I grew up Republican and was a member of the City Committee of the Republican Party of Virginia Beach for eight years. During that period, I viewed Republicans for the most part as "the good guys." But something changed over the years and I have always credited the GOP's decline into a party of extremism and racism to directly correlate with the rise of the Christofascists in the party. As the Christofascists infiltrated the party, moderates and I would argue sane people not motivated by simple greed (the true motivation for the worship of tax cuts) and racism and/or religious extremism fled the party. A friend and former classmate recently linked to a lengthy piece in Forbes written by a former Republican that focuses mostly on the South but lays out how pastors, especially Southern Baptist pastors, were key to the transformation of the GOP and accomplished the "Southern Strategy" that Richard Nixon and his strategist, Lee Atwater envisioned. Here in Virginia, The Family Foundation in alliance with Jerry Fallwell and now his son and Pat Robertson and his minions have played a major behind the scenes role in turning the Virginia GOP into a neo-Confederate party where racism is no longer disguised and is synonymous with calls for "religious liberty. Take the time to read the entire piece. Here are article highlights:
“White Democrats will desert their party in droves the minute it becomes a black party.” Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority, 1969.Thirty years ago, archconservative Rick Perry was a Democrat and liberal icon Elizabeth Warren was a Republican. Back then there were a few Republican Congressmen and Senators from Southern states, but state and local politics in the South was still dominated by Democrats. By 2014 that had changed entirely as the last of the Deep South states completed their transition from single-party Democratic rule to single party rule under Republicans. The flight of the Dixiecrats was complete.
Reasons for the switch are not so hard to understand. . . . . Southern anger over the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights reforms was no secret and no surprise.
While the “why” behind the flight of the Dixiecrats is obvious, the “how” is more difficult to establish, shrouded in myths and half-truths. Analysts often explain the great exodus of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party by referencing the Southern Strategy, a cynical campaign ploy supposedly executed by Richard Nixon in his ’68 and ’72 Presidential campaigns, but that explanation falls flat.
Crediting the Nixon campaign with the flight of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party dismisses the role Southerners themselves played in that transformation. In fact, Republicans had very little organizational infrastructure on the ground in the South before 1980, . . . The flight of the Dixiecrats was ultimately conceived, planned, and executed by Southerners themselves, largely independent of, and sometimes at odds with, existing Republican leadership. It was a move that had less to do with politicos than with pastors.
Southern churches, warped by generations of theological evolution necessary to accommodate slavery and segregation, were all too willing to offer their political assistance to a white nationalist program. Southern religious institutions would lead a wave of political activism that helped keep white nationalism alive inside an increasingly unfriendly national climate. Forget about Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan. No one played as much of a role in turning the South red as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church.
There is still today a Southern Baptist Church. More than a century and a half after the Civil War, and decades after the Methodists and Presbyterians reunited with their Yankee neighbors, America’s largest denomination remains defined, right down to the name over the door, by an 1845 split over slavery.
Spirituality may be personal, but organized religion, like race, is a cultural construct. When you’ve lost the ability to mobilize supporters based on race, religion will serve as a capable proxy. What was lost under the banner of “segregation forever” has been tenuously preserved through a continuing “culture war.” A fight for white nationalism and white cultural supremacy has in some ways been more successful after its transformation into an expressly religious, rather than merely racist crusade.
So long as pastors or priests (or in this case, televangelists) are willing to apply their theological creativity to serve political demands, religious institutions can be bent to advance any policy goal. With remarkably little prodding, Christian churches in Germany fanned the flames for Hitler.
The Southern Baptist Church was organized specifically to protect slavery and white supremacy from the influence of their brethren in the North, a role that has never ceased to distort its identity, beliefs and practices.
At that time , there may have been no more influential figure in the Southern Baptist Convention than W.A. Criswell, the pastor of the enormous First Baptist Church in Dallas.
At a convention in South Carolina, Criswell turned his popular fire and brimstone style on the “blasphemous and unbiblical” agitators who threatened the Southern way of life. Beyond all the boilerplate racist invective, Criswell outlined an eerily prescient rhetorical stance, a framework capable of outlasting Jim Crow. In a passage that managed to avoid explicit racism, he described what would become the primary political weapon of the culture wars:
Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision…to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made – a land of the free and the home of the brave.
Long after the battle over whites’ only bathrooms had been lost, evangelical communities in Houston or Charlotte can continue the war over a “bathroom bill” using a rhetorical structure Criswell and others built. He had constructed a strangely circular, quasi-libertarian argument in which a right to oppress others becomes a fundamental right born of a religious imperative, protected by the First Amendment.
Criswell’s bizarre formula, as it metastasized and took hold elsewhere, could allow white nationalists to continue their campaign as a “culture war” long after the battle to protect segregated institutions had been lost.
