In the wake of any tragedy, victims and their families often struggle to understand why something so terrible has happened. In the wake of the Charleston shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, that question was rapidly asked and answered. The targeted location, statements made during the act by the shooter Dylann Roof, and the quickly discovered propaganda he embraced made it quite clear that the “why” was vile racism.
Clear, that is, unless you were a member of the Religious Right.
Fox News pundits bent over backwards trying to frame the attack as part of the war against Christianity, with Steve Doocy and Bishop E.W. Jackson claiming the motive could just have easily been “hostility” towards Christians. The GOP Presidential field started to fall in line shortly thereafter. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum called it an assault on “religious liberty.” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham expressed woe over the fact that there are people out there looking to kill Christians. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul insisted the shooting occurred due to, “people not understanding where salvation comes from.”
Because, obviously, the logical conclusion to draw from the evidence pointing to racism as a motivator is religious persecution. To his credit, at least Mike Huckabee didn’t do that. He just said we should stop talking about racism altogether, give everyone guns, and get back to praising Jesus.
As bewildering and stomach-turning as these mental acrobatics may seem, they’re far from surprising. This is, after all, an election season, and the candidates in question are Republicans seeking to lock up the vote from the Religious Right — a voting bloc notoriously unforgiving of those who fail to champion their faith at every possible turn. While the Religious Right doesn’t hold as much sway in the general election as they used to, they still pack a considerable punch in the primaries and, along with the Tea Party, have unseated more than a few lifetime politicians over perceived slights in favor of more radical candidates. Of course the presidential hopefuls are bending over backwards to make Charleston about religion and not race. Discussing racism is going to get them nowhere in a hurry with this bunch, but making this into a crusade for Christianity might.
The need to appease the Religious Right doesn’t excuse the behavior of these candidates, but it does explain a lot, especially when put in context. While the average American today might associate the Religious Right with issues like same-sex marriage or reproductive justice, the voting bloc has a long and tawdry relationship with racism. Many mistakenly assume that the Religious Right was born with Roe v. Wade as a powerful answer to reproductive rights champions, a misconception those leaders often perpetuate. But a closer look at the timeline reveals this to be incorrect. As Dartmouth Professor and Religious Historian Richard Ballmer explains:
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.
That’s right; it was the need to defend segregation that originally brought evangelicals and fundamentalists together as a political force to be reckoned with.
You see, following the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, there was a mass exodus of White children from public schools to private ones which would not be forced to desegregate. To address this racist work-around, Richard Nixon ultimately instructed the IRS to revoke tax-exempt status for the schools in question, as their discriminatory policies inherently disqualified them as “charitable.” The courts agreed.
Where others saw justice, Weyreich, the religious political activist and founder of The Heritage Foundation, saw opportunity. He had for years sought an issue that would galvanize the faithful in America to become a powerful political force, but failed to get their motor running on issues like pornography and prayer in schools. When well-known religious institution Bob Jones University had its tax-exempt status revoked over the school’s ban on interracial dating, though, Weyreich basically invoked a line of argument that would become the default dodge of the Religious Right: It’s not about race. It’s about governmental interference with the practice of our beliefs. It’s about religious liberty.
Replace “race” with just about any contentious issue that the Religious Right has an opinion on, and you’ll notice that this refrain sounds chillingly familiar — Indiana, anyone?
But the line worked, and though it was a conservative that had instituted the IRS policy, Weyreich and other leaders like Jerry Falwell pinned the blame on President Carter in 1978. In their minds, conservatives would be more likely to incorporate religious belief into their approach to governance. But even in the 70s, racial arguments were uncomfortable, to say the least. These leaders knew they would need something less divisive among believers, and so turned to the growing discomfort over legal abortion. This is when reproductive rights really captured the attention of the Religious Right. It was simply a stand-in for the issue they wanted to champion.
Though reproductive justice may have become the primary target after proving successful at motivating voters in several down-ticket 1978 elections, race stayed in the mix. It wasn’t that the largely white evangelical population wasn’t sympathetic to the race argument; they just needed it packaged in a way that wouldn’t inspire guilt. Politicians began to figure it out soon. For instance, when Religious Right champion Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980, the dog-whistle trope known as the “Welfare Queen” cast poor black victims as leeches on the system, and it went mainstream. Reagan’s supporters could claim it was about entitlement reform, but those paying attention noticed that the villains in his stories about system abuse all had something in common: Black skin.
