Tag Archives: religious right

It’s Always About Race

Tomorrow’s blog accidentally published early. So nothing in the morning…

It was finally the election of Barack Obama that signaled the end of my comforting naiveté. 

I came to that election with the very incomplete history education that–I now understand–was fed to pretty much every White kid for more years than I can count, and I was delighted: America was overcoming the pockets of racism that still lingered.

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life, but rarely have I been as wrong as I was about the implications of that election.

True, the fact that America elected a biracial President was evidence of considerable progress, and we should definitely celebrate that progress. But what I totally missed was the hysterical backlash and the re-animation of the racism that remained–a racism far more pervasive than I had ever imagined.

Since that election, I’ve read lot of the history I hadn’t been taught, and I’ve followed the increasing amount of social science research that is “unpeeling the onion” and demonstrating the extent to which ostensibly race-neutral policies are actually based on racial animus.

Take the “pro-life” movement. Most Americans believe that the genesis of anti-abortion politics was Roe v. Wade. I have previously cited Randall Balmer–an eminent scholar of Evangelical Christianity–for the actual history of that movement.

Balmer reiterated that lesson in a recent essay for the Guardian.

Although leaders of the religious right would have us believe that the Roe decision was the catalyst for their political mobilization in the 1970s, that claim does not withstand historical scrutiny. What prompted evangelical interest in politics, in fact, was a defense of racial segregation.

Evangelicals considered abortion a “Catholic issue” through most of the 1970s, and there is little in the history of evangelicalism to suggest that abortion would become a point of interest. Even James Dobson, who later became an implacable foe of abortion, acknowledged after the Roe decision that the Bible was silent on the matter and that it was plausible for an evangelical to hold that “a developing embryo or fetus was not regarded as a full human being”.

Balmer writes that he first began researching the origins of the religious right after a meeting he attended in 1990. The meeting included what he identifies as a “veritable who’s-who of the religious right,” –he notes Ralph Reed of Christian Coalition; Donald Wildmon from the American Family Association; Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; Ed Dobson of the Moral Majority; Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich. (He notes that no women were present–not a surprise.)

Weyrich reminded the group that the religious right had not come together in response to  Roe v. Wade. Instead, the motivation was the IRS effort to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies.

Balmer later questioned Weyrich to be certain he’d heard correctly.

He was emphatic that abortion had nothing whatsoever to do with the genesis of the religious right. He added that he’d been trying since the Goldwater campaign in 1964 to interest evangelicals in politics. Nothing caught their attention, he insisted – school prayer, pornography, equal rights for women, abortion – until the IRS began to challenge the tax exemption of Bob Jones University and other whites-only segregation academies.

Indeed, in 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention had passed a resolution calling to legalize abortion. When the Roe decision was handed down, some evangelicals applauded the ruling as marking an appropriate distinction between personal morality and public policy. Although he later – 14 years later – claimed that opposition to abortion was the catalyst for his political activism, Jerry Falwell did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until February 1978, more than five years after Roe.

As Balmer notes, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that opposition to abortion became an evangelical battle cry. As a strategy, “it allowed leaders to camouflage the real origins of their movement: the defense of racial segregation in evangelical institutions.”

It isn’t only abortion, of course. Scholars have linked the right’s constant drumbeat against “socialism” and its adamant opposition to efforts to strengthen America’s social safety net to that same tribalism; in order to prevent “those people” from benefitting from programs like national health insurance, significant numbers of White people are willing to go without those benefits. It’s like the episode reported by Heather McGhee in The Sum of Us, about the Southern town that filled in its municipal swimming pool rather than integrate it. And so nobody got to swim.

Un-peeling onions makes me cry.

 

 

Peeling The Onion

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.

Writing in Politico Magazine, Ballmer says

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.

Faith-Based Politics

Among former Republicans of a certain age, “what the hell happened” is a popular topic of conversation. What turned a major political party composed of people with a reasonable range of respectable views into a cult imposing extremist litmus tests? What accounts for the rejection of evidence, disdain for science and rigid refusal to compromise even the most extreme positions?

When did the Grand Old Party go nuts?

In a new book, The Party’s Over: How Republicans Went Crazy ,Democrats Became Useless and the Middle Class Got Shafted former GOP strategist Mike Lofgrin blames religion.

Having observed politics up close and personal for most of my adult lifetime, I have come to the conclusion that the rise of politicized religious fundamentalism may have been the key ingredient in the transformation of the Republican Party. Politicized religion provides a substrate of beliefs that rationalizes—at least in the minds of its followers—all three of the GOP’s main tenets: wealth worship, war worship, and the permanent culture war.

In retrospect, Lofgren sees Pat Robertson’s strong showing as a Presidential candidate in 1988 as the warning sign for what was already underway: the capture of one of the country’s major political parties by religious fundamentalists and fanatics.

