so there’s a very popular post circulating about how the Christian right made a comeback in the 1980s, seducing a lot of the counterculture to evangelical Christianity and neutralizing the radical left as a political force in the Reagan years:
The Jesus Movement and Laveyan Satanism, born as twins in the state of California, formed in reaction against the growing leftist movements of the time, and acted in tandem as a form of psychological warfare against the widespread popularity of the radical left among the youth. And it worked, with horrifying effectiveness- the left in America was horrifically weakened, almost nonexistent, in the 80′s.
And it could happen again.
Laveyan Satanism collapsed in the early seventies and never had more than a few thousand serious members, so that part of the analysis is extremely misleading: it takes a tiny fringe phenomenon that peaked a decade before the time frame under analysis and treats it as a phenomenon as significant as the rise of Evangelical Christianity. Ironically, this misrepresentation might come from the right-wing’s own narrative about this: the right had a moral panic over the rise of Satanism endure a solid decade after the actual rise of Satanism, because they needed someone to moralize against. .
But the broader point is true: the left did collapse, the evangelical right did rise and many young people were converted from counterculture hippies to religious Christians. The author of that post proposes one framing for why and how it happened: a collection of clever right-wing leaders formulated an outreach strategy, employed and then discarded genuine members of the counterculture to do recruitment, misled leftist radicals with the promise of an open faith that was all about love, and then seduced them into conservative evangelicalism.
I want to propose an alternative framing for what happened.
You can’t actually take someone who is happy and secure in their community and trick them into becoming a conservative Christian. The appeal of reactionary ideologies and conservative communities and religious observance is not that they lure you in by pretending to share your liberal values and then, when you’re in too deep, slide you into reactionary traditionalism.
(The obsession with cults and brainwashing were also an artifact of 80s reactionary moral panics; an individual can be emotionally abusive enough to sort of build a personal cult for a time, but even those have very high attrition rates, and you couldn’t have a conspiracy to brainwash the entire American left. You just couldn’t. That is not a good explanation of what happened.)
What does happen is that people get burned by their communities. The leftists they know preach a vision of sexual liberation that amounts to “have sex with me to prove you’re liberated”. The language and language expectations move so fast that you’re guaranteed to say something wrong, and then when you do you can be ostracized. Communities splinter over hard drug use, or over people leeching money from each other, or over taking sides on accusations of insufficient leftism. People who were okay spending nights in jail get older and have kids and have jobs and don’t want to do that. People realize they are having sex they don’t want.
Now, obviously, none of these pathologies are limited to radical young leftist communities. Some of them are universal, some of them are consequences of radicalism or of youth or of specific individuals. But radical communities which are full of toxic pressures, unhealthy norms, and unhappy people exist, and the fact that reactionary communities have at least as many toxic pressures and unhealthy norms doesn’t change this situation.
Because these preachers or whatever go “yeah, that’s what the left does. We have this whole narrative about how without the structure of our reactionary community, people will slide into these fragmented and deeply unhealthy environments. Join us and you can fit your confused feelings about the cause you cared about so deeply, and the way it meshed with an environment that was unhealthy for you, into our community and our built-in narrative about how we all have to repent.”
You can’t seduce practically all the radicals (which is what that post claims happened; I don’t know much about 70s radicals) into abandoning the left for evangelical Christianity if the left was a healthy place for them to be. And I know lots of people who joined conservative communities from radical ones, and it was almost always because the radical ones had made it impossible for them to enforce certain boundaries and confront certain needs and be validated in their preferences.
If we want those people to not go become evangelical Christians, the solution isn’t “beware evangelical preachers who will suck you in until you don’t even notice you’ve been co-opted into a reactionary”, the solution is “figure out what sort of needs and what sort of affirmation drive people out of these communities and towards conservative religious ones, and if there’s a way to make our communities healthier so more people prefer to stay.”
The reason I dislike the seduction narrative so much is it denies everyone involved moral agency. They are reduced in that post’s narrative to helpless pawns ensnared by conspiring right-wing leaders: their reasons for choosing evangelical Christianity, and their moral responsibility for doing that, are erased entirely. They are an object lesson in how we can be seduced away from truth if we trust religious mentors too much.
Thinking about them as people who decided to join a religion, who decided to extend that trust, who had reasons for doing that, is both less dehumanizing and more useful if we want to build experimental and radical communities that don’t burn people out and leave them feeling that their needs are better met elsewhere.