The ‘religious right’ came to prominence in the US during the late 1970s by campaigning on ‘social issues’ and encouraging many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians to get involved in politics. However, the fact that it clashed with ‘born again’ President Jimmy Carter over tax breaks for religious schools believed to be discriminatory, together with its illiberal stances on many issues, meant that it was characterized as an extremist movement. I argue that this assessment is oversimplified. First, many Christian schools were not racially discriminatory, and their defenders resented being labelled as racists. Secondly, few historians have recognized that the Christians involved in the religious right were among the most secularized of their kind. The religious right was often mistakenly categorized alongside earlier American Christian political movements that had displayed extremist and anti-democratic tendencies. The Carter administration's records and oft-ignored religious right ephemeral literature partly substantiate the movement's contention that it was defensive rather than theocratic in nature. One of my conclusions is that more attention must be paid to the subtle nuances of the political and theological views of religious right leaders, because the confusion surrounding the religious right is partly a function of its leaders harbouring internally inconsistent views.
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