What is the Religious Right?

We use the term “religious right” to refer to very conservative, politically active organizations and movements which are rooted in fundamentalist, conservative religious denominations, are attempting to implement rocks_into_lightconservative and religiously informed reforms in our society, and which – at least among their own members – often legitimize these reforms by tying them to divine authority.

It is important to note that “religious right” is not synonymous with “Christian right,” and that even with the Christian right, there is much diversity – between Roman Catholics and Protestants, between Baptists and charismatics. Moreover not everyone within these denominations is even right-wing at all. Indeed, the religious right is not so much an alliance of movements as a category of them, which ally on some issues, but can bitterly oppose one another on other issues.

In a 1992 lecture, John Stackhouse quoted American religious historians defining the ideal society of the Christian religious right:

“Families, churches, and state would on the whole be properly formed. Justice and charity would normally be shown towards minorities and toward the poor and other unfortunate people. The society would be peaceful and law-abiding. Proper moral standards would generally prevail. Cultural activities such as learning, business, or the subduing of nature would be pursued basically in accord with God’s will. In short, such a society would be a proper model for us to imitate.

This definition is instructive because it gives us a basing point for the three institutions which are core to Christian interpretation: church, state, and family. Reverence for these three institutions is justified by a conservative Biblical interpretation of the Genesis stories and certain letters from Paul.

The Christian right holds that the traditional (read: heterosexual and patriarchal) family is the fundamental building block of all societies. If the family so defined is that important, then forcing all members of society to conform to its restrictions takes on enormous importance, not just for individuals’ sake but for the health of the nation – and therefore justifies government interference in people’s lives, in terms of restricting women’s reproductive rights, banning or at least subordinating (as civil partnerships) gay and lesbian marriage, and privileging masculine, patriarchal structures of leadership. Canadian religious right writer Michael Wagner actually defines his movement solely by its opposition to “the effects of the Sexual Revolution.”

The Christian right, in particular, also tends to be fervently nationalist. While most strongly support the formal separation of the institutions of church and state, equally many connect very intimately the social affairs of religion and nation. In other words, few would want Canada to have its own established church, like the Church of England in Britain – but, many believe that religious faith is an essential component of national identity, and that religion has an essential role in public affairs. This also means that religion must be integral to forming new citizens – for example, in schools. National symbols take on a religious significance, and vice versa. Religious nationalism also tends to be very militaristic in its approach to world affairs.

Among the evangelical Christian right, extreme nationalist loyalty to one’s own nation is often linked to extreme support for another nation, Israel. This is largely the result of an evangelical interpretation of the role of Israel in God’s plan for the world.¬† Charles¬†McVety, an outspoken religious right commentator tied to Canada Christian College and the Institute for Canadian Values, is a staunch supporter of Israel. Other religious rightists are tied to such groups as the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, and Christians for Israel International. The common term for those who hold this belief system is zionist.

The third key institution is religion, held to be the collective voice of morality within the nation. In the public sphere, conservative writers such as McGill ethicist Margaret Somerville typically argue that more respect, and prominence of place, must be given to a vaguely defined, non-denominational sense of the “sacred.” Others, within churches, are more specific, assigning to the books of the Bible status as the inerrant record of the instructions of God. Traditional sources of authority are revered; modernism is rejected.

Significantly, a focus on the three core institutions above leaves the Christian right without a fundamental critical analysis of the economy. In general, though not exclusively, however, religious right groups tend to support capitalist economics, emphasizing low taxes, minimal government interference, and maximum economic freedom – provided that this freedom does not interfere with fundamentalist moral imperatives. This economic agenda has made them easy allies of neoliberal pro-business lobbies, as may currently be seen in the Conservative Party of Canada and the Republican Party in the United States. This aspect of the movement, however, is far less pronounced in Canada than in America.

As a movement, the religious right has been most influential, and perhaps most effective, in the United States. In countries like Canada, the movement exists in smaller and typically less high-profile form, often kept alive by regular infusions of people and ideas from America.