Monday, June 16, 2014

The real origins of the religious right

"They’ll tell you it was abortion. Sorry, the historical record’s clear: It was segregation."

It might not be clear enough to non-Americans how much the issue of race has affected our country - and still affects us in many, many ways.

Even to white Americans, that might not be evident. We rarely think of race when it comes to ourselves, because white is just... the default. It takes a deliberate act to think of things from someone else's perspective.

I've talked about this before. I keep bringing up the Republican Party's notorious 'Southern strategy' of deliberately wooing white racists, because that explains so much about how and why the GOP has gone completely off the rails - and how they've gotten the political power to cause disaster after disaster for our country in recent decades.

But there's far more to the story than that. This article, for example, explains about the real origins of the religious right:
One of the most durable myths in recent history is that the religious right, the coalition of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, emerged as a political movement in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. The tale goes something like this: Evangelicals, who had been politically quiescent for decades, were so morally outraged by Roe that they resolved to organize in order to overturn it.

This myth of origins is oft repeated by the movement’s leaders. ...

But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools. So much for the new abolitionism.

That whole article, by Randall Balmer at Politico Magazine, is superb, and it backs up this claim with detailed evidence. I'll excerpt some of it here, to give my readers the general idea, but I really can't do it justice. I highly recommend reading the article yourself.
Today, evangelicals make up the backbone of the pro-life movement, but it hasn’t always been so. Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. ...

So what then were the real origins of the religious right? It turns out that the movement can trace its political roots back to a court ruling, but not Roe v. Wade.

In May 1969, a group of African-American parents in Holmes County, Mississippi, sued the Treasury Department to prevent three new whites-only K-12 private academies from securing full tax-exempt status, arguing that their discriminatory policies prevented them from being considered “charitable” institutions. The schools had been founded in the mid-1960s in response to the desegregation of public schools set in motion by the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. In 1969, the first year of desegregation, the number of white students enrolled in public schools in Holmes County dropped from 771 to 28; the following year, that number fell to zero.

The issue was taxes. White Southerners were free to abandon the public school system - and, thus, free to let the public schools crumble through lack of funding and support - but neither the IRS nor the federal court system would give segregated schools tax-exempt status.

Yeah, you could put your kid in an all-white private school, but you couldn't get any tax benefits from that.
Paul Weyrich, the late religious conservative political activist and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, saw his opening.

In the decades following World War II, evangelicals, especially white evangelicals in the North, had drifted toward the Republican Party—inclined in that direction by general Cold War anxieties, vestigial suspicions of Catholicism and well-known evangelist Billy Graham’s very public friendship with Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Despite these predilections, though, evangelicals had largely stayed out of the political arena, at least in any organized way. If he could change that, Weyrich reasoned, their large numbers would constitute a formidable voting bloc—one that he could easily marshal behind conservative causes. ...

But this hypothetical “moral majority” needed a catalyst—a standard around which to rally. ...

The Green v. Connally ruling provided a necessary first step: It captured the attention of evangelical leaders, especially as the IRS began sending questionnaires to church-related “segregation academies,” including Falwell’s own Lynchburg Christian School, inquiring about their racial policies. Falwell was furious. “In some states,” he famously complained, “It’s easier to open a massage parlor than a Christian school.”

One such school, Bob Jones University—a fundamentalist college in Greenville, South Carolina—was especially obdurate. The IRS had sent its first letter to Bob Jones University in November 1970 to ascertain whether or not it discriminated on the basis of race. The school responded defiantly: It did not admit African Americans.

Although Bob Jones Jr., the school’s founder, argued that racial segregation was mandated by the Bible, Falwell and Weyrich quickly sought to shift the grounds of the debate, framing their opposition in terms of religious freedom rather than in defense of racial segregation.

Sound familiar? Republicans are still doing this. They might be fighting against birth control, health care, or the separation of church and state, but they claim it's about "religious freedom" - even when they're attacking the religious freedom of non-Christians.

And note that Bob Jones University had the perfect right to discriminate, it that's what they wanted to do. No one was attempting to close down the school or anything like that. The First Amendment protects even bigots.

No, what they were really angry about was the possible loss of their tax-exempt status. Even more than race, this was about money. But your own financial benefit doesn't make a very persuasive political argument to other people.
Weyrich saw that he had the beginnings of a conservative political movement, which is why, several years into President Jimmy Carter’s term, he and other leaders of the nascent religious right blamed the Democratic president for the IRS actions against segregated schools—even though the policy was mandated by Nixon, and Bob Jones University had lost its tax exemption a year and a day before Carter was inaugurated as president. Falwell, Weyrich and others were undeterred by the niceties of facts. In their determination to elect a conservative, they would do anything to deny a Democrat, even a fellow evangelical like Carter, another term in the White House.

But Falwell and Weyrich, having tapped into the ire of evangelical leaders, were also savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would be a challenge. It had worked to rally the leaders, but they needed a different issue if they wanted to mobilize evangelical voters on a large scale. ...

By 1980, even though Carter had sought, both as governor of Georgia and as president, to reduce the incidence of abortion, his refusal to seek a constitutional amendment outlawing it was viewed by politically conservative evangelicals as an unpardonable sin. Never mind the fact that his Republican opponent that year, Ronald Reagan, had signed into law, as governor of California in 1967, the most liberal abortion bill in the country. When Reagan addressed a rally of 10,000 evangelicals at Reunion Arena in Dallas in August 1980, he excoriated the “unconstitutional regulatory agenda” directed by the IRS “against independent schools,” but he made no mention of abortion. Nevertheless, leaders of the religious right hammered away at the issue, persuading many evangelicals to make support for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion a litmus test for their votes.

Interesting, isn't it? As the article concludes, "Although abortion had emerged as a rallying cry by 1980, the real roots of the religious right lie not in the defense of a fetus but in the defense of racial segregation."

They do the same thing today. Right-wing activists use people to get what they really want.

Balmer adds an interesting postscript to the story:
The Bob Jones University case merits a postscript. When the school’s appeal finally reached the Supreme Court in 1982, the Reagan administration announced that it planned to argue in defense of Bob Jones University and its racial policies. A public outcry forced the administration to reconsider; Reagan backpedaled by saying that the legislature should determine such matters, not the courts. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case, handed down on May 24, 1983, ruled against Bob Jones University in an 8-to-1 decision. Three years later Reagan elevated the sole dissenter, William Rehnquist, to chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Today, five of our nine Supreme Court justices are right-wing political activists (every one a Catholic, interestingly enough). That 8-to-1 decision in 1983? We can only be thankful the same case hasn't come before this court.

That was the power the Republican Party's 'Southern strategy' gave them. It might be waning now, with increasing numbers of minority voters and with younger people being less racist than their elders, but that's just making the right-wing more and more extreme.

They may not have the power to pass legislation, but they certainly have the power to block it - to block everything, pretty much. And they still control the Supreme Court. They can still do a lot of damage to our country even if they don't retake the White House in 2016.

Note: My thanks to Jim Harris for the link.

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