An excerpt from Mehrsa Baradaran’s new book, The Quiet Coup: Neoliberalism and the Looting of America, out now.

The story of the religious right and its role in the rise of modern conservatism has been told many times before. It usually spans Billy Graham’s mass rallies in the 1950s, the rise of abortion as a flashpoint in American politics in the 1970s, the self-professed Moral Majority led by Jerry Falwell, founded in 1979, and all the way to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022 and beyond. One of the central terms in this story is “fusionism,” the idea, pioneered by right-wing intellectuals, that the modern right would incorporate libertarians, social conservatives, the religious right, and other groups that might otherwise be opposed to all the rest.

It is easy to see, in retrospect, how that alliance has benefited corporations, the wealthy, and the powerful, but what have been the spoils for the religious right? The obvious answer is power, insofar as power is defined as the recognition of and priority given to the Christian right’s “moral concerns”—namely, the prohibition of abortion and the maintenance of firm boundaries regarding sex and gender. The conventional characterization of the religious right takes its leaders and spokespeople at their word.

Another, complementary reading is that the religious right embraced free market economics as a reactionary response to civil rights laws. The strategic alignment between Christian conservatives and libertarians in the aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling is suggestive. After the IRS began sending Christian schools questionnaires about the racial makeup of their student body—a consequence of the Court’s ruling in Green v. Connally (1971), which stripped so-called segregation academies of their nonprofit tax exemptions—an irate Falwell publicly denounced the immorality of the government, fulminating that “in some states, it’s easier to open a massage parlor than a Christian school.” The free market ideas of “school choice,” charter schools and vouchers, first proposed by Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom and a post-­Brown article, became a cause célèbre for the Christian right. It was Brown, in other words, that first turned the Christian right against government intervention.

In reality, the creation of a unified and politicized religious right out of multiple Christian sects took real work and intention. That work was done by the right’s think tanks and nonprofits, which tried a variety of strategies to mobilize into a reliable voting bloc a previously disparate group of Christian denominations. Soon enough, elites on the right hit on abortion as the perfect issue to persuade religious conservatives to support the plutocrats’ preferred platform. All they had to do was promise to appoint an anti-­Roe justice to the Supreme Court. The usual suspects—the Kochs, the Bradleys, the Wilks brothers, and the DeVos Foundation, endowed by the family of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary—funded a slew of antiabortion nonprofits and Christian-­values nonprofits starting in the 1970s. The Federalist Society, meanwhile, worked on merging these assorted issues into a coherent ideology. For example, Leonard Leo, the longtime vice president of the Federalist Society, is credited today with overturning both Roe and campaign finance restrictions. (His efforts to transform politics paid off in 2022, when he received a $1.6 billion tax-­deductible donation from electronics manufacturer Barre Seid.)

Whereas the donors were motivated to act for financial gains—­that is, to maximize their utility—­most voters voted based on deeply held beliefs or moral values. As Paul Weyrich, then the president of the Heritage Foundation, wrote to donors about his hopes for the right in the mid-­1970s: “The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-­religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition.” 8 Weyrich began calling the movement he envisioned “the moral majority,” which sounded like Nixon’s silent majority and immediately struck a chord with figures like the up-­and-coming Republican radical Newt Gingrich and like Jerry Falwell, who cofounded a PAC by that name with Weyrich. Right-­wing groups produced documentaries like The Silent Scream, which inaccurately depicted a full-­grown infant in the womb “silently screaming” as an abortion doctor begins to tear it apart.

The fusion of religious right and neoliberalism yielded a formidable voting bloc that would dominate American politics and change the market as well. Ironically, the moral majority’s legal code was not Christian, but Randian. What the moral myopia of the pro-­life movement has wrought is the channeling of all values, ethics, and virtues into a select few social concerns, leaving the bulk of the law to the punitive calculus of market efficiency. The moral blinders of pro-­life politics have obscured the social and democratic—­one might even say Christian—­values underlying policies like protections for the poor and weak as well as antitrust law. In a strange reversal, the fusion of church and state in the religious right’s dogma has entailed a separation of morality and markets. Inside the Trojan horse of family values waited an army of neoliberal deregulatory judges, regulators, and congressmen, who have cut the moral constraints that curbed the market’s worst instincts and the equitable principles required for social cohesion.

Now, after a fifty-year struggle to overturn Roe v. Wade, the religious right can claim victory on its core issue. But in that same period, the merger of God and mammon diluted key Christian principles about wealth, greed, and poverty. Instead of a benevolent being that punishes the greedy and protects the poor, the fusionists’ state became the stern father, tightfisted and emotionally distant.

Excerpted from “The Quiet Coup: Neoliberalism and the Looting of America” by Mehrsa Baradaran. Copyright © 2024 by Mehrsa Baradaran. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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