A We Like Any Other

The Reverend Jerry Falwell, his hair in a pompadour, his suit tight at the seams, his speech and visage astir with moral outrage, first arrived on the national public stage in 1979 to announce the formation of a national political organization of Bible-believing Americans called the Moral Majority. Falwell was a large white man with a bass voice and self-satisfied smile who thereafter plunged into what would later be called the culture wars with the skill of a boxer and the showmanship of a television wrestler. From the point of view of non-Bible-believing Americans, he was an iconic figure who perfectly represented his type, a type we knew well but for some time had studiously paid no attention to: the dreaded fundamentalist preacher.

We reacted viscerally to Falwell’s announcement and to the sea change that his iconic figure and the audacity that the Moral Majority’s name telegraphed. Falwell might as well have risen from the dead. Something had happened that we thought was impossible, something that violated the basic tenets of modern history. Both our common sense and our intellectual theories had assured us for several decades that people like Falwell—fundamentalist preachers and their church folk—were disappearing, soon to be extinct, incapable of surviving in a world increasingly ruled by reason and science, by a government that separated church and state and a public etiquette that discouraged mixing politics and religion (or, more specifically, mixing politics and right-wing religious extremism, also known as white fundamentalism).

Suddenly, it seemed, fundamentalists were back. Their bold public reemergence and its ratification in Ronald Reagan’s election shocked us; moreover, it took something away from us, something on which we relied just as surely as our sense of which way history was headed. It turned out that who we were somehow depended on our assumptions about who they were. If they weren’t dying out as a social category, then we no longer represented the natural, normal, secularizing outcome of modern history. We no longer owned the present as well as the future. Our seemingly capacious, ecumenical, universalizing we became a particular and contingent we. A we like any other.

At the time, most of us did not recognize these sensations, let alone see them as the classic signs of lost hegemony, of our having lost the easy and apparently (but not really) effortless assumption of political and cultural dominance. Instead, we—or, more precisely, the public intellectuals (journalists, pundits, scientists, scholars, policy experts) who represented us—set about trying to explain how this breakdown of public order had occurred, so that we might get things back to normal. Grounded in our surprise that fundamentalists still existed in what appeared to be alarmingly large numbers and in our firm conviction that their activism was illegitimate, we interrogated them, the fundamentalists, asking: where did they come from, where have they been all this time, and how did they manage to survive?

Since this first shock a few decades ago, things have not gotten back to normal. They have morphed, taken on new facets, and become more manifestly heterogeneous. Pentecostals and conservative evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons piled on. The Tea Party mobilized the more libertarian-motivated faction. Donald Trump scooped them all up and brought out the more overt and aggressive white supremacists, anti-immigrant nativists, the anti-Muslims, anti-Semites, anti-feminists and anti-reality-based public intellectuals. With his election, we find ourselves, once again, shocked in the face of something we never expected to happen. Once again, we ask: who are they, where did they come from, and how could this have happened?

All good questions, and yet it’s also worth wondering why we still have to ask them, and ask them after the fact. In what ways are we oblivious to our history, society, and political culture such that we do not see these mobilizations coming? I think one answer, certainly in relation to religion and the so-called culture wars (both backgrounded in Trump’s campaign and election, but both very much in play), is the extent to which notions of progress are still embedded in our concepts and knowledge practices.

For example, our modern concept of religion, by centering on theological beliefs and excluding politics, is as much prescriptive as it is descriptive. It polices the boundary of what counts as legitimate religion (not political) and politics (secular). But it’s a gerrymandered concept, admitting certain sorts of religious politicking (civil rights, pro-peace, the National Prayer Breakfast) and not others (fundamentalist), which are seen as unfit for the modern world and, in our dreams, still dying out. When we use this progressive concept of religion unselfconsciously, we handicap our ability to anticipate the presence and power of fundamentalisms. Another way of thinking about our current situation is to say that we are engaged in a profound and protracted contest over what counts as legitimate religion in America (and elsewhere). Our secular and secularizing concepts and presumptions are one way in which we do battle, but they blind us to the realities and force of our opposition.

Notions of progress also freight our side of the culture wars—for example, the way we think about gay marriage as a civil right that does not impinge on the rights of anyone else. We suppose conservative Protestants just have another definition of marriage, and we should all agree to disagree. But legalizing gay marriage takes away from Protestants (and their newfound allies) the de facto and de jure right to define what counts as marriage in America. It’s one more instance of the civil disestablishment of Protestantism: specifically, in this case, an instance of the separation of church and kinship under the law, a process that intensified in the 1960s but that has been ongoing throughout American history.  Configuring such gains as an outcome in the natural course of progressive human rights puts us on the right side of history, but that’s our history, not theirs.

They would rather be on the right side of God than history. We have been engaged in a critique of our knowledge practices for some time, but we are not done yet, or else we wouldn’t be in the predicament of being unprepared, yet again, for the creativity, ferocity, and mutability of opponents to the left/liberal/secular project. In addition to fieldwork, I think we need to do some more homework.