In Defense of the Religious Right by Patrick Hynes

I have held for sometime now that if there is a group of people in the country you can safely attack and ridicule without fear of a media backlash it is conservative Christians.  Ensconced as most of them are in their wealthy, urban, liberal cocoons, the media approaches people of faith as if they were aliens – strange and threatening.

Watching the news, reading the paper, or listening to NPR it is not uncommon to hear terms like theocracy, dangerous extremists, and intolerant minority tossed around rather freely in reference to politically active Christians.  The so called Religious Right is one of, if not THE, most popular bogeyman of the commentariat.

Well, apparently campaign consultant and blogger Patrick Hynes had had enough off this nonsense.  Tired of seeing this straw man regularly trotted out, and of seeing pundits downplay and dismiss the groups’ real importance and impact, Hynes wrote a book: In Defense of the Religious Right (henceforth IDRR).  In it he aims to expose many of the myths – and to undermine many of the ridiculous associated stereotypes – about this much discussed group of voters.  

Given its popularity, and frequent use, Hynes decided to accept the term Religious Right, but rather than allow the liberal talking heads and radical activists to paint conservative Christians as a threat to the country, he marshals demographic and polling data that reveals them to be well within the mainstream of American opinion.

So does Hynes succeed in his defense?  I suspect that largely depends on the preconceived notions one brings to the book.  My sense is that IDRR is better suited to reassuring center-right Republicans and providing water cooler ammunition to conservative Christians than it is to convincing anyone suspicious of the influence of faith in public life.  I doubt any die hard theophobes – as Hynes describes them – will even read the book.

IDRR, however, is in many ways a useful book.  Befitting Hynes work as a campaign consultant, it has a great deal of demographic and polling data.  And not surprisingly given Hynes blogging experience, it has a lively style and is a quick read.

But IDRR is too short on history and context and too quick to rely on snarky language and hyperbolic rhetoric for my tastes.  It seems to me that a subject this important could have used a more detailed and balanced tone.  One that would have sought to both illuminate the topic and reassure those outside the community of conservative Christians; or even those who are currently distrustful but open to persuasion.  Instead, Hynes gives us a breezy counter-polemic.

Hynes’ arguments can be broken down into just a few main points: Conservative Christians have become the largest and most important voting block in the country; they have been unfairly demonized and stereotyped by the mainstream media; they are in fact well within the mainstream on most issues; and the left’s attempts to co-opt or defeat this crucial voting block are destined to fail.

The first argument is a perennial problem for the media.  In an ongoing fit of wishful thinking, pundits and analysts across the country and across the spectrum have been predicting the demise of the Religious Right for decades.  Coming from a largely secular culture the talking heads are sure that conservative Christians must be a problem for the GOP and that sooner or later the country will wake up and shake off the religious crazies.

Hynes steps in and says not so fast my friend.  Using a variety of studies and exit poll analysis he argues that the power of the Religious Right has been growing steadily since the 1960’s and that the Republican Revolution in 1994 and Bush’s electoral victories in 2000 and 2004 would not have been possible without this crucial group of voters.

When you crunch the numbers, says Hynes, people who are serious about their faith (attend church regularly, read the Bible, pray, etc.) consistently vote for the GOP.  This 30-million strong group is the single largest voting block in the American electorate.  Those who argue that the GOP would be better off without the Religious Right simply haven’t looked at the numbers.  No conservative Christians, no GOP majority.

If this group has had such a big impact on elections and makes up such a large chunk of the electorate then why are they the target of so much vitriol and ridicule?  As noted above, the media simply doesn’t understand them and fears their influence.  The media is dominated by a liberal, secular, and urban perspective.  They can’t seem to bring themselves to admit that huge swaths of the country simply don’t think like them.  So they remain holed up in their echo chambers and rely on straw men and stereotypes.

Hynes counters these stereotypes with data that shows that conservative Christians are well within the mainstream of American life.  They are geographically diverse with representatives in all areas of the country (although stronger in the South and weaker in the Northeast).  They come from diverse economic backgrounds with perhaps a slight skewing toward the middle or upper middle class.  Despite the stereotype of the angry white male they are if anything dominated by women.  Their age distribution follows closely the distribution of the country as a whole.  The Religious Right is not dominated by old fogies, but includes a vigorous youth movement.

Hynes also points out that on issue after issue conservative Christian views are often held by a majority of Americans and sometimes by a sizable majority.  Here are some interesting numbers:

–    79% of Americans opposed “removing the Ten Commandments from public displays.”

–    78% believe God created life on Earth and 64% support the teaching of creationism along with evolution in public schools.

–    51% believe that “abortion destroys a human life and is manslaughter.”

–    77.7% support parental notification for underage girls seeking an abortion and 71% oppose federal funding of abortion.

