For decades people on the Religious Right have insisted that they came together in the 1970s around the issue of abortion and efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade.
While that narrative has become popular and even part of the cultural canon, there’s just one minor issue—it’s flat out wrong.
In his latest book, historian Randall Balmer, explains the deep history behind the political alignment of the Religious Right.
In the preface, Balmer recounts how he got interested in the question of the Religious Right and the stances of its adherents on abortion.
At an invite-only conference in 1990, he encountered Paul Weyrich “the architect of the Religious Right.” In a statement from Weyrich directly to Balmer, the political operative explained that the origins of the Religious Right had nothing to do with abortion.
From the book…
[Weyrich] had been trying since the Goldwater campaign in 1964 to mobilize evangelical voters, he said, by raising such issues as school prayer, pornography, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, and abortion, but nothing galvanized evangelical leaders to action until the Internal Revenue Service began to challenge the tax-exempt status of racially segregated schools.
It was not opposition to abortion that originally brought the Religious Right together, it was opposition to racial integration.
Once these leaders saw a threat to the tax-exempt status of their churches and non-profits because they refused to desegregate in compliance with federal law, they organized themselves into a massive political force. (I draw on Balmer’s work in more detail in my first book The Color of Compromise on pages 160-165.)
Balmer’s re-telling of the origin story of one of the most potent political blocs in the nation significantly revises our understanding of the role race plays in right-leaning politics and fundamentalist Christian circles.
It casts doubt on abortion as the animating social issue of the Religious Right and presents a familiar theme in American politics--racism.
With the recent challenges to Roe v Wade and the implementation of so-called “heartbeat bills” in states such as Texas, the historical role of race, abortion, and politics deserves more scrutiny.
Bad Faith is a very short read, clocking in at just 128 pages. You can read it in one or two sittings, but you’ll be pondering its content for a long time after.
Here’s what I wrote about Bad Faith in my endorsement of Randall Balmer’s book.
“Bad Faith is a fantastic primer on one of the most potent and controversial political forces of the past half century—the Religious Right. Bad Faith upends the tidy narrative that protesting abortion was the issue that rallied evangelicals in the political realm. Randall Balmer’s historical research helps restore the true and infuriating story, that racism, once again, played a central role in shaping the political and religious landscape of the nation. Before you read another headline or write another social media post about religion, race, or politics, read this book.”
Buy Bad Faith.