Race and the Rise of the Religious Right
- ISBN: 9780802879349
- Published By: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
- Published: August 2021
With impeccable evangelical credentials, Randall Balmer lays bare the racism that poisons the evangelical right, shaped its rise to political power, and fosters the hatred and bigotry that infects US politics today. Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right draws on Balmer’s extensive experience as an evangelical Christian to confirm what he first learned from Paul Weyrich in the 1990s: that abortion was not the issue that led to the rise of the Religious Right. It was the federal government’s elimination of the tax-exempt status of racially segregated schools in the case Green v. Connally two years before Roe v. Wade that was the real catalyst (xii). But because supporting segregation was not something that would appeal to most people, Weyrich and other leaders of the Religious Right turned the issue away from race to a defense of religious freedom and what they have mischaracterized as a “right to life.” According to Balmer, “The Religious Right’s most cherished and durable myth is its myth of origins” (31), a myth that presents its rise as a direct response to the Supreme Court‘s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) that legalized abortion under certain circumstances. While a court case did precipitate the emergence of the Religious Right, it was the case of Green v. Connally (1971), which held that organizations engaged in racial segregation or racial discrimination were not charitable institutions by definition and therefore had no claim on tax-exempt status. But because supporting segregation was not
While establishing that racism and not abortion brought evangelical Christians together, Balmer presents readers with a concise history of the transformation of North American Evangelicalism from a progressive movement of social reform to the radical movement we see today, one that aims to turn the clock back to the time when white supremacy was firmly entrenched and racism an accepted fact of life. In the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, evangelical Christians existed on a broad political spectrum and championed many progressive efforts involving educational and prison reform, advocacy for the poor and marginalized, and expanding the rights of women. Balmer discovered there was even a campaign for gun control during these years (7). Northern evangelicals were also prominent in the movement to abolish slavery, and they supported public education as a way for immigrants and the less fortunate to gain social mobility.
The debate over slavery began to blunt evangelical enthusiasm for reform, however, especially among evangelicals in the South. As Balmer puts it, “Evangelicals succeeded in shaping the conscience of the nation in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and their persistence eventually drove an angry south to secession” (10). In addition to the Civil War, the ravages created by industrialization and urbanization led many conservative evangelicals to accept the pessimistic teaching of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a member of the very conservative Plymouth Brethren in Britain. Darby convinced many evangelicals they had interpreted scripture incorrectly: God was in charge and nothing humans could do would disrupt God’s plan for the world. Darby described this plan as a series of “dispensations,” during which the world deteriorated until it came to an apocalyptic end. Blamer characterizes Dispensationalism as “a theology of despair” because it allows its adherents to do absolutely nothing but glory in their own status as “saved.” The turn toward individualism and disengagement from progressive social action fostered the black-and-white mentality characteristic of many evangelical Christians today. In their most extreme partisan form, evangelicals see themselves as a persecuted minority in a world populated by demonic pedophiles, crooks, and charlatans—now commonly known as Democrats.
Why does the “Abortion Myth” matter? “Because,” as Balmer writes, “unacknowledged and unaddressed racism has a tendency to fester” (67). What but unacknowledged racism can explain the Religious Right’s rejection of “one of their own,” President Jimmy Carter, who supported anti-racist legislation, progressive social policies, and women’s rights? And what can explain the whole-hearted embrace of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, both of whom advocated racist, misogynistic, and homophobic policies?
Balmer argues that the adoption of abortion as the defining issue of the Religious Right has a further problem: It has created an absolutist mentality that promotes cruel and unreasonable behavior among many otherwise decent and reasonable people. How can a pro-life movement privilege the life of an insensate, non-viable fetus over that of a fully sentient pregnant woman, effectively making potential mothers wards of the state, forced to bear children even if conceived through incest or rape, or who are so severely damaged they stand little chance of a normal life? And how can a party that professes an ideology of individual liberty and small government support such intrusive measures when it comes to women’s reproductive rights? Even more astonishingly, how can rational individuals champion the rights of a fetus while at the same time endangering the lives of those living by supporting regressive social policies, legislation prohibiting vaccine and mask-wearing mandates, and objections to sensible gun laws? The answer, as Balmer points out, is single-issue voting: “A candidate or a party could have ruinous economic proposals or execrable policies on race or poverty or the environment, but as long as they lined up on the ‘right’ side of the abortion issue, they would be assured of support.” This is precisely what has happened and made the Republican party what it is today—a party of “no,” whose agenda includes demonizing immigrants, refugees, and non-evangelical Christians, undermining public education, resisting action to stop climate change, limiting access to health care, promoting tax cuts for the rich, white supremacy, and misogyny.
This is a book that everyone interested in the parlous state of US democracy and the well-being of its citizens needs to read and seriously ponder.
Allison P. Coudert holds the Paul A. and Marie Castelfranco Chair in the History of Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies at UC DavisAllison CoudertDate Of Review:April 30, 2022