–    66% support policies “to allow churches to apply for government funding.”

On so called controversial or wedge issues conservative Christians are actually in the majority.  Funny, you wouldn’t know this from watching the news.

Despite the media obsession with painting Christians as dangerous extremists, the left has begun to realize that the numbers aren’t in their favor and so we are witnessing the attempted reemergence of a “religious left.”  Hynes touches on this trend briefly as he concludes the book.  Hynes breaks down those looking to claim the mantle of the religious left in to Fakers, Secularists, and Leftwing Theocrats.

As the term implies, the Fakers are those – like Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean – who seek to cloak their party in the terms and symbols of faith and religion not out of sincere faith but out of a desire for electoral gain.  

Party leaders like Dean and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi regularly attempt to introduce religious language into their arguments – and often to great embarrassment – not because they have deeply held beliefs in these areas that are informed by their faith but because they think that this kind of talk will trick people of faith into voting for them or supporting their agenda.  Hynes is confident that conservative Christians and Christians in general are not likely to fall for this condescending and deceptive tactic.

Also rather obviously, secularists are those committed to a vigorous and complete separation of church and state.  These are the folks who would empty the public square of any and all references to faith or religion.  Hynes wonders how long this vocal minority will tolerate the growth and influence of the last group: the leftwing theocrats.

In Hynes’ terms the leftwing theocrats are sincere people of faith who seek to implement rather typical leftist policies but do so under the rubric of religion.  They ground their largely socialist and pacifist prescriptions in scripture and often boldly claim the mantle of Jesus and God when advocating for these policies.  The irony is that they are the flip side of the dangerous bogeyman the media decries nearly every day, the Religious Right.

Hynes points out that their policy ideas have been tried and found wanting.  In fact, these are the very policies that led to the electoral defeat of one of their prominent spokesman Jimmy Carter.  Does anyone sincerely believe that the Democratic Party will regain majority status by advocating higher taxes, more social welfare spending, and the outsourcing of US foreign policy to the United Nations?  Is it really true that by adding a religious dimension to their advocacy of these policies they can reverse the political losses of the last few decades?  Hynes is skeptical to say the least.

So what are we to make of all this?  Well, color me cynical but I have a hard time seeing this book make a dent on the ingrained anti-Christian animus of the media.  It is in many ways unfair, but Hynes will be dismissed as a biased party hack and hyperbolic blogger; in other words not to be taken seriously.

This is a problem I come across on a regular basis.  In setting a tone and in thinking about marketing for a book the emphasis is on grabbing people’s attention and in assuring an audience (preferably a readily identifiable and sizable one).  Editors and publishers are looking for a lively voice and a strong position.  The result is generally a tendency toward in your face argument over more subtle persuasion; and toward surface arguments over deeper thought and analysis.  We get a lot of passionate preaching to the crowd and very little chance of changing the debate.  This is true across the political spectrum.

IDRR was obviously written as a counter polemic to the daily media driven demonization of the Religious Right.  And as such its tone and style is combative and iconoclastic; it seeks to tear down the stereotypes and strawmen.  In this it largely succeeds.  But I am left to wonder who this is likely to persuade to change their mind?  Will his fellow pundits change their minds about the role of religious voters in the 2004 elections or will they ignore his arguments?

With all of that said, In Defense of the Religious Right is an interesting and useful book on an important subject.  The demographic and polling data found within are useful and informative and Hynes uses them to make compelling arguments.  

If you have often found the attacks on religious conservatives bizarre and unfounded but have lacked the data to rebut the claims, you will find this book useful.  But if you are looking for a book to give to a friend or relative that naively accepts the media’s attack on conservative Christians, or frequently complains of the danger of theocracy, I am not sure this is it.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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2 Comments

  • I’m hosting a round-up or meme or whatever you want to call it of book reviews for the week at Semicolon this Saturday, and you are officially invited to contribute this review or another from this week. Just come by and add your link sometime on Saturday.

  • You do a good job of analyzing and presenting this book. It’s what reviewing is about, that is, giving the reader an idea of whether he might be interested.

    Since the early 90’s, and the growth of Clintonianism at the same time, cultural and political demonization has been the norm in the MSM. It’s a reason we don’t have rational, democratic discussion in the national media. The Left refusing discussion.

    America’s present malaise stems in part from this stonewall. Consensus is denied. We can’t discuss real issues with differing points of view. Problems are allowed to fester. Polarization is a natural result with too many, especially on the Left, stuck in mindless ghettos of ‘Bush hating,’ ‘Right wing thumping,’ or, worse, ‘hate America phobia.’ It’s a recipe for disaster.

    So, one might argue, one needs to rid these demons from national life before we can have a rational national scene again.
    Perhaps that’s one service this book might perform. One doesn’t debate demons.
    One must exorcise.

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