Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech had little to do with the Soviet Union. Delivered to the National Association of Evangelicals, the bulk of Reagan’s address was a feast of red meat for the Republican base’s 1980s fixations: drugs, prayer, sexual promiscuity. The Gipper merely affixed a condemnation of Soviet militarism at the end of an oration meant to please religious conservatives.
This forgotten history resonates in today’s era of abortion restrictions and right-wing judicial activism. Since the 1970s, Republican politicians have drawn from a deep well of political energy on the religious right. Evangelical grievance, while waxing and waning as a force in mainstream culture, has remained a constant in the political calculations of the GOP. Religious conservatism provides a rich trove of supporters to the republican Party, on which they now depend more than ever before.
But, in fact, this history extends further into the past than the era of Jerry Falwell’s alliance with New Right politicians such as Reagan and Jesse Helms. Conservative religious politics originated not with evangelicals, but with fundamentalists, and its first wave crested not in the 1980s but in the Jazz Age. Every time since World War I that social mores have liberalized, a reserve army of right-wing Protestants has asserted itself in opposition to society’s newly established freedoms.
The 1920s were an era of bobbed hair and short skirts, speakeasies and grand soirees. Society had let its hair down, and young people returning from the war were living a libertine lifestyle that horrified provincials. In response, religious fundamentalists tried to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools (including a failed attempt to do so in North Carolina) and generally to combat the rise of a more liberationist culture. A formerly left-wing political figure in William Jennings Bryan reinvented himself as a conservative anti-science crusader. And the violent edge of this backlash were hordes of Klansmen amassed to reign hell on Catholics, Jews, and Blacks.
The next religious backlash excluded the Ku Klux Klan but was equally regressive. Lest one imagine that the rise of the “Moral Majority” imposed traditionalism without loss of life, consider the ghastly toll that the AIDS epidemic took upon LGBTQ people due in part to the malign negligence of politicians such as Jesse Helms. And the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, another key prong of backlash aggression, precluded same-sex couples from the full rights of citizenship. All of this repression seemed to benefit Republican candidates.
Today we’re facing the third wave of aggression by religious conservatives. Empowered by an activist Supreme Court, evangelicals across the country are advancing an aggressive rollback of civil rights. The most politically potent element of their agenda is a genuinely extreme national effort to invalidate the right to obtain an abortion. As destructive and misogynistic as this is, trans youth may bear an equally harsh burden imposed by this right-wing revolt against cultural transformation.
Transgender sports bans are novel–but the virulence behind them is not. Religious conservatives are reenacting a history of backlash that began in the 1920s. In 2023, however, the religious counterrevolution may come up short. The United Stat today is solid in its liberality, reshaped forever by the rights revolution. A religious right feeling imbued with momentum will soon find itself outside the circle of influence.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.