Over the past 30 years, much attention has been paid to the 'Religious Right", defined as Evangelical Christians whose faith has led the to support the Republican party wing due it its opposition to abortions and homosexuality. The conventional wisdom being that this groups politics are defined by their religion.
To my mind it is becoming clear that this was a incorrect understanding of this voting block. First much of the Republican agenda staunchly supported by this group are in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus Christ (protect the poor, judge not, thy neighbor includes the Samaritan etc.) , and second, the evangelical intensity of African American Churches is at least as strong as their White counterparts but they strongly support the Democrats.
I think a better description of these people would be “white traditionalists”. Under this understanding, under this understanding the groups political motivations wouldn’t be defined so much by their faith but instead by a broader tribalism of which religion is only a part. Under this view the primary motivator is comfort in a way of life in American prior to upheavals of the racial, social and sexual upheavals of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, and a distrust of anything that goes against that. Thus secularization, multiculturalism, loss of standing for whites, increased sexuality, feminism, drug use, tolerance of non-traidional lifestyles all became threats that must be fought.
I believe that this voting block became associated strictly with religious fundamentalism for a number of reasons.
First, Most of the white traditions held by the group that has been under attack in the recent decades is the superiority of the Christian Religion. While it used to be safe to assume that everyone you would come across was Christian (or at least Jewish) and more or less believed everything in the bible, this is now no longer the case. So propagation the morality expressed by religious fundamentalism is one of the primary issues with the group.
Second, in traditional America, one of the main leaders that people look to for guidance is the minister. So it was natural that religious leaders would become spokesmen for the defense of the white traditional way of life. Which then leads to the conclusion that the movement is defined by religion.
Third, Religion is an excellent motivator. Most religious wars aren’t actually about religion but are instead about political and cultural differences. However, telling people that you will go to heaven if you kill the infidel/vote Republican is a great way to get people to do what you want despite any negative consequences to themselves as individuals. Also religious belief as a motivation is much more socially acceptable than say xenophobia. So many of the traditionalists will consciously or unconsciously ascribe their motivation for certain political opinions to their faith.
So you have a movement, supporting religious fundamentalism, lead by ministers, and ascribing the motivations behind their opinions to their faith, and the obvious conclusion that its all about religion.
Now if its all the same group of people why does it matter if I call them the religious right or call them the white traditionalist? I think it comes in the understanding of what it likely to change their politics. If their motivations are indeed primarily religious, then all it would take to change their minds would be to somehow take abortion off the table, or convince them that “Jesus was a Democrat”. But if they are as I believe"white traditionalists" then this would only remove a part of a much larger set of issues that motivates them, and approaching them purely on religious grounds will be ineffective.
A few final thoughts regarding this debate:
First, I tried my best to get my ideas across without poisoning the well. I’m not sure that I succeeded. In any case I would rather not have this debate devolve into a “All Republcans and the Religious right are evil” thread. There are enough of those already.
Second, I have very little invested in this theory, and have opened it up for debate precisely to see what other people think of it pro or con. I will be very happy to have someone provide evidence tearing it to shreds, or simply respond that “yes its true, but demographers have known it since 1982 and you aren’t proposing anything new.”