Long Read: “The Real Origins of the Religious Right”

The culpability of the late Paul Weyrich in all the worst of the modern GOP’s revanchism is well known to those of us who were paying attention to politics in the 1980s. But that’s far enough in the past that — especially in the light of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant report on “The Case for Reparations” — I’m glad the sordid explicitly racist history of his “Moral Majority” is being resurrected, even if it means linking to Politico. As told by Randall Balmer:

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…

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…

Long story short, the Nixon Administration, under pressure from the Supreme Court, “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.”

Weyrich and his fellow proto-Talibangelicals had been looking for a big enough lever to seize control of the GOP, and Jerry Falwell helped him use Bob Jones University’s white-supremacy tenets to rouse the “believing” rabble which had previously failed to open their wallets or show up at the polls for them. The Reagan backlash pitting Nixon’s “Silent Majority” against “Those People” (liberals, bureaucrats, welfare recipients, hippies, feminists, Democrats) was happy to participate in the pretense. It’s been a downhill trajectory for the GOP — and our beleagured nation — ever since.

39 replies
  1. 1
    BGinCHI says:

    OK, but I thought Reagan’s deal with the Iranians to hold onto the hostages is what really “denied Carter a second term.”

    N’est-ce pas?

  2. 2
    Mnemosyne says:

    As Fred Clark at Slacktivist likes to say, Evangelical Christian opposition to abortion is younger than the Happy Meal. You can easily find books published in the 1960s and 1970s by guys like Weirich (possibly even Weirich himself) that say there is no moral problem with abortion or birth control from a Christian perspective. It’s only when they stopped being able to racially discriminate that suddenly abortion was a “moral problem.”

  3. 3
    piratedan says:

    @BGinCHI: it was a bonfire of planks, suggesting that perhaps this was simply one of them…. Jimmy C got to be the unlucky guy who had to try and follow in the Nixonian foreign policy muck of reapproachment with China, Vietnam War hangover, the rise of Muslim fundamentalism and maintaining the Cold War positions…. with rising gas prices, a US electorate soured on politics (Thanks Dick and Spiro!) and a certain segment of the population that no longer had a war to feel patriotic about took a look around and started to chafe under the new society imposed during the 60’s and essentially regurgitated all of our regional nascent racism and no one has been able to lance that boil since, thanks to the folks that have been playing that angle for political gain for the last 40 years.

  4. 4
    jl says:

    I think the origins of the odd U.S. Xtianist Christian sect, which can argued to be heretical if you believe in that kind of thing, goes back to the mid 19th century. First you got ;happy joyful sinner’ Calvinism. The certain sects self-identifying with racism as part of established social order in Civil War splits. Then in 1870s, an urge to feel pridefully all holy and a search for that physical tingle of spiritual pride from being saved and extra good good, which was rather paradoxically tied up with following Jesus. Bible believing faith in reaction to Darwin and an increasingly atheistic and amoral scientific establishment. Then import Dispensationalism from U.K.

    All that happened over a hundred years ago. But that constellation of beliefs did not lead to long lasting partisan political identification, and a de facto partisan political movement. So, makes sense that something else was involved,

  5. 5
    Sly says:

    The use of parochial schools for the purpose of preserving segregation and making an end-run around Brown became quite the windfall for white religious organizations in the post-Brown South; they weren’t just maintaining segregation, they were openly profiting off it.

    The twisted genius of people like Weyrich and Richard Vigurie was making an exclusive connection between a policy change initiated under Nixon, implemented under Ford, and upheld by a Supreme Court decision under Reagan to the Presidency of Jimmy Carter, under whom the IRS was simply continuing a program under Republican Presidents. If you went to school in a segregated parochial school in the late seventies, chances are you participated in a class exercise consisting of writing a letter to your Senator or Congressman urging them to “stop Jimmy Carter’s war on Bob Jones University.”

    And, incidentally, the large evangelical organizations were either entirely mute on the subjects of abortion and Roe or, like the Southern Baptist Convention, praised the decision. Even the reactionary President of the SBC, W.A. Criswell, who spearheaded the attacks against John Kennedy in 1960 over his Catholicism, said of Roe: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”

    It was only after the furor of desegregation died down in the 80s – around the same time that Jerry Falwell was facing an outcry over telling his flock to help prop up the apartheid government in South Africa by buying Krugerands – that the evangelical right went after reproductive rights.

