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The Passion of the Right
Religious Fundamentalism and the
Growing Threat to Democracy

by Henry A. Giroux
November 29, 2004

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With the re-election of George W. Bush, religious fundamentalism seems to be in overdrive in its effort to define politics through a reductive and somewhat fanatical moralism. This kind of religious zealotry has a long tradition in American history extending from the arrival of Puritanism in the seventeenth century to the current spread of Pentecostalism. This often ignored history, imbued with theocratic certainty and absolute moralism, has been quite powerful in providing religious justification to the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, the parlance of the Robber Barons, the patriarchal imbued discourse of “family values,” and the recent spectacle of Mel Gibson’s cinematic display of religious orthodoxy. The historical lesson here is that absolute moralism when mixed with politics not only produces zealots who believe they have a monopoly on the truth and a legitimate rationale for refusing to engage ambiguities, it also fuels an intolerance towards others who do not follow the scripted, righteous path of officially sanctioned beliefs and behavior. Family values is now joined with an emotionally charged rhetorical appeal to faith as the new code words for cultural conservatism. As right-wing religion conjoins with political ideology and political power, it not only legitimates intolerance and anti-democratic forms of religious correctness, it also lays the groundwork for a growing authoritarianism which easily derides appeals to reason, dissent, dialogue, and secular humanism. How else to explain the growing number of Christian conservative educators who want to impose the teaching of creationism in the schools, ban sex education from the curricula, and subordinate scientific facts to religious dogma.

With George W. Bush’s mandate to govern for four more years, religious correctness appears to be exercising a powerful influence on American society. The morality police seem to be everywhere denouncing everything from Janet Jackson’s out of wardrobe display to the wanton Satanic influence of the television show Desperate Housewives.  But the morality police do more than censor and impose their theocratic moralism on everyone else’s behavior, they also elect politicians, and this does not augur well for the future of democracy in the United States.  The rise of the religious zealot as politician is readily apparent not only in high profile religious hucksters such as John Ashcroft and the current “chosen” occupant of the White House, but also in the emergence of a new breed of faith-bearing politicians being elected to the highest level of government -- readily supported by a media largely controlled by conservative corporate interests and a growing evangelical base of Christian fundamentalists. Conservative Christian moralism now travels straight to the highest levels of power as can be seen in the recent election of a new crop of “opportunistic ayatollahs on the right” to the U. S. Senate. [1] For instance, the newly elected senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, has not only publicly argued for the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions, he has also insisted that lesbianism is so rampart in the schools in Oklahoma that school officials only let one girl go at a time to the bathroom.  Jim DeMint, the new senator from South Carolina, stated that he would not want to see “a single woman who was pregnant and living with her boyfriend” teaching in the public schools.” [2] He has also argued that he wants to ban gays from teaching in public schools as well.  Jon Thune, the newly elected senator from South Dakota, supports a constitutional amendment banning flag burning, not to mention making permanent Bush’s tax cuts for the rich.

Widely recognized as creating the first faith-based presidency, George W. Bush has done more during his first term to advance the agenda of right-wing evangelicals than any other president in recent history, and he will continue to do so in his second term. What is most disturbing is not simply that many of his religious supporters believe that Bush is their leader but that he is also embraced as a “messenger from God,” [3] whose job it is to implement God’s will. For example, Bob Jones III, the president of a fundamentalist college of the same name, argued in a written letter to President Bush: “Christ has allowed you to be his servant” in order to “leave an imprint for righteousness. . . . In your re-election, God has graciously granted America -- though she doesn’t deserve it -- a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate. We the people expect your voice to be like the clear and certain sound of a trumpet.... Don’t equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ.” [4] Jones goes on to claim that since “Christ has allowed [Bush] to be His servant in this nation. . . . you will have the opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and limited government.” [5] This is more than a call by Christian social conservatives and “power puritans,” as Maureen Dowd calls them, to appoint conservative judges, prevent homosexuals from securing jobs as teachers, and approve legislation that would stop stem cell research and eliminate the reproductive rights of women; it is also an example of the “bloodthirsty feelings of revenge” that now motivate many of Bush’s religious boosters. [6]

