RECENT POLLS SUGGEST that America’s vaunted religiosity is slipping, including the percentage of people willing to identify themselves as evangelicals. At the same time, the percentage of avowed secularists has risen. A movement calling itself the “New Atheism”—those adamantly opposed to religion—has attracted a considerable following.
The oracles of this movement—including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens—deny any possibility of the supernatural, assert that religious belief is irrational, and posit that religion has caused untold evil and suffering throughout history. Because of their dogmatism and their refusal to countenance views other than their own, I refer to these people as “secular fundamentalists.”
Hard data may be elusive, but the latest generation of American young people is much less religious than the last, and the growing secularism they represent could be a byproduct of the polarizing effect of the Religious Right. With evangelical fundamentalism being the dominant and most public form of U.S. Christianity over the last generation, young seekers would rather turn away from all religion than adapt to the harsh expression of faith that excludes so many of their peers and often stands against their aspirations for fairness and equality.
Religious fundamentalism has tainted the reputation of Christianity. For many, unbelief has become more palatable than belief, if believing requires an embrace of the distortions that have so characterized U.S. Christianity over the last several decades.
What prompted the emergence of this New Atheism or secular fundamentalism? What historical forces contributed to its rise? The roots of this phenomenon go back more than three decades—to the political mobilization of a different species of fundamentalism that became the movement commonly known as the Religious Right.
AS THE 1980 presidential campaign reached its climax, an interested citizen, a preacher, picked up the telephone. Although the race was still fluid, his preferred candidate was trailing in the polls, and yet inserting himself explicitly into the race was dicey. His ability to sway voters, especially evangelical voters, was undisputed, but that influence derived precisely from his ability to appear above the fray. Over the course of a long and distinguished career, he had perfected the art of the discreet political gesture—a strategic handshake, a brief touch on the shoulder, a whispered aside in front of the cameras—to telegraph his preferences.
But this election was especially fraught. One candidate, the incumbent running for re-election, was known as a family man who shared the preacher’s evangelical theological convictions. The other major candidate, divorced and remarried, had spent much of his career in Hollywood, a province not known to evangelicals as an outpost of piety. A third-party candidate was a member of the Evangelical Free Church, a denomination with deep roots in Scandinavian pietism.
Receiver in hand, the preacher considered his options one last time and punched the numbers. At the other end of the line was Paul Laxalt, U.S. senator from Nevada and national chair of Ronald Reagan’s campaign for president. A memorandum in the Reagan Library tells the remainder of the story. “Billy Graham called,” the senator wrote. “Wants to help short of public endorsement.” Then Laxalt added: “His presence, in my view, would be exceedingly helpful in some of our key states.”
Carter’s improbable rise to the presidency in 1976 was fueled by voter discontent with Washington and particularly with the web of corruption surrounding Richard Nixon. The one-term governor of Georgia traded on his outsider status as well as his born-again Christianity. He also benefited from a resurgence of progressive evangelicalism in the 1970s, the movement that takes seriously Jesus’ words to care for “the least of these.”
In earlier decades of U.S. history, progressive evangelicalism animated various movements of social reform, including the abolition of slavery, public education, prison reform, and advocacy for women’s rights, including the right to vote. Many evangelicals were involved in peace movements, and some evangelicals even doubted the morality of capitalism because it necessarily elevated avarice over altruism and therefore ran counter to the teachings of Jesus. Charles Grandison Finney, the most famous and influential evangelical of the 19th century, argued that capitalism “recognizes only the love of self” and said that “the rules by which business is done in the world, are directly opposite to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the spirit he exhibited.” The man of business, in contrast with the gospel, lives by the maxim: “Look out for number one.”
In November 1973, a group of 55 evangelicals, including Ronald Sider, Carl F.H. Henry, Tom Skinner, and Jim Wallis, met at the Chicago YMCA and adopted the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. Echoing the themes of progressive evangelicalism from decades past, the declaration decried income inequality and militarism as well as the persistence of racism and hunger in the midst of an affluent society. At the behest of Nancy Hardesty, the declaration also included a forthright embrace of women’s rights and gender equality.