  6. 6
    dmbeaster says:

    Hey, Reagan spread his bets on multiple bottom feeding strategies.

  7. 7
    TG Chicago says:

    That youtube clip seems especially relevant today in light of the GOP’s vote suppression tactics.

  8. 8
    MikeJ says:

    Here’s what the Southern Baptists had to say about Roe v Wade in 1973:

    The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision that overturned a Texas law which denied a woman the right of abortion except to save her life, has advanced the cause of religious liberty, human equality and justice.

  9. 9
    ruemara says:

    There are times when knowing history is really depressing. Thanks, AL.

  10. 10
    Barbara says:

    I only wish I still had the fundie friends I had when we lived in another city — would love to show them this and watch them sputter.

    Not that I think I could change a single mind, just that in the past I’ve done similar things and it is always interesting to see the moment when a slightly open minds snaps shut because on some level, they sense the cognitive dissonance about to occur and they defend against it.

    Okay, it’s not one of my nicer attributes.

  11. 11
    Scott says:

    Tea Party people are nothing more than unreconstructed George Wallace Democrats. They just keep coming back. Like Hydra.

  12. 12
    danimal says:

    It is interesting that we are discussing all sorts of issues these days that don’t put the GOP in a good light. Weren’t we supposed to determine if Obamacare was only the worst mistake of the new century or that it was the worst mistake in American history? Did something happen to change the narrative, cuz all this racial history talk is not what I had in mind.
    /GOP operative

  13. 13

    “I don’t wanna pay taxes so everyone must suffer.”
    – a diapered conservative in the 60’s

  14. 14
    JaneE says:

    The so-called Christian right are just the same old totalitarians with a theocratic twist. A good many of these “Christian” denominations have at least some parts of their doctrines that are an explicit rejection things that Jesus actually said. My favorite one is how they really, really want to start each government meeting with a prayer “in Jesus’ name”.

  15. 15
    Bokonon says:

    Whatever the original cynical strategy was, I think that you would have a very, very tough time redirecting the social and religious and political furies that have now been unleashed over abortion. If anything, that battle shows every sign of getting MORE intense and MORE polarizing and MORE confrontational. With no end in sight. Like a whirlwind feeding on itself.

    Abortion has become a proxy for everything the religious right hates about modern society. And the extremist views are carrying the day.

    I have a pet theory that one of the reasons for the radicalization of the GOP – and the marked decline in the quality of its elected officials at both the state and federal levels – has been that so many of the GOP’s current officeholders at all levels have gotten into politics by way of the anti-abortion movement (such as Michelle Bachman). And the people who do that are not the type who run things and administer things – they are activists, who are in office to agitate, obstruct, overthrow, and break the existing system. That sort of crowd doesn’t do policy. They don’t do compromise. They don’t focus on governing. They aren’t interested. Some may not even be capable.

    But approximately 50 percent of the nation votes for this.

  16. 16

    @BGinCHI: It did. Weyrich’s plan wasn’t aimed at defeating Carter, which could have been done without the abortion issue (and perhaps was, by the October Surprise), but at assuring the capture of the Republican party for segregationists and defeating Carter.

  17. 17
    RSA says:

    I think it’s instructive to look at the Republican Party platform over the years. 1976:

    The question of abortion is one of the most difficult and controversial of our time… There are those in our Party who favor complete support for the Supreme Court decision which permits abortion on demand. There are others who share sincere convictions that the Supreme Court’s decision must be changed by a constitutional amendment prohibiting all abortions. Others have yet to take a position, or they have assumed a stance somewhere in between polar positions… The Republican Party favors a continuance of the public dialogue on abortion and supports the efforts of those who seek enactment of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children.

    1980:

    While we recognize differing views on this question among Americans in general—and in our own Party—we affirm our support of a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children. We also support the Congressional efforts to restrict the use of taxpayers’ dollars for abortion.

    1984:

    As part of our commitment to the family and our opposition to abortion, we will eliminate all U.S. funding for organizations which in any way support abortion or research on abortion methods.

    That is, in eight years we see an evolution from abortion being a topic for debate even within the GOP to no mention of the difficulty or controversy at all.

  18. 18
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Christian fundamentalism itself has everything to do with the “peculiar institution” and using the “good book” to justify it.

    Jesus would have no more to do with these assholes than he did with the moneychangers in the Temple.

