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Fundamentalism: The Political Kiss of Death

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Jonathan Rauch writes that Christian conservatives, in response to their defeat in the "culture wars," are likely to isolate themselves from the wider society.

I think that is precisely what they will do. It's what they've done before. After the failure of Prohibition and their Pyrrhic victory in the Scopes trial, they headed for the backwoods, hiding out in their tent revivals and two-bit tabernacles.

The iconoclastic libertarian, H.L. Mencken, skewered and roasted them with all the glee of the Calvinistic deity in newspapers across the country. They earned every column inch.

Even into the 1960s, they continued their retreat, establishing thousands of "Christian" schools in protest of 1) the ruling on prayer in government schools, 2) sex education, and 3) desegregation of government schools. They wanted the right to pray, repress and hate -- three constant traits of the American fundamentalist.

Oddly, it was the victory of Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian, who gave them a lust for power -- in spite of Carter holding none of the hateful values inspiring his fellow fundamentalists. Once they saw the glimmer of political power, however, nothing could restrain them. The greatest lust is not sex, it's power.

It is said in Luke that Satan took Jesus to a mountaintop and showed him "all the kingdoms of the world" and said to him, "All this power I will give thee, and the glory of them; for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine."

Jesus resisted, it is said, but for American Christians this temptation was too great. With Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson playing the role of Satan, they were promised political domination of this country, and by implication, the world. The temptation was too great.

In the end, they tied their wagons to the anemic presidency of the village idiot, George W. Bush, discrediting themselves and their message in the process.

America turned against the demands of the Christian Right. The campaign to bring back censorship failed. The campaign to ban abortion fizzled with public opinion now as split as when the battle started. They will never have the nation-wide ban on abortion they seek.

Their crusade against gay people backfired spectacularly -- not only did they fail to make it a felony to be gay, but gay couples are legally marrying in state after state.

During the "war" Americans, became more secular and less Christian. More Americans today say they are non-believers than when the Moral Majority set out to make this a "Christian nation."

They lost because they fought tooth and nail against the oldest American value -- individual rights and liberty. Americans have long-held those as core values. I won't say Americans have always lived up to those values -- they haven't, but I will say they always clung to them.

As much as the Religious Right pretends they are patriots, in terms of American core values, they are traitors to the Enlightenment tradition of the Founders. Instead, they preached an authoritarian religion which, when all was said and done, had no appeal for the American people.

Time and time again, we have been able to judge the final victory of a cultural war by determining the side of the American fundamentalist. The staunchest advocates of slavery were fundamentalists, so much so that the largest fundamentalist denomination in the country originated in a defense of slavery: the Southern Baptist Convention. Fundamentalists supported Prohibition. They tended to oppose equality of rights for women.

During the war against Jim Crow, racist fundamentalists put out pamphlets on the evils of "miscegenation." Figures such as Jerry Falwell claimed "civil rights" was communistic. Some outposts, such as Bob Jones University, refused to admit black students even into the 1970s. Fundamentalists are experienced veterans of culture wars, just not on the winning side. If anything, their support for a cause is the kiss of death.