I was a Republican insider. For instance, the late Jack Kemp was a friend who I often advised on "connecting" with the Religious Right, until I left the Republican Party and the evangelical subculture and slammed the door behind me. During my last call with Jack he hung up on me. (I was backing McCain in 2000 and he was for W.) I want you to understand this context of my "insider's" comments here because they are going to strike you as shocking. So please let me recap some personal history.
My parents and I were the guests of the Reagans, Fords and Bush's in the White House and/or in other private meetings. Jack Kemp was so good a friend that he once interrupted a speech at a fund-raising banquet in Washington that I'd walked into late and walked from the podium to the back of the hall shook my hand introduced me to the assembled Republican leaders, then walked back to the podium and continued his speech. He did this because -- in those days -- I was an important link to the (then) powerful evangelical movement.
I was often in Jack's house with Jack and his wife Joanne who, at that time, was conducting a weekly Bible study group with other congressional wives called the "Schaeffer group," based on my father's books. In those days -- the 1970s and early 80s -- as both a staunch Republican and pro-life leader and the son of the famous evangelist, I was right in the middle of the Republican machine.
Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom -- in the 1970s my family was an integral part of bringing the Republican Party under the sway of the emerging Religious Right, particularly because of our support of the antiabortion movement. It was my father who talked Jerry Falwell into "taking a stand" on the "moral issues" of the day, which then morphed into the Moral Majority. Back in the 70s and early 80s Dad and I both appeared on the 700 Club many times, I preached from Jerry Falwell's pulpit and was the keynote speaker at the Religious Broadcasters and Christian Booksellers Association annual events several years running.
There came a day in 1985 (my dad had died in 1984) that I began to take another look at my commitment to the both the far right of Republican Party and the Religious Right. I came to realize that I was in bed with a group of people who were profoundly anti-American. They were professional haters. They wrapped themselves in the flag and "loved America," but it was an America in their imaginations only and cast in their image: white, middle-class, straight, born-again, homophobic and tinged with racism, not to mention misogyny.
The America most Americans lived in; diverse, open, tolerant and multi-ethnic was the America that the right would hardly even acknowledge. They "loved" an America that didn't exist, and hated the real country we live in. (I go into this in detail in two books; Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All -- or Almost All -- of It Back and also in my forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion -- Or Atheism where I lay out an alternative to some very bad choices between the extremes.)
So what went wrong with the Republican Party? Believe me, it's all about religion!
Two religions (in the broadest sense of the term) have destroyed the Republican Party: evangelical Christianity and Christian/Jewish Zionism. Evangelical Christianity created the Religious Right which forever linked the Republican Party to the antiabortion, anti-sex education, anti-evolution and anti-gay crusades. And both Christian and Jewish Zionism linked the Republican Party to what became the neoconservative movement with its roots in such publications as Commentary magazine and their shrill Israel-can-do-no-wrong anti-Arab agenda. (I knew the late editor of Commentary Norman Podhoretz quite well, and we met several times to build alliances between evangelicals and the far American Zionist far right. When it came to Arabs, I believe he was a real racist.)
I would not call Zionism per se a religion, but I'm talking about secular goals pursued with religious fervor. I would call Zionism, American-style a politicized version of a religion. I also argue that the neo-con side got traction when religious Jews became Zionists and when religious Christians (evangelicals) hopped aboard to hasten the "Rapture." And I'd like to point out that American Zionists ally themselves with the Israeli hardliners, but that opinion in Israel is much more diverse and often tolerant than that, as is opinion among Jewish Americans, who do not by and large accept the AIPAC point of view uncritically.
The result of the Republican Party being taken over by these religious groups was that we got George W. Bush. His idea of governance was a hands-off, all-government-is-bad-government neglect, combined with an unnecessary war in Iraq inspired by a form of Zionism that sees all Arabs as a threat, Islam as evil, America as an exceptional place duty-bound "by God" to keep the world safe for evangelical Christian "values," on the one hand, and militant Christian and Jewish Zionism on the other. It is a poisonous blend. (It's not just Zionism, or a form of Zionism, that makes Americans hate Arabs. Anti-Arab, anti-Muslim images in America go way back and some right wing evangelicals and Jews merely tap into that racism.)
