The news has been full of the arrest of a self-proclaimed White Nationalist who had amassed a gigantic arsenal and intended to kill numerous lawmakers and journalists in his effort to create a “white nation.”
Since Trump’s election, we’ve seen an increase in such racist incidents.
Pundits often refer to racism as America’s first sin. That may be an understatement. I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that persistent racism explains much that is otherwise inexplicable in American political life.
It’s sort of like peeling an onion–but once you discard the outer trappings of a policy argument, you discover that the core, the “seed” is something quite different and less palatable. We’ve seen this in the research connecting Trump voters to “racial resentment,” and noted religion scholar Randall Balmer has recently reminded us of the racial roots of the anti-Choice movement.
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. In his 2005 book, Jerry Falwell, the firebrand fundamentalist preacher, recounts his distress upon reading about the ruling in the Jan. 23, 1973, edition of the Lynchburg News: “I sat there staring at the Roe v. Wadestory,” Falwell writes, “growing more and more fearful of the consequences of the Supreme Court’s act and wondering why so few voices had been raised against it.” Evangelicals, he decided, needed to organize.
Ballmer reminds readers that it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, goaded by Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion as “a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.” Being against abortion was “more palatable” than what was actually motivating the Religious Right, which was protection of the segregated schools they had established following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
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. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “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.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.
Ballmer goes on to quote a number of Religious Right figures who expressed similar sentiments. He also documents the real impetus for its new political activism.
In May 1969, a group of African-American parents in Mississippi sued the Treasury Department, arguing that whites-only K-12 private academies should not receive tax-exempt status. The schools had been founded after Brown and in the first year of desegregation, the number of white students enrolled in public schools in their county dropped from 771 to 28; the following year, that number fell to zero. They won a preliminary injunction.
President Richard Nixon ordered the Internal Revenue Service to enact a new policy denying tax exemptions to all segregated schools in the United States. Under the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which forbade racial segregation and discrimination, discriminatory schools were not—by definition—“charitable” educational organizations, and therefore they had no claims to tax-exempt status; similarly, donations to such organizations would no longer qualify as tax-deductible contributions.
Ballmer traces the history of the civil rights law and the anger of those running the segregation academies, including, famously, Bob Jones University.
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.
The catalyst for the Religious Right’s political activism was not, as often claimed, opposition to abortion.
Although abortion had emerged as a rallying cry by 1980, the real roots of the religious right lie not the defense of a fetus but in the defense of racial segregation.
And the catalyst for Trump was the seething resentment of a black President felt by far too many Americans.
We are far, far from atoning for America’s original sin.