Tomorrow’s blog accidentally published early. So nothing in the morning…
It was finally the election of Barack Obama that signaled the end of my comforting naiveté.
I came to that election with the very incomplete history education that–I now understand–was fed to pretty much every White kid for more years than I can count, and I was delighted: America was overcoming the pockets of racism that still lingered.
I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life, but rarely have I been as wrong as I was about the implications of that election.
True, the fact that America elected a biracial President was evidence of considerable progress, and we should definitely celebrate that progress. But what I totally missed was the hysterical backlash and the re-animation of the racism that remained–a racism far more pervasive than I had ever imagined.
Since that election, I’ve read lot of the history I hadn’t been taught, and I’ve followed the increasing amount of social science research that is “unpeeling the onion” and demonstrating the extent to which ostensibly race-neutral policies are actually based on racial animus.
Take the “pro-life” movement. Most Americans believe that the genesis of anti-abortion politics was Roe v. Wade. I have previously cited Randall Balmer–an eminent scholar of Evangelical Christianity–for the actual history of that movement.
Balmer reiterated that lesson in a recent essay for the Guardian.
Although leaders of the religious right would have us believe that the Roe decision was the catalyst for their political mobilization in the 1970s, that claim does not withstand historical scrutiny. What prompted evangelical interest in politics, in fact, was a defense of racial segregation.
Evangelicals considered abortion a “Catholic issue” through most of the 1970s, and there is little in the history of evangelicalism to suggest that abortion would become a point of interest. Even James Dobson, who later became an implacable foe of abortion, acknowledged after the Roe decision that the Bible was silent on the matter and that it was plausible for an evangelical to hold that “a developing embryo or fetus was not regarded as a full human being”.
Balmer writes that he first began researching the origins of the religious right after a meeting he attended in 1990. The meeting included what he identifies as a “veritable who’s-who of the religious right,” –he notes Ralph Reed of Christian Coalition; Donald Wildmon from the American Family Association; Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; Ed Dobson of the Moral Majority; Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich. (He notes that no women were present–not a surprise.)
Weyrich reminded the group that the religious right had not come together in response to Roe v. Wade. Instead, the motivation was the IRS effort to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies.
Balmer later questioned Weyrich to be certain he’d heard correctly.
He was emphatic that abortion had nothing whatsoever to do with the genesis of the religious right. He added that he’d been trying since the Goldwater campaign in 1964 to interest evangelicals in politics. Nothing caught their attention, he insisted – school prayer, pornography, equal rights for women, abortion – until the IRS began to challenge the tax exemption of Bob Jones University and other whites-only segregation academies.
Indeed, in 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention had passed a resolution calling to legalize abortion. When the Roe decision was handed down, some evangelicals applauded the ruling as marking an appropriate distinction between personal morality and public policy. Although he later – 14 years later – claimed that opposition to abortion was the catalyst for his political activism, Jerry Falwell did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until February 1978, more than five years after Roe.
As Balmer notes, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that opposition to abortion became an evangelical battle cry. As a strategy, “it allowed leaders to camouflage the real origins of their movement: the defense of racial segregation in evangelical institutions.”
It isn’t only abortion, of course. Scholars have linked the right’s constant drumbeat against “socialism” and its adamant opposition to efforts to strengthen America’s social safety net to that same tribalism; in order to prevent “those people” from benefitting from programs like national health insurance, significant numbers of White people are willing to go without those benefits. It’s like the episode reported by Heather McGhee in The Sum of Us, about the Southern town that filled in its municipal swimming pool rather than integrate it. And so nobody got to swim.
Un-peeling onions makes me cry.