Six Questions With Scott Horton of Harper’s on “Republican Gomorrah”

1. You open your first chapter with a portrait of R.J. Rushdoony, the son of survivors of the Armenian genocide, who devoted his life to a socially conservative vision of Calvinism that sees the United States as a political extension of that religion. What led you to pick a fairly exotic figure like Rushdoony as a starting point for your account, when most students of the religious right in America would put the Southern Baptists at the movement’s heart?

Rushdoony’s tomes advocating the replacement of America’s constitutional democracy with a theocracy based on Leviticus case law–under which disobedient children, witches, adulterers, abortion doctors, and blasphemers would be executed–provided the antecedents of the Christian right with a blueprint for the government it hoped to establish. Rushdoony’s vision of the church supplanting government functions like healthcare and schooling, a system he called Christian Reconstructionism, also influenced the rise of right-wing libertarianism.

Bush faith-based initiatives guru Marvin Olasky referenced Rushdoony in some his early writings. Olasky was clearly influenced by the libertarian undercurrents of Christian Reconstructionism. Rushdoony’s greatest financial angel was another libertarian: Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., a reclusive far-right businessman and the son of one of Southern California’s most renowned philanthropists. As I report in my book, Rushdoony became Ahmanson’s surrogate father after he inherited $300 million dollars at age 18, then went crazy, spending two years in a mental institution. In return, Ahmanson funded Rushdoony’s think tank as well as initiatives from Intelligent Design to California’s anti-gay Prop 8 that have advanced his dream of American theocracy.

Rushdoony is also important because of his influence on Francis Schaeffer. During the 1960’s, Schaeffer became an icon of the Jesus Freak movement, operating a Christian hippy commune in the Swiss Alps. He counted LSD guru Timothy Leary as a friend, and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page was sighted with a copy of one of Schaeffer’s books in his back pocket.

After Roe v. Wade, Schaeffer became convinced the government had legalized infanticide. He was radicalized almost overnight and began churning out polemics urging evangelicals to use “force in the defensive posture,” a watchword for domestic terrorism, to stop abortion. While Rushdoony provided the Christian right with its governmental blueprint, Schaeffer offered it the political strategy–organizing against abortion–it required to attack America’s secular underpinnings, including the moderate Republican establishment. It’s important to remember that prior to Schaeffer, right-wing evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell were fixated on stopping the racial integration of their so-called “private Christian schools.”

2. Newt Gingrich appears to be gearing for a political comeback, and I’d appreciate your thinking about the role of religion in this process. Newt tells us that in his student days he did not practice any religion, but while doing graduate work on the relationship between religion and politics, be started visiting a Baptist Church and became a Baptist. A few months ago, however, he loudly announced his conversion to Catholicism. From what you know about the religious right and its relationship with the G.O.P., how will this affect Newt’s chances?

Unlike Tom DeLay, who is a true believer, Newt appears to have used conservative Christianity for cynical purposes. During the implosion of the Republican Congress, a phenomenon caused largely by the corrupt leadership of DeLay, Newt decided to mount a political comeback. So he prostrated himself before James Dobson, pouring his heart out on Dobson’s radio show in 2007. The confession was a cleverly orchestrated political stunt designed to identify Newt with the culture of personal crisis that animates the movement Dobson commands. Newt’s display of manufactured humility before the man who had led several plots against him when he was Speaker of the House went a long way towards restoring his cachet among the Republican grassroots at a time when leadership was practically absent.

Newt’s conversion to Catholicism was a political calculation that should be viewed in the context of the alliance known as ECT, or Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Francis Schaeffer conceived the idea of conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants putting aside their doctrinal differences in favor of battling the secular establishment. Jerry Falwell and Catholic intellectuals like Deal Hudson sealed the deal.

The Catholic concept of confession and absolution was attractive to the much-married and very image conscious Gingrich. As Deal Hudson told me, “From a Catholic point of view, Newt’s sins no longer exist—they’ve been absolved. He’s made a fresh start in life. So Newt will continue to sin and confess but there aren’t going to be a lot of Catholics who will hold that against him. They understand why being a Catholic makes a difference.” Gingrich’s emergence as the Catholic candidate in the 2012 GOP primary is not out of the question, though his ability to put together a viable campaign is doubtful.

3. You record repeatedly how religious right figures embrace conservative sexual mores, and how an amazing number of them break these taboos, become enmeshed in scandal—only to ask forgiveness and announce their adherence to the same taboos. A number of these cases involve homosexuality, as is the case with Ted Haggard, the Colorado Springs megachurch pastor who headed the National Association of Evangelicals from 2003-6. You turn to psychologist Erich Fromm for an understanding of this phenomenon. Explain how Fromm helps you assess these cases.

Followers of the Christian right openly admit that they have no capacity to restrain themselves from total depravity without constant, stern commandments from an angry God. As Gov. Mark Sanford, an evangelical minister, declared during his recent press conference confessing an extra-marital affair, the “bottom line of God’s law” is to “protect us from ourselves.” Senator John Ensign, the only Pentectostal serving in the Senate, attributed his own sexual dalliances to having “walked away from God,” or having relied too heavily on his individual will. These figures believe if they don’t do what God supposedly wants them to do they will descend immediately and inevitably into sin and perversion–because that’s what they want to do.

Fromm explained that those who seek to obliterate the self in the drama of an authoritarian crusade have attempted a “neurotic solution” that always leads to self-destructiveness. They use right-wing politics as a form of cheap medication, hoping to cleanse their sullen souls by purging the land of sin. But cheap medication rarely works. Thus none of the recent Republican sex scandals are unique; they are reflective of the sensibility of the movement that took over and shattered the GOP, and which Fromm analyzed so concisely in his 1941 book, Escape From Freedom.

