Monday, March 16, 2015

How defense of white supremacy built the Christian right

Once upon a time, evangelical Christians were a progressive constituency in the life of the United States. In the 19th century, evangelicals were a force for abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. They supported public schools and even sometimes criticized the rapacious avarice of capitalism. But for the first half of the 20th century, reeling from ridicule during the Scopes Monkey Trial during which their Bible beliefs were made a laughingstock, they largely withdrew from public life. Religious historian Randall Balmer's Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter makes the case that the pious Georgia politician and 39th President brought them back into the political fray through his forthright affirmation of faith. His presidency then became the hinge that served the purposes of conservative leaders determined to incorporate evangelicals into their right-wing "moral majority." It's an ugly story and Balmer tells it economically and convincingly.

People who came of political age after the 1970s may be surprised to learn that in the preceding decade or so, the religious affiliations of presidents were not front and center concerns. Carter changed that.

Carter's declaration [of born-again Christian faith] represented a departure from the norm in presidential politics. Ever since John F. Kennedy's speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, in which he declared his absolute fidelity to the First Amendment and foreswore any influence from "outside religious pressure or dictates," a candidate's religious views simple did not figure into presidential politics. Few Americans knew, for instance, that Lyndon Johnson was affiliated with the Disciples of Christ or that Nixon was nominally a Quaker. Nixon's mendacity changed that equation, and Carter astutely recognized the desire on the part of voters to know that their president possessed a moral compass. Carter, the Sunday-school teacher, came by it honestly, and he spoke the language of born-again evangelicalism fluently.

Having won office by -- honestly -- positioning himself as the moral alternative, Carter ran an administration that was earnest and often inept. He signed the treaty returning the Panama Canal to that country. He proclaimed fidelity to human rights concerns in foreign policy and sometimes even acted on this stance. He had a lot of bad luck, notably being in office when Iranian revolutionaries seized U.S. hostages in Tehran, tickling the national bellicosity.

And he ended up a victim not only of his own failures, of the ongoing distrust among labor and liberals for a culturally conservative southern president, but also of his own white evangelical kind, who were mobilized by far right activists. It is in telling this part of the Carter story that Balmer shines.

... Evangelicals in the late 1960s and throughout most of the 1970s by and large refused to see abortion as a defining issue, much less a matter that would summon them to the front lines of political activism. Abortion simply failed to gain traction among evangelicals, ... Meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, during the summer of 1971, the messengers (delegates) to the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution that stated, "we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental and physical health of the mother."

...Ever since Barry Goldwater's campaign for the presidency in 1964, [conservative activist Paul] Weyrich had been trying to organize evangelicals politically. Their numbers alone, he reasoned, would constitute a formidable voting bloc, and he aspired to marshal them behind conservative causes. Weyrich had the blueprint in place. "The new political philosophy must be defined by us in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition."...But Weyrich's dream, still a hypothetical coalition, which he already referred as as the "moral majority" (lower-case letters), lacked a catalyst. ... Weyrich, by his own account, had tried various issues to pique evangelical interest in his scheme, including abortion, pornography, school prayer, and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

Snubbed on these issues Weyrich recognized by the mid-l970s the necessity of a multi-pronged approach to mobilize evangelical voters. First, he needed to enlist evangelical and fundamentalist leaders in his political crusade; once the leaders were onboard, grassroots evangelicals would follow. Opposition to abortion, as it turned out, would be the secondary, populist issue ... that would energize grassroots evangelicals in the late 1970s. Evangelical leaders, however, had shown little interest in abortion ...

Weyrich found the issue that cut with Evangelical leaders in court decisions denying tax exempt status to institutions like Bob Jones University that practiced racial discrimination. Defending the right of their institutions to remain segregated moved them as nothing else had.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that the Carter White House participated in drafting the regulations, Jerome Kurtz, the lRS commissioner, proposed on August 2, 1978, that schools founded or expanded at the time of desegregation of public schools in their locality meet a quota of minority students or certify that they operated "in good faith on a racially non-discriminatory basis." Evangelical leaders interpreted the IRS proposals as an unwarranted abrogation of their religious freedom. ... When Conservative Digest catalogued evangelical discontent with Carter in August1979, the Internal Revenue Service regulations headed the list. Abortion was not mentioned. ...

... Evangelical leaders, prodded by Weyrich, chose to interpret the IRS ruling against segregationist schools as an assault on the integrity and the sanctity of the evangelical subculture, ignoring the fact that exemption from taxes is itself a form of pubic subsidy. That is what prompted them to action and to organize into a political movement.

And so in 1979, conservatives ousted more moderate leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (Carter's denomination) and then in 1980 supported the Republican divorced Hollywood actor. Ronald Reagan launched his campaign from Philadelphia, MS where civil rights workers had been murdered, signaling to his sympathies to white segregationists. And most white Christian evangelicals are still running with the party of reaction.

Carter comes off in this telling as a lonely, admirable, individual -- one whose putative constituency perhaps never existed. Not rich, he had to rebuild his bankrupt peanut farm when he returned to Georgia. He chose to leave the local Baptist congregation that had been his home church and join another which was racially inclusive (though insolvent). There was always a cost to sticking with his convictions. Since leaving office, he's built houses with Habitat for Humanity and traveled the world on various peace missions, some of them somewhat fruitful. And through it all, he's taught Sunday school.


Brandon said...

I attend a Southern Baptist church in my hometown of Hilo. Our church is predominantly Japanese and Okinawan, but the congregation includes whites, Filipinos and African Americans. Politics isn't discussed much but I'd say the general mood, politically, is moderate.

Hattie said...

Do you know what their stance is on abortion rights?

Brandon said...

Not off-hand. Probably pro-life/anti-abortion.

janinsanfran said...

Hi Brandon -- that's great that you've found a Southern Baptist congregation that works as a broad community! The sad history of that denomination has been the movement from staunch defense of separation of church in pursuit of faith to being enlisted as foot soldiers in what are often secular, right wing causes.

Carter and his family were literally the only votes in his Plains, Georgia to accept integration in their small church. That wouldn't work in Hawaii, thank goodness!

In the book author's telling, most Baptists were anti-abortion, but they weren't going to make it a cause of public division until their leaders threw in with far right activists.

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