“If boomers had marched for peace or civil rights (and bear in mind that many didn’t), those days of saving the world were over—now they would save themselves.”
THE POST-1980 STRATEGY of opposing the religious right by calling attention to liberal religiosity is especially puzzling if we consider the mood and the demographic landscape of the times. Liberalism had been alive and well—surviving, if not thriving—up to 1980, and the baby boom generation was entering adulthood at that time (ranging in age from late teens to early thirties when Ronald Reagan was elected), so it’s not totally clear why politicians and the media would have felt that religion needed to be vitally important in politics. In fact, since we’re often told that baby boomers carried more modern, enlightened attitudes than previous generations, their coming of age presumably should have delivered a much more effective resistance to the Jerry Falwells of the world. To understand why this didn’t happen, we must dispel some common misperceptions about the baby boom generation.
Born between 1946 and 1964, the years immediately following the Second World War, baby boomers have always been an important demographic, partly because of their sheer numbers (the Depression and war had caused many to delay childbearing, resulting in the postwar boom) and partly because of their importance in shaping American popular culture in the prosperous postwar years. Unlike their parents, boomers grew up with television, rock and roll, relative abundance, and an understanding of their nation as a global superpower—but against the incongruous backdrop of the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Their maturation process was, in retrospect, fairly predictable: In their childhood, they generally enjoyed much more material comfort than their parents had known; as they grew up, they went through a rebellious period, questioning many of society’s norms and assumptions; and then as they grew older, they settled down and generally conformed to the system that had produced them.
To listen to the baby boomers, however, one might think that their generation launched a liberal revolution—when in fact the exact opposite is true. Never has a generation been so overrated in its contribution to liberal progress, so self-congratulatory in light of facts that are undeserving. Boomers wax nostalgic about their younger days of marching for civil rights and protesting against the war in Southeast Asia, and they’ll get sentimental about Dylan concerts and the Summer of Love, but their wistful narrative usually ends just before they lurched to the right in adulthood and led the nation toward decades of conservative—and anti-egalitarian—dominance. “If you can remember Woodstock, you probably weren’t there,” wrote humorist Jim Shea in a 2008 Hartford Courant column about his generation, paraphrasing 1960s icon Wavy Gravy. “Yeah, we were cool.”
The operative word here is “were.”
Although they think of themselves as the generation that brought the language of peace and love to the American dialogue, boomers have spent most of their lives serving institutions and values that find such ideals quaint, if not repugnant. Having enjoyed college without incurring insurmountable debt and graduated to an economy that provided good jobs and affordable housing, boomers subsequently grew up to make the term “born again” part of the American vernacular, help elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency, give a harshly antigovernment GOP control of the House of Representatives in 1994 (for the first time in four decades), and then, in their crowning achievement, put George W. Bush (one of their own) in the White House to start the twenty-first century.
Boomers were in their prime when the Soviet Union fell in 1991, ending the Cold War, and thus could have pushed for demilitarization, rational public policy, and economic fairness, but instead they allowed Wall Street and anti-egalitarian interests to dictate policy under the guise of “globalization” and “free markets,” thereby decimating the middle class. As corporate profits have continuously reached new heights, the gap between rich and poor has expanded, and real income has declined for average Americans. Driving SUVs to large expensive homes in the suburbs or exurbs, where they can now watch on their oversize televisions as their pop culture icons raise money for struggling public broadcasters, boomers have for many years been a generation in denial. An understanding of this fact allows one to more fully appreciate the impressive steps that today’s younger generation (boomers’ children and grandchildren) have taken toward freethinking.
In hindsight, the boomers’ drift away from liberalism and their eventual conservative embrace of the Establishment that had produced them makes sense. Their formative childhood years were defined by Eisenhower-era values—corporatism, consumption, material acquisition, militarism, and American exceptionalism—that became deeply ingrained in their collective psyche, imposing a cultural hegemony that would ultimately define them. Former defense secretary Charles Erwin Wilson, once president of General Motors, was criticized when he quipped that what’s good for GM is good for the country, but most Americans understood that Wilson’s only mistake was his honesty. The American system was entirely reliant on the health of major corporations such as GM, but such unpleasantries were best left unspoken. It shouldn’t be surprising that the boomers, entering young adulthood, would rebel against this system, especially in light of the unjust war in Southeast Asia that was occurring at the time, but neither is it surprising that this rebellious attitude would wane as the years progressed. In the end, many boomers actually moved to the right of their parents and became even more accepting of unrestrained corporate power.
Despite the fact that boomers obtained college degrees at a higher rate than any previous generation, they were still prone to anti-intellectualism and superstition, for various reasons. Having initially rejected the religion of their upbringing, many in the middle and late 1970s returned to the fold or adopted other means of unscientific thinking. The era can be defined in many ways, but it was far from an age of rationalism. Even in academia, the dominant school of thought at the time was postmodernism, which often portrays central concepts of freethought—reason, science, the Enlightenment—as little more than constructs of Western imperialist culture. The postmodernist idea that there is no absolute truth often meant that empiricism itself was seen as passé, which allowed for the emergence of mainstream cultural fads such as New Age, astrology, biorhythms, and pyramid power.
