A lot of things have changed in America in the past few decades both socially and technologically. But one thing that has remained relatively constant throughout has been the political strategy of the Republican party, once Southern Democrats (and their white northern sympathizers) began to switch parties in response to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s support for African-American civil rights.
After Barry Goldwater’s hardcore conservative campaign of 1964 led to electoral catastrophe, the GOP shifted its tactics to downplay its anti-government viewpoints and play up religious and cultural grievances through attacks on marginalized social groups. This scapegoating approach won Richard Nixon the presidency in 1968 and has become the template for the party ever since, with the “Southern Strategy” shifting and evolving over time in response to public opinion, both with respect to its rhetoric and with respect to which groups were targeted.
Since the 1960s, GOP politicians have railed against communists, civil rights advocates (who were often derided as “communists”), labor unions, hippies, anti-war activists, immigrants, “welfare queens,” “queers,” “super-predators,” “Satanists,” “feminazis,” and Muslims. The supposed nefariousness of the targeted group was not necessarily relevant to elites except insofar as it could be used to consolidate the party’s base around an authoritarian white Christian identity. The GOP’s cultivation of that identity has been enough to keep many white Americans voting against their own economic interests and has enabled the extremists in seizing control of the party.
Lee Atwater, the first widely successful Republican political consultant, revealed the GOP’s deliberate exploitation of bigotry to push through a broader conservative agenda during an infamous 1981 interview in which he described how the party had learned to use coded language to communicate bigotry to the base.
“Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites,” he told political scientist Alexander Lamis shortly after the presidential inauguration of his client, Ronald Reagan. In addition to harmful economic policies, much of the Right’s racial resentment was channeled into anti-abortion activism from about 1980, when white evangelical Protestants voted en masse for Reagan.
Of course, Reagan knew to begin his 1980 campaign with an assertion of support for “states’ rights,” meaning that he would not interfere with racism in the South. But with the Bob Jones case showing that overt support for racial discrimination was no longer politically viable, shrewd operatives like Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich and Southern Baptist firebrand Jerry Falwell, Sr., found the abortion issue to be a convenient way to bring white Catholics and Protestants together. Many of their children were in any case already ensconced in all-white, or mostly white, Christian schools, many of which had been founded explicitly as segregation academies.
The seemingly innocent (if entirely untruthful) rallying cry of “saving babies” gave white Christian voters the cover they needed to continue voting for white supremacist politicians and policies, along with the economic policies that would lead to the extreme wealth inequality that characterizes America today. Patriarchy had always gone hand-in-hand with American racism, of course, and the new emphasis on overturning Roe v. Wade also dovetailed neatly with the rise of the Christian homeschooling movement and its adherents’ devotion to having as many children as possible.
It’s noteworthy that, as GOP masks increasingly came off in the Trump era, many evangelicals have started to claim that abortion is no longer the single issue that most drives their voting, although it’s still a given that they are adamantly anti-choice. As Bradley Onishi, an assistant professor of religious studies at Skidmore College, recently maintained in Religion Dispatches:
In 2021 many white evangelicals (and others) no longer need to use abortion as the rhetorical middleman to justify their disdain for religious, racial, sexual, and gender minorities. One explanation for the apparent shift in priorities isn’t one replacing the other, but a new political climate in which the vitriol once funneled through reproductive rights discourse has burst the canals and is now running free on its own.
In recent years, one of the chief targets for the right-wing vitriol Onishi describes has been the transgender community. From the overturning of municipal nondiscrimination ordinances by Republican-controlled state legislatures to unprecedented bans on healthcare for trans minors, Republicans have manufactured and exploited fears of essentially nonexistent problems, such as “men in dresses” preying on women and girls in bathrooms and trans women pushing out cisgender women in sports. Indeed, Human Rights Campaign has declared 2021 the worst year in recent history for state legislative attacks on LGBTQ rights, with 17 bills becoming law so far compared with the 15 bills that were enacted in 2015, when the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, was followed by severe right-wing backlash.
The most horrific law to pass this year is Arkansas’s blanket ban on affirmative healthcare for trans youth, a group at particular risk of suicide because its members are so often subjected to discrimination, stigma, and bullying. Meanwhile, Montana passed a law requiring proof of genital surgery before trans residents of the state can update their birth certificates.
In addition, seven of the anti-LGBTQ legislative initiatives that have passed in 2021 so far are anti-trans sports bills, even though these measures represent a “solution” in search of a problem. The “trans woman unfairly dominating women’s sports” bugbear is as much a myth as the “men in dresses” trope. It has not been an issue in the schools where young trans girls will now be barred from athletic competition. The performance of a small handful of out trans and nonbinary athletes in this year’s Tokyo Olympics should also help put to rest any fears of unfair competition, with only one of them earning a medal as part of Canada’s women’s soccer team.
