Our Humanity, Naturally

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The Unseen Influence of the Religious Right

Big business is the big beneficiary of social conservative voters

The so-called "culture wars," where religious conservatives and secular progressives lock horns over issues of church-state separation, gay rights, and various other social issues, may seem to be light years from the current budget battle that threatens to bring Washington to a standstill and create economic havoc. After all, what do fights over abortion, same-sex marriage, and the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance have to do with the economic chaos?

In truth, however, the Religious Right is a major factor in the current mess in Washington. A direct chain of causation can be drawn between politically motivated religious conservatism and the unchallenged power of the corporate interests that are threatening to bring Washington to a standstill.

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To understand this connection, a bit of history is in order.

Corporate interests have had great influence in American politics for over a century, since even before the days of "trust busting" during the so-called Progressive Era in the early twentieth century. The power struggle between big business and ordinary people has been ongoing since that time, and frankly big business has been the winner in those battles more often than not.

Still, for most of the twentieth century there was a sense that the power of corporate interests was somewhat held in check by America's imperfect democracy, where ordinary people had the political ability to construct a regulatory aparatus that could try to minimize corporate wrongdoing (such as the Securities and Exchange Commission) and a social welfare system that could assure the kind of safety net that a prosperous modern society would expect (such as Social Security and Medicare). Thus, even though everyone knew money was king in America and that big business was ultimately in control, these rational political efforts suggested that we had a system that was at least somewhat responsive to ordinary people.

With the rise of the Religious Right, however, that all changed. Starting in the election of 1980 and continuing steadily since then, corporate interests have greatly increased their political power by pandering to politically motivated religious voters who care about nothing more than social issues such as abortion, gay rights, and other so-called "culture war" issues. Whereas corporate interests were once held in check by an electorate that considered the economic interests of real people a high priority, a large section of that electorate has now indicated that social issues will almost always trump everything else. Hence, corporate interests, which generally are indifferent to social issues, have discovered that they can be assured a large base of voters by simply pandering to these social conservatives, throwing red meat to them on issues of abortion, God in government, LGBT rights, etc.

The size of the "Religious Right" demographic is somewhat open to debate depending on how the term is defined, and it will vary according to geography and other factors, but a mid-range estimate would be somewhere around a quarter of the electorate. Hence, because this demographic has become such a solid voting bloc, corporate interests are virtually guaranteed a huge section of the electorate as a starting base on any given election day, so long as the candidates of those corporate interests align with socially conservative  positions.

Therefore, the big winner in the rise of the Religious Right is big business, which is tremendously empowered by having a base of reliable voters who will remain loyal. Empowered as such, the political agenda of corporate interests becomes increasingly bold. Tax rates on corporations and the rich must remain at historical lows, almost negligible, even though government is broke. We must now see serious efforts to privatize Social Security, because doing so would result in huge profit opportunities for Wall Street even if it would make the foundational retirement savings of ordinary Americans dangerously unstable. We must deregulate virtually everything, even though it was unregulated corporate interests that caused the 2008 financial collapse. We must forget about universal single-payer health care, because the interests of drug companies and insurance companies are much more important than the interests of ordinary citizens. We must dismantle government, including public education, because corporate interests hate government unless it is subsidizing their cash flow. This, in turn, explains why we won't see military budget cuts, because military spending is a cash cow for corporate interests. And forget about a rational, sustained effort to preserve the environment or transition to sustainable energy, since these efforts would threaten the profits of many of America's most powerful corporate interests, including oil companies.

Strangely, public support for these corporate-driven policies is very low, usually in a minority, but from a political standpoint corporate interests get their candidates elected because they are in bed with the Religious Right, which will support any pro-corporate candidates that advance the socially conservative agenda. Psychologically, these social conservative voters feel more compelled to oppose gay rights, for example, than to support candidates who would steadfastly defend Social Security and other important economic interests. The social conservative voter would like to tax the rich, but to do so he might have to vote against the candidate who is always talking about God and Bible-based values. In this internal struggle, the religious conservative voter will more often abandon his economic interest in order to vote consistently with his perceived "Christian" outlook. 

Conspiracy theorists might look at this situation and hypothesize a grand strategy by corporate America to hijack the nation's public policy. Though there certainily has been some scheming and plotting, we should realize that this corporate-religious partnership is the natural result of a system that treats corporations as real people and does not regulate them intelligently. Under our current system, corporations and industries are by nature totally self-interested, amoral, and singularly in pursuit of short-term profits. By partnering with the Religious Right, corporate interests have simply constructed a political vehicle for furthering their agenda. We shouldn't blame them for acting precisely as they are designed to act; we should blame ourselves for allowing them to do so.

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Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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