IN THE IMMEDIATE aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s first presidential victory, The Nation published a short op-ed by American historian Leo Ribuffo, titled “Liberals and That Old-Time Religion.” An expert in the study of the American right, Ribuffo contended that journalistic coverage of conservative religious subjects tended to oscillate between “dire threat to progress and civility” and “on the verge of extinction.”
Not surprisingly, the early 1980s skewed toward the dire end of the spectrum as countless liberals and progressives from Norman Lear to Jim Wallis to Isaac Asimov attempted to make meaning out of an otherwise definitive defeat at the hands of an ominous but sophisticated “New Right.” More importantly, Ribuffo argued that the idea of “old-time religion” not only described Southern evangelicals and their idiosyncratic religious practices, but that it also illustrated how “liberals” understood and interpreted born-again Christianity through their respective cover stories, op-eds, and scholarly monographs.
For American religious historian Randall Balmer, this story is a personal one because he’s been privy to it, in many ways, since its very beginnings. His new book, Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right, began as a Politico article, titled “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.” The subtitle said it all: “They’ll tell you it was abortion. Sorry, the historical record’s clear: It was segregation.” This analysis of “evangelical racism” is fast becoming an academic genre in its own right — part of what one scholar has recently called the “moral turn” in the study of American religious history.
As an evangelical historian himself, Balmer has resisted such normative moves in the past, but as he admits, the 2016 election changed his mind for good. For these reasons, Balmer is a provocative storyteller: not unlike his own subjects, he too has been in the room where it happens. In this sense, Bad Faith is not a historical account of American evangelicalism — it’s a normative reckoning of it.
Balmer recalls how he was invited to a meeting in Washington in the early 1990s with conservative organizers, such as Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie, and evangelical intellectuals, including Carl F. H. Henry, Grant Wacker, and George Marsden. Though he was the only “progressive evangelical” in the room, he nevertheless overheard Weyrich express his frustrations with mobilizing potential conservatives via “the abortion issue.” In short order, Balmer deduced something truly remarkable: the Christian Right was not initially galvanized due to abortion and its federal legalization.
Bad Faith unpacks “the abortion myth” by exploring the history of American evangelicalism in three roughly chronological parts. For Balmer, 19th-century evangelicals “bore responsibility for the improvement of society and especially the interests of those most vulnerable,” but they eventually lost their way when salvation became a more individual concern. The doctrine of dispensational premillennialism is the culprit. It shifted evangelical activism away from the systemic and toward the individual because of Jesus’s assumed imminent return. This way of thinking destroyed the evangelical impulse to reform society in the name of the least of these.
From there, Balmer’s narrative highlights classic if not expected events in the history of American evangelicalism: the first and second Great Awakenings, the Scopes Monkey Trial, the anticlimactic presidency of Jimmy Carter, and the abortion myth, which suggests that Roe v. Wade was the true catalyst that mobilized conservative protestants into a potent sociopolitical force. Instead, Balmer argues that it was the IRS’s decision to enforce federal antidiscrimination law pertaining to the tax-exempt status of “segregation academies” that got a largely apolitical constituency’s attention. For example, Bob Jones University’s decision to not allow interracial dating resulted in a swift reproach by the Supreme Court in Green v. Connally (1971). Five years later, the IRS officially rescinded the school’s tax-exempt status. The mobilization that resulted in the “rise of the Religious Right,” Balmer concludes, was in defense of racial segregation.
The mastermind was Paul Weyrich, who arguably pioneered the conservative deployment of victimhood in the name of First Amendment rights. As Balmer argues, Weyrich and others “sought to shift the justification for their political activism away from a defense of racial segregation and toward a putative defense of religious freedom.” Always the marketer, Weyrich understood the electoral potential of such a passionate constituency and sought to cultivate the requisite emotional responses to challenge the IRS’s decisions — and thus by proxy the federal government itself.
Balmer argues that the abortion myth has functioned as a cover for right-wing racism since the 1970s. As such, he spends the remaining pages of the book identifying the racist pasts of several conservative public figures in order to illustrate his thesis. No one is safe from Balmer’s vantage, and rightly so: Falwell, McCarthy, Wallace, Moore, Trump. “Whatever the case, having thereby forfeited their prophetic voice, leaders of the movement and the Religious Right itself have become little more than a political interest group.”
In his concluding sentiment, Balmer attempts to be ecumenical: “[R]epentance is good for the soul.” He also suggests that “a fresh reading of Jesus’s injunctions to feed the hungry […] or an appreciation for evangelical social reform in the nineteenth century” might encourage people to revisit their support for certain Republican policies like “tax cuts for the affluent.” These suggestions add nothing to the overall argument. Single-issue politics are not going anywhere soon despite their corrosive effects on the tenor of American public life.
Conservatism since the 1970s has been particularly anti-statist in rhetoric and organizational purpose. Weyrich’s unique accomplishment, as perhaps the most significant architect of modern-day conservatism since Barry Goldwater, was to defend the sanctity of social issues across multiple socioeconomic strata — under a banner of Protestant conservatism that framed the United States as God’s chosen nation. Because of this, the personal certainly ended up becoming the political but not according to a civil rights platform. Instead, due to political consultants like Weyrich, the personal eventually became the political in the name of the unborn.
Reflecting on the intimate relationship between conservative Protestants and their professional analysts, anthropologist Susan Harding observed:
They would rather be on the right side of God than history. We have been engaged in a critique of our knowledge practices for some time, but we are not done yet, or else we wouldn’t be in the predicament of being unprepared, yet again, for the creativity, ferocity, and mutability of opponents to the left/liberal/secular project. In addition to fieldwork, I think we need to do some more homework.
This does not mean more books on this topic. We remain overreactive interpreters to such movements because we remain beholden to static understandings of them: ones often of our own intellectual machinations.
Was race a factor in the ascendancy of Reaganite conservatism? Absolutely. Was it the explanatory be-all and end-all of the Christian Right’s rise, as Balmer suggests? Not by a long shot. To assume so is to project a particularly reductive vision of conservative organizing and politics onto the very conservative subjects we’re attempting to understand. Making America Great has been a coordinated effort: one spearheaded and executed by Weyrich, Viguerie, and others for some time now. The sooner we realize this, and the less willing we are to rehash the same categories and descriptions, the better able we’ll be to interpret the future of conservatism in and through our calamitous present.