If one pays attention to the recent rhetoric of the Religious Right, one notices a predictable pattern. Not only does the movement loudly denounce things it doesn’t approve of, but it conjures up images of persecution. Its shrillness exemplifies a kind of paranoiac mindset. Some recent examples are typical: We are told that there is a “War on Christmas” aimed at the heart of Christianity; that contraceptives in medical plans pose a major threat to “religious liberty”; that marriage equality is tantamount to the destruction of Judeo-Christian marriage. In some cases the denunciations rise to demonization, as when anti-Muslim activists conjure up fears about “sharia law” to target Muslim citizens.
While cynical calculations undoubtedly underlie some of the inflated language, especially in the hands of Fox News and similar organizations, the theme of persecution seems to be an article of faith within the Religious Right’s subculture. To a large degree, religious rightists have come to believe they are the victims, or potential victims, of dark forces, often represented by humanists, feminists, gay activists, and others. Their fearful premonitions are not limited to a few discrete cases. They widely claim that ungodly forces are enveloping Christians on an infinite number of fronts. Indeed, they seem convinced that civilization itself is on the brink of doom.
This posture is similar in some respects to what Richard Hofstadter once called the “paranoid style” in politics. Hofstadter used the term to describe political scaremongering by McCarthyites and John Birchers at the height of the Cold War, when fear overtook reality and created monsters in people’s minds. Hofstadter pointed out an unpleasant fact about this extravagantly defensive kind of behavior: it has a clearly aggressive aspect to it. Those who are obsessed by the threat of hostile forces often demonstrate an extreme form of intolerance. In an open society, their destructive impact is obvious.
A paranoid mentality is nothing new to the Christian Right. It runs through its history and is evident in its founding rhetoric. Francis Schaeffer, the movement’s main theologian in the 70s and early 80s, conveyed dire warnings to biblical Christians from the outset: America, he declared, was being overwhelmed by an ungodly, secular culture that was advancing relativism, tolerance, and humanism, along with societal evils like abortion. Schaeffer characterized it as it an all-encompassing “worldview,” a substitute religion promoted by secularists aimed at replacing Christianity.
Schaeffer was reacting, of course, to the increasing diversity of American society during and after the 1960s. Ours was a society in transition, one where people were challenging not only inequities like segregation and gender discrimination, but the governing Protestant, Anglo-Saxon order itself. While blacks, women, and ethnic and religious minorities all benefited from the expansion of new rights, Schaeffer and other conservative Christians took issue with the new trends because they failed to recognize conservative Christianity as the dominant referee of customs and morals. He thus found it easy to make secularism, a philosophy that guarantees a level playing field for people of all points of view but is often construed by religious majoritarians as anti-religious, the perfect scapegoat.
To confront what they called the “secular worldview,” the Religious Right responded by adopting an ideology called “Christian Worldview.” The movement has since disseminated the ideology to a broad following. Based on a selective reading of the Bible, Christian Worldview promotes not just traditional Christian morality but a whole way of perceiving the world in biblical Christian terms. Advocates often equate it with what they call “Total Truth” because it is said to agree with God’s perspective rather than with flawed human reason.
The ideology fortifies its followers by providing an absolute guarantee of the certainty of their cause, an ability to redefine the world (e.g., law, government, science, and history) in their own infallible terms, and a vantage point of presumed superiority from which to critique opponents. Believers are motivated by the looming presence of the secular enemy, which they see locking horns with them on a range of issues. The conflict becomes no less than a cosmic struggle between truth and error, a struggle fated to continue until the forces of either good or evil prevail.
Unfortunately, there seems little prospect that the ideology might evolve to reflect the norms of a tolerant society. Constructed as a response to perceived oppression, it makes civil engagement in the public sphere virtually impossible. Moreover, it does little to prepare its advocates for the push-back that inevitably comes from those they stigmatize, such as gays. Ironically, Christian worldviewers see such push-back as simply further confirmation of their own victimization. With their worldview locked firmly in place, they do not seem likely to abandon their persecution narrative any time soon.