Charlottesville, Virginia, July 8—Workers confront the Christian Fascist Ku Klux Klan
“I got the evangelicals,” bragged Donald Trump in September, 2016. This was only partly true. Some members of this US Christian movement were denouncing Trump for racism, sexism and religious intolerance. Trump was actually bragging that he had the support of the Christian Right. This religious political movement has existed for many decades in the US and is always important for Republican politicians.
US capitalists have made use of Christian rightists to give capitalism and US nationalism a religious basis. At various times, Christian rightists have organized support for the Cold War, the Vietnam war, Israel, bigger military spending, and racial segregation—not just in the South. They have opposed social welfare legislation, access to abortion, legal rights for gays and lesbians, and action on climate change.
This article will discuss some of the ideology of the Christian Right. It will summarize ways the US ruling class has promoted that movement.
Evangelicals believe that each person must personally decide to accept Jesus. They often promote mass religious revivals that try to persuade people to convert. Many evangelicals claim that the Bible is literally true, and argue seriously about the meaning of biblical texts. The Christian Right is one arm of evangelical Christianity. There are only a small number of leftist evangelicals.
Several revival movements took place in the 1800s. But the ones that set the pattern for later revivals were led by Dwight Moody in the 1870s. Later, when US industry was growing rapidly, Moody’s revivals were financed by the biggest US manufacturers, railroad bosses and bankers, including Cyrus McCormick, head of McCormick Reaper in Chicago. These bosses hoped that religion would hold workers back from class war and communism. McCormick’s company was a target of the mass movement for the eight-hour day that led to a big strike in 1886. This strike established May Day as an international day for workers’ struggle.
Conflict Among Protestants
US Protestants have always been divided by race and class. About the time of World War I, there was also a major doctrinal split among US Protestants. So-called fundamentalists rejected modern scientific discoveries like the origin of humans by natural selection. They insisted that the Bible is true in every detail. They usually rejected social reform and tried to stand apart from the corruptions of society. Some of the more liberal Churches allowed less literal interpretations of the Bible. They preached a “Social Gospel” that included opposition to poverty and sympathy for the working class.
One of the disagreements in this split was about how to interpret Biblical prophecies. One view said that at any time Jesus could come back and take all Christians directly to heaven (“the Rapture”), leaving non-believers behind to suffer under the tyranny of an “Anti-Christ.” Eventually Jesus would come back and defeat the Anti-Christ. The millennium, 1000 years of peace and harmony, would follow. An opposite view claimed that humans would bring about the millennium themselves and Jesus would come back at the end of it.
This disagreement was and is taken very seriously by evangelicals. Those who believe the first view see struggle for a better life as futile. Just wait for Jesus. The second view is more optimistic and makes reform worthwhile.
The split in US Protestantism changed form over the years, but it hasn’t gone away. The Christian Right is closely connected to fundamentalist wing, which still tries to prevent teaching evolution. Although some evangelicals are concerned about climate change, those who are waiting for the Rapture are not likely to worry about the future of the Earth. It’s all up to God.
Part I summarized some of the doctrines and political ideas of evangelical Christianity in the US.
Right-wing Christianity did not just grow by itself. It was promoted in stages by the direct intervention of the US bosses.
During the economic crisis of the 1930s, many big capitalists resisted the Roosevelt “New Deal” social welfare programs like unemployment insurance and Social Security. Speaking to the US Chamber of Commerce in December 1940, the head of Armstrong Flooring Co. said that the “only antidote” to Roosevelt’s program was “American patriotism and religious faith.”
At the same meeting Congregationalist minister James Fifield told these industrialists that ministers could be recruited to attack social welfare legislation. He and the minsters he organized argued that the New Deal was encouraging people to violate God’s commandments by “coveting” the wealth of the rich and trying to steal it from them. Christianity was individualist and concerned with individual salvation, they said, not social welfare. Collectivism is “unchristian,” Fifield claimed, and capitalism closely matches Christian values.
Fifield headed the First Congregational Church in Los Angeles. The board of this wealthy congregation included some of the biggest capitalists in California, and was attended by right-wing movie industry figures like Cecil B. DeMille.
Using his church as a base, Fifield projected a national organization called Spiritual Mobilization, generously funded by the biggest US capitalists. This organization targeted ministers, including some Catholics and Jews, with the message that the New Deal glorified the state and denied God. Distributing pamphlets, books, magazines, and organizing sermon contests with cash prizes, Spiritual Mobilization claimed 12,000 affiliated ministers by 1948. Ministers all over the US gave sermons praising capitalism and individualism, attacking social welfare laws and rejecting the Social Gospel as “Pagan.”
The 1950s saw a decisive turn in the US government’s use of religion. The words “In God we trust” were written on all US money and “under God” was inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance recited by school children. An annual Presidential Prayer Breakfast was started. Religion was mobilized on a massive scale to promote anti-communism and the Cold War against the Soviet Union and China.
This officially promoted religiosity was vague, and not necessarily Christian. It claimed that religion was the foundation of the US government, and that God commanded obedience to that government, combining nationalism with religion. The bosses’ intense anti-communist propaganda and the widespread fear of nuclear war led many toward religion.