MORE IMPORTANT, many boomers eventually returned to traditional Christianity. This trend emerged around the time that Jimmy Carter, in 1976, became the first high-profile presidential candidate (and then president) to call himself born again. This struck many people as strange but not necessarily dangerous, and in fact Carter’s wholesome, ethical image was something of a relief after the corruption-ridden Nixon administration. Boomers would help propel the Democrat Carter to the presidency, and many of them would join in the born-again evangelical trend he popularized, finding Jesus as the answer in a difficult and confusing world. In fact, the phrase “born again” had been injected into popular culture a few years earlier via the lyrics of John Denver’s hit “Rocky Mountain High,” giving it a young and cool patina far removed from conservative politics. By the late 1970s even Bob Dylan, who came from a Jewish background, was going through a Christian stage.
The rise of fundamentalism—not just American Christian fundamentalism but also Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish fundamentalism around the world—sometimes is explained as a reaction to modernity, and we see this dynamic at work in the late 1970s among the baby boomers and their drift toward religion. The world was rapidly changing, not just technologically but socially, and many found comfort and stability in religion, with its certainty and unchanging values. The born-again concept also differed from the mainstream Protestantism or Catholicism most boomers grew up with, thereby giving them a sense that they were not just accepting the religious framework of their parents. By offering a way of bucking the system while still leading a life of relative conformity, evangelical religion fit the needs of a generation ready to leave the turbulence of the 1960s and early 1970s behind. Many boomers, now out of college, were facing adult concerns, such as careers and raising young families of their own, and found that religion complemented those ends. If boomers had marched for peace or civil rights (and bear in mind that many didn’t—the stereotype of the baby boomer protesting on a college campus is an overgeneralization), those days of saving the world were over—now they would save themselves.
When Carter used his religion to get elected in 1976, few realized that he was starting a trend that would set America on a course toward hard-right, anti-egalitarian public policy for decades to come. Carter himself was a moderate Democrat, so there was little reason at that time to associate born-again, evangelical religion with extreme conservative politics as we reflexively do today. Carter used his religion mainly to contrast himself with the political establishment, not to promote a particular agenda. A popular poster during the campaign depicted the smiling Carter as a Christlike figure in a robe with long hair, the caption reading: “J.C. can save America!”
The Christianity of today’s religious right is extremely judgmental, quick to condemn gays, anyone who engages in sex outside marriage, and even sometimes those who use birth control, but in the late 1970s this was not the popular image of Jesus, especially among young people. This was the era of theatrical productions such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, not fire and brimstone, so boomers were more likely to see Jesus as cool, a kind of early hippie, than as an intolerant, vengeful deity. And Carter’s moderate politics and ethical message conveyed evangelical Christianity to the general public in a benign way, with no indication of the forthcoming lurch to the right.
But the connection between evangelical Christianity and conservative politics became clear before the end of Carter’s term with the formation of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Ironically, the born-again president would become Falwell’s first major political casualty.
The Turn To The Right
THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT certainly enabled the conservative movement of the late twentieth century, but the main beneficiary of the movement has always been the corporate establishment. In fact, it’s important to understand that corporate interests do not necessarily coincide with the interests of conservative religion but can be made sufficiently compatible only through a process of compromise, manipulation, and opportunism. Since corporations and their products—from satellites to birth control to computer applications—are the vehicles that often drive modernity, the materialistic lifestyle accompanying these products would, in theory, seem to conflict with the more spiritual message of most traditional theology. Hence, only with some effort could conservative religion and corporate interests be made politically complementary. But when it happened, they made powerful bedfellows.
Fortunately for corporate interests, fundamentalist Christians by and large have little trouble reconciling their theology with a modern, materialistic lifestyle. Those who claim to be the most devout followers of Jesus, who loathed material acquisition and said it would be easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven, rationalize their way to acceptance of modern consumption-enthralled society with seemingly little difficulty. Of course, occasionally they object to specific aspects of corporatism—for example, “immoral” adult programming (which is usually defined as depicting nudity, not violence) or the sale of contraception—but the basic notion of mass consumption is well accepted.
In fact, conservative Christians not only tolerate living in a materialistic capitalist society, they often embrace it and celebrate it as ideally suited for Christian living. Some promote the so-called prosperity Gospel, which claims that your earthly wealth is a reflection of your righteousness. Others simply believe that America itself—a land of freedom and unquestioningly a force for good in the world, a nation that is “under God” and claims in its national motto to trust in God—necessarily reflects what a strong Christian society looks like. We are the good guys in the world, the theory goes, and much of the rest of the world hates us for our freedom, so our system, even if imperfect, must be compatible with Christian living.
