Evangelical Christianity – The Shock Troops of the Right
by Kayla Molodoy
For decades, the Christian right in the US has placed opposition to abortion at the center of its political mission, weaponizing sexual and reproductive issues to mobilize a mass following. Since its collective turn towards political activism during Reagan’s triumphant 1980 presidential election campaign, evangelicalism has been the backbone of the Republican Party in the US, and is becoming increasingly politicized in Latin America, particularly in Bolsonaro’s Brazil.
As the unholy alliance between religious extremists and imperialist profiteers solidifies its control of the state, women’s rights are at risk of becoming the sacrificial lamb on the altar of the right’s continued electoral success.
The Growth of Political Evangelicalism in the US
Evangelicalism first took recognizable shape in America in the 18th century, and by the mid 19th century had grown into the “Evangelical Empire”, an influential movement initially concerned with liberal issues like the abolition of slavery and criminal justice reform before splintering over Darwin’s theory of evolution and a fundamentalist reading of the scriptures.
Modern evangelicalism dates from the end of WWII, when successive American administrations worked to equate Christianity with “American values” and mobilize the Christian community as a line of defense in the Cold War. Opposition to desegregation, the counter-culture movements of the late 1960s and the Supreme Court’s decision to make abortion a constitutionally protected right in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling were catalysts for the rise of the Christian Right, beginning in the late 1960s and continuing to today.
Ronald Reagan’s Republican candidacy in 1980 marked a turning point in the politicization of the evangelical community. During the run-up to the election, the previously more inclusive and bi-partisan attitude of American evangelical Christians began its transformation toward rigid intolerance, influenced heavily by the pervasive Christian media empire created primarily by Jerry Falwell.
Falwell headed the Christian right-wing political organization, the Moral Majority, and played an important role in the mutual courtship between the Republican Party and evangelicals. Under this influence the Republican National Convention approved the GOP’s most socially conservative platform ever, reversing its historic support for the Equal Rights Amendment and including protection of the rights of zygotes, i.e. fertilized eggs, over the rights of women in response to Roe v. Wade:
“We affirm our support of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children. We also support the Congressional efforts to restrict the use of taxpayers’ dollars for abortion.”
Successful grassroots activism and an exceptional level of devotion to promoting favored issues led to a high voter turnout, rewarding Reagan with two-thirds of evangelical votes, rising to 78% in his re-election. This pact created the mutually beneficial symbiosis of the political right and evangelicals and hinged almost exclusively on the party’s agreement to adopt the evangelical line on social issues, including abortion.
The alliance between the evangelicals and the Republicans continues to this day, with candidates required to conciliate to the Christian right on their social programme to harvest their votes and guarantee fervent proselytising in support of American imperialism.
For evangelicals in the US, rallying behind politicians like Trump – whose personal traits make him a thoroughly implausible vessel for evangelical aspirations – is now expected and almost a given. But the growth of the evangelical movement in Latin America, and the links between the Brazilian and American evangelicalism, is giving the Christian Right a new international dynamic.
The first Protestant evangelicals landed in Brazil in the 19th century with a second wave coming in the 1940s with the advent of Foursquare Church from California, complete with Billy Graham-like tent revivals which had great circus-like appeal. A third wave in the 1970s brought a “neo-pentecostal” movement led by Brazil’s own Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG). Founded by Edir Macedo, virulently anti-Black and possibly the richest religious leader in the world, his influence on Brazilian politics has become extreme with tremendous institutional representation.
The election of Jair Bolsonaro was achieved with the help of Brazil’s evangelical establishment dominated by the UCKG. Bolsonaro, like Trump, is a misogynist, racist homophobe who has whipped up an active far-right support base. He also sympathizes with the military dictatorship that held power in Brazil from 1964 to 1985, his only criticism being that “the situation of the country would be better today if the dictatorship had killed more people.”
