God, Calvin, and Social Welfare - Part Six: Godlessness & Secular Humanism
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon May 15, 2006 at 07:00:04 PM EST
Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates (author info)

In the 1950s and 1960s conservatives in evangelical and fundamentalist churches, and conservatives in mainline Protestant denominations, felt themselves under assault by the growth of secular and humanist ideas in the society. Religious belief in general seemed to be waning. Godless communism seemed to be advancing while the Godly in America seemed to be retreating.

Conservative Christians were particularly horrified by a series of U.S. Supreme Court and other federal court rulings on pornography, prayer in schools, the tax status of segregated Christian academies, and abortion.

The country seethed with demands for justice and equality by the Civil Rights movement which spawned the student rights movement, and then the antiwar movement, the women's rights movement, the ecology movement, and the gay rights movement. Conservative religious forces responded with campaigns to clean up the movies and stop smut, restore prayer in public schools, and end abortion.

A critical moment came when a group of parents in Kanawha county West Virginia launched a campaign in 1974 against new textbooks introduced into the public school system. Frank discussions about sexuality and race relations were seen as part of a coordinated attack on the moral values of traditional families. Several national conservative groups including the Heritage Foundation rallied to the side of the parents. In many ways the conservative framing of social issues in terms of "family values" traces back to this campaign against the influence of progressive secular and humanistic ideas. (Berlet and Lyons).

The idea that a coordinated campaign by "secular humanists" was aimed at displacing Christianity as the moral bedrock of America actually traces back to a group of Catholic ideologues in the 1960s (Mason). It was Protestant evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, who brought this concept into the public political arena and developed a plan to mobilize grassroots activists as foot soldiers in what became known as the Culture Wars of the 1980s.

A popular theologian named Francis A. Schaeffer caught the attention of many Protestants in a series of books and essays calling on Christians to directly confront sinful and decadent secular culture with its humanist values. Several other authors picked up this attack on "secular humanism" and extended it (Diamond, Martin, Berlet and Lyons).

George Marsden argues that this new focus on secular humanism "revitalized fundamentalist conspiracy theory." The threats of "Communism and socialism could, of course, be fit right into the humanist picture," Marsden notes, "but so could all the moral and legal changes at home without implausible scenarios of Russian agents infiltrating American schools, government, reform movements, and mainline churches" (Marsden: 109).

Two leading activists of the Christian right, Gary Bauer and James Dobson, called the battle pitting secular humanists against Christians over the moral foundation of America a "great Civil War of Values" (Martin:344).

The idea of a conscious and coordinated conspiracy of secular humanists has been propounded in various ways by a variety of national conservative organizations, including the Christian Coalition (Pat Robertson), the Eagle Forum (Phyllis Schlafly), Concerned Women for America (Beverly LaHaye), American Coalition for Traditional Values (Tim LaHaye), Christian Anti-Communism Crusade (Fred Schwarz), and the John Birch Society (Robert Welch).

By framing this set of claims as a conspiracy to provoke a "Culture War," conservative Christians transform political disagreements into a battle between the Godly and the Godless, between good and evil, and ultimately between those that side with God and those that wittingly or unwittingly side with Satan. This has important implications when merged with neo-Calvinist ideas about the relationship between human nature and proper public social policies; and premillennial expectations about the proper role of Christians in the apocalyptic End Times.


Sources

Berlet, Chip, and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America. New York: Guilford.

Diamond, Sara. 1995. Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States. New York: Guilford Press.

Marsden, George M. 1991. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Martin, William. 1996. With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America. New York: Broadway Books

Mason, Carol. 2002. Killing for Life: The Apocalyptic Narrative of Pro-Life Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


God, Calvin, and Social Welfare: A Series
Part One: Coalitions
Part Two: Calvinist Settlers
Part Three: Roots of the Social Welfare Debate
Part Four: Apocalypse and Social Welfare
Part Five: Fundamentals, Prophecies, and Conspiracies
Part Six: Godlessness & Secular Humanism
Part Seven: Born Again Political Activism
Part Eight: The Child, The Family, The Nation, & the World
Based on the Public Eye article "Calvinism, Capitalism, Conversion, and Incarceration"
Chip Berlet, Senior Analyst, Political Research Associates
The Public Eye: Website of Political Research Associates
Chip's Blog



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I agree with the overall picture you're painting. I'd note, also, that anticommunism [ or, for that matter, antisecularism ] has an older lineage and that fears of rising crime, immorality, and societal anarchy featured prominently in the conservative imagination during the first 3rd of the 20th Century.

These fears corresponded with actual increases in various social pathologies during the period. Murder rates, for example - rose to a crescendo around 1936, at a rate which was fairly close to that of the last murder rate peak of the century that occured around 1990.

One point that's notable there is the possibility that proponents of the "secular humanist conpiracy" were actually [ overtly or not ] paying attention to real trends and that their explanations for those trends were congruent with their preexisting ideologies  : from 1936, the US murder rate declined to a mid-century low - about half the 1930's peak - which bottomed out somewhere around the mid 1950's. Then, US murder rates began again to rise and they did not peak until about 1990.

Those in the conservative intelligensia surely would have been alarmed at the trend : in a decade, from 1964 to 1974, the US murder rate roughly doubled, and the increase was by far the greatest of any single decade of the century.

Now, the explanations conservatives turned to may have been somewhat less than fully empirical, but to be fair there is still no strong consensus on what drove these homicide trends.

So, there were two "waves" of murder rate peaks that roughly corresponded with - first - the growth of the US labor movement, the American Communist Party, and the first  American sexual liberation wave that accompanied cheap contraceptive technology, and - second - the Civil Rights movement, the counterculture of the 1960's, and the movement against the Vietnam War.

Correlation is - of course - not causation, but the temptation to confuse the two is always strong.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon May 15, 2006 at 08:27:08 PM EST



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