It is amusing to see how alarmed all right-thinking people have become about that menacing phenomenon called “the Religious Right.” They are “extremists,” they are “out of the mainstream.” They are without question a danger to the Republican Party and probably a menace to the republic.
It is doubtful that there is evidence to prove any of these charges; one suspects that all they amount to is that right-thinking people find the Religious Right quite distasteful. Their logic goes something like this: “We are good, true, and beautiful. But we find you repulsive. Therefore there must be something very wrong with you.” This reasoning is impeccable, given its first premise. But one must ask, is the premise correct? Are the right-thinking people really as good, true, and beautiful as they imagine themselves to be?
For the sake of argument, let us imagine that members of the Religious Right are as weird and frightening as their accusers allege. The question then arises: How did they get that way? About this question the right-thinkers have shown an odd lack of curiosity.
One is reminded of a similar lack of curiosity shown from the very first about McCarthyism—a phenomenon that truly was a menace to the Republic, though perhaps only a mild one. The term “McCarthyism,” of course, refers not just to the activities of the Senator from Wisconsin but to the atmosphere of the late forties and early fifties in which many people were ready to find Reds and Pinkos under every liberal bed.
In the periodic retelling of the McCarthyism tale, mention is rarely made of the fact that during the thirties and forties there were great numbers of elite Americans—persons well-connected in Hollywood, in New York literary circles, and even in politics (witness the Henry Wallace campaign of 1948)—who belonged to one of three concentric circles: (a) a relatively small inner circle of Communists; (b) a much larger circle of Communist sympathizers; and (c) an outer circle even larger still, made up of people who, while neither Communists nor fellow travelers themselves, thought it morally respectable to be a fellow-traveler or even a Communist.
In other words, while Stalin was running one of the two worst dictatorships in the history of the human race (the other having been presided over by his sometime ally Hitler), murdering tens of millions of human beings, including many of his former Bolshevik comrades, here in America great numbers of privileged and influential citizens either supported communism or admired it or at least tolerated it in a benevolent and broad-minded manner.
Is it any wonder there was a backlash? And is it any wonder this backlash went too far, finally producing that repulsive creature from the black lagoon, Joe McCarthy?
But whose fault was this excessive backlash? Partly, to be sure, it was the fault of McCarthy and his hysterical supporters. But their culpability was secondary. Far greater was the responsibility of those who created the conditions for a backlash: those sophisticated Americans who understood something the vulgar masses could never hope to understand, namely, that the commandment “Thou shalt not murder” is only intended (as Leona Helmsley said about paying taxes) for the little people, whereas mass murder, though admittedly a nasty business, is virtuous when done by the right people for the right purposes.
The old French witticism—“Cet animal est tres mechant; quand on l’attaque, il se defend” (“This animal is very wicked; when you attack it, it defends itself”)—gives us a clue to the populist anti-Communism of the postwar era. It can also help us understand the rise of the populist Religious Right today.
For the past quarter century vast numbers of elite, privileged, sophisticated, and “right-thinking” Americans have exhibited contempt for certain fundamental values; and they have, if anything, exhibited even greater contempt for those religious traditionalists who hold them. Is it any wonder that after years of abuse the traditionalists have finally struck back?
It never occurs to the right-thinkers that they themselves are to blame for this backlash. Instead they deplore the “tres mechant” nature of the Religious Right. And when charged with having been contemptuous of religious traditionalists and their values, they dismiss the charge as a silly slander.
“How could we—we of all people—be guilty of such a thing?” they ask. “You forget that we are the nonjudgmentalists, the multiculturalists, the virtuosi of diversity. We respect all value systems and all subcultural communities. After all, this is what makes us morally superior to everyone else (especially the Religious Right).
“Of course there are limits even to our great tolerance, since we do not tolerate the intolerant. Thus we have no patience with those who oppose abortion, for we know their secret: they are haters of women and of freedom generally. And we have no patience with those who oppose same-
sex marriage; they are homophobic bigots. Ditto those who oppose distribution of condoms in public schools; not only are they ostriches with heads in the sand, they are bigoted against the poor, against minorities, and generally against anyone who does not conform to their Ozzie-and-Harriet model of sexual propriety. And who could be more repressive and inhumane than the people who oppose euthanasia?
“Our profound respect for all people, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., has led us to the conclusion that it is dangerous to believe that moral values are anything more than personal or group preferences; and we think it is especially dangerous to operate under the illusion that there exists some sort of absolute and God-given moral law. People who hold such retrograde views are fanatics who ought to be pushed to the margins of American society while we await their gradual extinction.
“As you can plainly see, then, we have no contempt for anyone or for anyone’s values. How preposterous that we should be accused of such a thing. But it is typical of the Religious Right to engage in such misrepresentations.
“So we’re sure you agree with us when we say that the Religious Right is a very wicked animal.”
David R. Carlin, a former Democratic member of the Rhode Island Senate, teaches sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island.