The primary political handicap that right-wing parties have faced in Latin America is persistent electoral weakness because of their lack of ties with non-elites. Bolsonaro and his ilk are willingly offering links to the very top, bringing in a wide variety of evangelical voters but mostly the lower middle classes.
This is important because the percentage of evangelical Christians in Brazil has more than doubled from 9 percent in 1990 to 22 percent and is currently estimated at 31 percent. They are expected to outnumber Catholics by 2032 – and the right want to cement their electoral alliance with them.
We see similar dynamics at play in the recent events in Bolivia with the ousting of Evo Morales by Luis Fernando Camacho, a fundamentalist and evangelical Christian multi-millionaire, who vowed to remove the left populist influence of the majority indigenous population represented and championed by Morales.
Jeanine Añez declared on the day of the coup: “The Bible has returned to the palace.” Although the Bolivian evangelicals represent far small a proportion of the populace than in Brazil, their base among the white ruling and middle classes have been whipped up into a frenzy against the indigenous majority because of their supposed paganism, symbolized by the recognition of the earth deity Pachamama.
One protester rued the irony of this “liberation”: “It’s the same as 500 years ago when the Spanish came and the first thing they showed the indigenous people was the Bible.”
The economic pressure on and even de-classing of the petit-bourgeoisies of the US and Brazil has made them more receptive to the reactionary ideologies and populist rhetoric of politicians like Trump and Bolsonaro.
In Bolivia and Brazil, they have succeeded in gaining the support of important sections of the ruling class, frightened by the mild reforms of social democratic or left populist governments and their attempts to pull Latin America away from dependence on US imperialism (through which it has historically done very well for itself). Evangelicalism is ideal for this purpose, because of its historical roots in the US churches and their economic and political weight in the movement. In short it is a tool of US imperialism.
The culture wars
The evangelical movement expertly manipulates perceived threats to religion to stimulate unity and enthusiasm in the face of what they perceive as the waning of America’s place as a “Christian Nation”.
In the US, major news organizations like Fox News, and Christian radio and TV stations with mass audiences regularly allege that Christians’ ability to practice their religion is under threat. The use of hot button propaganda phrases such as the “War on Christmas” and “the Attack on Family Values” reinforces this persecution complex among the devoted followers of fundamental Christianity.
But as they lament the imminent demise of Christianity and the oppression of true believers, evangelicals in reality maintain an outsized influence on politics and policy. This reactive “persecution complex,” catastrophizing and predicting the end of the Christian Faith, and a “Godless society” is the powerhouse for spreading evangelicalism and has been for decades.
In this respect the rise of Christian Zionism within the Evangelical movement is interesting. It at once links the “victimhood” of Protestant Christianity with the rather more real Holocaust of the Jewish people, and provides a religious fervor to America’s support for the state of Israel.
On opening the US Embassy in Jerusalem, two Texan evangelical pastors, brought onto the official US state visit, said the founding of Israel “fulfilled the prophecies of the prophets from thousands of years ago” and that the “Messiah will come [to Jerusalem] and establish a kingdom that will never end.”
This us-versus-them mentality ties perfectly into the theme of victimhood and suffering that is so crucial to the evangelical message. Alienation and hardship, actualized by capitalism and disguised as (perceived) religious persecution, became a potent tool used to attract vast numbers and became an integral part of evangelical identity. Perceived threats such as feminism, legalized abortion, same-sex marriage, and gay and transgender rights have led to a message of resentful, declinist populism and prohibit any kind of class consciousness.
Conservative leaders of all stripes have learned their lesson well: repeat and identify with the threat of victimization of Christians, then promise to protect their faith and you’ll win. In the words of Donald Trump, who received the votes of over 80 percent of evangelicals, who make up around a third of the electorate: “We’re going to protect Christianity in the United States.”
In Brazil, evangelical leaders mobilized in support of Bolsenaro and his “traditional family” values against a PT government that had introduced some rights for minorities during its 13 years in power, had introduced a debate on abortion decriminalisation into the lower house and was considering plans to add gender diversity education to the curriculum.
