Former vice-president Al Gore attacked Christian activists in a speech sponsored by the liberal group MoveOn’s political action committee. “This aggressive new strain of right-wing religious zealotry,” Gore bellowed, “is actually a throwback to the intolerance that led to the creation of America in the first place.” Actually, attacks on “religious zealotry” are actually a throwback to the rhetoric of his own party in the 1960s when civil rights legislation was being considered. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was influenced by “religious zealots” who brought morality to bear on issues related to race and equality. “For the first time in history, a single Protestant-Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Jewish testimony was presented to Congress in support of legislation. Congress became aware that the religious community was aroused in a startling way. The participation of the religious groups in the March on Washington was another bit of evidence. Over 40,000 white church people participated in the March.”[1] With just a few changes, this description of the 1964 March on Washington could easily describe the activities of the often vilified “religious right” and their efforts to influence legislation. The similarities are not lost on Stephen L. Carter, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University and one of the nation’s leading experts on constitutional law:

Religious organizations were among the strongest supporters of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in employment and public accommodations. They testified in support of it. They made public appeals for it. And, once again, only the segregation[ist]s complained. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia charged that those who made religious arguments in favor of the legislation did not understand “the proper place of religious leaders in our national life,” adding that the religions should not “make a moral question of a political issue.” Indeed, there is little about the civil rights movement, other than the vital distinction in the ends that it sought, that makes it very different from the right-wing religious movements of the present day.[2]

Civil rights legislation was passed in the early 1960s because the “moral question” was pressed by religious leaders. “When it was finally passed, friend and foe alike credited the passage of the bill to the persistent power of the church.”[3] Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, the leader of the struggle in the Senate for passage, along with other veteran fighters for civil rights legislation, “insisted that the churches' efforts had made the difference which had been lacking in other struggles for such bills.”[4] Where was Al Gore’s father on this issue? He voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Many of the opponents of civil rights legislation in 1964 sound like the hysterical and irrational opponents of today’s Christian activists. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia maintained that the legislation had passed because “those damn preachers had got the idea it was a moral issue.”[5]

Those who have benefited from and claim to be the guardians of the legal and legislative moral crusades of the anti-segregationist movement—which claimed that civil rights was a moral issue—are now using the segregationist language of the 1960s—social issues are not moral issues—to demonize the Christian Right. To justify these bigoted attacks, a blind eye has been turned toward the historical record. There would have been no civil rights movement without the action of pastors and their congregations to force a certain moral standard on the society at large.

The leaders of the civil rights movement spoke openly of the commands of God as a crucial basis for their public activism. They made no effort to disguise their true intention: to impose their religious morality on others, on the dissenters who would rather segregate their hotels or lunch counters, or on those who did not accept a crucial epistemological premise of the movement — that black people are human beings. When King was challenged on just that point, he answered that “the law could not make people love their neighbors, but it could stop their lynching them.”[6]

Notice that these early proponents of civil rights did not mention “tolerance” and “pluralism.” Diverse views of racial relationships and modified segregationist legislation were not tolerated by those proposing civil rights legislation. The intolerance of this moral crusade was at times heavy handed and intrusionary. Some say it violated the wall separating church and state. “In February of 1956, in the midst of one of the most turbulent periods of the civil rights movement, Joseph Rummel, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, issued a pastoral letter condemning racial segregation as a sin.”[7] Rummel threatened to excommunicate Catholic legislators who supported pro-segregation legislation. The response was predictable. White segregationist legislators considered the letter to be a violation of constitutional principles related to church-state separation. “Racial segregation, they argued, was not ‘a matter of revealed religion’ and therefore was ‘outside the church province.’. . . Thus, the rhetoric of the 1950s was just like the rhetoric of the 1990s, except that in 1956, the liberals cheered and the conservatives got mad.”[8]

The efforts of today’s Christians on the right of the political spectrum are similar to those of black Christians of another era. While blacks fought legislative and constitutional battles for themselves, Christians today have chosen the arena of politics to fight for the unborn and to keep their families safe from redefinition. Just as “black people are human beings,” Christians believe that pre-born babies, both black and white, are human beings. And while Christians know that the law can not make people love their neighbors, it can stop them from killing babies before they are born. How is this form of “religious zealotry” different from that of more than 40 years ago?


[1] Robert W. Spike, The Freedom Revolution and the Churches (New York: Association Press, 1965), 106. [2] Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 228. [3] Spike, The Freedom Revolution and the Churches, 108. [4] Spike, The Freedom Revolution and the Churches, 108. [5] Quoted in Spike, The Freedom Revolution and the Churches, 108. [6] Carter, The Culture of Disbelief, 229. [7] Carter, The Culture of Disbelief, 63. [8] Carter, The Culture of Disbelief, 63–64.