Monday, 24 October 2016

White Christian Voters: How 'Right' Is Too 'Right'?

I presently live in the Flathead Valley of Northwest Montana. Between Flathead Lake, the Swan Range of the Rocky Mountains, the nearby Glacier National Park, and our endless ‘big sky’, residents of this corner of the US never have cause to doubt that we live among some of the most breath-taking scenery in the world.

The Flathead Valley is a great place to live. People are friendly, the schools are great, and the pace of life is easy. There’s great local restaurants and bars, local entertainment, many local artists and galleries, several local microbreweries and winemakers and- believe it or not- a lively Irish traditional music scene, of which I have happily become a part.

I really like living here.

But the Flathead Valley- and Montana in general- also has a darker side: a small, but extremely active far-right movement.

There are several local individuals and groups holding public meetings, running websites, and having demonstrations expressing a toxic mix of white supremacism, white nationalism, and Neo-Nazi, anti-immigrant, anti-Native American, and anti-Semitic rhetoric.  

The history of some of these people goes back decades, working under one incarnation or another. More often than not, it’s been fairly under the radar and hasn’t really touched upon mainstream politics.

That has changed, however, over the past year, as Donald Trump’s campaign for the US Presidency has mainstreamed things that used to be whispered about or only spoken aloud in carefully-coded conversation.

By ‘mainstreaming’ I mean that a lot of ideas and rhetoric that, until a very short time ago, could have only seen on far-right internet forums like Stormfront or the New Century Foundation are openly expressed by official candidates of a mainstream political party- one of them exactly one vote away from securing the White House.

Please understand that in no sense am I accusing the majority of Republican Party members of racism or white nationalism; what I do mean is that the Trump Presidential run- and the GOP leaderships enabling of it- has widened the parameters of acceptable discourse to include issues, topics, and solutions that would have previously been considered dangerously extremist.

Like it or not, thanks to Trump, more and more right-wing extremists feel welcome in the political mainstream.

Our own local example of this is Taylor Rose, running for the District 3 Montana House seat.

The Montana Human Rights Network and the Southern Poverty Law Center have assiduously documented Rose’s long-standing ties with European neo-Nazi groups, US neo-confederate groups, and local Montana far-right organizations.

He has spoken and written extensively in his own publications, radical right-wing magazines, news outlets, and online; the evidence is public and extensive.

Nevertheless, he is a self-professed Christian and is running as a Republican, and the local GOP have assiduously papered over or dodged questions of Rose’s far-right associations.

I’ve spent the past few days writing to our local newspapers, calling on local GOP leadership, as well as ordinary voters, to repudiate Rose and make clear that there is no place in party politics for candidates so openly associated with hate groups.

Looking at all this as a theologian, I think this touches on an issue that just might be the defining issue for American Christianity at this historical moment.

I’m mindful of the large Christian presence here in the valley-the vast majority of whom are white Evangelicals, many of whom, as I wrote about in my last post, have gravitated to Trump.

Needless to say, I have no concrete idea how these people are going to vote- though, again as I wrote about in my last post, white, older Evangelicals are a key Trump demographic.

When I look at our local politics, I’m not interested in whether or not they vote for Trump;

I’m very interested in if they will vote for Rose...

Simply put, if the fruit of this election cycle is a reinvigorated, uncloaked far-right as a viable presence in US politics, will white Evangelicals gravitate towards openly segregationist, anti-immigrant, aggressively Islamophobic, anti-Semitic candidates once again?

Yes, I did say ‘once again’…

There was a time- and not just in the South- when white Christians supported openly racist political candidates and movements all the time. The Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society, Catholic demagogue Father Charles Coghlin... Protecting a white, Protestant status quo- and doing so openly- was the benchmark for many Christian voters.

There has been excellent scholarship and commentary recently about how American Christians of all denominations engage with electoral politics. In the background of it all are the racial, social, and religious shifts going on in 21st-century America. 

The US is no longer a majority white, Christian nation; it’s still majority Christian by a considerable margin, but discounting African-Americans and Latinos, white Christians are only 45% of the population.

Many of the certainties of their former privilege are no longer concrete;

Issues such as ‘law and order’, the ‘war on drugs’, human sexuality, foreign policy, environmentalism, and gender issues are being explored from more expansive and inclusive- and less white and male- Christian perspectives.

And many older, white, and (mostly) male Evangelicals are pushing back…

American Christianity- particularly that of older, white, and (mostly) male Evangelicals- has reached an important crossroads.

How- and how far- are they willing to push back?

Who are they willing to support who promises to shore up their position?

How far back are they willing to look into their idyllic past for inspiration? 

How far to the right is too far right? 

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