A funny thing happened on the way to the Religious Right. And it explains why black churches and the Catholic Church are generally not part of the Religious Right. If you look at the movement now, it is all about abortion—dating back to the Supreme Court decision in Roe v Wade. And indeed, the Religious Right did rise up about that time, but that was not the issue. This is all explained in a great Politico article by historian Randall Balmer, The Real Origins of the Religious Right. The short answer is in his subtitle, “They’ll tell you it was abortion. Sorry, the historical record’s clear: it was segregation.”
He points out that the vast majority of evangelicals were indifferent to Roe v Wade. They thought it was a “Catholic issue.” And indeed, they were right. I’ve always been kind of surprised that protestants picked up on this very Catholic issue. When I was a kid, protestants thought of Catholics the way they thought of Mormons—hardly Christians at all. Balmer points out that up through 1976—three years after Roe—the Southern Baptist Convention held for, “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.” Remarkable, huh?
But if not Roe, then what? Well, it was a Supreme Court case: Green v Connally. This was a case that challenged the tax-exempt status of racially segregated schools. A lot of these were good old fashioned evangelical schools and they did not like this at all. The IRS contacted Bob Jones University to find out if it was segregated, and the response was, “Hell yes!” Well, actually, it was more along the lines of: we do not admit blacks. Bob Jones argued that the Bible dictated segregation, Genesis 9:27, “May God enlarge Japheth, And let him dwell in the tents of Shem; And let Canaan be his servant.” (Actually, that also justifies slavery, but what are you gonna do: it’s the literal word of God!)
Jerry Falwell and other leaders were smarter and tried to make it about “religious liberty.” If that sounds familiar, it should. Conservative Christians are today using the “religious liberty” canard to stop the working poor from getting healthcare. What charmers the Religious Right are. Am I right?! Meanwhile, Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Institute, had spent decades trying to get the evangelicals on the side of conservatism. And nothing seemed to work: “pornography, prayer in schools, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, even abortion.” Nothing worked until: “Oh my God! The darkies are coming for our women folk!” Or something like that.
Now this is all about the leadership of the evangelical movement. They knew they couldn’t get the base all riled up about segregation. So they grabbed onto the abortion issue and the rest is history. But this goes right along with what I have long said about Christian opposition to abortion. The Catholics have very abstract philosophical arguments about this issue that no one is interested in. The evangelicals really have no reason for being against early term abortions at the very least. But the followers of these religions are against abortion for the reason the Merovingian pointed out in The Matrix Reloaded: because they were told to.
So what we have is a movement that is mad as hell about abortion—so mad, in fact, that they murder people. But the reason these people are mad is because their leaders didn’t like the government telling them that racial bigotry wasn’t acceptable—or at least was unacceptable enough that the government was going to force them to pay taxes. And that rather sums up the conservative movement generally: rich white men who don’t want any of there money taken away to help poor black children.
Balmer ends with a post script that I add only because of what it says about Ronald Reagan:
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.
Ronald Reagan was the worst kind of racist. And special note: there are now at least three justices on the Supreme Court who are more conservative than Rehnquist.