Thus, although the relationship between religion and capitalism hasn’t always been cordial, in the modern American conservative movement the two have found ways to become not just compatible but symbiotic. As boomers were finding religion, corporate interests were doing their part not only by shaping America into a society of materialistic consumers, which would be expected, but also by promoting anti-intellectualism and political passivity. This laid the groundwork for the eventual convergence with conservative religion. The rise of the Christian Right in 1980 was a tipping point of sorts, creating a political machinery that would allow both corporate interests and social conservatives to dominate politically for the rest of the century and beyond.
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the first presidential election in which the modern religious right was a visible factor, was a turning point for American politics, the start of a conservative era—or, more accurately, an anti-egalitarian era—that still has not ended. During the liberal heydays of the 1960s and 1970s, even Republicans often had to swallow many liberal concepts if they wished to be elected. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order in 1970, hardly an antigovernment gesture, and it was Nixon who enacted wage and price controls in an effort to combat inflation, an interventionist move that would have him crucified by his own party today. Indeed, before the election of Reagan, conservative ideology was considered politically toxic on the national level, partially due to Senator Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 presidential campaign. Goldwater, the GOP nominee that year, was known as the face of conservatism in his time, and he spoke from the heart when he famously declared in his acceptance speech that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” This indelicate, if sincere, statement of his principles didn’t endear him to voters and he went on to lose the election in a landslide to Lyndon B. Johnson, whose Great Society program epitomized a liberal vision of America.
THE LIBERAL ERA, however, would come to a screeching halt with the election of Reagan, who campaigned in 1980 not only against the vulnerable Democratic incumbent Carter but against liberalism itself. Suddenly “big government” and “taxing and spending” were the problems, and “liberal” was a label most Democratic candidates tried to avoid.
This abrupt turnaround was made possible in large part by white evangelical voters, who accounted for two-thirds of Reagan’s margin of victory, according to analysts (a statistic made even more puzzling by the fact that his opponent Carter was a vocal born-again Christian, whereas Reagan was a divorced Hollywood actor). These religious conservatives had no interest in funding government programs to feed the poor, but they were energized by social issues, especially abortion, which had gradually become more controversial after the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Oddly, most American Protestants didn’t take a strong position on abortion before Roe—the Catholic Church had staunchly opposed abortion historically, but Protestants had more often been indifferent—but by the late 1970s, many fundamentalist leaders discovered that the issue could mobilize followers. The Moral Majority utilized abortion as a key wedge issue while also taking strong stands against women’s equality (the Equal Rights Amendment in particular), homosexuality, and “antifamily” media.
Despite the religious right’s public focus on abortion and other “family” and “moral” issues, however, the record shows that the fundamentalist leaders who mobilized America’s conservative Christians in the 1970s were motivated not by abortion but by racism and, more specifically, segregation. The religious right formed in the late 1970s not as a response to Roe v. Wade, but mainly as a response to the federal government challenging the tax-exempt status of schools that refused to desegregate. When the IRS in 1976 stripped the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school in South Carolina that refused to desegregate, war was declared, as outraged conservative Christians responded with zealous political action. Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich, leaders at the center of the Christian mobilization effort at the time, were savvy enough to know that pro-segregation positions would be politically ineffective, so they instead learned to use abortion and other morality issues to mobilize the mass audience. Together with the anti-feminist messaging of Phyllis Schlafly, whose “Stop ERA” campaign had already been resonating with conservative Christian voters, Falwell, Weyrich, and company would soon make their vision of a powerful voting bloc of religious conservatives a reality.
In fact, some commentators see racism as the underlying catalyst not just for the Christian Right, but for the modern conservative movement itself. In his 2009 book, The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate economist, points out that whites in the South were a key factor in blocking passage of universal health care at least as far back as the 1940s, when the Truman administration attempted to create a national system similar to Medicare. Southern whites at the time feared that such a system might lead to—God forbid—integrated hospitals, and therefore they adamantly opposed it. “[T]he ability of conservatives to win in spite of antipopulist policies has mainly rested on the exploitation of racial division,” Krugman explains.
Krugman is no doubt correct that racism is at the roots of what he calls the “movement conservatism” that has driven public policy rightward in America, but it’s noteworthy that racism itself is not completely removed from the more general problem of anti-intellectualism, for in the modern world the absence of reason and critical thinking would seem to be a necessary condition for allowing racist attitudes to influence policy making. Thus, though he doesn’t say it, Krugman is actually pointing to the problem of anti-reason when he suggests that the issue of race has driven modern conservatism. Moreover, given the resources of the corporate institutions that dominate American society, it seems doubtful that racist whites, in the South or elsewhere, would ultimately exert much political power if their views in any way obstructed the goals of corporate interests.
Race and religion were major factors in the success of the conservative movement in the late twentieth century, but they weren’t the only ones. To better understand the success of the right-wing agenda—and conversely the failure of progressive policy efforts—we must examine some of the more subtle efforts that have suppressed freethought and progressive elements. After doing so, we’ll consider the strategies that can effectively reverse the damage.
From Fighting Back the Right by David Niose. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.