  19. 19
    Mike G says:

    Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.

    Repuke mendacious redirection, and the rubes keep falling for it.

    They did the same thing (at around the same time, the late 70s) in California with Prop 13. It imposed limits on property tax rates and how much they could rise each year, even for properties skyrocketing in value. It was sold as “keep grandma from losing her house”, but the massive beneficiaries (and hidden bankrollers of the movement) were corporations and commercial property owners.

    There are all kinds of accounting tricks to sell property without transferring ownership (which would reset the assessed value for property tax to market value) in the eyes of the law, so many long-established commercial properties are paying property tax on its value from decades ago. Disneyland pays property tax at something like one-twentieth what they would owe if they built the park today.

    Even Florida had enough sense to split the property rolls and exclude commercial properties when they imposed property tax limits on residences.

  20. 20
    WereBear says:

    I remember the late 70’s wave of church schools in the south… I went to Junior High at a Baptist school then, though it was because a bomb went off in my public school. My parents might have held racist views, but they never taught or displayed them.

    But what else made the evangelicals lose their shit? It was women’s liberation. Look how they target women! Look how they redid most of their theology to keep women barefoot and pregnant! Look how most of these fundamentalist movements turn out to be a nest of abuse and misogyny!

  21. 21
    Chris says:

    I have never considered the religious right anything other than the segregationist faction with a bad makeover. Jerry Falwell’s beginnings as a white supremacist preaching that “integration will destroy our race,” the stance the movement took on apartheid in the eighties, the fact that Bob Jones didn’t allow interracial dating all the way until the mid-2000s. The more this gets hammered on, the better.

  22. 22
    Chris says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    Although, while the abortion issue was good as a red herring for segregationists to hide behind, it was more than just that – it was also a great way to push back against the gains of the feminist movement. Not Roe v. Wade per se, but the entire movement for female empowerment of which it was one element, was as scary to them in its own way as the struggle for racial equality. Abortion gave them an easy way to reassert their claims to women’s bodies (and thus, to push them back into second class citizenship).

    Kills two birds with one stone, it does.

  23. 23
    Chris says:

    @WereBear:

    Ah. Yes, this.

  24. 24
    Patricia Kayden says:

    @Chris: And racism is a strong motivating factor for Rightwingers today. Nothing has changed with them. Little Green Footballs highlighted the racism spewed against Maya Angelou on Rightwing websites just today. It’s sickening.

  25. 25
    gene108 says:

    What’s interesting about the Religious Right, as a political movement, is they are basically using the same tactics Lenin used to foist Communism upon Imperial Russia.

    A small, dedicated and energized group can seize power, even though the majority do not approve, because the small group will take action before the majority can realize what is happening and respond to it.

  26. 26
    SatanicPanic says:

    Interesting.. did not know any of this. And on Politico of all places

  27. 27
    WereBear says:

    @gene108: A small, dedicated and energized group can seize power, even though the majority do not approve, because the small group will take action before the majority can realize what is happening and respond to it.

    Not only that… a significant percentage of the populace has no clue, and no interest.

  28. 28
    Silencio says:

    @gene108: I.e., The Handmaid’s Tale. The book is chilling.

  29. 29
    WereBear says:

    @Silencio: She wrote the book after a teaching gig in the Southern United States.

    And now everyone knows why I fled.

  30. 30

    “When men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other misfortune ensues, the one responsible shall be fined as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on judges’ reckoning. But if other misfortune ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”

    You will also notice a sudden re-translation (around 1979) of the above passage to this:

    “If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband [b]may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide.

    While the first translation makes it seem as if the penalty is for causing a miscarriage where the fetus did not survive and thus lending credence to the argument that per the Mosaic Law a fetus is not the same as a human (with the offender paying restitution to the couple for the death of their fetus and only put to death should the woman also die), the latter makes it sound as if the fetus survives the birth process and the man will only be put to death should the fetus perish.

    It was a very cynical political ploy all in all that even changed the bible so they could continue to read it ‘literally’.

  31. 31
    Comrade Scrutinizer says:

    @Scott:

    Tea Party people are nothing more than unreconstructed George Wallace Democrats. They just keep coming back. Like Hydra Herpes.

