Speaking Precisely About the Religious Right

Michelle Goldberg has noticed the way the Egypt uprising is splitting the American right. On one side, the consistent side in her view, you have the neocons who have always argued that the overthrowing Arab dictators, whether by U.S. military force or the unrest of their subjects, is a good thing. On the other side you have people like Mike Huckabee, who fretted on Fox News about “how quickly the Obama administration abandoned a 30-year ally and a longstanding friend to peace.” And then there’s Glenn Beck, who knit together a cabal of every progressive villian he’s ever heard of—Code Pink, Van Jones—and blamed it for the “rioters” in Cairo.

I want to nitpick a little about the way Goldberg pegs this nutty, anti-democratic view to the religious right:

Beck, hero of the Tea Party, has become the hysterical tribune of the anti-democracy forces, linking the uprising in Egypt to a bizarre alliance of all of his bête noirs. “This is Saul Alinsky. This is STORM from Van Jones,” he warned on Monday, continuing, “The former Soviet Union, everybody, radical Islam, every—this is the story of everyone who has ever plotted to or wanted to fundamentally change or destroy the Western way of life. This isn’t about Egypt. Everything is up on the table.” It would all end, he warned, with the restoration of a “Muslim caliphate that controls the Mideast and parts of Europe,” along with an expanded China and Russian control of the entire Soviet Union “plus maybe the Netherlands.”
It sounds nuts, of course, but such fears are now rampant on the religious right, which has long seen American involvement in the Middle East in millennarian terms. In the apocalyptic view of politics that dominates the Christian right, Muslim nations are closely connected to the rise of the Antichrist, while the restoration of the Jews to the entire biblical land of Israel is key to the Second Coming. The end of days will be marked by the emergence of a one-world government and a great world war in the Middle East, culminating in a battle at Megiddo, or Armageddon, an actual place in Israel. (Beck is a Mormon, but he’s always incorporated elements of American evangelicalism into his ideology.) To side with the protesters in Egypt, at the expense of Israeli security, is to back Satan’s team in the coming biblical showdown. Thus John Hagee, the chiliastic preacher who founded Christians United for Israel, took to his website to praise Hosni Mubarak as “an American ally and closet friend to Israel,” writing, “Israel will soon be surrounded by enemies screaming for their blood. Will America support them? Our president certainly has not been supportive of Israel to this point in his administration; why would he change now?”

This sounds to me like the analysis of someone who knows their facts well but doesn’t know many evangelicals or members of the religious right. Thus, she can write a couple of paragraphs that are technically true but manage to be quite misleading about what average conservative evangelicals actually think.

First, Glenn Beck’s crazed notion that the Egyptian revolution is really a progressive plot to overthrow America is not “rampant on the religious right” just because John Hagee, a fringe pro-Israel preacher, is saying outrageous things again. When I have written presumptuously about the religious right’s political views, they have been quick to assure me that they don’t necessarily watch or agree with Glenn Beck (though other anecdotal evidence suggests some of them do). But again, the only people referenced here are Hagee and Mike Huckabee, neither of whom really speak for the rank-and-file of the religious right in any way significant enough to label their opinions “rampant.”

Goldberg is correct that a lot of evangelicals have attached apocalyptic theology to the Middle East. But unless you’re talking about Tim LaHaye or others who have made fortunes conjuring fearsome tales of the last days, most evangelicals seem to have moved on from their obsessive interest in the “end times” and realized that applying the Book of Revelation to current events is a pretty specious endeavor. Outside of the most fringe, most fundamentalist, or most isolated congregations, I promise there are not many conservative Christians wondering if the protests in Cairo are the beginning of the end.

I bring this up because I think it’s paramount that reporters who cover religious groups not make major assumptions about the way those people think. It’s incredibly easy for people socially and geographically isolated from the religious right to read a few crazy statements from high-profile evangelical figures and presume they’re expressing the general view. And it’s always a temptation for liberal journalists, myself included, to report the most extreme things they’ve heard from a conservative group without determining how significant or pervasive that view really is. I admire the work Goldberg and others have done to educate themselves about the religious right. But to really inform your readers about religious groups takes more work and less generalization.