The Distored Populism of the Christian Right


efore and after the midterm elections in 2006, our oligarchic pundocracy
declared that white Christian evangelicals had abandoned “moral values”
for other issues such as the economy, jobs, political corruption, and the
war in Iraq. What nitwits. For Christian evangelicals—both black and white—concern
over poverty, pilfering, and peace are part of their “moral values.” So
are health care and the environment. The vote shift in 2006 instead represented
a transformation of their order of priorities of moral values concerns.

Steven Waldman on BeliefNet wrote about this shift: “Keep in mind, this
is not ‘religious right’ voters who shifted. It’s moderate and liberal
evangelicals who were concerned about the war and corruption. They’re also
conservative on gay marriage and abortion but were more worried about these
other issues.” 

What I find interesting is the evidence that there is a block of white
protestant evangelical voters who are swing voters who can be teased out
by looking at the shift in the “God Gap” from election to election. Ideally,
in the chart below, the 2000 figures would be the House Congressional vote,
but I just couldn’t find them. Between 2002 and 2004 there was a plus 4
percent shift in the God Gap. Between 2004 and 2006 there was a minus 7
percent shift in the God Gap. Some analysts dismiss these numbers as too
small to matter, but I disagree, especially given the importance of voting
shifts in specific states that help swing national elections. 

The votes of the swing shift white Protestant evangelical voters are up
for grabs in 2008. There is no reason they might not swing back to Republicans
if the Democrats fail to find a message that resonates with white Protestant
evangelical voters. 

A lot of these folks are working class whites who have been mesmerized
by right-wing rhetoric—both religious and secular. How is this done? Thomas
Frank, in his book


s the Matter with Kansas

, nimbly navigated the
conservative scene in Kansas, but slipped when he implied that people in
the white working class who vote against their apparent economic self interest
did so because they didn’t really understand the complex issues. Also some,
we are led to believe, are simply addled. 

There is no evidence that white evangelicals are any more stupid or crazy
than the rest of us—at least in terms of percentages of the populations
being studied. Nor are they simply the manipulated puppets of a Karl Rove
strike force. Large groups of white evangelicals are mobilized through
the rhetorical style of right-wing populism. Jean Hardisty refers to this
process as “mobilizing resentment.” The common styles and frames used by
a wide range of right-wing political organizers include: 

  • Dualism 

  • Apocalyptic style 

  • Conspiracism 

  • Populist anti-elite rhetoric 

  • Authoritarian assertion of


All of these appear across wide segments of the Christian right. Populist
anti-elitism as a rhetorical style often takes the form of attacks on liberals,
secularists, intellectuals, the news media, and Hollywood. Allegations
that these elites are part of a vast conspiracy against the common people
are frequently interwoven into the fabric of the stories that are told—sometimes
with references to satanic End Times plots tied to prophecies in the book
of “Revelation.” Linda Kintz, discussing dualistic apocalypticism, argues
the “resonance of traditionalist conservatism, both religious and secular,
is the apocalyptic narrative whose influence on the myths of American history
is not new,” and she adds it “depends on fear and because fear is undependable,
it must be sustained.” 

Right-wing populism often is based on racialized, patriarchal, and heterosexist
narratives that buttress a sense of privilege and entitlement among a targeted
audience of straight white Christian men. It tends to frame economic questions
in terms of hard working producers pitted against parasites above and below.
This technique was used to mobilize poor and working class whites against
newly-freed black former slaves after the Civil War. It was utilized by
George Wallace in his first presidential campaign and later borrowed by
Richard Nixon and the Republican Party to create the “southern strategy.”
It exists in stories of “welfare queens” where race need not be mentioned.
Ironically, today racial anti-elite populist rhetoric is used by Republicans
to invert the historical account and claim that the Democratic Party is
the enemy of true civil rights. 

There is also a natural historic congruence between the Calvinist-based
theology of many white evangelicals, and the ideology of free markets and
less government regulation fostered by the Republican Party. Doug Henwood
points out that  the work of historian Richard Hofstadter (despite accurate
criticisms of some of his overly-broad conclusions) helps explain this
connection: “Hofstadter underscores the radical departure of the New Deal
from the individualist roots of historic American social and political
movements for something much more collective. That kind of collectivism,
which lasted into the 1970s, is exactly what the New Right has been trying
to reverse all along and they’ve accomplished a good bit of the task. 