Southern Baptists remained at the vanguard of the fight to preserve Jim Crow until the fight was lost.
Evangelical resistance to the civil rights movement was not uniform, but dissent was rare and muted. Southern Baptist superstar Billy Graham was cautiously sympathetic to King. . . . . However, in public Graham was careful to keep a safe distance and avoided the kind of open displays of sympathy for civil rights that might have complicated his career.
In 1968, the Southern Baptist Convention formally endorsed desegregation. That same year, in a remarkably passive-aggressive counter to their apparent concession on civil rights, they elected W.A. Criswell to lead the denomination.
Defeated and demoralized, segregationists in the 1970’s faced a frustrating problem – how to rebuild a white nationalist political program without using the discredited rhetoric of race. Religion would provide them their answer. Armed with the superficially race-neutral rhetorical formula Criswell had described, prominent Southern Baptist ministers like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson would emerge to take up the fight. All they needed was a spark to light a new wave of political activism.
In 1967, Mississippi began offering tuition grants to white students allowing them to attend private segregated schools. A federal court struck down the move two years later, . . . . It was the status of these schools, a growing source of church recruitment and revenue, that finally stirred the grassroots to action. Televangelist Jerry Falwell would unite with a broader group of politically connected conservatives to form the Moral Majority in 1979. His partner in the effort, Paul Weyrich, made clear that it was the schools issue that launched the organization, an emphasis reflected in chain events across the 1980 Presidential campaign.
The rise of the religious right is usually credited to abortion activism, but few evangelicals cared about the subject in the 70’s.
In August of 1980, Criswell and other Southern Baptist leaders hosted Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan for a rally in Dallas. Reagan in his speech never used the word “abortion,” but he enthusiastically and explicitly supported the ministers’ position on protecting private religious schools. That was what they needed to hear.
Evangelical ministers, previously reluctant to lend their pulpits to political activists, launched a massive wave of activism in Southern pews in support of the Reagan campaign. The new President would not forget their support. Less than a year into his Administration, Reagan officials pressed the IRS to drop its campaign to desegregate private schools.
For decades, men like [Lee] Atwater had been searching for the perfect “abstract” phrasing, a magic political dog whistle that could communicate that “N…r, n…r” message behind a veneer of respectable language.
It was religious leaders in the South who solved the puzzle on Republicans’ behalf, converting white angst over lost cultural supremacy into a fresh language of piety and “religious liberty.” Southern conservatives discovered that they could preserve white nationalism through a proxy fight for Christian Nationalism. They came to recognize that a weak, largely empty Republican grassroots structure in the South was ripe for takeover and colonization. . . . Religious nationalists began to purge traditional Republicans from the region’s few GOP institutions.
Russell Moore became the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s social outreach arm in 2013. In that capacity, he began to challenge many of the darker elements of the church’s history. From a post in the church traditionally dedicated to hand-wringing over gay rights and dirty movies, Moore criticized those who stirred up hatred against refugees and ignored matters of racial justice. He drew sharp criticism when he denounced the Confederate Flag, explaining, “The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”
The real fury came when Moore applied to Donald Trump the same standard of conduct Baptists had demanded of Bill Clinton.
As religious leaders lined up solidly behind Trump last fall, Moore commented, "The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about."
Today, W.A. Criswell’s Dallas megachurch is pastored by Robert Jeffress, who has remained faithful to the most bigoted strains of the olde tyme religion.
Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, retooled the ministry he inherited, turning it into something a civil rights era segregationist could love without reservation. Graham, who earns more than $800,000 a year as the head of his inherited charity, has made anti-Muslim rhetoric a centerpiece of his public profile and ministry.
Jerry Falwell's son also inherited the family business, serving now as president of his father's university. His support for Trump is less surprising than Graham's, and far less of a departure from his father's work. Falwell spoke in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention.
Public perception that a “Southern strategy” conceived and initiated by clever Republicans turned the South red is worse than false. By deflecting responsibility onto some shadowy “other” it blocks us from reckoning with the past or changing our future. History is a powerful tide, especially when it runs unseen and concealed. A refusal to honestly confront our past leaves us to repeat our mistakes over and over again.
No one needs to say “N..r, n..r” anymore. With help from evangelical pastors, this new generation of politicians has found a new political party and a fresh language with which to stir old grievances and feed their power. By merely refining their rhetoric and activating evangelical congregations, a new generation of Southern conservatives grow ever closer to winning a fight their forebears once thought was lost.
Not surprisingly, a recent survey found that a majority of evangelicals admit to being racists. "Religious liberty" today equates with a right to discriminate against gays but also ultimately to discriminate against blacks, one of the bedrocks of the Southern Baptist Church and its allied evangelical churches. As has been the case through so much of history, organized religion is a pervasive evil. Hopefully, with the flight of younger generations from religion over time its toxic power will die in America.