Be careful what you wish for. This warning is a popular idiom and cliché, in this case one not attributed to Shakespeare or Aesop or any Greek philosopher, but one that is useful as a cautionary reminder. We should all be familiar with both the phrase and its intent, which is to inform people that when they promote any idea or plan they should look beyond the intended goals and promotional influences, which are almost always positive, and consider the potential negative consequences.
Virtually every human plan will have unintended and unanticipated consequences. Some of those will be positive. The formation of the demilitarized zone in Korea and the evacuation of the nuclear exclusion zone around Chernobyl have created large protected natural habitats, a boon to many regional species. And whenever some group opposed to a new book or movie advertises a boycott or attempts a ban on sales, it usually has the perverse effect of increasing interest and revenues for the offending product. However, when a person or interest group begins working to push a specific proposal they are motivated to find and advertise every possible positive effect, so unanticipated positive consequences are relatively rare.
Negative consequences are another thing altogether. There is an overabundance of examples of disasters resulting from human efforts to control our environment or to improve our lives. In this case, however, I would like to focus on the efforts of one political lobby that was instrumental in the 2016 election of President Trump and has, as a result, seen its policy proposals gain influence and implementation in many agencies and levels of the current federal administration. That movement is commonly labelled the religious right.
The overreach demonstrated by the religious right is in many ways analogous to that seen among other recent conservative social and political efforts, which have been buoyed by Republican dominance in all branches of the federal government. For example, the drive to expand the already high profit levels in U.S. business, pushed by shareholders and upper management, has led to several policies defined as business-friendly, including opposition to minimum-wage increases, reductions in employee benefits and safety regulations, increased reliance on temporary and part-time workers, and the imposition of high-tech employee scheduling and monitoring systems in the name of cost efficiency. These policies have in turn inspired a significant increase in support for unions and in the frequency and size of strikes, and strengthening of the progressive movement in politics. In a different example, the insurance industry and its allies in Congress have continued to fight the Affordable Care Act ever since it was enacted, repeatedly pushing to repeal the Act entirely or to reverse Medicaid expansion or to remove requirements to cover pre-existing conditions. The contrary effect of these efforts has been a strong increase in public support for policies such as Medicare-for-All, which would largely bypass the private health insurance industry.
The efforts of the religious right can be seen as similar. Over the same period as evangelicals and their allies have become more visible and demanding in the public sector we have seen a decrease in public involvement with organized religion. There may not be a direct causal relationship, although many “religious dropouts” have noted the uncompromising attitudes of evangelicals as significant factors in their decisions. Perversely, evangelicals have argued for decades that they must expand their efforts in order to halt the decline of morality, which is their interpretation of the growing social rejection of their own bible-centered version of righteous behavior.
The success of the religious right’s plan, if it reaches the full extent that the movement would like to achieve, would produce precisely the opposite result that they say they want. Their ultimate goal is a theocracy, a government that imposes religious doctrine through mandated prayers at public gatherings, that provides financial support for religious institutions, including schools, that encourages religion-based discrimination against specific groups, including LGBTQ or racial or religious minorities, and that supports preference in government employment and contracts and policies based on sectarian doctrines or membership. The goal is the implementation of a “Christian nation” or “dominionist” model, and more than that, a government devoted to a specific form of theocracy based on the fundamentalist sector’s biblical interpretations, the specific dogma favored by the movement. It is likely that one sectarian group strongly affiliated with the religious right would dominate, such as the large Southern Baptist denomination. State governments and legislators are already trying to impose majority sectarian doctrines on a piecemeal basis. Their intent would be to officially recognize and enforce a broad system of such dogma on a state-wide basis.
The formation of the United States was preceded by a colonial system similar to the one envisioned by the religious right. In many colonies there were official state churches, either Anglican or Congregational. Maryland in 1689 passed a law barring Catholics from practicing their religion, and in 1704 passed a law preventing Catholics from holding political office. Representatives of minority churches such as the Baptists and Presbyterians were frequently arrested in many of the colonies for preaching their religious views in public. The many disputes resulting from colonial repression, and the past experience with religious control in England, all led the founding fathers to include in Article VI of the Constitution the phrase “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”. And when they immediately added the first ten amendments, the bill of rights, the first amendment included the anti-establishment clause to prevent governments from favoring any religious denomination.
The constitutional prohibition against state-mandated religion has produced an unintended consequence that is primarily positive. Religious thought has flourished in the United States. Despite continuing decreases in church attendance and membership overall over the past five decades, 79 percent say they believe in God and 48 percent attend church at least once a month. Nearly a quarter, 23 percent, say they attend every week. And the fact that there are no government-approved or -supported churches has allowed diversity to flourish as well. There are an estimated 350,000 congregations in the United States representing some 220 denominations. About a tenth of the congregations are nondenominational. These high levels of religious participation and diversity are largely a result of our first amendment protections from governmental control or favoritism.
If the religious right has its way we will not only end up with a restrictive theocratic government, with the associated reductions in human rights and increases in discrimination against minorities. We will also see significant reductions in voluntary participation in religious and governmental activities and in the varieties of religious expression across the United States. This may make the right’s leaders happy as it reduces the competition they face from other denominations, but it will be destructive to our democracy. Be careful what you wish for.