The specifically Christian content of Cold War religion was supplied by Christian celebrities like evangelist Billy Graham. From the 1950s on, Graham held a series of “crusades” in the US and abroad, preaching to large crowds in sports stadiums. Although designed to recruit converts, the crusades were mainly attended by church members. Graham’s message was as much anti-communist as religious. He declared that communism is “against God, against Christ, against all religion …. motivated by the Devil himself.”
Like most evangelicals, Graham endorsed sexist ideas from the Bible: “As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands” (Eph. 5:24). He claimed that by nature women need strong husbands, and husbands have a psychological need to “express their authority.” Contradicting this, he sometimes said that he believed in the equality of the sexes.
Also, like most evangelicals, Graham supported the war in Vietnam. Other evangelicals asked Graham to say that opposing segregation and racial discrimination was a Christian duty, but he refused. Graham liked to appear with US presidents and often hung out with Nixon. In the spring of 1970, Nixon invaded Cambodia and US college campuses exploded in rebellion. Nixon could not find a college where he could speak without protestors, so Graham provided one by inviting him to speak at his crusade at the University of Tennessee. Nixon spoke there to a huge crowd with little opposition. After the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, Graham abandoned politics and his influence declined.
Graham was replaced by evangelists who used television on a large scale and pulled in a lot of money through direct mail. Some of these, like Jimmy Swaggert and Jim and Tammy Baker, were destroyed by financial or sex scandals. Baptist Minister Pat Robertson, who made an unsuccessful try for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, heads a syndicated TV show that now supports Trump.
Part II showed how US capitalists used evangelical Christianity to attack social welfare programs and promote sexism, anti-communism, the Cold War and the Vietnam War.
In the 1980s and 1990s the emphasis of the Christian Right shifted from opposing social welfare programs (even food stamps) and supporting US wars to promoting sexism. Organizations like Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority,” Phyllis Schlafly’s “Eagle Forum” and James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” promoted male domination of women under the guise of “family values.” These groups applied the usual evangelical view that husbands were the leaders and deciders in families and wives should submit to their husbands. One variation of this idea was that leaders were “servant leaders” of those they lead, so submitting is good for those who submit.
While more and more women began to work for wages (as well as at home), these Christian Right groups said that women should not work outside the home and attacked equal legal rights for women at work. They organized mass campaigns against abortion and homosexuals, seeing these as threats to husband-dominated families.
These groups’ sexist ideas were adopted and promoted by Walmart, the giant retailer supposedly run on Christian principles. Walmart portrayed itself as a family. Walmart founder Walton said that “As servant-leaders, we must do all we can to exceed our associate-partners’ [workers’] expectations daily, one on one.” Like all capitalists, however, Walmart exists by exploiting workers’ labor. Its mostly male managers rule over a mass of poorly paid workers who are mostly women. Both in the US and in Central America Walmart recruits managers extensively from Christian colleges, managers likely to buy into the company’s “family” scam.
The Moral Majority and similar groups got significant support from big capitalists like Texas oilman Nelson Bunker Hunt. Together with Moral Majority leader Tim LaHaye, Hunt formed the secretive Council for National Policy in 1981. Leaked membership lists show that this group has contained almost all of the leaders of the Christian Right, including Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway and Christian fascists like Trump advisor Steve Bannon. The CNR brings together right-wing activists and the capitalists that fund them. It interviewed the Republican presidential candidates and gave Trump a “thumbs up.”
It is not only right-wing religion that serves US capitalism. US rulers constantly rely on ministers, especially black ministers, to hold back militant action and prevent protest from turning into rebellion or revolution. Liberal ministers urge people to pray, reject violence and vote for Democrats.
Like all religions, US Protestantism misleads workers. Right-wing versions defend capitalism, promote sexism and endorse the policies and wars of the US Empire. It discourages people from fighting for a better future by denying that progress is possible or insisting that religious practices are the only way to achieve it. Liberal religion sometimes involves people in opposing racism and poverty, helping the homeless, etc., but it also preaches reformism and pacifism.
Belief that history is in God’s hands does not help the masses, but undermines our efforts to fight our way out of the hell of capitalism. The idea that prophecy and sacred books contain real knowledge is refuted by the fact that those who interpret them can never agree about what they mean, and often change their interpretations to suit their politics, as Falwell did. Communists understand that knowledge comes from practice and from theories proved and improved by practice. Religious ideologies don’t enlighten us. They keep us in the power of the capitalists, who create and change religious ideas and movements to suit their interests. Religions can be bent to the rulers’ needs precisely because they are not derived from reality.
In communism the suffering, oppression and social divisions that attract people to religion will end. Communism will mobilize the masses into a worldwide community that overcomes the corruptions of capitalism and provides the basis for great advances in human culture and values. Like racism and sexism, religious ideology will not disappear at once or without ideological struggle. With history in our own hands, however, the masses can use real knowledge to create the real millennium.
Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America.
Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.
Clyde Wilcox and Carin Robinson, Onward Christian Soldiers? The Religious Right in American Politics
Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise