Guest article by Michael Wagner
The modern conservative Christian political movement commonly known as the “Religious Right” or the “Christian Right” began in the late 1970s in response to adverse changes in American society. Many Christians became involved in politics for the very first time, and they were credited with contributing to the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Since then, countless books have been written about this phenomenon. Some of the books have aspired towards scholarly neutrality, but for the most part, they have portrayed the Christian Right in a negative light. They falsely characterize Christian political activism as a dark and dangerous influence on American society, rather than the positive revitalization that it actually represents.
Support for President Donald Trump by many prominent Christians has escalated the inaccurate criticism of the Christian Right. Many academics and mainstream media commentators hate Trump and commonly depict his defenders as racists.
One scholar, historian Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College, has been writing for years that racism was the foundational premise of the Christian Right. His portrayal of the movement is very misleading, but because it makes conservative Christians look bad, he receives accolades from various academics and other leftists.
Balmer has recently released a book where he once again claims that the surge in Christian political activism that began in the late 1970s was motivated primarily by racism. This book is entitled, Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right (Eerdmans, 2021). His basic thesis is that “the most obvious, common sense reading of the Religious Right is that conservative evangelicals were mobilizing in defense of racial segregation” (p. 44).
Where is the Voice of the Church?
America has been great because it was built on sound Christian principles. Our nation acknowledged and honored God, the Creator, and as a result, He blessed the nation. However, years ago, our churches adopted a neutral position with regard to society, wherefore, those principles melted away. Our Christian foundation eroded and we lost our stability.Buy Now
This is the academic equivalent of fake news, and Balmer tries to substantiate it by twisting historical information and ignoring the large volume of evidence that undermines his claim.
There are certain aspects of Balmer’s discussion that are true. He demonstrates, for example, that the legalization of abortion in the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1973 did not lead to the mobilization of the Christian Right, as many people have assumed. Widespread conservative evangelical involvement in the pro-life movement did not materialize until later in the 1970s, largely due to the efforts (books, video series, and speaking campaigns) of Dr. Francis Schaeffer.
It’s also true, as Balmer points out, that the single most important factor that ignited the mobilization of the Christian Right was the defense of private Christian schools. However, this is where he manipulates historical information to conform to his false accusation that conservative evangelicals were primarily motived by racism. Or, as he puts it, “the real roots of the Religious Right lay not in the defense of a fetus but in the defense of racial segregation” (p. 65).
The historical background to his case is very important. Until the 1950s, government schools in many Southern states were racially segregated. However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 ruled such segregation to be unconstitutional. As a result, due to the desegregation of public schools, many private schools were created as “segregation academies” to keep white children separate from black children. However, a 1969 court ruling (Green v. Connally) denied tax exempt status to racially segregated private schools.
Many new private Christian schools were formed during the 1970s because negative changes in the public schools (completely unrelated to desegregation) had alerted parents of the need for specifically Christian education. These private schools were formed for religious reasons, not for racially-motivated reasons.
However, after Jimmy Carter became president, his new director of the Internal Revenue Service implemented a policy whereby many non-discriminatory private Christian schools were arbitrarily deemed to be segregation academies, thus losing their tax-exempt status. Those schools were considered to be guilty of racial segregation, unless they could prove otherwise—in other words, guilty until proven innocent. That is, private Christian schools that did not support racial segregation could lose their tax-exempt status on the basis of the new, arbitrary IRS regulations.
This policy was, of course, outrageous. Many Christians were understandably incensed and became actively involved in opposing these unfair rules. Balmer falsely claims these people were defending racial segregation. They were not. They were upset because the IRS had unfairly and arbitrarily decided that private Christian schools could be deemed racist and lose their tax status. The relevant literature of the time refutes Balmer’s misleading perspective.
Fordham Law Review
The November 1979 issue of the Fordham Law Review contains an article by lawyers Thomas Stephen Neuberger and Thomas C. Crumplar entitled, “Tax Exempt Religious Schools Under Attack: Conflicting Goals of Religious Freedom and Racial Integration.” As they demonstrate, the private Christian school supporters were reacting because the new IRS regulations deprived those schools of due process of law.