The ideological fervor, if not call for vengeance, that drives many of Bush’s Christian fundamentalist supporters is also evident in the words of Bush supporter Hardy Billington who states, “To me, I just believe God controls everything, and God uses the president to keep evil down, to see the darkness and protect this nation. Other people will not protect us. God gives people choices to make. God gave us this president to be the man to protect the nation at this time.” [7] Bush seems to harbor the same arrogant illusion and out of that illusion has emerged a government that pushes aside self-criticism, uncertainty, and doubt in favor of a faith-based certainty and moral righteousness bereft of critical reflection. In fact, fear, slander, and God were the cornerstone of the Bush 2004 presidential campaign. First, Cheney argued that if Kerry were elected, it would mean the country would be subjected to terrorist attacks, which amounted to “Vote Bush or Die.” Second, the Swift Boat Campaign successfully led the American people to believe that Kerry was a coward rather than a war hero, in spite of the five medals he won in Vietnam. And, finally, God became the ultimate referent to mobilize millions of additional votes from Christian fundamentalists. Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive, points out that the Republicans sent out pieces of literature in Arkansas and West Virginia “claiming the Democrats were going to take everyone’s Bibles away....On the front of one such envelope, sent from the Republican National Committee, was a picture of a Bible with the word ‘BANNED’ slapped across it. ‘This will be Arkansas...if you don’t vote,’ it said.” [8] It appears that the high-pitched righteousness proclaimed by Bush’s evangelical army of supporters took a vacation in order to play dirty politics during the Bush/Kerry campaign. 

Ron Suskind has argued that the one key feature of Bush’s faith-based presidency is that it scorns “open dialogue, based on facts, [which] is not seen as something of inherent value.” [9] Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical pastor who was called upon by Bush to bring together a range of clergy to talk about faith and poverty, discovered rather quickly that Bush was not open to inconvenient facts or ideas at odd with what Bush often refers to as “his instincts.” Wallis claims that as he got to work over time with Bush in the White House what he “started to see at this point was the man that would emerge over the next year -- a messianic American Calvinist. He doesn’t want to hear from anyone who doubts him.” [10] Bush became widely recognized as a President that exhibited a dislike, if not disdain, for contemplation, examining the facts, or dealing with friendly queries about the reasons for his decisions.

Rampant anti-intellectualism coupled with Taliban-like moralism now boldly translates into everyday cultural practices as right-wing evangelicals live out their messianic view of the world. For instance, more and more conservative pharmacists are refusing to fill prescriptions for religious reasons. Mixing medicine, politics, and religion means that some women are being denied birth control pills or any other product designed to prevent conception. It gets worse. Bush’s much exalted religious fundamentalism does more than promote a disdain for critical thought and reinforce retrograde forms of homophobia and patriarchy; it also inspires an aggressive militarism, wrapped up in the language of a holy war. One telling example can be found in a story recently announced by Agence France Presse. It reported that a group of evangelical marines prepared to “battle barbarians” before their assault on Fallujah in Iraq by listening to heavy metal-flavored lyrics in praise of Christ while a “female voice cried out on the loudspeakers ‘You are the sovereign, Your name is holy. You are the pure spotless lamb.’” Just before the battle, a chaplain had the soldiers line up in order to dab their heads with oil, while he told them “God’s people would be anointed with oil.” [11] It now appears that Bush’s war for “democracy” is defined by many of his followers as a “holy war” against infidels.

