God bless America

Alan Brinkley

  • God in America: Religion and Politics in the United States by Furio Colombo, translated by Kristin Jarrat
    Columbia, 176 pp, $18.00, December 1984, ISBN 0 231 05972 8
  • The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War by Leo Ribuffo
    Temple, 369 pp, $29.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 87722 297 5

For nearly ten years Americans watched – with mingled fascination, horror, anger and incredulity – as the Iranian Revolution transformed a nation once assumed to be firmly moored to the world of the modern West into an apparent bastion of anti-Western, anti-modern, fundamentalist values. It was an event that seemed to confound the normal patterns of analysis; and the only explanation with which most Americans have since felt comfortable has been one that stresses a cultural irrationality rooted in the oddities of the Islamic mind or the peculiarities of the Persian character. A rational society, Americans believe, does not turn its back on modern development. It does not embrace fanaticism. It does not reject progress. During roughly the same years, the United States itself has experienced a resurgence of Christian fundamentalism which, if far less powerful and far less radical than its Islamic counterparts, has raised some of the same challenges to secular, scientific values and some of the same threats to what most Americans have come to consider the norms of modernity. And when American liberals attempt to understand what is happening in their own society, they begin with many of the same assumptions they use to explain fundamentalist fervour in the Middle East. In America, as in Iran, fundamentalism is essentially irrational, even pathological, the product of alarming cultural or psychological maladjustments. For in America, as elsewhere, rational men and women do not reject progress.

To understand why the resurgence of fundamentalism has caused such consternation among secular Americans, one must understand the enormous confidence with which these same men and women so recently supposed that their own values had become, if not universal, then at least so pervasive as to be unassailable. Twenty years ago, the liberal mainstream of American politics and culture took little heed of the religious right. Fundamentalists were thought to be an isolated, provincial fringe, declining in strength and doomed ultimately to extinction. The vast majority of Americans had, so liberals believed, embraced the secular, relativistic assumptions of the modern age. Science had become the new religion. God was dead. Modern man marched forward, inexorably, into an increasingly rationalised future. Not all liberals were entirely happy with the new world emerging around them, but few questioned its essential premises.

Others, however, did. Protestant fundamentalism has always been a stronger force in American life than the secular mainstream would like to admit. And as liberals became increasingly aggressive in the post-war era in imposing their own modernist values on society at large, fundamentalists became, in response, not only more numerous but more active politically. By 1980, they could no longer be ignored. The Christian right, mobilised behind a clear political agenda, played what seemed to be a major role that year in the defeat of several liberal members of Congress and contributed to the election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency. They remain a significant political force still. They have thrust into the centre of national political discourse issues that liberals had considered long settled: prayer in public schools, the right of women to abortions, public funding for religious schools, even the teaching of evolution. They have revived ancient quarrels over banning books and produced such modern equivalents as organised boycotts of products advertised on ‘godless’ television programmes. They have used religious arguments to support conservative positions on seemingly non-religious issues: they have claimed, for example, that the Bible mandates the present massive expansion of the American defence budget – an argument the President himself has, on occasion, seemed to endorse. Right-wing fundamentalism has become a cultural and, of more concern to many Americans, a political force of considerable importance.

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