In 40 years, the Brazilian population has shifted from being ninety per cent Catholic to one third evangelical. Evangelical Churches now run over 600 TV and radio channels, including the nation’s second-largest TV company, Rede Record, owned by UCKG founder, Edir Macedo.
Bolsonaro refused TV debates with other candidates but gave an exclusive interview to Rede Record as well as his first interview after winning the presidency. In that interview he described Brazil’s “ethical and moral crisis” and threatened to exile PT supporters.
Political Evangelicalism and its Effect on Women
For the last half century the marriage of right-wing politics and this oppressive Christian sect has escalated injustice among the world’s poor and minorities – especially women – using the Biblical justification of a man’s superiority over women to perpetuate capitalist patriarchy. Religious communities effectively silence the voice of half the population and deflect the justifiable anger of impoverishment and inequality (financial as well as social) into obedience to state authority.
These beliefs are weaponized to subordinate women and enforce strict gender roles, dehumanizing women as “other,” and creating the need for male authority in a typical right populist strategy. The rigid biblical power hierarchy of authoritarianism creates and demands unquestioning obedience.
Gender relations are ordered by these principles: wives submit to husbands, children to parents, congregations to church leadership, citizens to the state and all to God – with God usually being equated to the church leadership. Equality – and class – do not exist in this structure.
With women near the bottom, low self-esteem is guaranteed. Being in constant need of saving due to innate unworthiness, shame is always lurking. Being unmarried, not being able to conceive a child, having sex outside of marriage, terminating a pregnancy, getting raped; not being as smart, as capable, as hardworking as a man is all based on the emotion of shame, a shame enforced by the will of God.
Even the majority of non-evangelical women who are not ashamed of having an abortion know stigma and secrecy shroud it; they never know who is safe to tell. Such is the hold this movement has over sections of society and seeks/threatens to hold over us all.
The rise of Christian political evangelicalism is, at base, a reactionary movement in all definitions of the word. It’s a reaction by the capitalist class to the rising fightback against the ever more severe austerity needed to keep the system running and profitable.
For sections of the working class, it’s a reaction to the continuing stagnation of senile capitalism, which leaves the rest of us, and especially women, losing ground economically, politically and socially. The lack of a revolutionary socialist alternative for improvement in these real conditions compounds religion’s appeal.
It plays on the fear of death and the lack of opportunities in life. After all, if you can’t see any way of improving your station in this life, you might as well place your bets on the afterlife. At the same time it is offers a powerful alternative to the bland pablum of Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism, both of which offer neither real opportunities for changing one’s status today nor the emotional satisfaction of a fervent belief in a paradise beyond death.
And, even though all segments of the working class will pay for this capitalist poison, even the evangelicals, women will pay the most. Rights will be curtailed, political influence in society will be curbed, self-esteem will be destroyed, and role models for women will be reduced to toadies like Jeanine Áñez, the current interim president of Bolivia.
Many of the worst atrocities in history have been committed under the influence of religion. A better world is possible, but it won’t be found for women or men in the guise of religion of any sort.
This does not mean that as communists we demand the repression of religion; on the contrary we demand the freedom to worship for all – so long as such practice does not impinge on the freedom of others, both within the sect or outside of it. One only has to look at the desperate plight of the Uighurs in China or of minorities in Islamist regimes to see that religious persecution does exist – and cuts both ways.
But while religion is a necessary product of capitalism and provides a haven for billions in a hostile and cruel world, it preaches submission to the existing order and diverts yearning for a better world into its opposite, support for exploitation and oppression. Whenever and wherever religious institutions make this intervention into the material world, we oppose it tooth and nail.
We need a worldwide unity of struggle based in the working class to fight this growing menace the world over, with women on the front lines in the fight against the special oppression that they will face from evangelical Christian reaction.