Newsweek reports this week on an allegedly new stage in the evolution (if they'll forgive the terminology) of the American Christian Right. Correspondents describe a movement away from the sexuality-morality issues that characterized the movement's "Moral Majority" phase, reflecting the urgency of economic issues for traditional Christian Right constituencies. Leaders and spokesmen are adopting a rhetoric that puts a providential spin on the doctrine of American exceptionalism. They argue that the U.S. is somehow specially favored by God, and that capitalism is an inextricable element of American godliness, so that the nation will lose God's favor if it goes "socialist" or otherwise abandons its exceptional character.
This may be a new stage of the movement's evolution, but the thought itself isn't new. If anything, if Newsweek is right, the Christian Right is reverting to the stance it took roughly from the 1930s through the 1960s, before the latter decade's social liberalization triggered moral-majority anxieties. Christian Rightism evolved from a two-front polemic waged by early "fundamentalist" thinkers against the progressive "Social Gospel" movement at home and an ecumenical Christian movement at home and abroad. The common thread was an insistence on doctrinal purity contrary to social gospelers' concern with serving the poor and ecumenicals' emphasis on broad areas of agreement for the sake of global Christian unity. Ecumenicals and social gospelers alike invoked an ideal of the "brotherhood of man" under the "fatherhood of God," while Christian Rightists tended to identify the godly community exclusively with those who affirmed correct doctrine. The rightists denounced their foes for materialism, allegedly neglecting the soul for the body's material needs, and for preaching a "gospel of works" contrary to God's indispensable grace. Fear of avowedly atheistic Communism only exacerbated rightists' hostility to both ecumenism and a social gospel that appeared to share some "communistic" goals. In those days, however, rightist denominations distrusted political activity; their recourse in the face of creeping communistic ecumenicalism was separatism, a refusal to congregate with anyone who was doctrinally suspect. The cultural changes of the Sixties provoked fears of a moral collapse that made it seem more urgent for rightist congregations to embrace politics in order to save or "take back" their country, and force of habit now probably impels them to remain politically active, despite warnings from disillusioned activists like Cal Thomas, in defense of the presumed economic analogue to right doctrine.
Think what you will about the defining mythological claims of Christianity, but no reading of the Bible reveals a self-evident affinity between semite monotheism and free-market capitalism. The social gospelers thought the opposite was true, especially after reading the actual Gospels, and so do many of their heirs today. But there is an indisputable individualist streak in the Judeo-Christian tradition, from the mosaic utopia of each man with his own vine and fig tree, so often invoked by the Founding generation, to the Christian emphasis on each soul's exclusive responsibility for itself. In American history, Christianity has been split between those who see it as a command to share with the needy and those concerned chiefly with securing their own individual destiny. The Newsweek article opens with a meeting of liberal Christians who hope to counter the reactionary preaching of Christian rightists, but I doubt their prospects. Unless they're ready to match their political opponents fire for fire and brimstone for brimstone, which as liberals they probably aren't, I doubt whether they can convert many unbelievers to the old social gospel. Maybe they'll surprise me, but I won't hold my breath.