“Hofstadter’s emphasis on the individualism of American white Protestantism
is highly relevant now—it illuminates what’s the matter with Kansas, since
American white Protestants love ‘the market’ as an instrument of reward
and discipline. That love is not some recent confidence trick perpetrated
by Karl Rove, but has deep roots.” 

Margaret R. Somers and Fred Block identify this as part of the growth of
“market fundamentalism” as an ideology promoted by conservatives. They
studied two examples of legislation—in 1834 and 1966—in which “existing
welfare regimes were overturned by market-driven ones.” They concluded
that, “Despite dramatic differences across the cases, both outcomes were
mobilized by ‘the perversity thesis’—a public discourse that reassigned
blame for the poor’s condition from ‘poverty to perversity.’ 

“…[S]tructural blame for poverty is discredited as empiricist appearance
while the real problem is attributed to the corrosive effects of welfare’s
perverse incentives on poor people themselves—they become sexually promiscuous,
thrust aside personal responsibility, and develop longterm dependency.
This claim enables market fundamentalism to delegitimate existing ideational
regimes, to survive disconfirming data, and to change the terms of debate
from social problems to the timeless forces of nature and biology.” 

Many white working class voters, and even white middle class voters can
be persuaded at times to vote against their arguable economic self interest
by appealing to their sense of morality and casting “family values” and
“moral values” in terms of societal struggles over issues such as gay rights,
gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research, and pornography. 

In any election, sometimes social issues trump economic issues, sometimes
economic issues trump social issues—and how Republicans and Democrats are
perceived by Christian evangelical voters who are weighing the pull of
those two sets of issues can determine the outcome of an election. 

According to sociologist S. Wojciech Sokolowski: “What is at stake here
is not reason vs. irrationality or stupidity but different cognitive frames
that manifest themselves, among other things, by a preference for bucolic
rural life or for urban diversity. Both are pre-rational, that is, they
frame and direct the rational thought process. 

“So if we drop the charge of irrationalism, Hofstadter’s thesis that traditional
American culture tends to be anti-urban and rather local, with all the
accoutrements of that localism—navel gazing, suspicion of outsiders, suspicion
of high culture, suspicion of big organizations and government, love of
small business, religiosity, etc.—still stands.” 


okolowski stresses the interplay of factors with a basic right- wing frame,
the “perception of imminent danger,” which creates a need to organize for
“safety and protection.” According to Sokolow- ski, this fear factor activates
a strong response when added to the constellation of other beliefs of the
right: “The Manichean dualism of good and evil, right and wrong, us and
them; the vision of apocalyptic battle between good and evil; the need
for vigilance and unquestioned support of ‘our’ side and a militant posture
toward ‘them.’” Sokolowski explains that “only within the context of their
perception of an imminent threat do their activities and rhetoric appear
as rational defensive reactions rather than wanton aggression.” 

It is this very unique way of perceiving the world that drives the Christian
right to engage in a guerilla culture war against mainstream society—seen
as increasingly sinful, secular, cynical, and threatening. 

What we see from the detailed studies of polls is that a small, but important,
segment of the white Christian right can rise above this frame. The inside-the-beltway
brains advising the Democratic Party, however, have decided that caving
in to white right-wing evangelicals is a better way to attract votes than
doing actual grassroots organizing. As you read this, they are crafting
messages that signal a willingness to barter away basic human rights tied
to abortion and GLBTQ equity. This is morally wrong, Constitutionally unacceptable,
and totally unnecessary. 

Instead, we need to reframe the debate to focus on crafting equitable,
ethical, and effective approaches to poverty, health care, the environment,
war, and education in a way that appeals to the already existing moral
values shared by most Americans. In this way we can continue to shift the
God Gap in our favor while gaining an opportunity to talk face to face
with Christian evangelicals about our disagreements over abortion and gay
rights—without backing down on these issues. 



Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates. The views
expressed here are his own. This article grew out of his research for “Running
Against Sodom and Osama” written with Pam Chamberlain (