Just over a year later, Carter announced his candidacy for president, drawing on many of those same themes as well as his frequently repeated promise to never knowingly lie to the American people. He pledged his commitment to racial reconciliation and health-care reform and to pursue human rights, a reduction of nuclear weapons, and a less imperial foreign policy.
Carter’s campaign confounded the pundits, who thought that the voters’ infatuation with the one-term governor of Georgia would evaporate once the field of candidates took shape. They were mistaken. Carter’s outsider status coupled with his evident probity provided a tonic to an electorate weary of Nixon’s endless prevarications. On his way to the White House, Carter effectively rid his party—and the nation—of its most pugnacious segregationist, George C. Wallace of Alabama, by beating Wallace in the Florida Democratic primary.
Carter’s tenure as president was, by any measure, a stormy one, beset by persistent energy crises, stubbornly high inflation, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iranian Revolution. Still, Carter was remarkably successful in pursuing his agenda. His first official act as president was to pardon Vietnam-era draft resisters, thereby helping to bring that sorry chapter in American life to a close. He renegotiated the Panama Canal treaties, and, in so doing, signaled an attenuation of U.S. colonialism. He advanced peace in the Middle East far beyond anything accomplished by his predecessors (or his successors). He recalibrated foreign policy away from a reflexive Cold War dualism and toward an emphasis on human rights. On domestic matters, Carter sought to limit the incidence of abortion, and he is regarded by many as the nation’s greatest environmental president.
SO WHY WOULD evangelicals, who helped propel Carter to the presidency in 1976, turn against him four years later? Why would they reject one of their own, a born-again evangelical Christian, in favor of a former actor who, as governor of California, had signed into law the most liberal abortion bill in the nation?
It makes no sense, until you consider that evangelicalism itself was deeply divided in the 1970s. Carter’s understanding of the faith, shaped by progressive evangelicalism, pushed him toward the left of the political spectrum, whereas many white, northern evangelicals, following the lead of Billy Graham, gravitated toward the Republican Party. Nixon’s damage to the Republican brand had briefly altered that calculus in the mid-1970s, and Carter harvested a far greater percentage of evangelical votes than any of his Democratic predecessors.
Conservatives, however, were eager to regain their footing after the disastrous Nixon presidency, and several savvy political operatives conspired to do so. Paul Weyrich, who became a primary architect of the Religious Right, had long recognized the political potential of evangelical voters. If he could organize them into a political movement, he reasoned, he could reshape the political landscape.
Weyrich had tried various issues over the years to lure conservative evangelicals into the political arena—abortion, pornography, school prayer, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment—but nothing worked. By the mid-1970s, however, he finally found the issue that would energize them: the attempt by the Internal Revenue Service to deny tax exemption to institutions that engaged in racial discrimination.
Following the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, many churches, especially in the South, had formed “segregation academies” to avoid the mandate of integration. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade racial discrimination in public accommodations, but these schools persisted in their racial policies. A lower court ruling in 1971, however, held that any institution that engaged in racial discrimination was not—by definition—a charitable institution; therefore, it had no claims on tax-exempt status.
As the Internal Revenue Service began enforcing that ruling in the mid-1970s, and especially as it turned its attentions to the notoriously fundamentalist—and segregationist—Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., Weyrich finally found the issue that would energize conservative evangelical and fundamentalist leaders. When, after years of warnings, the IRS rescinded the tax exemption of Bob Jones University in 1976, these preachers howled in protest. Jerry Falwell, who had opened his own segregated academy in Lynchburg, Va., in 1967, famously complained that it was easier to open a massage parlor in most states than it was to open a “Christian” school.
Weyrich and other leaders of the nascent Religious Right, however, were careful to frame their protests as a defense of religious freedom—which meant, in this case, the freedom to discriminate. Ignoring the fact that exemption from taxation is actually a form of public subsidy, they railed against what they called governmental intervention into religious matters.