    Phixed.
    {edited to fix errant full stop.}

  32. 32
    Wally Ballou says:

    @Sly:

    And, incidentally, the large evangelical organizations were either entirely mute on the subjects of abortion and Roe or, like the Southern Baptist Convention, praised the decision. Even the reactionary President of the SBC, W.A. Criswell, who spearheaded the attacks against John Kennedy in 1960 over his Catholicism, said of Roe: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”

    A couple of things, here:

    1.) To the extent that opposition to abortion was by and large seen as “a Catholic thing”, traditionally anti-Catholic fundies would naturally be drawn to supporting or defending it for that very reason.

    2.) For a long time, the fundies could convince themselves that abortion was simply a tool for decent, married Christian housewives who already had kids, or intended to have them, and merely desired to control (in consultation with their husbands, natch) the timing and resources thereof. As others have pointed out in this thread, once it became clear that abortion could also facilitate uppity feminist notions of female autonomy, female careerism, sex outside of marriage, and the forgoing of having children entirely, it was inevitable that the evangelical socons would turn against the procedure.

  33. 33
    jonas says:

    I thought all the stuff about Bob Jones sparking the Religious Right uprising was fairly common knowledge, but ok. I did *not* know, however, just how sanguine evangelicals had been about abortion prior to ca. 1980. That is rather striking, to say the least. Sort of like finding out that the NAACP really had no position on lynching or segregation prior to 1960 or so.

  34. 34
    AxelFoley says:

    @gene108:

    What’s interesting about the Religious Right, as a political movement, is they are basically using the same tactics Lenin used to foist Communism upon Imperial Russia.

    A small, dedicated and energized group can seize power, even though the majority do not approve, because the small group will take action before the majority can realize what is happening and respond to it.

    You know who else lead a small, dedicated and energized group to seize power?

  35. 35
    NonyNony says:

    @Sly:

    Even the reactionary President of the SBC, W.A. Criswell, who spearheaded the attacks against John Kennedy in 1960 over his Catholicism, said of Roe: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”

    Yeah, prior to 1979 or so, abortion and birth control were seen as things that Papists Catholics cared about, not Protestants and certainly not Evangelical Protestants who viewed the Roman Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon led by the Antichrist. It worked both ways too – in fact the entire Catholic stance on birth control came about because the Pope at the time (Paul VI) threw out a number of recommendations from his own committees that said birth control was fine and should be used by married couples to control the number of kids that they were having. And one major reason was because Protestants had already decided that birth control was fine and could be used by married couples and he was more interested in drawing up battle lines between the “heretical” Protestants and the True Church and fighting any sort of progress of the Enlightenment than he was in thinking through the impact his stupid encyclical would have on the world.

    Amusingly (in a dark comedy sort of way) this move has basically had the American Evangelical Protestants ceding pretty much all moral authority to the Church in Rome. If you look at the bugaboos of conservative Evangelical thought these days they line up shockingly well with the bugaboos of the Council of American Bishops. Amazing what a secular political alliance does – 200 years of Protestants hating on Catholics in the US culminates with the most conservative Protestants ceding moral authority to a group of Catholic Bishops because they hate black people so very, very much. I’d laugh if it wasn’t so seriously bad for the country.

  36. 36
    vtr says:

    Back in the mid 70s I was doing a radio talk show in northeastern Ohio. One morning we were discussing the equal rights amendment. A woman called to explain that she was opposed to the amendment because it were ratified, “all women would be forced to have abortions.” I did not make that up.

  37. 37
    Paul in KY says:

    @BGinCHI: They had multiple irons in the fire, it appears.

  38. 38
    boatboy_srq says:

    @Sly: I attended parochial (RC) schools in the North and the South in the days when this was just spinning up. The two were radically different even to a middle-schooler’s eyes: the Northern kids were all good students and a fair mix – the ones in the South were almost to an individual spoiled, entitled wankers. This helps explain why.

    ———————————————————————————————————————————————-

    There was a Politico article recently that points out that Anti-Choice surfaced in conjunction with a SCOTUS decision that private schools that practiced segregation could not qualify as tax-exempt entities. According to them, Green v. Kennedy sparked the conjunction of the radical Reichwing, Conservatist FundiEvangelism and the anti-choice movement. So it wasn’t reaction to Carter, or to Roe itself, but the prohibition against getting away with overt racism tax-free that sparked the movement (though it took time for it to gain momentum) – which makes the anti-choice movement and the FundiEvangelist push all the more odious.

  39. 39
    Howlin Wolfe says:

    @BGinCHI: More than one nail in that coffin.

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