Preface: We are pleased to be able to present the following historical essay in its entirety. Following the essay we present some additional historical perspective and offer solutions on what can be done to counter the violent and destructive forces tearing our nation apart at the seams.
By Randall Balmer
(Republished with permission from the author.)
The overwhelming white evangelical support for Donald Trump is a puzzle that will occupy historians for generations. How can the religious right, a movement that trumpets its fidelity to 'family values,' throw its support to a vulgar, thrice-married casino operator and self-confessed sexual predator?
Fully 81 percent of white evangelicals did so in 2016; only a slightly lesser percentage repeated the folly in 2020 after four years and, according to the Washington Post, 30,573 false or misleading statements during Trump's term in the White House.
Any attempt to solve this conundrum religious right support for Trump will have to reckon with the role of racism. After several decades of research, I can state without fear of contradiction that evangelicals mobilized politically in the 1970s not, as commonly supposed, in opposition to the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973 but rather in defense of racial segregation at Bob Jones University and at all-white 'segregation academies,' many of them church-sponsored.
Evangelicals overwhelmingly considered abortion a 'Catholic issue' until the late 1970s. (Jerry Falwell, to cite one example, by his own admission did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until February 1978, more than five years after the Roe decision.)
The durability of what I call the abortion myth, the fiction that opposition to legalized abortion was the catalyst of their movement, can be attributed to the founders of the religious right themselves. In a breathtaking act of rhetorical jujitsu, one notable for both its audacity and its mendacity, these leaders have insisted over the decades that opposition to abortion is what forced them to become political, when in fact they mobilized politically to defend racism. They eventually realized, however, that they needed a different issue to mobilize grassroots evangelicals. Only later, just before the 1980 presidential election, did evangelicals embrace opposition to abortion as a political issue.
The true origins of the religious right, rooted in racism, make the 2016 support for Trump a bit more understandable, if not defensible. Trump entered the national political scene by questioning the legitimacy of the nation's first African American president. His rhetoric surrounding immigrants and racial minorities speaks for itself.
The 2016 election, therefore, allowed the religious right finally to abandon any pretext that it was a movement devoted to family values. Instead, the religious right circled back to the charter issue behind its formation: racism.
But how do we account for the four decades between the emergence of the religious right and the embrace of Trump? While it is true that both Bush presidents, father and son, supported policies that were not kind to people of color, neither man was openly racist. What is the missing link between, say, Falwell and Trump?
In the course of my research, I've come increasingly to see Ronald Reagan as the missing link.
Let's consider the run-up to the 1980 presidential election. The incumbent, Jimmy Carter, was a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher who spoke openly about being a 'born again' Christian. Carter's tenure in office occurred during a troubled time, no question about it.
But any reasonable appraisal of his tenure would conclude that, even though he was careful to observe the line of separation between church and state, Carter sought to govern in a way consistent with his religious convictions: his pardon of Vietnam-era draft resisters; the emphasis on human rights and both gender and racial equality; the Camp David accords; renegotiation of the Panama Canal treaties as a way to move the nation beyond colonialism. (Carter's opposition to abortion, by the way, was longer and far more consistent than that of Reagan, who as governor of California in 1967 signed into law the nation's most liberal abortion law.)
Why would leaders of the religious right choose a divorced and remarried former Hollywood actor over Carter, a fellow evangelical? I'm afraid racism cannot be discounted.
Just as Trump entered the political scene by questioning the legitimacy of Barack Obama, Reagan entered California politics in opposition to the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which sought to guarantee equal access to racial minorities. Falwell (although he repented of it later in life) characterized the civil rights movement as 'civil wrongs;' Reagan vociferously opposed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Throughout his political campaigns, Reagan regularly invoked the racially fraught term 'law and order.' And who can forget his vile caricature of 'welfare queens,' mythical women of color who ostensibly lived the good life on the public dole?
For me, the most damning evidence of Reagan's racism occurred Aug. 3, 1980, when the Republican nominee chose to open his general election campaign in, of all places, Philadelphia, Miss., at the Neshoba County fair. This is where, 16 summers earlier, members of the Ku Klux Klan, in cooperation with the local sheriff's office, abducted, tortured and murdered three civil rights workers, burying their bodies in an earthen dam.
Lest anyone miss his meaning on that occasion, Reagan, the master of symbolism, invoked the time-worn segregationist battle cry: 'I believe in states' rights.'
Sadly, the thread that links Donald Trump back to the aborning religious right of the late 1970s is racism. There's no pretty way to say it. Ronald Reagan was very much in that loop.
This article originally appeared here. Republished with the express written permission of the author.
Postscript: Continue reading below to learn what can be done to counter the forces of The 'Christian' Right.