The results of this takeover are all around us: If the American people poll more like Iranians or Nigerians than Europeans or Canadians on questions of evolution, scriptural inerrancy, the presence of angels and demons, and so forth, it is due to the rise of the religious right, its insertion into the public sphere by the Republican Party, and the consequent normalizing of formerly reactionary beliefs. All around us now is a prevailing anti-intellectualism and hostility to science. Politicized religion is the sheet anchor of the dreary forty-year-old culture wars.

Lofgren takes aim at a theory that I have held for some time–the theory that the differences between what we used to call the “country club” wing of the GOP and the religious zealot wing would eventually cause a split. It seemed reasonable to assume that the socioeconomic and philosophical gulf separating the party’s business wing from the religious right would make for instability.

I’ve been predicting this split for at least twenty years, and I’m still waiting, so he may be right when he suggests that there really isn’t a basic disagreement between these factions on the direction  the country should go– just a quibble about how far.

The plutocrats would drag us back to the Gilded Age; the theocrats to the Salem witch trials. If anything, the two groups are increasingly beginning to resemble each other. Many televangelists have espoused what has come to be known as the prosperity gospel—the health-and- wealth/name-it-and-claim-it gospel of economic entitlement. If you are wealthy, it is a sign of God’s favor. If not, too bad! This rationale may explain why some poor voters will defend the prerogatives of billionaires. In any case, at the beginning of the 2012 presidential cycle, those consummate plutocrats the Koch brothers pumped money into Bachmann’s campaign, so one should probably not make too much of a potential plutocrat-theocrat split.

As for the supposedly libertarian Tea Partiers, Lofgren cites academic studies that identify them as authoritarian rather than libertarian. Over half of Tea Party members self-identified as members of the religious right and 55 percent insisted that “America has always been and is currently a Christian nation”—a higher percentage than non-Tea Party  Christian conservatives.

If Lofgren is right, it explains how we got here, and why government is broken. You can reason with someone who holds a political or policy position. You can negotiate a compromise– a “win-win” with someone whose ultimate goal is different from your own.

When a political position is held with religious fervor, however, it becomes immune to logic and evidence.

Did you all hear about the Republican Representative who attributed the ocean’s rise to the fact that rocks fell into it?

I rest my case.

Come Out to Come In

Here’s my sermon for your Sunday.

Back in the early days of the women’s movement, an oft-repeated mantra was “the personal is the political.” The point was that unless an issue was personal, you were unlikely to bother engaging it politically.

There’s research confirming the insight. Academics who study civic engagement talk about the connection between “salience” and action—the personal importance of any particular issue is one predictor of that individual’s political involvement.

This accords with common sense: unless something matters to you, you are unlikely to participate in political advocacy around that issue.

“Coming out” is the perfect political expression of that insight. People who may have favored equal rights for GLBT folks in the abstract found the issue much more salient when they realized that their own friend or family member was one of those subject to marginalization and discrimination. Suddenly, being an ally meant something more affirmative than refraining from opposition, or expressing an inclusive sentiment at a cocktail party.

It seems so obvious to us now, but in the early days of the gay rights movement, coming out was a real gamble—a gamble that might not have worked, and that took a great deal of courage. Until there was a critical mass of “out” gay folks, out was a lonely and sometimes dangerous place to be. Being “out and proud” didn’t simply risk social disapproval—jobs were lost, families estranged, friendships shattered.

Today, after a generation of activism, we can say with some assurance that the gay community is in “mop up” mode. There’s still a good deal of bigotry, but thanks to coming out, the handwriting on the civic wall reads “Come on in.” Out gays hold elective office, enjoy marriage equality in more and more states, and participate in Pride celebrations that are more celebratory and less defiant than in the old days.

If we needed any more evidence of the success of the gay rights movement, it can be found in the fact that other despised minorities are looking to the GLBT community for strategic guidance.

In a blog earlier this week, I referenced a meeting of the Secular Coalition for America. The Coalition includes a variety of organizations concerned with the marginalization of non-believers, the war on women and science, religiously-based homophobia, and especially with efforts by “bible-believing” conservatives to move America toward “godliness”—aka theocratic laws.

Coalition members want non-theists to emulate the central strategy of the gay civil rights movement, and come out.

According to recent Pew data, nonbelievers—defined as those who answer “none” when asked about their religious affiliations—number around 20% of the American population. In 2000, some 14% of the public self-identified as part of the Religious Right. And yet, the Religious Right exercises immensely more political power than the religiously disengaged. They haven’t just been drivers of the culture wars and efforts to recast discrimination as “religious liberty,” they have been the most effective foot soldiers in the war on science.

Lawmakers—and not just Republicans—fall over themselves to pander to the obsessions of that 14%, because unlike the “nones,” they’ve been so public and visible that we think there are more of them than there really are.

Think how much more rational and inclusive our politics would be if even half of the “nones” came out and worked with the many reasonable religious folks to demand equal treatment and respect for all Americans, whatever their beliefs or lack thereof.