The inner life of the religious right

Republican Gomorrah:

Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party

Pat Robertson thinks that 200,000 Haitians died because their ancestors made a pact with the Devil. Brit Hume thinks Tiger Woods needs to convert to Christianity from Buddhism because the latter religion doesn’t offer the kind of “redemption” he needs. For those on the outside, the Christian Right can be a mystery. Why does their message appeal to so many? How did they get so influential? Why are so many exposed as hypocrites, and why doesn’t that seem to shake their followers? Through infiltration, historiography, and psychology, Max Blumenthal takes us inside the movement, and believe it or not, it’s even scarier than you think.

A starting point for Blumenthal’s analysis is the work of the German-Jewish immigrant Erich Fromm who wrote about the psychology of fascism in his 1941 book, Escape from Freedom. Fromm’s work was followed by Eric Hoffer, a self-educated San Francisco “stevedore philosopher” and author of The True Believer, which directed fire at both Depression-era communists organizing workers and the fascists’ promise of “transcendent dictatorship” in Europe. Blumenthal subtly dismisses this criticism of the left, and focuses on why people flock to right-wing, authoritarian movements.

According to Hoffer, “A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises, but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence.” For Fromm:

The function of an authoritarian ideology and practice can be compared to the function of neurotic symptoms. Such symptoms result from unbearable psychological conditions and at the same time offer a solution that makes life possible. Yet they are not a solution that leads to happiness or growth of personality. They leave unchanged the conditions that necessitate the neurotic solution.

Further, “the lust for power is not rooted in strength but in weakness [italics in original]. It is the expression of the individual self to stand alone and live. It is the desperate attempt to gain secondary strength where genuine strength is lacking.”

Blumenthal observes that the Christian Right preys upon the crushing feelings of inefficacy and personal failure that are inherent in a society where the majority are divorced from power. It is a self-perpetuating ideology: The distressed are offered the opportunity to become “born again,” whereupon they find the companionship of other troubled individuals, and the leadership of stern, fatherly figures who seem to be more collected and less flawed. Of course, the real problems, be they economic insecurity, drug addiction, or sexual repression are merely papered over. The “flaws” remain—and so the continuing need to repent and submit.

It is in this way that a “kingdom of crisis,” in Blumenthal’s words, has been built and nurtured over the decades to become a potent political force that exerts itself in every area. At the top of the heap sits a network of multimillionaire funders, mega-church ministers, Republican politicians, and a cadre of operatives. Blumenthal dissects this network, exposing the connections and divisions, the hypocrisy, and lunatic fanaticism of those who claim to be pious enough to lead the movement. Often, they are every bit as “flawed” as the distressed members of the movement’s rank and file. As Blumenthal reveals the lurid details, readers may giggle and squirm, at times wondering if they should be under the bedsheets with a flashlight as they pore over the sexual adventures of pastor Ted Haggerty and Congressman Mark Foley.

Deserving special attention is James Dobson, the leader of the massive foundation Focus on the Family, based in the “Evangelical Vatican” in Colorado Springs. Dobson began his career by denouncing the postwar parenting style promoted by Dr. Benjamin Spock, which encouraged the respectful treatment of children. Dobson, who received a doctorate in psychology from the University of Southern California in 1967, linked the rise of campus revolutionaries and the Black rebellions in American cities to Spock-ism; these challenges to authority “paralleled the decline in authority in the home.” His smash success, Dare to Discipline, published in 1970, “reflects the sadomasochism at the core of his philosophy,” according to Blumenthal. “[M]any of those raised on a steady diet of corporal punishment demonstrate a tendency later in life to reenact the painful experiences familiar to their childhoods, through either radical-right political activism or cruel interpersonal behavior, or both.”

The success of Dobson’s book and his later radio ministry, Focus on the Family, projected him into cult status as a father figure of the Christian right. Dobson set out to capture the Republican Party and to remake American society into one that gave no quarter to “deviants” from his authoritarian vision. Dobson and his allies made some inroads during the Reagan administration and later in Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Republican Revolution,” which staffed Congress with several Dobson acolytes. With the election of George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000, and with born-again Tom DeLay setting the agenda in Congress, the movement had apparently reached the mountaintop.

The main contention in Republican Gomorrah is that in capturing the highest echelons of power, the Christian Right reached a self-inflicted dead end. Following the period of scandal and disaster that were the Bush years, the Republicans in 2008 desperately needed a presidential ticket with a more grounded and intellectual appeal. The broader—and more moderate—party electorate pushed John McCain to the nomination, but the party’s Christian right activists weren’t convinced by his sudden, last-minute piety. Falling behind in the polls, the McCain campaign capitulated to the evangelicals and selected movement ideologue Sarah Palin as his running mate. According to Blumenthal, “Under Palin, the self-destructive trend that fueled the movement subsumed the party once and for all…even as the rest of the American public rejected her.”

Is it true that the Christian right has “subsumed” the Republican Party? Blumenthal notes that even in their periods of greatest influence, “their” politicians have usually been much more interested in forcing through a pro-business agenda than in establishing Biblical law. This argument should be taken further to note that the party uses the movement as foot soldiers, stoking the flames with publicity stunts (e.g., “saving” Terri Schiavo, or placing the Ten Commandments in courthouses) and campaigns that have harmed millions (against abortion and same-sex marriage.) But the main beneficiaries are the elite of Corporate America, who are willing to take the movement’s votes and activist energy, then cast it aside when it becomes an obstacle. Under this reading, the Palin pick was a desperate “hail Mary” at a time when voters and corporate dollars were shifting toward Obama. But this is not what Blumenthal is arguing. He says that the lunatics have actually taken over the asylum.

Though the election of Barack Obama signaled a major shift, one year later, can we seriously claim that the Christian right has self-destructed “once and for all”? The election-day passage of the antigay Proposition 8 in California, unopposed by Obama—followed by the invitation to one of its major proponents, mega-church bigot Rick Warren, to read the inauguration prayer—were early signs that the new administration would rather coddle the right than smash it. Since then, with multibillion-dollar giveaways to the banks and health insurance companies, even as official unemployment hit 10 percent, Obama has given little real or even ideological comfort to the country’s desperate. What’s worse is that liberal leaders now mainly defend the actions of the administration, leaving the right to form the principled opposition through local disruptions and national protests.

Ultimately, it may not matter whether Americans know that Sarah Palin believes in witches or that the Republican Party is home to many self-hating homosexuals. Until a left is built that can compete ideologically and organizationally, the right will be there to mobilize on the misery that capitalism—and the right itself!—create, i.e., they will not simply devour themselves. Max Blumenthal has made a premature declaration of victory, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from reading this chronicle of the movement even as the story unfolds.

Issue #76

March 2011

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