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Lecture 24: "From Civil Religion to Fundamentalist

Sect to New Christian Right"

May 24, 1999



Casanova begins his take on the New Religious Right with three fundamental questions:

    1. why here and not elsewhere?
    2. why now? And,
    3. what are the possible implications and consequences?

The religious factor has been important in American politics ever since the beginning. Casanova cites the liberal French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville who, in the 1830s wrote what is still one of the greatest books about American society, Democracy in America. There, Tocqueville wrote what is in some ways startling to hear, "religion in America … must be regarded as the first of their political institutions." What did he mean by that?

He was thoroughly aware of the First Amendment. He was a strong believer in Disestablishment. He wanted the church disestablished in France. So that’s not what he meant.

He meant that religion in America operates as a school for citizenship both in practice and through its teachings. For example, American religion is peculiarly democratic and republican, that is, religion involves active participation in the local congregation. Tocqueville points out that even the Catholic church, which has a hierarchical rather than a decentralized democratic structure of authority as do many Protestant churches, involves a much more vigorous participation of the laity in the life of the local parish than was the case in Europe at that time. So for Tocqueville the content of American religious life is marked by members of congregations and parishes coming together, joining committees, learning how to raise money, that is, they go through all these kinds of procedures that teaches them how to participate in public life. What is more important, however, is that the content of the teachings of Christianity constantly reminds people that they are not self-sufficient and that they have obligations to their neighbors. And it is this that pulls them out of their self-concern—their self-absorbed narcissism—and into concern for the whole world. And here again, though we can assess the quality of what it means because it isn’t entirely clear what it means, we still find that Americans are, compared to virtually any other advanced industrial nation, a very religious people with 60 to 70 percent describing themselves as religious. According to the polls, 40 percent of Americans tell us that they went to church last Sunday. This is a remarkably high statistic according to most other societies.

In any case, if this sort of picture of a vital religious life is right, Casanova’s point here is that it’s due to the role religion plays in the public sphere of civil society.

The effect of the First Amendment’s religion clause is to disestablish religion, that is, there is no officially sanctioned religion of the state. And it is this that fosters the kind of role religion plays in civil society. This is the First Disestablishment.


The Second Disestablishment has to do with what Casanova calls The Secularization of the Life of the Mind & the First Mobilization of Protestant Fundamentalism. The second Disestablishment was not a single event. Rather, it is the result of a long historical process, that is, the secularization of higher education in America and the loss of Protestant cultural hegemony over the public sphere of American civil society.

Casanova defines American Protestantism in terms of four components:

    1. New England Puritanism;
    2. the dissenting, separatist Baptist tradition;
    3. Scottish Presbyterianism; and,
    4. the evangelical, pragmatist, individualist, perfectionist, and the universalist contribution of Methodism.

In this context, Protestant fundamentalism emerges at the turn of the century as an antimodernist reaction against the second Disestablishment, that is, Protestant fundamentalism emerges in relation to the disestablishment of the evangelical Protestant ethos from:

    1. the emerging liberal Protestant main-line churches;
    2. American education; and,
    3. American public life.

So militant fundamentalist fought its battles on three fronts against:

    1. liberal-modernist heresies;
    2. the teaching of Darwinism in the schools; and,
    3. "rum and Romanism" in urban America.

The conservative theologians who wrote 12 volumes of The Fundamentals between 1910 and 1915 were trying to the block the modernist impulse of their liberal brothers and sisters to adapt to the modern, secular world. " …the basic question was whether American Protestantism should accept graciously and embrace, or rather reject and oppose, its Disestablishment from modern, urban, secular America" (142). Should it embrace modernity or revolt against it?

The attempt to put evolution and modern science on trial backfired and the loss only confirmed liberal intellectuals in their secular prejudices. "For many intellectuals, not only fundamentalism but Christianity and religion were put on trial in Dayton, Tennessee, and the entire Christian religious tradition was found guilty by association" (143).

Finally, with reference to the second Disestablishment, the temperance movement, which turned into Prohibition, was the last crusade that involved the whole diverse array of Protestantism in America. It was able to mobilize religious, secularists, conservatives, progressives, fundamentalists, and modernists, rural as well as urban Protestants. But what was significant about the disastrous outcome, says Casanova, was that it symbolized the loss of cultural hegemony (144). From now on the American way of life would be characterized by a plurality of ways of life, "by what could be called moral denominationalism," says Casanova echoing Berger.

And this brings us to the Third Disestablishment and the Second, more recent Mobilization of Protestant fundamentalism.

Casanova believes its enemies as well as its friends have blown the New Religious Right’s political power way out of proportion. The outcome of Clinton’s impeachment trial seems to confirm that. " … there is no moral majority," as Paul Weyrich said in the trial’s aftermath (NYT, 2-21-99, sec. 4, p. 3).

