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A Prodigal Nation, Still

Andrew R. Murphy is Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.  His most recent book, Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment From New England to 9/11 reveals how Americans’ powerful attachment to an idealized past continue to shape public life. America’s supposed moral decline from an imagined golden age, and the threat of divine punishment for straying from the path of righteousness, have been consistent themes in our political and religious rhetoric.  In the post below Murphy reveals how this theme is never far from forefront in America.

Viewers tuning in to “Larry King Live” on Monday night, March 23, witnessed an intriguing sight. There was Meghan McCain, daughter of last year’s Republican nominee for president, telling Larry King that, on cultural issues, there is “a very big generation gap between me and my father”:

I consider myself a progressive Republican. I am liberal on social issues. And I think that the party is at a place where social issues shouldn’t be the issues that define the party. And I have taken heat, but in fairness to me, I am a different generation than the people that are giving me heat. I’m 24 years old. I’m not in my 40s, I’m not in my 50s and older….We have a very big generation gap between me and my father….I believe in gay marriage. … I personally am pro-life, but I’m not going to judge someone that’s pro-choice. It is not my place to judge other people and what they do with their body.

The whole thrust of this appearance, on the face of it, would seem to reinforce a common piece of conventional wisdom in American politics: the 2008 presidential election illustrated that the nation was tired of the divisive cultural politics of the Christian Right, and wanted to move beyond arguing over the 1960s and come together to face our common economic challenges; the Christian Right is populated by dinosaurs (James Dobson, Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell) who are increasingly out of touch with ordinary, younger Americans; the real issues of 2009 and beyond will be economic ones that don’t lend themselves easily to moralism or divisive culture wars.

Now this may be true. But just a day after Meghan McCain’s appearance with Larry King, when it seemed that all the nation’s news was economic news – with round-the-clock coverage of the AIG bonuses, “toxic assets,” ballooning deficits, and the shaky tenure of Treasury Secretary Geithner – the culture wars roared back into the headlines. A glance at the New York Times in the past several days reveals that the hot-button issues that drove the rise of the Christian Right during the 1970s and 1980s, and fueled conservative talk-radio during the 1990s – issues of culture, religion, and sexuality – remain with us, and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future.

The abortion issue showed up on the front page headline of the March 24, 2009, New York Times: “Morning-After Pill for Younger Women.” Federal judge Edward Korman – nominated to the bench by none other than Ronald Reagan! – ruled that the Food and Drug Administration had given in to political pressure in 2006, when it set the minimum age for women to receive the Plan B “morning after” birth control pill at 18. Korman ordered the FDA to make the pill available, without a prescription, to women as young as 17. Not surprisingly, the ruling was hailed by women’s rights groups, and condemned by social conservatives. Chris Gacek, Senior Fellow for Regulatory Affairs at the Family Research Council’s Senior Fellow for Regulatory Affairs, criticized the judge for having “accepted lock, stock, and barrel all of the claims of a political ideology promoting sexual license for teens.” (The Council’s mission statement states that “God is the author of life, liberty, and the family” and that the Council “promotes the Judeo-Christian worldview as the basis for a just, free, and stable society.”)

Then came news that – while the nation waits for the California Supreme Court’s ruling on that state’s recently-passed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in the state – the Vermont State Senate had voted (and voted 26-4, at that) to legalize same-sex marriage. Vermont had already achieved a singular role in the history of gay rights in America, as in 2000 it was the first state to approve civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. That step, however, was taken in response to a court order; yesterday’s action represented the overwhelming vote of a democratically-elected branch of state government, and not the decree of the judicial branch. Passage in the Vermont House also seem likely, though the bill’s prospects with the state’s governor – who supports civil unions, but not gay marriage – are less certain. (According to CNN, if the bill becomes law, Vermont will become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage without being forced to do so by the courts.)

Although there was a specific historical context for the emergence of the Christian Right – it arose in reaction to the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s – its political rhetoric and religious politics reflect far deeper and longstanding dynamics in American history. Both the lions of the Christian Right during its heyday in the 1980s (Robertson, Falwell, D. James Kennedy, Dobson) as well its more recent leaders (Gary Bauer, David Barton, Tony Perkins) look back to a pre-1960s cultural consensus, and tell a powerful political story about a prodigal nation, once richly blessed, that has squandered God’s blessing by embracing a national morality of secular humanism, sexual liberation and gay rights, radical individualism and feminism, and abortion on demand. This nostalgia for a time when (Christian) religion enjoyed a more dominant public role frames the Christian Right agenda even into the Obama years: restoring public school prayer, for example, or opposing same-sex marriage, or reimposing restrictions on abortion. Ralph Reed, who directed the Christian Coalition during much of the 1990s, once described the Coalition’s political vision of the American future as follows:

America would look much as it did for most of the first two centuries of its existence, before the social dislocation caused by Vietnam, the sexual revolution, Watergate, and the explosion of the welfare state. Our nation would once again be ascendant, self-confident, proud, and morally strong. Government would be strong, the citizenry virtuous, and mediating institutions such as churches and voluntary organizations would carry out many of the functions currently relegated to the bureaucracy.

Although the nation’s attention might seem fixed on the massive economic downturn right now, we should never underestimate the power nostalgic and moralizing laments for “the way things used to be.” Indeed, Americans have been lamenting their immoral society, and pining for a lost Golden Age, for as long as there have been Americans.

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