4. On the other hand, James Dobson, whom you portray in some detail, has a doctorate in psychology and practiced as a psychologist for some time before founding Focus on the Family and becoming one of the nation’s most influential evangelicals. How would Fromm account for Dobson, and what does Dobson’s brand of psychology think of Fromm?

As a psychologist, Dobson understands how a culture of personal crisis animates the right’s politics of resentment. Staffers in Focus on the Family’s correspondence department, which handles so much mail it occupies an entire zip code in Colorado Springs, process thousands of calls and letters each day from ordinary Americans beset by crises. Then, after supplying Dobson-approved advice and entering their personal information in a databank, Focus bombards its members with political mailings. Dobson’s top-rated radio show functions in exactly the same way, fusing evangelical-inspired self-help advice with breathless right-wing political appeals.

If Fromm were alive, he would point to Dobson as the modern realization of the “magic helper” who “promises excitement and offers a political structure and symbols which allegedly give meaning and order to an individual’s life.” Fromm would also recognize in Dobson the sadomasochistic tendencies that he says are essential to the authoritarian character–the simultaneous drive to hurt the weak and worship the strong.

Indeed, Dobson’s bestselling childrearing handbook, Dare To Discipline, is little more than a manual for creating sadomasochists. Dobson writes, “A little pain goes a long way for a young child. However the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely. After the emotional ventilation, the child will often want to crumple to the breast of his parent, and he should be welcomed with warm, loving arms.” In the course of three short sentences, Dobson describes a scenario in which a small child is simultaneously assaulted and embraced by a parent, the most significant authority figure in a child’s life and the person he loves the most. It is no surprise that personalities who endured such sadomasochistic abuse as children, from Tom DeLay to Newt Gingrich to the serial killer Ted Bundy, wound up prostrated at Dobson’s feet later in life.

5. Your book shows how the religious right forms part of the bedrock of Karl Rove’s G.O.P. There’s no doubt that it helped bring George W. Bush to power, and that its disaffection with Bob Dole contributed to the failure of the G.O.P. effort to deny Clinton a second term. But in 2008, in the final gaggle of candidates, only Huckabee had strong religious right credentials. Expand on what this means for the G.O.P. in 2012. Is Romney a viable candidate in view of the problems that many evangelicals have supporting a Mormon? Is Huckabee the natural candidate of the religious right going into to this contest?

Huckabee positioned himself as the natural candidate of the Christian right, telling movement crowds, “I come from you, not to you.” As a close friend of Dobson, he also understands the central role of personal crisis in movement culture. “Name any problem, any social pathology… and I’ll tell you who’s dealing with them,” Huckabee told a crowd of pastors while campaigning in Iowa in 2007. “It’s the pastors of American who see the tears pouring out every day.” With Christian right favorites Mark Sanford and John Ensign (and possibly Sarah Palin) out of the running because of scandals stemming from their own “social pathology,” Huckabee’s position has been strengthened for 2012.

On the other hand, the Christian right has demonstrated the capacity to support politicians for tactical reasons. If movement leaders can extract assurances about federal judges and social issues from Romney as they did in 2008, and the economy becomes central to the campaign, the Christian right leaders most closely tied to the Republican establishment and its corporate funding sources would be more than willing to overlook Romney’s Mormonism. As I reported in my book, Huckabee repeatedly attacked Romney’s faith during the ‘08 campaign, hoping to distract from questions of his own electability. When the primary begins in ‘12, expect history to repeat itself.

6. Your book winds up with some amazing further disclosures about former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. What is it about Palin that makes her so attractive for the religious right? Will the recent polls that show her as essentially unelectable dampen that enthusiasm? And in light of the way the religious right works economically, what opportunities exist for Palin outside of elective office?

Sarah Palin is the archetype of the crisis-wracked right-wing woman. She advertises herself as a feminist to people who oppose women’s liberation and favors abstinence education and “family values” moral crusades while her own family resembles a Jerry Springer episode. This seemingly conflicted dynamic is familiar to women among the Republican grassroots. Thus they relate to her on an intimate, emotional level that transcends issues and even ideology.

Consider what is happening in Lubbock, Texas, where gonorrhea rates among young women have exploded to twice the national average despite–or because of–the fact that abstinence education is mandated in public schools. Or consider a recent congressional study of adolescent behavior, Add Health, revealing that white evangelical women lose their virginity on average at age sixteen, younger than any group besides black Protestants. These are the facts on the ground in Palin country.

Bill Kristol’s role in promoting Palin to Beltway Republicans is well known, thanks in large part to your reporting. The role that Dobson played in promoting her to the party grassroots is less known. Dobson had corresponded with Palin long before she was nationally known, congratulating her for not aborting the child he called “that little Down’s Syndrome baby.” When Palin was named by John McCain, whom Dobson despised, Dobson finally delivered McCain the endorsement he had sought, explaining in a radio broadcast why all so-called “values voters” now needed to support a man who had voted against a federal gay marriage ban and in favor of funding stem cell research. The reason was Palin.

Finally, after a string of disastrous interviews with the mainstream press, Palin phoned in to Dobson’s radio show for her last major campaign media spot. Without any scrutiny from the secular media, Palin declared herself a “hardcore pro-lifer” and urged all the “prayer warriors” to flood the polls for her and McCain. Dobson pleaded aloud, directing his prayers heavenward: “We’re rather boldly asking for a miracle with regard to the election this year.”

But only a miracle, or a terribly ineffectual Obama administration, can save the Republican Party from the movement that has taken it over and driven it to destruction.

One thought on “Six Questions With Scott Horton of Harper’s on “Republican Gomorrah”

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