The Christian Right is the most anticipated social movement in American history. Decades before Catholics and conservative evangelicals ended centuries of antagonism by cooperating on social issues, an elite class of Progressive-era intellectuals and journalists were describing what it regarded as the deep and dangerous affinities between Catholics and evangelicals. Catholic opposition to eugenics and the evangelical crusade against teaching evolution in public schools helped persuade Progressives that religious orthodoxy—rather than any particular theological tradition—was a grave threat to science, reason, and social progress. These thinkers warned darkly that both groups were natural allies because they shared an unqualified allegiance to an external and unscientific authority in the pope and an inerrant Bible. Ignorance and primal bigotries were further assumed to shape the political opinions of Catholics and evangelicals.
As conflicts over Darwinism faded, it appeared that Progressive-era fears might be laid to rest. Catholic and evangelical support for McCarthyism after the Second World War, however, once again excited alarm in academic and elite journalistic circles. Prominent postwar liberals, including Martin Seymour Lipset, Richard Hofstadter, and David Riesman, revived the Progressive critique of Christian orthodoxy by positing many of the same assumptions about the perilous effects of religious orthodoxy on democratic citizenship. Unlike their Progressive heirs, though, postwar thinkers did not merely believe that Catholics and evangelicals were natural allies. They further argued that an actual political alliance between evangelicals and Catholics was a real possibility in their lifetime. These liberals believed that Catholics and Protestants might overcome Reformation-era fights to create a truly pan-Christian social movement.
Despite some remarkably careful historical scholarship on the conflict between liberal elites and theologically conservative Christians in the Progressive and postwar eras, there has been a tendency to focus almost exclusively on either Protestant evangelicals or Catholics. The story has usually been told either as a conflict between Protestant cultural ideals and Catholicism (as reflected in Prohibition, for example) or as one that focuses on the conflict between modernism and Protestant fundamentalism.1 Yet, as this essay shows, Progressives and postwar liberals were often deeply concerned about the influence of orthodox Christianity in general rather than Protestant fundamentalists or Catholics in particular. In fact, Progressive and postwar academics and journalists anticipated the historic political coalition of Catholics and evangelicals and crafted a critique of a social movement yet to be formed.
For all the foresight of Progressive and postwar thinkers, however, they also distorted the way many contemporary observers ultimately understood the Christian Right. Radicals often mar and shape the image of the movements they represent. Yet decades before the Christian Right coalesced, its image was being shaped by prominent academics and journalists. No other contemporary American social movement, including environmentalism, animal rights, or even second-wave feminism, confronted such a negative public image and anticipatory dread at their founding. These expectations may help explain why elite reaction to the Christian Right was overwhelmingly negative.
By stressing the significance of religious orthodoxy, Progressives and postwar liberals also helped lay an intellectual foundation for new analytical categories that further distorted the way observers saw religious conservatives. After the reality of a thriving Christian Right confirmed the old belief in the unifying power of Christian orthodoxy, it was but a short step for social scientists and journalists to posit that all orthodox believers (whether Muslims, Christians, or Jews) shared important affinities. Such believers are thought to share “orthodox vision,” “strong religion,” “strong ontology,” and, especially, “fundamentalism.” These flawed paradigms further clouded the way we understand religion in general and reinforced the old, simplistic caricatures of Christian conservatives.
- Journal : Journal of Church & State
- Author : Jon A. Shields
- Date : 2011
- Volume : 53 (4)
- Pages : 635-655
- Link : https://goo.gl/M5WCVQ