About The Author: A prize-winning historian and Emmy Award nominee, Randall Balmer holds the John Phillips Chair in Religion at Dartmouth, the oldest endowed professorship at Dartmouth College. He earned the Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1985 and taught as Professor of American Religious History at Columbia University for twenty-seven years before coming to Dartmouth in 2012. He has been a visiting professor at Princeton, Yale, Northwestern, and Emory universities and in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School from 2004 to 2008. His most recent book, released in August of 2021, is "Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right."
More about the author here.
What To Do? What To Do?
The facts in the above essay make it abundantly clear, a large swath of white evangelicals have lost their way in the US. They've abandoned the faith for something else. What they practice now is a strange mixture of Christian nationalism, racism, bigotry, libertarianism, Objectivism, laissez-faire capitalism, individualism, social Darwinism, and dominionism (or dominion theology). How's that for a mouthful?
It's the perfect religion of empire, which makes sense because its creation was bankrolled by captains of industry like the Coors family. Over the last 40 years it has become its own billion dollar empire. Its power and influence reach every nook and cranny of American culture. As a voting block it has arguably put 4 presidents in office (Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George Bush, and Donald J. Trump). The US Supreme Court is now stacked with its acolytes, which comprise a conservative, Christian-right majority on the court.
Massive radio networks like the Salem Media Group, and television networks like the Sinclair Broadcast Group broadcast its propaganda to the American public all day, every day.
Overly compensated media personalities like Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson hammer out its talking points daily in highly produced installments on the Fox "News" channel.
Think tanks like The Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council formulate its strategy and pass it to groups like Heritage Action and FRC Action who lobby congress and produce 'voter guides' for distribution to churches. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is staffed with conservative state legislators, lobbyists, and private sector representatives who draft legislation for distribution to state governments.
Shadowy, powerful networks of hard-right funders gather every year to pool their money, share resources and funnel it all to the various parts of the machine they've built. It's quite the machine.
On January 6, 2021, with the encouragement of an impeached president, they assembled a mob of organized militias and stormed the DC Capitol. Their goal was nothing short of overthrowing the duly elected government of the United States. The attempted coup left 5 Capitol police officers dead.
In the months following the violent insurrection they've taken to writing and enacting voter suppression laws in red states. They try to justify their actions by reciting the 'Big Lie' of twice-impeached Donald J. Trump. Based on the content of the legislation their goal is obvious. If they lose an election they will deem that it was 'rigged' and overturn it, thus marking the very real end of the government set up by our founders.
To think that we've seen the end it would be a very large mistake. Guaranteed, we have not. Up to now Democrats have been lackluster at best in addressing the problem voter suppression laws have created. This is the biggest problem we face where President Biden must lead. We have to put federal laws on the books right now. There are two such laws in process. We need to pass both of them. You can read more about the effort to fix this problem here.
We could go on, and on ...
The glaring problem with the above outlined actions and behaviors is that they are 100%, completely divorced from everything Jesus said, did, taught, and lived. In fact, they are the polar opposite of all that Jesus is.
The whole thing can get overwhelming. It's too big, too well-funded, and too organized to fight.
What To Do
First, let us remember the God we serve! The God we serve has seen bigger empires crumble to dust! The God we serve is bigger than the machine they've built! We must not grow weary of doing good! We must not grow weary of speaking up for those who have no voice!
Change can only take place when we replace the prevailing ideology with a counter-narrative. Based on all the the above mentioned factors it will take a monumental effort to even make a dent in the juggernaut known as The "Christian" Right.
We have been here since 2009 doing our part to sustain such an effort. We're one of the few places online where Christian progressives & their allies can gather, enjoy fellowship, discuss the news of the day, and participate in direct social justice action. We feel like we've made a small difference. Nevertheless, the task is so big that it will be a lifetime endeavor for us and others who have chosen to speak up and speak out.
We've partnered with what is arguably the largest, and most active progressive Christian action organization in the United States, Vote Common Good. We've formed a cooperative strategic alliance with their leadership, we attend their planning meetings, we participate in their direct action campaigns, and we publish their daily podcasts on our social media outlets. We're blessed to have such a close relationship with Vote Common Good. It affords the TCL community every possible opportunity to take direct action on all fronts. Our next in-person, roundtable planning session will take place in New York, in October of 2021. We will report back when we return. We know there are many exciting action opportunities in the planning stages as we move towards 2022, another election year.
An undertaking of this magnitude could never happen without the support of a network of people who care about this issue. We don't have any backers like the Coors family to underwrite our work. We wish we had a large sponsor so we didn't have to ask. We just don't. We're a 100% member funded community and ministry.
That's why we need you to join us! Without you we would never have been able to go on this long. Without you we would have to fold up shop in short order.
Join our network of supporting members today. Sign up to make a monthly contribution. Be the change you want to see in the world!
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We’re not about Dogma here. We’re just Christians who think the political and Christian right-wing have their priorities wrong.
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