Weyrich’s larger challenge in forging the Religious Right was directing this righteous anger against Carter, a task that required an audacious sleight of hand. The IRS action against Bob Jones University took effect on Jan. 19, 1976, which happened to be the same day that Carter won the Iowa precinct caucuses, his first major step toward the Democratic nomination and the presidency. Gerald Ford was president then—Carter was inaugurated a year and a day later—but as leaders of the Religious Right ramped up their activism in advance of the 1980 presidential election, they succeeded in pinning the IRS action on Carter.
Midway through his term as president, Carter’s approval was sagging, which made him susceptible to the attacks and distortions of his political adversaries, including politically conservative preachers. Carter was vilified for the “giveaway” of the Panama Canal and for high interest rates and a stagnant economy. In 1977, Anita Bryant, a former Miss Oklahoma and runner-up Miss America, headed a movement called Save Our Children that rescinded civil rights protections for gays and lesbians in Dade County, Fla; Carter, while acknowledging his uneasiness about homosexuality, insisted that all citizens were entitled to equal protection under the law. Together with his wife, Rosalynn, the president also pushed for ratification of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.
From the other end of the political spectrum, Carter faced criticism for reinstituting draft registration and upgrading U.S. military systems. He was slow to address human rights abuses among some nations long considered allies, including South Korea and El Salvador.
Although many progressive evangelicals shared these concerns, Carter’s greater political threat emanated from the right. By 1979, a year before Carter faced the voters, leaders of the Religious Right found the issue that would galvanize grassroots evangelical voters: abortion. Although evangelicals regarded abortion as a “Catholic issue” through most of the 1970s, and some evangelical leaders had applauded the Roe vs. Wade ruling in 1973, a film series called Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, featuring Francis A. Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop, helped persuade rank-and-file evangelicals that abortion must be outlawed. Despite Carter’s longstanding opposition to abortion and his efforts as governor and as president to limit its incidence, Carter was deemed insufficiently “pro-life.”
JIMMY CARTER’S DEFEAT in 1980 marked a turning point in the history of evangelicalism in America. Although Carter’s policies were consistent with the principles of progressive evangelicalism, the leaders of the Religious Right peddled a different vision, one characterized less by community, human rights, and care for those less fortunate than by free-market capitalism and a muscular foreign policy.
The rise of the Religious Right and the demise of progressive evangelicalism also transformed U.S. politics, contributing to the election of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and countless hard-right conservatives on the state and local levels. Today, more than 30 years later, many Americans view evangelicalism and conservative politics as inseparable. Evangelicalism is seen by many as synonymous with intolerance.
Every action tends to trigger a reaction, and I see an unmistakable connection between these two developments—the rise of the Religious Right and the emergence of the New Atheism. Ironically, they’re both examples of fundamentalism in practice, one growing out of the other.
Both species of fundamentalism revel in a dualistic view of the world. For conservative fundamentalists, it’s a slavish biblical literalism that refuses to countenance any ambiguity on social issues or to acknowledge that the laws of a pluralistic society cannot be derived directly from the Hebrew Bible. The dualism of secular fundamentalists resists any common ground between faith and reason and forecloses even the possibility of transcendence.
Both the political fundamentalists of the Religious Right and the secular fundamentalists of the New Atheism are guilty of excess. Their dualistic perspective on the world blinds them to shades of gray.
Whatever his shortcomings as president, Jimmy Carter discerned shades of gray. He rejected the dualism of the Cold War in favor of a foreign policy that repudiated colonialism and emphasized human rights. Even though he was personally uncomfortable with homosexuality (as were most Americans at the time), Carter recognized that gays and lesbians were entitled to full rights as citizens. He understood the importance of military restraint as well as the connection between profligate energy use and the despoiling of God’s creation.
His political adversaries, however, saw the world in black and white, stripped of nuance. The activism of religious fundamentalists in the turning-point election of 1980 may have altered the political landscape, but the emergence of the Religious Right also set the stage for the backlash of the New Atheism.
Fundamentalism, after all, begets fundamentalism.
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is chair of the Religion Department at Dartmouth College and the author, most recently, of Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter (May 2014).