In explaining the uproar caused by the IRS, Neuberger and Crumplar wrote, “The issues raised by most, if not all of the opposition, did not concern the right of racially discriminatory schools to retain tax exemptions, but concerned the method by which the IRS sought to implement its policy and the fear of the future consequences of that implementation” (p. 232).
Later, they reiterate this point: “The religious community has not opposed the legitimate governmental policy of eradicating racial discrimination in private schools through the revocation of such schools’ tax exempt status. Rather, its concern, according to spokesmen for religious schools, stems from the method by which the government, through the IRS, has sought to implement its policy, and from the fear that enforcement of the procedure will lead to greater governmental involvement in church affairs” (pp. 258-259).
Clearly, the Christians who were upset about the IRS attack on private schools did not oppose government policies against racial segregation. Instead, they were opposed to the unfair treatment of non-discriminatory private Christian schools. In stark contrast, Balmer falsely claims that these Christians mobilized on this issue to defend “racially segregated evangelical institutions” (p. 45).
The Public Interest
Political scientist Peter Skerry also explains the controversy between private Christian schools and the IRS in his article “Christian Schools Versus the I.R.S.” in the Fall 1980 issue of the journal The Public Interest.
Like Neuberger and Crumplar, Skerry emphasizes the unfairness of the IRS attack on non-discriminatory private Christian schools. As he notes, the IRS attributed the growth of private Christian schooling in the U.S. “to a simple case of race prejudice.” It then accused the private Christian schools of practicing racial segregation and placed “the full burden of proof directly on the schools. Assuming in advance the guilt of reviewable schools, it would act first and ask questions later” (pp. 31-32).
Skerry points out that even Jewish and Amish schools could be trapped by the IRS guidelines as being racially segregated due to the lack of African American students in those schools. And indeed, Neuberger and Crumplar note that representatives of both the Jewish and Amish communities opposed the IRS regulations. According to Balmer’s line of reasoning, however, those Jewish and Amish representatives were actually defending racial segregation.
Of course, Balmer is not interested in the Jewish or Amish schools. His only point is to convince people that conservative Christian political activism is motivated—at its very root—by a desire to defend racial segregation. As he puts it, “the Religious Right was never about the advancement of biblical values. The modern, politically conservative evangelical activism we see today is a movement rooted in the perpetuation of racial segregation” (p. 78).
From the 1970s to Today
That is, he claims that even today conservative Christian political activism in the United States is driven primarily by support for racial segregation. In his view, the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 proves that racism is “at the core of the movement” (p. 68). For left-wing academics such as Balmer, it is politically convenient to claim that only racism would motivate people to support Trump. In this way, they can avoid acknowledging the real problems that drove people to vote for an unconventional candidate.
In Balmer’s view, then, there is a great continuity in the Christian Right. It began with open support for racial segregation in the late 1970s, and even today, it still openly advocates racism through support for Donald Trump.
Restoring the Foundation of Civilization
There are many Christians who will not participate in civilization-building efforts that include economics, journalism, politics, education, and science because they believe (or have been taught to believe) these areas of thought are outside the realm of what constitutes a Christian worldview. Nothing could be further from the truth.Buy Now
This is all rubbish, of course. Yet for the Left, it is politically useful. Portraying conservative Christian political activism as driven by racist motives seriously discredits such activism. Racism is irrational and justly vilified today, so anyone associated with it—rightly or wrongly—loses credibility. To smear the Christian Right with the false accusation of racism potentially undermines it in the minds of many otherwise sympathetic citizens. This, of course, is the purpose of the accusation.
However, it is completely untrue, as the evidence demonstrates. There was a surge of Christian activism to defend private schools against unjust government policies in the late 1970s, but not to defend racial segregation. The purpose of the activism was to defend such schools against unfair and arbitrary regulations imposed by the IRS on non-discriminatory private schools.
Randall Balmer’s false allegations against the Christian Right may be popular in academic circles and among left-wing activists, but conservative Christians must understand that they are completely unfounded and not supported by any evidence. It is to be expected, though, that these kinds of false accusations against conservative Christians will continue to be made. Fake news about Christians is not a new phenomenon, but it may take on even darker hues as the Left increases its political and cultural power in the United States.