It was subtle racism like this that colored the Religious Right’s image in the 1980s. By the 1990s, it was getting harder to deny. Those outside the political arena began to call for “racial reconciliation” as a means of changing this perception. Groups such as Promise Keepers emphatically called upon white Christians to acknowledge their own prejudice and bridge the gap between their communities and those of color. But even such high profile groups drew skepticism and scorn from those who saw the brief pop in racial justice advocacy as a mere PR stunt. Proponents of the movement were simply paying lip service to the issue, so the argument went, and it certainly did seem like many were. A 1996 New York Times article discussed the struggles leaders of the moment faced within their congregations:
[N]ot every Promise Keeper shares [founder Bill] McCartney’s passions. Many people attend despite the racial sermons, not because of them. Many others, in Promise Keepers and elsewhere on the Christian right, return home to happily segregated neighborhoods, churches and schools.
“It doesn’t translate into how you bring black and white together,” says the Rev. Christopher M. Hamlin, pastor of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where a bombing by white segregationists killed four black children in 1963. “The barriers that are broken down in the stadiums are still there when people come home to their communities. I think most black pastors see it as being rhetoric, which is something most of the black community has heard for a long time.”
It certainly seemed that way. It was an era of pronounced “move in” violence against people of color entering these same predominantly white communities. It was an era where “good” Christians rallied behind Republican David Duke, the founder of the KKK in Louisiana, electing him to multiple political offices. It was an era when political strategists advised Ron Paul that it was strategically savvy to disseminate racist literature to his followers. It was an era when Senator Jesse Helms, one of the original leaders of the Religious Right, beat black opponent Mayor Harvey Gantt with an ad attributing black employment and white unemployment to affirmative action. The list goes on and on and on.
One might hope that such idiocy would have been purged from the party by now, but the surge of the Tea Party as a prominent political force says otherwise. The Tea Party may have started out as a more pure version of the “small government” identity of the Republican Party, but it was quickly co-opted by the Religious Right, who felt the Republicans had become too willing to compromise on the social issues they saw as important. This merger of sorts, paired with the largely Southern, white, male demographics of Tea Party enthusiasts, has spurred a resurgence of racist rhetoric among candidates for and proponents of the Religious Right, exacerbated by the presence of a Black president. Michelle Goldberg, senior correspondent for The American Prospect, explained the voting bloc’s return to more overt racism in 2009, writing:
For the last 15 years, the right-wing populism has been substantially electrified by sexual anxiety. Now it’s charged with racial anxiety. By all accounts, there were more confederate flags than crosses at last weekend’s anti-Obama rally in Washington, DC. Glenn Beck has become a far more influential figure on the right than, say, James Dobson, and he’s much more interested in race than in sexual deviancy. For the first time in at least a decade, middle class whites have been galvanized by the fear that their taxes are benefiting lazy, shiftless others. The messianic, imperialistic, hubristic side of the right has gone into retreat, and a cramped, mean and paranoid style has come to the fore.
This racism isn’t subtle. It’s common. It’s acceptable. And it’s center stage when you look at the 2016 GOP presidential contenders.
It’s seen in Ted Cruz, speaking alongside a man who praised the white crowd for their breeding at an anti-immigration event hosted by a known white supremacist.
It’s seen in Rand Paul’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act because it’s a form of government intervention in private lives.
It’s seen in the fact that Rick Santorum has raised any money at all for his campaign this time around after (possibly) calling the President a “nigger” during the last run.
It’s seen in Jeb Bush gushing over author Charles Murray, whose books lament the breakdown of the nuclear heterosexual family and who has argued that white people are inherently more intelligent than black people.
It’s seen in Bobby Jindal saying racial inequality is the result of minorities being too proud of their heritage.
It’s seen in Donald Trump’s candidacy announcement, when he informed the country that all Mexican immigrants were either rapists or drug dealers.
These are the men leading the field. Their ideas, behaviors, and rhetoric, when stacked up like this, are enough to make anyone with a conscience uneasy. But this is the way the game is played when you’re catering to a group like the Religious Right.
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. In theory, there are parts of the Religious Right that are incredibly uncomfortable with this sort of nonsense. But they stay silent, and continue to cast their votes for what they see as the “lesser” of evils. In their complacency, they are just as responsible as their more transparent counterparts for the perpetuation of a racist Religious Right. As John Stuart Mill once said, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
But the wind is shifting. Charleston was a lightning rod of a tragedy, a crescendo to a two-year building tide of rage over racial injustice in this nation. People are starting to draw a line in the sand. There’s a reason even Fox News had to backtrack on casting Charleston as a war against Christianity. There’s a reason Ted Cruz and Rand Paul felt compelled to give away donations made by a white supremacist group when that came to light.
The Religious Right may still be a driving force in Republican primaries, but they’re losing their grip. If they can’t find a way to divorce themselves of their racist past and present, they may see a day where their relevance becomes as much a thing of the past as their bigoted ideology ought to be.
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