The recent dust-up over the Komen foundation’s de-funding, and then re-funding, of Planned Parenthood over the past week has now culminated in one of Komen’s Vice Presidents resigning. That Mrs. Handel ran for governor of Georgia in 2010 on a platform that included derisive invective against Planned Parenthood gives the lie to any claim that Komen’s decision was somehow “not political”. Abortion and homosexuality have both been central issues for Republican presidential candidates as well, especially Rick Santorum (for proof of how deeply embroiled he is on the issue of gay rights, just google his last name). At a time when the US economy is barely creating enough jobs to employ the new workers who are entering it each month while millions of other workers have been unemployed for years, when the signs of global warming are only getting more obvious, when we are spending billions of dollars a year on a war with no end and no obvious goal, our politicians are spending huge amounts of time complaining about whom you’re having sex with. What’s going on?
It’s easy to dismiss all the talk about homosexuals and abortion doctors ruining our country as the rantings of old, white, resentful conservatives. It’s easy to blame the trucker-hat-wearing, confederate-flag-waving angry men whom journalists love to interview for the bigotry at the heart of these debates. But it’s not as simple as that. The Culture Wars were begun by a politically astute elite with some explicit and obvious goals. And when we recognize that the focus on social issues is an intentional strategy to distract working- and middle-class Americans from what really threatens them, it becomes clear that those angry, white, working-class men aren’t really the heart of the problem. They’re being manipulated.
American politics was, from its earliest days, racially-charged. The colonists were white English people, invading territory that various Native tribes had lived on for thousands of years. The rights of the indigenous people were dismissed, and this was legitimized by demeaning their racial and religious identity. Not long afterward, black Africans were kidnapped from their homes and shipped to ports throughout the colonies to act as slave labor. Their rights were, surprise, surprise, dismissed due to their religious and racial identity as well. It’s worth pointing out that in the 17th century, there was huge resistance to evangelizing to slaves, precisely because of concerns that if slaves were the same religion as whites, many whites might start to see them as fellow human beings. Race continued to be the central fault line of American politics up to and after the Civil War; the end of slavery did nothing to change that. Jim Crow, instituted in the decades after the Civil War, sought to re-cement the racial divisions that had been in place for centuries. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s, and the massive, black-led Civil Rights movement that racism was truly and effectively challenged. In the decades since, racism has been so thoroughly demonized that even the staunchest conservatives pay lip-service to racial equality and appreciation for diversity–even while racism still looms large in our social institutions and individuals’ subconsciouses.
It may be obvious how racism was and is used to keep people of color out of power so that their labor can be more easily and cheaply exploited, but it’s as least as crucial for elites that racism also allows them to calm and re-direct the anger and frustration of white working class people, who, importantly, far outnumber working people of color in the US (this is fast changing, but during the 19th and 20th centuries white preponderance was stable). In order not only to better abuse working people of color, but also to control their white counterparts, elites fashioned an elaborate theory of white supremacy, which was arguably aimed more at working whites than people of color. Dirt-poor white farmers, mechanics, and manufacturing workers were being exploited by the very system that was exploiting the labor of people of color (albeit, obviously, not nearly as badly), and the threat of violence, even rebellion, from a pan-racial movement was a real danger. White supremacy sought and seeks to assuage whites class concerns by convincing them that they have more in common with wealthy whites than they do with their fellow working folk of color. It was a classic divide-and-conquer strategy, and it’s clearly worked, for more than 400 years.
So what happened in the 1970s? Why did even arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond recant of his racist ways? The Civil Rights movement had achieved not only substantial legislative success by 1968, but had also, as it highlighted the extraordinary hatred and violence of the Jim Crow South, made racism, as a concept, anathema to a majority of Americans. Politicians could no longer stand up at a podium and fear-monger over race directly. This was a huge problem for the powers that be, who recognized that a working class of united racial groups would have the electoral muscle to usher in fair labor laws and a truly comprehensive and democratic government–which would mean that US elites would lose vast amounts of power, wealth, and privilege. A new strategy had to be devised to keep working folks divided.
The new strategy is what we now know as the Culture Wars. It has two major dynamics: first, race-bating hasn’t disappeared, but it’s now pursued in stealth mode: politicians use “dog whistle” statements that aren’t overly racist to stoke deep-seated fears and prejudices in white Americans. A recent and poignant example would be Newt Gingrich calling Obama the “food stamp president”. There’s nothing directly racist in the statement, but the association of Obama, as a black man, with food stamps is obvious and intentional. The subtext is that (lazy) black people are pulling resources from (hard-working) whites. It’s the same divide-and-conquer schtick, with a smoother veneer.
The second part has been to deploy Christianity as political cover. Since conservatives real goal is to keep as much wealth and power in the hands of elites as they can, they are more than happy to compromise on other issues in order to win over more voter support. As I discussed in my post on fundamentalism, this led to an alliance of socially-conservative Christian leaders and big-business friendly politicians. Abortion and homosexuality were selected as the primary issues–opposing them costs the elites no money and wins them millions of Christian Right voters.
The irony of this should be obvious, but after 40 years of Christianity being associated with the fight over these issues, it may not be anymore. The Gospels never mention homosexuality or abortion–not once–but Jesus repeatedly intones against the wealthy. There are five parables or lessons in which Jesus explicitly denounces wealth: the lesson concerning treasures (Matt. 6:19-21, Luke 12:33-34), the parable of the two masters (Matt. 6:24), the story of the rich young man including the “eye of a needle” parable (Matt. 19:16-26, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30), the overturning of the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple (Matt 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-25), and the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21). In each of these collections of verses, Jesus denounces wealth, the abuse of power, and the worship of money. He repeatedly contends that the faithful must choose between love of wealth and love of God.
So Jesus himself was silent about abortion and homosexuality while vociferously and undeniably denouncing wealth. How can conservatives possibly associate their political agenda with Jesus and his message? Doing so requires not just a selective reading, but a whole re-writing of the Christian message. But modern conservatives have a template to work with. As was mentioned above, ever since the church allied itself to the state in the 4th century, church leaders have struggled to mute the anti-wealth, anti-authority center of the Christian faith and replace it with a pro-status-quo, easy-to-digest faith.
What this means for Christians today should be clear: if we want to truly honor Christ’s message, we have to stand firm on his absolute rejection of the wealthy and powerful in this world. Justice for the oppressed, for the poor, for the marginalized, must always be the center of any responsible Christian politics. We can’t hold polarized, black-and-white judgmental views on abortion and homosexuality while simultaneously celebrating vulture capitalists. It should be clear from even a cursory reading of the Gospels that Jesus was far more willing to forgive even serious sexual sins–like adultery (John 8:1-11)–but was stark and staunch in his judgment of those in power. Being a Christian should, and must, mean resisting oppression in all of its forms. Anything less is a failure to take Jesus seriously.
This post also appeared on my Open Salon Blog.