This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Strangers In Their Own Land" by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What is the Christian right? How do the church and church culture factor into conservative political beliefs?
The Christian right is a particular element of conservatism where political messages come from the church. Often, poorer conservatives hear political messages and beliefs directly from religious leaders. Arlie Hochschild refers to this as “being churched.”
Read more about the Christian right, and how the church factors into American conservative politics.
Being Churched by the Christian Right
This same right-wing notion of the deserving and the undeserving is reinforced in the region’s churches—along with industry, another key pillar of the Tea Party worldview. Indeed, Louisiana is extremely pious, with some of the highest church attendance figures in the country. This Christian right helps shape conservative ideas overall.
People refer to themselves as “being churched,” in the same way that you might describe yourself as being well-educated or well-mannered. Church is not simply a physical place where you go—it’s a way of being, one the Christian right uses for their advantage.
In the small towns and rural communities that dot the southwestern corner of the state, churches provide many of the services that municipal governments do in more cosmopolitan cities. Churches offer fitness centers, recreational facilities, childcare services, and even addiction treatment programs. Here, religion is community, therapy, welfare, and meditation all rolled into one, and the religious right dominates.
Whether the church service is Catholic, Pentecostal, or Baptist, on the Christian right, the message from the pulpit stresses personal endurance over difficult circumstances through a one-on-one relationship with Jesus. Notably, it does not preach the need to improve external circumstances in your community or perform good works.
The implication on the religious right is that salvation is a matter of personal responsibility—and that your problems are yours and yours alone to deal with. This regional variation of Christianity also teaches that it is unwise to wish or dream for things beyond your means. If Jesus wants you to have your dream house, it will be provided for you. If He doesn’t, then it won’t.
The important thing is to accept your station in life, set aside your envy and striving, be happy with what you have, and cheerfully endure any hardship that might come your way. This religious orientation fits well with conservative political ideology, which downplays the role that external forces (government in particular) can play in improving one’s circumstances. It is a message that accords well with right-wing ideas regarding traditional social, racial, and gender hierarchies.
Some churches in Louisiana go a step beyond this in a more extreme version of the Christian right, and preach explicit anti-environmentalism, arguing that the Earth and everything beneath it is God’s bounty to humankind—and that people have a duty to accept this bounty and utilize it to the maximum extent possible
Church and the American Dream
Here’s one example of the religious right at work. For one woman named Madonna Massey, fervent Pentecostal faith and steadfast commitment to free-market capitalism go hand-in-hand. Massey is the wife of a Pentecostal pastor, and the couple has ambitious plans to build a megachurch to spread the word of God to more believers.
As a talented gospel singer, she has accomplished more than she ever dreamed she would. But she stands opposed to any attempts by the government to ameliorate inequality in society—or to help others rise above the circumstances of their birth and grab their slice of the American Dream as she has. She attributes her own success to her work ethic and her unwavering faith in God, who has rewarded her with earthly blessings.
Massey’s moral world is ordered by her church. Government only exists to perform a few limited functions, such as protecting private property and guaranteeing national security. God is the only entity that can provide everything else in life, from healthcare to education to access to food. For Massey, any attempt by the government to provide these goods to people is an infringement upon the American Dream and a perversion of God’s will.
This is one example of how the religious right operates that shapes people’s worldview and causes them to continue voting against their own interests.
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- What drives right-wing politics in America
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