Despite these facts, why does the trans community come in for such particular vitriol? And why now? For help answering those questions, I turned to human rights and secular democracy advocates. Alison Gill is vice president for legal and policy at American Atheists, an organization that held a webinar called “The Equality Act and the New Religious Assault on Trans Youth” back in May. Having attended the webinar, I later followed up with Gill, an out trans woman herself, about what’s happening with the current conservative onslaught against trans people and why American Atheists felt compelled to address it.
Gill noted that American Atheists sometimes “gets pushback from constituents” on why the social justice positions the organization supports should be of concern for organized atheism. Noting that atheists sometimes adopt false narratives about trans people, such as the notion that being trans is a “religious ideology,” Gill commented, “We’re seeing a lot of these anti-trans narratives being repeated by people commenting through our social media, and so we feel a need to educate our constituents on these issues.”
For Gill, the reason that something like the Equality Act should be considered important for secular advocates is that it would help to curtail the Christian Right’s pursuit of de facto discrimination via religious exemptions. The Equality Act “expands non-discrimination protections while leaving current exemptions in place. That and the ‘Every Child Deserves a Family Act’ do prohibit discrimination on a religious basis in some areas that are not already covered, including adoption,” says Gill.
And when it comes to the state-level legislative onslaught targeting trans people today, Gill sees a classic moral panic, a phenomenon that entails punitive action directed toward a scapegoated group as a deflection from serious issues within the panicked community. “There’s been a lot of discussion among atheist leaders over the years about the Satanic Panic of the 80s and 90s. I think we’re in a similar situation now,” maintains Gill.
Perhaps the most salient aspect of the comparison is that, during the Satanic Panic, individual citizens, therapists, social workers, experts, and local and national law enforcement went looking for cabals engaged in non-existent “satanic ritual abuse” and put innocent people in prison, when most cases of child sexual abuse involve family members or close family friends. As many have already noted, today’s QAnon conspiracies are essentially a new inflection of this same old paranoid thinking, while fear-mongering over the false belief that members of the LGBTQ community are more likely than straight people to be pedophiles is part of what fuels the Right’s anti-LGBTQ politics.
As Gill describes sees things, this situation is part of a broader phenomenon, “this whole pushback over so-called ‘woke culture,’ cancel culture.” In her view, “This deriding of ‘wokeness’ is also a moral panic, and that these attacks on this idea of ‘wokeness’ as described by the Right is an attack on trans people and racial equality. ‘Wokeness’ is just a code word for people who oppose equality.” In this context, trans people, who are disproportionately subjected to violence, make a particularly easy target, since many Americans believe they don’t know any of us and thus may have trouble empathizing with us, according to Gill.
According to Heron Greensmith, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, the underlying patriarchal ideology of conservative Christianity is a significant reason trans people have become easy targets for scapegoating.
“Trans and nonbinary people represent to the Evangelical Right both a violation of narrow Biblical theology, and a good object lesson of what happens to people who violate that norm. In the past and obviously into the present, feminists, LGBTQ people, and ‘communists’ have also played that role.” Trans women in particular can be perceived as a threat to those committed to a patriarchal order of society, as the “feminization of men” has been a subject of moral panic throughout modern Western history.
In fairness, of course, it should be noted that some scapegoating of the trans community also comes from the left, with some anti-trans so-called feminists even proving willing to work directly with right-wing Christian organizations to oppose trans rights. Greensmith understands this phenomenon as follows:
We all live under capitalism and the patriarchy. And we are all scared of the violent recriminations of violating and resisting those forces. It stands to reason that some people across the political spectrum would be motivated by scarcity to throw other minority communities in front of themselves. Anti-trans feminists are an example of this phenomenon: a community of people who position trans people as the enemy of feminism, instead of realizing that patriarchy, capitalism, and the Religious Right are our mutual enemies.
In addition to the points Greensmith raises, it’s worth noting that radical feminists at times also aligned themselves with the Christian Right in the context of the moral panics of the 1980s. Andrea Dworkin, for example, received praise from the fiercely anti-gay Focus on the Family founder James Dobson himself for her testimony to the Reagan administration’s anti-porn Meese Commission. This same bizarre conservative undercurrent in radical feminism is behind the organized anti-trans efforts of trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs, today.
Gay men and women of some privilege may also feel relatively safe among conservatives, given that some elites in the Republican Party have been trying to signal that the issue of same-sex marriage is now settled law. Even in regard only to their self-interest, however, this seems to me very shortsighted, given that the right-wing Christian base of the GOP most certainly does not consider Obergefell settled law, and that the Trump administration dutifully stacked the federal courts and the SCOTUS with judges approved by the base.
According to Gill, the moral panics currently underway around “wokeness” and trans people bode very badly for America’s future. “We are advancing down a fascistic road that is incredibly troubling,” she contends, and that gives urgency to American Atheists’ efforts to help members of the secular community learn not only to empathize with trans folks, but also to look at the stakes of today’s culture war battles with clear eyes. Nothing good for democracy and human rights will ever come from enabling the politics of moral panic and scapegoating.