Jenkins on the Decade of Nightmares

From the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, a talk by Philip Jenkins, author of Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America.

[S]o much of what I am saying is a reasonably familiar story, the idea of the rise of a Religious Right. But I would like to look at this in a slightly different way— I think a slightly unusual way.

In 1979 or 1980, anyone looking at the landscape of American politics could not fail to see the role of religion as a conservative force; not just religion, but traditional, orthodox religion. I would also suggest to you that exactly the same is true on a global scale. We might say this happens in the United States due to particularly American conditions. But the same American conditions do not cause similar changes—mutatis mutandis—in other societies and other religions.

Let’s just take the year 1977 as a focus.What happens in the year 1977? Look around the world. In Israel, for example, we have the Likud government, with an unprecedented mobilization of orthodox and traditional-minded Jews. In India, we have the defeat of the Congress Party by the Janata Party, which is the first successful mobilization of traditionally minded orthodox Hindus, and a party which would later become the BJP, the fundamentalist party there.

Above all, the classic example of Islam. In 1975, organized political Islam in most of the Arab world or the Islamic world is not a force. By 1979, it is very definitely a force. There is a dramatic change in just that four-year period.

What has happened? In 1979, for example, look at what is happening in the Muslim world: In February, you have the success of the Iranian Revolution, which sends reverberations around the Islamic world. You have the unsuccessful coup attempt by fundamentalists in Mecca—a remarkable event, which the Saudis try to deal with by making the devil’s bargain, by basically telling the fundamentalists that there’s a whole world out there just anxious to receive their message, and, “We’ll be very happy to give you the money. Just go and do it somewhere else.”