Fundamentalism began at the turn of the century as a movement within Protestantism that soon tried but failed to take over several denominations. They lost the confrontation with modernists and either split off or were forced out of the denominations they tried to take over. What remained were a few fundamentalist sects in a sea of liberal Protestantism. Eventually, however, they began to recognize and then to exploit the potential of televangelism. Some became expert in the latest fundraising techniques. Others began to establish Christian schools and, overall, fundamentalists began to experience uninterrupted growth. As Casanova says, "By the mid-1970s, business was booming. Indeed, 1976 was "the year of the evangelical." And it was at this point that right-wing issue entrepreneurs and professional organizers such as Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie and Howard Philips entered the scene to exploit a golden opportunity to realign the Republican Party "through the mobilization of a transdenominational religious right."

By 1979, three key organizations were in place: the Moral Majority, Christian Voice and the Religious Roundtable. What Casanova calls "the co-optation of Jerry Falwell as president and founder of the Moral Majority, Inc., in June 1979 was the key to the entire venture." Within a month one million dollars was raised and within a year three hundred thousand members had been recruited. To what extent the New Religious Right had an impact on the 1980 elections is debatable but it is clear that the New Religious Right was very much a part of the Reagan Revolution.

Casanova describes what is distinctive about Falwell’s message as follows:

Falwell tries to show that something radically new has happened, that new historical developments are changing the external, taken-for-granted sinful world beyond recognition, that these external forces are encroaching upon the separate fundamentalist Lifeworld, that therefore fundamentalists and the old silent majority, who would like to see their traditional world defended or restored, should act jointly to reverse historical trends before it is too late (my emphasis; 151).

As Casanova notes, Falwell specifies concrete events and specific time periods to which the threat can be traced. He identifies culprits such as organized minorities and the federal government and points out the consequences of the attacks on the fundamentalists’ world. And finally he states what the movement’s goals are such as profamily, prolife, promoral, and pro-American.

Casanova characterizes the political mobilization of the New Religious Right as a "typical reactive defensive movement" to protect the separate fundamentalist subculture from external threats. That is, the new religious right is fighting against the secularization of public life, that is the third disestablishment.

Not only can Fundamentalism live with sin and apostasy. It needs them to maintain its own self-identity as a true Christian church. But, Casanova adds, it cannot survive in a world that lacks shared meanings and understandings, a world where fundamentalism is just another subculture among others. [Cf. Berger on secularists]


It’s when the lost world is perceived as no longer recoverable that the project of restoration turns into a counterrevolution or into public involvement in the construction of new shared normative structures. And it is as this point that fundamentalism ceases to be privatized "and reenters American public life with claims upon the public sphere of civil society. It is at the precise moment when public involvement is defined as a "moral imperative" that one can speak of the conversion of a fundamentalist." That is the conversion of a fundamentalist from a private, otherworldly orientation to a public, this-worldy one.

Casanova is not fully clear on what kind of public impact the deprivatization of Protestant fundamentalism would have upon American public life. But he wants to debunk the following assumptions:

    1. fundamentalists constitute a "disciplined, charging army";
    2. anyone who has had a born-again experience is a fundamentalist and a part of the Moral Majority;
    3. given their alleged moral conservatism, Catholics would become likely allies, turning the coalition into a New Christian Right.

Such assumptions are unfounded in part because although fundamentalists became a well-organized, vociferous minority whose unexpected mobilization caught everybody by surprise, they were also a very loosely defined constituency that never reached more than 20 percent of the population and had never come close to be a threatening majority (161)

Casanova says that the Lutheran turned Catholic theologian Richard Neuhaus is right in saying that there is a very strong public bias, reinforced "by social science theories, legal-constitutional interpretations and liberal secular ideologies, against letting religion into the public sphere." But Neuhaus is wrong to imply that fundamentalists were excluded from public life. "They voluntarily withdrew and stayed out of it for religious reasons." And when they unexpectedly returned they naturally surprised other participants in public life by their perceived "uncivil" manners.

And in terms of the prospects for fundamentalists remaining full-fledged long term participants in public life, Casanova implies that it isn’t likely because although they know how to mobilize electoral success, the ideological compromise that electoral politics requires tends to undermine fundamentalist principles and identities. The logic of open public discourse also implies an intolerance of fundamentalism in the public sphere. Fundamentalist absolutist claims that their moral concerns are the only genuine ones or are more valuable than their co-participants will probably not stand the white-hot light of open assessment in a pluralistic market of ideas. In these sorts of conditions true believers are not likely to compromise their ideals and expose their fundamentalist beliefs to public scrutiny and are more than likely to abandon the public square and withdraw into their own lifestyle enclaves where they can protect the plausibility of their views and their sectarian sense of worth. But even there, as Casanova points out, they’re not likely to escape the encroachment of the modern world. "Unable to become an established church or to remain a separate sect, fundamentalism is destined to become just another denomination." Paul Weyrich’s recent comments (NYT 2-21-99) in the aftermath of the impeachment trial about how "we have to look at what we can do to separate ourselves from this hostile culture" in order to make sure "our children are not infected" seem to support Casanova’s views—for now.