The turn to religion as a central element of politics suggest two important and related considerations that need to be addressed by those of us who believe in a democracy that maintains the legitimate separation of church and state as fundamental to religious freedom and the flourishing of diverse public spheres. First, there is a growing need to address the search for community through social formations, values, and movements that bring people together through the discourse of public morality, civic engagement, and the ethical imperatives of democracy. This is not just a matter of discovering America’s secular roots, but also creating a cultural politics in which the language of community, shared values, solidarity, and the common good play an important pedagogical and political role in the struggle for an inclusive and substantive democratic society. This means developing a language of critique in which the rabid individualism and atomism of neoliberal market ideology can be unmasked for its anti-democratic and utterly privatizing tendencies. It means rooting out all those fundamentalisms so prevalent in American society, including those market, political, religious, and militaristic fundamentalisms that now exercise such a powerful influence over all aspects of American society. What is crucial to understand is that fundamentalism cannot simply be dismissed as anti-democratic or evil. Fundamentalism performs a certain kind of work that taps into very real individual and collective needs, though it often trades on what Ernst Bloch once called the swindle of fulfillment. More specifically, fundamentalism provides people not only with a sense of identity in a time of crisis, it also offers a sense of public efficacy; that is, it furnishes the promise of social agency in which individuals can exercise solidarity through a sense of meaning and action in their lives.  Democratic politics and secular humanism if it is to become worth investing in, defending, and fighting for needs more than a language of critique, it also needs a language of possibility, one that both challenges the anti-democratic values claimed by the right and offers up a notion of moral values in which “care and responsibility, fairness and equality, freedom and courage, fulfillment in life, opportunity and community, cooperation and trust, honesty and openness” [12] are wedded to the principles of justice, equality, and freedom. Second, identity must be experienced beyond the atomizing call of market forces. For identity to become meaningful in a democratic society, it must be nourished through a connection to others, a respect for social justice, and a recognition of the need to work with others in order to both experience a sense of collective joy and a measure of social responsibility. Hence, there is a need for educators, artists, parents, activists, and others to not only defend existing democratic public spheres but to also develop alternative ones where the language and practice of democratic community, public values, civic engagement, and social justice can be taught, learned, and experienced. For example, public and higher education may be two of the few sites left in which public values can be learned and experienced, and both should be defended vigorously. At the same time, democracy needs to be supported and nourished across a wide range of overlapping sites -- from film, television, and the Internet to talk radio -- which engage in diverse forms of public pedagogy -- that is, organized practices in which the production of ideas, values, and knowledge is a central feature and outcome. Cultural politics is alive and well in the United States; unfortunately, it is a politics controlled by the right and largely ignored by progressives of various ideological stripes. While it may be true, as the New York Times columnist Frank Rich points out, that the morality police actually have much less support among the American populace than Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robinson, and the dominant media would have us believe, the problem that Rich seems to overlook is that this minority now exercises an enormous influence in shaping political policy and that is where the danger lies -- not in their numbers but in their influence. [13] Authoritarianism takes many forms and its most recent expression appears to be gaining ground through the relentless force of a moral values crusade at home and abroad. Needless to say, cultural politics is alive and well in the United States, but it has to be reinvented so as to serve democracy rather than shut it down. What is at stake here is the challenge of rethinking the meaning of politics for the twenty-first century. This is a challenge that cannot be left to the “My God’s Better Than Yours” crowd, who disavow democratic values for a politics of  “Horns and Halos.”

Henry Giroux holds the Global Television Network Chair in Communications at McMaster University in Canada. His most recent books are The Terror of Neoliberalism (Paradigm Press, 2004); Take Back Higher Education (co-authored with Susan Searls, Palgrave, 2004), and The Abandoned Generation (Palgrave 2004). He can be reached at: Visit his website at:

Other Articles by Henry A. Giroux

* Double Speak and the Politics of Dissent
* Neoliberalism and the Demise of Democracy: Resurrecting Hope in Dark Times
* George Bush’s Religious Crusade Against Democracy
* Higher Education is More Than a Corporate Logo
* Authoritarianism’s Footprint and the War Against Youth

Why Aren’t Children Included in the Debates About the Impending U.S. War with Iraq?

Interviews with Henry A. Giroux

* Rebel Without a Pause: An Interview with Henry Giroux
* Interview: Reflections on the Crisis in Education and Democracy in the US


1. The phrase, “opportunistic ayatollahs on the right” comes from Frank Rich, “The Great Indecency Hoax,The New York Times (November 28, 2004).

2. Maureen Dowd, “The Red Zone,” The New York Times (November 4, 2004). P. A27.

3. Esther Kaplan, With God on Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House (New York: The New Press, 2004).

4. Bob Jones, III, “Congratulatory Letter to President George W. Bush From Dr. Bob Jones III.

5.  Ibid.

6. Both the quote and the comments are from Maureen Dowd, “Slapping the Other Cheek,” The New York Times (November 14, 2004).

7. Ron Suskind,  “Without a Doubt,”  The New York Times Magazine (October 17), pp.44-51, 64, 102 p. 102.

8. Matthew Rothschild, “Fear, Smear, and God,” The Progressive (November 2004), p. 4.

9. Ron Suskind, Ibid., “Without a Doubt,” p. 47.

10. Ron Suskind, Ibid., “Without a Doubt,” p. 50.

11. Editorial, “Holy War: Evangelical Marines Prepare to Battle Barbarians,” Agence France Presse News Line (November 7, 2004).

12. George Lakoff, “Our Moral Values,” The Nation (December 6, 2004), p. 6.

13. Frank Rich, “The Great Indecency Hoax,” The New York Times (November 28, 2004).