Robertson center stage at the 1988 Republican convention, with a significant wing of the party embracing the even more radical and divisive agenda of Pat Buchanan in 1992.

George W. Bush, who maintained his favorite philosopher was Jesus, continued the close affiliation of the Republican Party with religious fundamentalists. In many ways, he was more truly one of them than previous Republican presidents who simply used religious fundamentalists for pragmatic political reasons. It is interesting to note that in some ways, George W. Bush actually moderated the Republican Party’s relationship with religious right, but the influence of religious fundamentalism remained strong and is one of the reasons the United States became dangerously close to having Sarah Palin as our Vice President.

No other Republican, however, has more thoroughly weaponized the religious right for political gain than Donald Trump. Trump knew how vulnerable religious fundamentalists are to being manipulated for political gain, and he took full advantage of their enthusiasm and fervor to win the presidency in 2016. This is why Trump chose to reverse his almost life-long support for legal abortions to make reversing Roe a centerpiece of his agenda. He knew that once he had the loyalty of religious fundamentalists that he could get them to believe anything, and it was not very long before people who believed everything he said began to do almost anything he said.

With the help of fundamentalist religious leaders like Franklin Graham (who notably praised the autocratic leadership of Vladimir Putin), Robert Jeffress, Paula White, and others, Trump was able to ride a populist, xenophobic, and anti-Muslim wave to the White House, and many of Trump’s supporters have openly embraced Christian nationalism.

The correlation between adherence to religious fundamentalism and believing Trump’s numerous conspiracy theories and other forms of political propaganda has proven to be quite strong. Religious fundamentalists were more likely to believe Trump’s baseless claims that President Obama was born in Kenya, that the first impeachment trial of Trump was a witch hunt, that unproven and even dangerous treatments for COVID were effective, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, and that Trump was justified in attempting to keep the election from being certified and blocking a peaceful transfer of power.

Senator Goldwater’s warning was prescient as we have now seen what a dangerous threat religious fundamentalism has become for the well-being of our republic. Its adherents seem unwilling to stop until they have fully implemented their theocratic and Christian nationalist vision, and such a vision is a direct threat to our democracy. Sadly, the persons who adhere to this vision are almost impervious to reason, and the only effective way to address their threat to our republic is to outvote them.

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