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I’m fascinated by the current impact of the evangelicals and the religious right on the political scene in our nation. Being one who believes history tells that story and how such came to be, I dug into my research mode to cull out the facts and to follow the trail down which they led.
My first thought, prior to any research, was that the religious right movement must have had its start with the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling regarding the legalization of abortion. To my amazement, the facts do not bear this out even though evangelicals make up the backbone of the anti-abortion movement.
It has not always been so. In 1968, the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today refused to characterize abortion as sinful. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis (I was present) passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of fetal deformity and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of the emotional and physical health of the mother.”
The myth of abortion being the catalyst of the religious right and its involvement in U.S. politics falls apart when one follows the historical trail. It was not until 1979, six years after Roe v. Wade, that evangelicals seized on the abortion issue as central to their cause and this was, in part, to deny President Carter a second term.
So, what did give birth to the religious right? In a phrase, and as a result of my research, desegregation and the Supreme Court.
The clarity of this came as I referred to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling 1954 that declared public-school segregation unconstitutional.
What I discovered were hundreds of private “segregation academies” springing up in Southern states established by primarily white Christian families. These non-Catholic Christian schools doubled in enrollments between 1961 and 1971.
This changed in the early 1970s with the Supreme Court’s decision that forced public schools to integrate and declared racially discriminatory private schools ineligible for tax-exempt status.
These segregated Christian schools, in many cases, refused to comply on the basis of “religious freedom.”
Seth Dowland, a religion professor and author of “Family Values and the Rise of the Religious Right” wrote, “During this period, private Christian schools had to construct a bigger rationale for their existence than wanting an all-white classroom. Leaders outside the South helped construct the rationale as combating secular humanism and their inculcating secularism and liberalism, even though the racial component was a huge part of the story as well.”
Still, today, in many Southern Christian schools, not one single black student can be found. While at others, at best, only a handful are present. It is still a fact that many of the students at these schools are from wealthy white families.
Randall Balmer, religious history professor at Dartmouth College and author of “The Making of Evangelicalism” wrote, “Many popular textbooks used in religious schools teach American history in ways that privilege white culture. For example, the books often downplay the displacement of Native Americans and minimize slavery by noting its positive effects such as introducing slaves to Christianity.”
The facts leave no doubt that the formation of the white Christian religious right was the issue of segregation, white privilege and overt racism. Most certainly, the issue of abortion has overshadowed the original motivation for its birth, but does not change the heart and soul of its existence.
Edward “Ned” Walsh of Princeton is a retired Baptist denominational worker who served as executive director of Johnston County Habitat for Humanity from 2004-08.