Prior to the 1970s, a person’s faith had little impact on the way they voted. Make no mistake, however, there have always been those who believed religion should play a larger role in American politics. Colonies were often ruled by strict religious observance prior to the Declaration of Independence. In fact, it could be said, the reason our country implemented the separation of church and state was because of the conflict and dissention caused by the rigorous and divisive theology within the colonies.
In New England for example, “the civil government dealt harshly with religious dissenters…whipping Baptists or cropping the ears of Quakers for their determined efforts to proselytize.” A religious revival came through the colonies between the 1730s and 1740s, called the Great Awakening. This movement “challenged the clerical elite and colonial establishment” by appealing to the poor and uneducated. It focused more on an emotional relationship with God than one based in reasoning. The Great Awakening was the basis for what would become the current fundamentalist, evangelical Christian faith.
Historian Patricia Bonomi noted that rationalism, nevertheless, remained the predominant religious underpinning and “was often present in the religion of gentlemen leaders by the late colonial period.” As American civilization progressed in scientific discoveries, modernists seamlessly wove their understanding of God and their holy texts together. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, found their beliefs contentiously out of step with rationalism and modernization.
Until the 1970s, religious fundamentalists primarily stayed away from politics, believing politics distracted them from their calling to bring people to Christ and deliver the message of salvation. But through the charismatic leadership of people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson, and savvy political strategists like Paul Weyrich, Christian fundamentalist extremism found a new platform in American politics, unlike any time in history.
Most of the popular Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential election claimed God told them to run for president. What they share in common is a brand of Christianity, which is historically racist, homophobic, xenophobic, dangerously nationalistic, and exclusive. It is a form of Christian Sharia law, which forces those who believe differently into strict adherence to their version of “religious freedom.”
Fundamentalist Christian “religious freedom” laws allow for sweeping discrimination and removal of federal protections for people who believe differently. For example, Mississippi passed the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act” in 2016, which said public businesses, social workers, and even public employees who believe that sex should only be reserved between married people in opposite sex relationships cannot be punished for denying services to people who believe differently. Additionally, if someone’s religious belief is different than those of an adoption agency, the agency can refuse the adoption of a child to that person. In many ways, it is stepping hundreds of years backwards in America’s history. The government isn’t doing the punishing, per se, but laws prohibit it from equally protecting citizens.
At the beginning of Trump’s presidency, he initiated an executive ordered called “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom.” Most agree the order was little more than a nod to the fundamentalist Christians that helped elect Trump into office, and it has no teeth. However, the order essentially allows discrimination from the highest offices in the country, letting individuals deny health care, education, employment, government grants and even government contracts to people who believe or behave differently. If someone simply claims a strongly held religious belief, they can discriminate for virtually any reason without retribution.
The question is, why are Americans allowing this to happen? Surveys show that much of what Christian fundamentalists represent is out of step with what Americans want. Most Americans oppose Trump’s immigration ban. Most Americans support gay marriage. Most Americans support abortion rights. Americans are religiously diverse, with more and more people disassociating with their evangelical roots. Trump’s election to the White House has splintered evangelicals even further, with many recognizing the blatant hypocrisy of Trump’s Christian supporters.
The fundamentalist chokehold on American politics seeks to destroy the religious and cultural plurality on which the country, and the Declaration of Independence, was based. These theological divisions – which pit believers against non-believers, and those who believe correctly against those who don’t – are a major contributor to America’s sharply divided politics. When someone believes he or she holds absolute truth, there can be no compromise, no middle ground, and no discussion.
Fundamentalism - Christian, Islam, or any other religious ideology - is the antithesis of progression. Fundamentalism’s dangerous anti-science stance threatens the world’s environment, reduces the efficacy of American education, and leaves citizens unprepared for life in a global economy. Fundamentalism is shrouded in ignorance, backed by authoritarianism, and places an enormous amount of trust in individual leaders. To free us of the religious chokehold, citizens must recognize, and actively vote against the powerful political machine of the Fundamentalist Christian right.