The war on women in the United States finally seems to be attracting mainstream attention, after years of warnings about the mounting intensity of attacks on women, and what they meant. Growing attempts to restrict access to reproductive health services, to reverse gains made in women’s rights, to force women into a subjugated position, are so blatant at this point that even the conservative media can’t ignore them, although it is certainly making a very good attempt at it. A tide of conservatism in the United States has been building for quite some time, and it’s not just women who are being affected; our immigration policy is growing more dysfunctional, our handling of people with disabilities, low-income people, and other marginalised groups is increasingly appalling.
It is not coincidental that this is occurring at the same time that conservative evangelical Christianity is also on the rise in the United States. Relatively small sects with extremist views are becoming more mainstream, are growing in numbers, and are exerting much more control over the political arena. Looking at the Presidential election, for example, conservative candidates with rather fundamentalist Christian views are participating, and being taken seriously, which is a shift. Religion has always been a part of the Presidential race, with the assumption that candidates would, of course, be Christian, but a conservative, quiet, nice Christianity, not an obtrusive and rather aggressive evangelical one.
The increasing acceptance of a particular brand of conservative evangelism by the mainstream is fascinating, and is clearly playing a role in the reversal of social progress that people appear determined to engineer. The attitude that women are lesser is certainly part of the worldview of some adherents, and it’s played out in the way that women are talked about on the political stage. As objects, as people incapable of making sound decisions for themselves who need to be guided with a firm regulatory hand. The same attitudes, that other human beings are something other, something not deserving of equal footing, is seen in the way that other marginalised groups are discussed and subjugated through sneaky political tactics.
Cracking down on immigration is about cracking down on human beings whom some people think are not deserving of full social integration. It’s not about national security or jobs or the welfare of the economy or any of the other things people want to claim. It’s about naked, institutionalised hatred, just as the savage cuts to health care and benefits programmes are about destroying human beings. Not ‘controlling corrupt systems’ or whatever else conservatives want to claim these things are about.
Attacks on women are part of this too, an attempt to put women back in their place. It’s paradoxical that some of the faces of this movement are women, that we have women effectively saying that other women should get back in the kitchen while they’re taking advantage of a system that has created power and a role on the political stage for them. They dismiss feminism, decry social justice, claim that society is corrupt and socialist, even though these very things are what made it possible for them to have a shot at the Presidency in the first place. They pursue Presidential campaigns with the explicitly stated goals of harming women, of making life more difficult for many women in US society, of supporting legislation targeting women.
All of this ties, in a roundabout way, to my discussion about attempts to ban Harry Potter, which indicated the growing influence of conservative evangelical thought on US politics. The same people exerting power in the schools are also attempting to change the political landscape by imposing their religious values on the culture as a whole. In a government that was never really secular to begin with, some Christian moral/social values were always embedded in politics, of course. But not these particular values, many of which are viewed as deeply harmful.
This is not about thinking that conservative evangelism is evil, or that people who subscribe to these particular views are bad people. They are people, they believe things, they have a clear personal and logical basis for those beliefs. But when those beliefs are imposed on the rest of us, when they change from a personal religious ethos to a matter of public policy, it becomes a cause for concern. For evangelists, of course, there is no concern; part of evangelism is the solicitation of converts, is the growth of the religion, is reaching people with religious messages. The rest of us, though, are not necessarily on board with this, and just as we do not need to sit by while people evangelise us in our personal lives, we are under no obligation to do so when it comes to politics.
This increasing dominance of politics by conservative evangelism is worrying, and highlights deeper divides in our society and culture. It is also difficult to know what to do about it; dictating religious dogma is not and should not be the purview of politicians, and I would strongly resent any attempt to check the spread of conservative evangelism. Conversely, of course, religion doesn’t really belong in politics. Which is not to say that individually religious people do not belong in politics, but is to say that as soon as they attempt to make their personal political, we have a problem.
A state of increasing unease and unrest is present in the United States, nipping at our heels, and this is adding fuel to the fire. The comforts offered by conservative evangelism appeal to many people, which explains the growing numbers of people supporting increasingly extremist sects. This is not happening in a vacuum. Dismissing religion is not the solution to the problem, but neither is agreeing to let particular religious values dominate our politics.