Evangelical/Christian Zionism has been bad for the State of Israel too. It has helped put that country into a permanent defensive crouch in which there is now perhaps no way out from destruction that comes to all people who see everyone else (from the EU to the UN to the Arabs and Iran) as a threat. The building of the illegal West Bank settlements and turning the Gaza Strip into what amounts to a concentration camp, combined with demographic reality will doom the State of Israel if a two state peace agreement is not reached and reached fast. But Christian Zionists have done all they can to undermine peace in the name of fulfilling "biblical prophecy" as have the far right of the Jewish Zionists, people like my old friend Norman Podhoretz.
With "friends" like the Christian Zionists -- exemplified by the Reverend John Hagee and many others who "support" Israel while eagerly waiting for the "return of Christ" and the destruction of all "unbelieving Jews" -- Israel needs no enemies. Given that the hard-line American Christian Zionists encouraged the Republican Party to become the party of permanent war to keep the State of Israel "safe" they have actually helped set the stage for its destruction. And therefore the Republicans also opened the door to our national economic ruin as well. The two are linked; eternal war and ruin, because our permanent wars (thinly veiled excuses to "keep Israel safe") are never paid for by increased taxes or a draft. (Disclosure: my son served in the Marines and was deployed.)
But attitudes are changing: The results of a new Zogby poll are interesting. They suggest that Obama would have strong support for a US diplomatic effort to forge an Israel-Palestine deal, even if it means tough pressure on Israel. According to the poll, when asked if the United States should "get tough" with Israel in order to back up its call for an end to settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, fully 50 percent of Americans said yes, with just 19 percent saying "do nothing," and 32 percent not sure.
Asked whether the interests of Israel and the US are identical, only 28 percent of Obama voters agreed, while 59 percent disagreed. Among McCain voters, it was the reverse: 78 percent of McCain voters said US and Israel interests were identical (!) and 15 percent said they are not.
So what did the Republicans become? They are the party of unnecessary wars both actual and cultural and the party of the rich -- those who never serve in the military, just put up flags to "support the troops." The actual war in Iraq was (as everyone knew with a wink and a nod, but few dared say) really about our commitment to Christian and Jewish Zionism as it was "understood" by the born-again fool Bush. The culture war is also an unnecessary and unmitigated war that pitted the "real America" (in other words white mostly uneducated, lower-middle-class evangelical/Catholic working Americans) against everyone else.
If you're not a gay-hating, "pro-life," born-again evangelical and/or an ardent Israel-can-do-no-wrong-all-Arabs-are-evil-Jesus-is-coming-back-soon evangelical on the one hand or a neoconservative I-never-met-a-war-I-didn't-like "intellectual" on the other hand, these days you're probably not a Republican. Throw in a college degree or the habit of getting information from any source other than right wing blogs, radio "personalities" like Rush Limbaugh or "authors" like Ann Coulter and you won't be voting Republican again in this lifetime.
What's caused the Republican Party's real meltdown? It's that it has ceased to exist as a political party and is instead a dwindling weirdly eclectic collection of uneducated rubes led by a few fearful angry far right thinkers who talk in media sound bites geared to the types of people who watch Fox News. Jack Kemp was not part of this horrible little "party." He was a smart compassionate man. There used to be more Republicans like Kemp. Today the Republican core constituency is the national village idiot.
With the election of President Obama America has turned the page on the village idiots. We now have a president who is a religious believer himself, who supports Israel (as I do, by the way), but who well understands -- and articulates beautifully as he just did at Notre Dame talking about abortion -- the fact that authentic faith should be a unifying force instead of a divisive one. That's bad news for religious nuts, be they Christians or Jews. That's good news for America and the world, and maybe for our overstretched military too.
The choice for America has always been between inclusive pluralism and exclusion. The kind of religion and Evangelical/Zionist/neoconservative cabal used to take over the interests of the Republican Party is just too small for this big diverse, tolerant and open country of ours. So the Republicans have a choice: become an American political party again serving American interests or continue to serve the narrowly defined religious interests of two angry and fearful Jewish/Evangelical minorities who are themselves bastardized offshoots of their Christian and Jewish traditions.
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. He is author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and also author of the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism).