Column: The Real Origins of the Religious Right

  • Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

    Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press

  • Randall Balmer

    Randall Balmer

  • Clay Bennett, Chattanooga Times Free Press
  • Randall Balmer

Having failed in their efforts to stem the legalization of same-sex marriages, leaders of the religious right have now fastened on legislation that will discriminate against gays and lesbians by allowing businesses to claim “religious objections” to serving same-sex couples. In so doing, the religious right is reclaiming the discriminatory practices that surrounded its emergence as a political movement in the 1970s.

On Feb. 20, the Arizona Legislature approved a bill, S.B. 1062, that would have allowed business owners to assert that their religious beliefs prevented them from doing business with gays, lesbians and others they deemed unacceptable because of the business owners’ religious convictions. Under the provisions of the bill, for example, a restaurant would have been entitled to refuse to cater a same-sex wedding or a photographer would have been within her legal rights to cancel a contract upon learning that the marriage was for two people of the same sex.

The Arizona legislation, which passed largely on party lines, was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer. Similar legislation, however, is under consideration in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Ohio, Kansas, Mississippi, Idaho and South Dakota.

At the very least, you have to wonder about the quality of education in these states.

Lawmakers pushing such legislation apparently have never heard of Jim Crow. Let’s review.

Despite the religious right’s labored efforts to persuade Americans that the movement’s origins can be traced to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, that claim collapses beneath historical scrutiny. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, hardly a redoubt of liberalism, passed a resolution calling for the legalization of abortion at its gathering in St. Louis in 1971 — a resolution it reaffirmed in 1974 and again in 1976. When the Roe decision was handed down on Jan. 22, 1973, several prominent evangelicals hailed the ruling as marking an appropriate distinction between personal morality and public policy.

The real origins of the religious right lie in the defense of racial discrimination rather than opposition to abortion. A 1971 lower court ruling upheld the Internal Revenue Service in its opinion that any institution that engages in racial discrimination or racial segregation is not — by definition — a charitable institution. Therefore, any such institutions, under the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were not eligible for tax-exempt status. Following that decision by the District Court of the District of Columbia, Richard Nixon instructed the IRS not grant tax exemptions for racially discriminatory institutions.

Although the original court case, Green v. Kennedy, was brought against “segregation academies” in Mississippi — private schools founded to avoid racial integration — the IRS cast a wider net and soon began reeling in a bigger fish. Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school in South Carolina, refused to admit African Americans to its student body until the IRS began its inquiry in 1971. At that time, the school admitted a black man, who worked in the school’s radio station, as a part-time student. He dropped out a month later.

Bob Jones, his son and his grandson, all presidents of their eponymous university, believed that the Bible mandated the separation of the races. “We have what we feel are biblical convictions for keeping the races separate,” Bob Jones III said. The Joneses’ religious convictions led them to discriminate — just as racists discriminated by refusing to serve African Americans at lunch counters or rent motel rooms to people of color.

As the IRS pressed its case against Bob Jones University in the mid-1970s, many evangelical and fundamentalist preachers began to howl in protest that their religious freedom — that is, their freedom to discriminate — was under assault.

Jerry Falwell, who had founded his own segregation academy in 1966, famously complained that it was easier to open a massage parlor in most states than it was to open a “Christian” school. Conveniently ignoring the fact that tax exemption is itself a public subsidy, these leaders of the nascent religious right complained that the federal government was unlawfully intruding into their affairs.

If you’re looking for a date of origin for the religious right, Jan.19, 1976, is as good as any. After years of warnings, the IRS finally rescinded the tax exemption of Bob Jones University on that date, and the catalyst was the defense of racial discrimination, not the defense of the unborn. (Evangelicals of the 1970s regarded abortion as a “Catholic issue” until they adopted it as their own in 1979.) For the religious right, the rhetoric surrounding religious defenses of discrimination hasn’t changed much over the past four decades. “We’re in a bad fix in America when eight evil old men and one vain and foolish woman can speak a verdict on American liberties,” Bob Jones III told his students when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the IRS in 1983. “You no longer live in a nation that is religiously free.”

The day after the Arizona Legislature passed S.B. 1062, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council declared, “This legislation reaffirms the basic principle that the fundamental rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion do not stop at the exit door of your local church, and instead extend to every area of life.” The discriminatory legislation in Arizona was devised by a socially conservative organization called the Center for Social Policy, which claims that the law “protects everyone’s religious freedom.” John Kredit, legal counsel for the group, told the Associated Press, “We see a growing hostility toward religion.” He offered this statement, one utterly devoid of historical consciousness, apparently without a hint of irony. Maybe, just maybe, the hostility Kredit detects toward religion — or at least toward evangelicalism — has something to do with the religious right’s sad and lamentable infatuation with discrimination.

Randall Balmer is chairman of the Religion Department at Dartmouth College. His column appears monthly in Perspectives.