By William Pfaff
The Republican Party in the United States—15 months before the next presidential election—has already burdened itself with an array of front-running presidential candidates (according to the White House press, which deems itself the judge of who is and is not serious among the presidential candidates), who are evangelical or fundamentalist Protestant Christians, with the exception of a single Mormon.
The leading candidates in Iowa are already known to include advocates of eliminating the income tax (80 percent of government revenue), abolishing the Federal Reserve Bank, constitutionally mandating a balanced budget, and eliminating or imposing a moratorium upon environmental regulation. Experience suggests that none of these, except for the Mormon, Mitt Romney, has much chance to become the actual Republican candidate next year, and Mr. Romney is a candidate battered by previous losses.
What is most interesting is that it now seems a necessary qualification for the Republican nomination, at least at the present primaries stage, to be a born-again fundamentalist Protestant. Yet in the United States the majority of the electorate is not fundamentalist, evangelical or Protestant.
Such may compose the plurality among Republican political activists, who turn out for rallies or primary votes, but they certainly do not make up the majority of those Americans who are going to vote for the president next year. That majority, four years ago, in 2008, elected to the presidency a black, urban liberal activist of exotic background, graduate of “liberal elitist” universities and a former editor of the Harvard Law Review.
The man they voted for in 2008 was also a member of a black church whose pastor preached the social gospel. American voters in 2008 elected a figure about as remote as it is possible to be from the politically reactionary, evangelical, biblical-inerrancy-believing, anti-evolution, anti-abortion, anti-feminist, anti-homosexual-marriage, anti-“socialist” American Protestant primary electorate, currently seeming to rally behind Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry.
Public discussion of the campaign suffers from the fact that few journalists and few academic “public intellectuals” seem able to tell one Christian from another. In the eyes of much of the press and of people who identify themselves as political progressives, it seems that the mainstream Protestant population that dominated the United States from its founding until very recently—the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists—have all vanished into fundamentalist mega-churches and televangelism.
The biggest and fastest-growing individual Christian church in the United States, the Catholic Church—some 77 million members strong—is usually lumped in with Protestant fundamentalism because the bishops have made their biggest public stand against abortion and same-sex marriage.
But Catholics have traditionally voted for Democrats, and the Catholic Church’s history in America is one of support for social justice movements and trade unionism. The ascent of what 75 years ago was largely a working-class population of churchgoers and school-builders into America’s middle and upper classes has weakened that social tradition, but certainly has not made Catholics into credulous biblical fundamentalists. Quite the contrary.
Further distorting understanding of the American (and British) religious scene has been the so-called New Atheism of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others, committed to what can be called scientific fundamentalism (science is the only source of truth about the issues of human existence). None of them demonstrates much knowledge of the history of religion, nor of philosophy or theology, nor even of Western literature, embedded in Western religion. It suits them to write as if they were lawyers attacking poor William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee in 1925.
Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin may have their history upside down, Gov. Rick Perry believes that the Federal Reserve harbors potential treason, while former candidate Mike Huckabee endearingly tolerates those “people who want to believe they’re descended from a primate” (without revealing the secret of his own family origin). But the people who deem themselves the superiors of the candidates should demonstrate that they themselves know they are in 2011, not 1925.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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