REAGAN'S AMERICA:

SOCIETY, CULTURE AND POLITICS IN THE 1980s

Philip Jenkins

 

CLASS 7

The Politics of God

 

America in the 1970s and 1980s seems to have been in the throes of a major religious revival, a shift towards spirituality, and especially in fairly orthodox Christian forms. Why did this happen? How was this manifested? Is it that people are turning to religion, or just that they are more visible in the public arena, and the media begin to discover them?

 

QUESTIONS TO GUIDE YOUR READING

 

A summary question: if you omit or understate religious factors, what do you miss in understanding America in the 1970s and 1980s? Equally, if you overstate religious factors, what do you get wrong in understanding America in the 1970s and 1980s? How about applying the same questions to the present day?

 

How important was the Moral Majority in the new conservatism? What gave it so much sway? How important was it as a demon force for liberals? Why did it fail? (Assuming it did). Were US politics in the 1980s conspicuously more religious than those of previous decades? If not, why not?

 

Some terms to define at the outset: exactly what are evangelicals? Fundamentalists? Pre-millenarians?

 

What role did the various scandals of the mid-late 1980s play in the unraveling of the religious right? Why did the media treat these scandals as they did (think – the answer is not as obvious as it may appear)

 

What were the defining issues of the Christian Right in its various forms? Is it fair to describe the Christian Right as primarily anti-feminist?

 

While looking at the Christian right, we should never forget the Christian left, which was also very significant in these years. What were its defining issues? Why were immigration and sanctuary so critical to left-liberal mobilization?

 

Tell me about apocalyptic as a cultural theme in these years. What were its manifestations, for left as well as right? Can we speak of secular apocalyptic?

 

How did religious issues (and apocalyptic themes) feature in debates over nuclear weapons?

 

How did educational issues feature in religious debates?

 

The right mobilized religious themes with great success. How far did liberals comprehend what was happening, and how effectively did they respond?

 

What role did racial issues and conflicts play in debates over religion and morality?

 

How did issues of censorship bring feminists and fundamentalists together in some unlikely de facto coalitions?

 

 How do these themes surface in popular culture? How about television specials, mini-series, issue-of-the-week TV movies, etc

 

Why did the politics of religion so focus on “family values”? What did that phrase mean, especially in the context of the reaction against the 1960s?

 

What uses did the religious right serve for liberals and the left?

 

What role did religion play in US international policy in these years? In Eastern Europe? In the Middle East? In the nuclear arms race?

 

One of the great concerns of this era was the “cult threat”, the fear that millions of young Americans were joining bizarre authoritarian religious sects. How realistic were these fears? Why did they arouse such fear at the time they did? What symbolic agendas were involved in this scare?

 

Tell me about changes in the Roman Catholic church in these years. How did they affect national politics, and especially party allegiances? How did splits within the church spill over into national affairs?

 

We’ve already discussed shifting Jewish allegiances in these years. How closely do they echo what is happening in Christian politics?

 

 At the end of this period, the Roman Catholic church begins to be assailed by charges of clergy sex abuse (the term “pedophile priest” enters the language in 1985). Why does this controversy erupt at the time it does? How far did it reflect changes within the churches, and especially conflicts within the Catholic church?

 

Throughout this period, American religion was transformed by the power of “fomenting feminism”. How, why, and with what effects?

 

Though the most significant wing of the New Right takes the form of respectable conservatism, we can also see an upsurge of the far right. What forms does this take? What kinds of new ideology affect the far right in these years? What is the influence of movements like Christian Identity and neo-Nazism? What impact does the Turner Diaries have? How serious a threat was the far Right terrorist campaign of 1984-85?

 

Survivalism is an important movement of these years. Why? How does that relate to the American radical heritage, in movements such as communalism, separatism and apocalypticism?