Politico Magazine has published a featured piece by Randall Balmer entitled “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” that illustrates first hand how history gets rewritten. His thesis:
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. Wade story,” 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.
Some of these anti-Roe crusaders even went so far as to call themselves “new abolitionists,” invoking their antebellum predecessors who had fought to eradicate slavery.
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.
His evidence is, that a) Evangelicals were slow to wake up to the problems inherent in the Rose v. Wade decision, and b) that some began organizing in the wake of a Supreme Court decision that removed tax-exempt status from some church related schools in the south that were segregated. This are both facts long in evidence and denied by no one. However, Balmer weaves these facts, along with some others, into a narrative that makes the rise of the religious right appear to be some Machiavellian scheme, foisted upon gullible, thoughtless Evangelicals solely in order to preserve segregation.
What does Balmer not consider? Well, for one, Green v Kennedy (the SCOTUS segregation/tax case) and Nixon’s subsequent policy decisions for the IRS represented a significant step by government into defining what was and what was not religion and religious training. Having much family in Mississippi, I am well aware that many of the church schools that sprang up in South in the wake Brown were racist to their core, but that does not change the fact that these moves represented a significant move on the part of the federal government from telling public institutions what to do to telling private and ostensibly religious institutions what to do. These moves represented as big an (or perhaps a bigger?) intrusion by government into religion as the intrusion posed by Obamacare’s abortion coverage provisions today. While the racial admission practices of these schools was not highlighted, the legal ramifications of these decisions was widely discussed and to my memory played a role in galvanizing religious people across the nation to political action. Abhorrent as the racial admission policies of these schools were, if the government could attack their tax exempt status based on that policy, what other policy might they also someday decide warranted such an erosion of the separation of church and state? There was a very real danger in these decisions and Obamacare’s abortion coverage provisions are front-and-center example one.
Balmer makes this sound sinister:
Although Bob Jones Jr., the school’s founder, argued that racial segregation was mandated by the Bible, Falwell and Weyrich quickly sought to shift the grounds of the debate, framing their opposition in terms of religious freedom rather than in defense of racial segregation. For decades, evangelical leaders had boasted that because their educational institutions accepted no federal money (except for, of course, not having to pay taxes) the government could not tell them how to run their shops—whom to hire or not, whom to admit or reject. The Civil Rights Act, however, changed that calculus.
Balmer adds no facts to the historical records here. All he does is assert motivation and weave a narrative worthy of a Bilderberger theorist. Religious freedom was, and remains, a very real issue in all of this.
Balmer’s “art” sees its highest expression in this paragraph:
Between Weyrich’s machinations and Schaeffer’s jeremiad, evangelicals were slowly coming around on the abortion issue. At the conclusion of the film tour in March 1979, Schaeffer reported that Protestants, especially evangelicals, “have been so sluggish on this issue of human life, and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? is causing real waves, among church people and governmental people too.”
“Machinations?” — “Jeremaid?” My goodness, I had no clue that Hydra had hidden itself inside Evangelicals and Protestants just waiting for the time when it could assert its dangerous philosophy and with the aid of the computerized Armen Zola conquer the world.
There is no question that the desire to educate their children outside of the presence of African-Americans played an early role in organizing Protestants and Evangelicals to political action. But the movement that became the Religious Right outgrew that small and particular aspect of its beginning quickly. Balmer offers no evidence, or even narrative, that connects the religious freedom narrative to the abortion narrative other than chronological coincidence. (Well, in fairness there are unfootnoted references to the archives of Liberty University) And yet it was the abortion issue that caught the concern and energy of the religious nation.
The game that Balmer plays in this atrocious piece could be just as easily played by looking into the Communism derived motives of some early leaders in the liberal movement. Most people of the left, even those I disagree with strongly, are good people seeking what they view as best for the nation. The same is true for people of the right. Every political movement, left, right, and middle, has its opportunists and less than purely motivated players. They do not define the movement. The movement is defined by the millions that join it and where they take it.
Balmer here attempts in the grossest of manners to call into the question an entire movement based solely on sinister assertions surrounding facts known to anyone that was either there, or that bothers to look. This is not journalism, it’s not spin, it’s not even agenda journalism. (It is certainly not historical research.) This is crafting a conspiracy theory – pure and simple.
Such things are written and published on the Internet daily. No surprise there. It is; however, shameful that Politico has not merely published this tripe, but featured it.