Understanding America’s Right Wing

James Zogby’s Column

While a small band of influential neo-conservatives have played a significant role in shaping the foreign policy outlook of today’s Republican Party, it is the religious right that has come to set that party’s domestic agenda.

It was during the Reagan Administration (1981-1989) that these two currents came together in a new social and political movement that transformed the outlook of Republican politics.

Neo-conservatism is the secular political philosophy that defined the reaction of a group of former liberals to what they felt was the Democratic party’s policy of appeasement toward the Soviet Union–most especially the USSR’s treatment of its Jewish population and its relations with the Arab world.  They were a small but influential group of writers, commentators and government officials.

The movement of the religious right was also borne in reaction, but in this case, it was in reaction to the countercultural currents that rocked the U.S. in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.  As issues of women’s rights (including the “right to abortion”) homosexual rights, etc., found a place in the agenda of the Democratic Party, many white middle class family-oriented religious leaders led their congregations into a number of national organizations promoting “traditional values”.

During the Reagan years, both political currents wielded substantial influence.  The neo-conservatives transformed the national foreign policy orientation from a focus on human rights and democracy (as it had been in the Carter Administration) to one focused on combating “Soviet-inspired terror” and confrontation with the “evil empire”.  For their part, the still emerging movement of religiously-oriented conservatives were able to set the national agenda on a wide range of social issues.

Under Reagan’s umbrella, these two upstart currents formed a sometimes uncomfortable coalition with the more traditional Republican groupings like the business-oriented “internationalists” and the libertarians who advocated small government and tax cuts.  While these traditional Republicans also had a conservative orientation, they were more pragmatic and moderate than the two trends under discussion here.

Both the neo-conservatives and the religious right can best be characterized as fundamentalist movements.  They are ideological and dogmatic.  And they are confrontational and uncompromising.  While this could always have been said about the neo-conservatives, the religious right was, in the beginning, an amorphous social movement.

It was during the 1988 presidential campaign that religious conservatives went from being a reaction against what they described as “moral decay”, into a powerful political organization with a coherent ideology.  In that election Pat Robertson, a television evangelist with a national following, was one of six Republicans to challenge Vice President George Bush for the Republican nomination for president.

Robertson’s success in mobilizing Christian conservative voters in that race inspired him to organize, after the election, a new political organization which he called the Christian Coalition.  This group became the major vehicle for the religious right.

What Robertson did was not only organize religiously-oriented conservatives into a political force, he and others also sought to imbue this movement with a broader political and theological agenda.  Their theology, which is an aberrant form of Christianity (rejected by most major Christian churches) teaches that the Old Testament prophecies were destined to be replayed in the modern world, leading to the Day of Judgement and the Final Battle of Armageddon as proclaimed in the New Testament. 

According to this school of thought, the ingathering of the Jews into Israel in 1948 was part of God’s plan to bring on the Final Battle, in which the forces of Good (which fundamentalist Christians see as the U.S. and its allies) would confront the forces of Evil (correspondingly seen as the Soviet Union and its allies–Arabs and Muslims).  This battle would lead to the destruction of the earth, which for this theology is a necessity before Jesus can return to save “the select, the believers”.

This Christian fundamentalist view maintained that, although all Jews must ultimately be converted into Christianity in order to fulfill the prophecies, Israel must be supported at all costs.  Hence the strong support given by the religious right to Israel.

Although the neo-conservatives are secular (and oftentimes quite liberal in their social outlook) and the religious right is theologically-based, these two currents share a number of ideas:

both currents are Manicheistic, i.e., they see the world in absolute black and white, good and evil;

both currents define the forces of good as being led by the U.S. and Israel and see the forces of evil (once defined as the Soviet Union and now see as “the axis of evil” states supporting terror) as including Arabs and Islam;

both currents are confrontational and uncompromising.  They believe that there can be no accommodation made with those representing evil.  Both, therefore, seek confrontation and conflict, not a resolution of tensions through negotiations; and

both currents are absolutist, since their ideology will allow only for total victory.

While the Republican sweep of Congressional elections in 1994 brought many adherents of the religious right into congressional leadership positions, both the neo-conservatives and the religious conservative movement would not be satisfied until they felt that they had won back the White House.  Neither current was comfortable with George Bush senior’s presidency.  He was, for them, a moderate and accommodationist Republican.  Despite Bob Dole’s efforts to win them over, neither grouping trusted him either.  But in George W. Bush, both movements hoped they had found a champion.  President Bush has appointed prominent neo-conservatives and religious right leaders to important posts in the White House and in the Defense and Justice Departments.  While the organization of the Christian Coalition is now in a state of decline, one leading religious conservative was recently quoted in an influential political magazine, saying “The organization is not so important now that we have the White House and the Congress.”

A leading American Jewish political science professor, Steven Spiegel, recently noted, “If you just focus on the power of the…Jewish groups, you’re missing the boat.  The Christian right has had a real influence in shaping the view of the Republican Party toward Israel.”

This was in evidence most recently in two distinct efforts: the pressure exerted on President Bush in mid-April when it appeared that he was leaning too hard on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the passage in Congress last month of one-sided pro-Israel resolutions.  Both efforts were the work of the combined forces of the religious right and the neo-conservatives.

It is important to note that in these dark days, some Arab American leaders and groups around the U.S. are meeting with American Jewish leaders to attempt a common approach to peace.  At the same time, the major Christian churches in the U.S., representing the majority of U.S. Catholics and Protestants, have issued appeals for peace and Palestinian rights.

But even with these positive and commendable efforts, it is, thus far, the organized forces of the religious right and their neo-conservative allies who are still defining the course of the U.S.-Middle East policy debate.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.