The Roots of the Religious Right Are Still Present in the Trump Era

Recently I wrote about the various elements of the Republican coalition since the 1960’s. As I suggested, one of the groups that has remained loyal to the party in the Trump era are social conservatives – or the religious right. As we’ve seen, there have been some who have rejected the Republican nominee, but leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr. have continued to endorse him – even after the tape was released in which Trump bragged about sexual assault.

It is interesting to note that the younger students of Liberty University (the school founded by Falwell’s father) spoke out against this support from the current president. Perhaps that is because they aren’t as steeped in the history of the conflation of religion and politics on the right in which Falwell’s father was a key figure.

A couple of years ago, Randall Balmer wrote a concise history of how the protestant portion of the religious right became politically engaged in the 70’s and 80’s. The tale highlights two issues that have become central in understanding why they have remained loyal to Trump – even as other conservatives have abandoned ship. Interestingly enough, it all started with an attempt by Christian schools to maintain segregation after Brown vs Board of Education and passage of the Civil Rights Act.

In May 1969, a group of African-American parents in Holmes County, Mississippi, sued the Treasury Department to prevent three new whites-only K-12 private academies from securing full tax-exempt status, arguing that their discriminatory policies prevented them from being considered “charitable” institutions. The schools had been founded in the mid-1960s in response to the desegregation of public schools set in motion by the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. In 1969, the first year of desegregation, the number of white students enrolled in public schools in Holmes County dropped from 771 to 28; the following year, that number fell to zero.

In Green v. Kennedy (David Kennedy was secretary of the treasury at the time), decided in January 1970, the plaintiffs won a preliminary injunction, which denied the “segregation academies” tax-exempt status until further review. In the meantime, the government was solidifying its position on such schools. Later that year, President Richard Nixon ordered the Internal Revenue Service to enact a new policy denying tax exemptions to all segregated schools in the United States. Under the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which forbade racial segregation and discrimination, discriminatory schools were not—by definition—“charitable” educational organizations, and therefore they had no claims to tax-exempt status; similarly, donations to such organizations would no longer qualify as tax-deductible contributions.

Religious leaders like Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Bob Jones University joined with conservative organizer Paul Weyrich to fight this battle on behalf of “segregation academies” and what it meant to their own colleges. That got the leadership on board for the kind of marriage we eventually saw between Christian conservatives and the Republican Party. But to galvanize the grass roots, they needed another issue.

Balmer documents that in the time prior to Roe vs. Wade and immediately following the decision, fundamentalist Christians were either not interested in the issue of abortion or were somewhat supportive, based on their more libertarian leanings. For example:

When the Roe decision was handed down, W. A. Criswell, the Southern Baptist Convention’s former president and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas—also one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century—was pleased: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” he said, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”

It was in 1979 that C. Everett Koop and Francis Schaeffer (considered by many the intellectual godfather of the religious right) toured the country targeting evangelicals with their film Whatever Happened to the Human Race? As Balmer notes, these films:

…depicted the scourge of abortion in graphic terms—most memorably with a scene of plastic baby dolls strewn along the shores of the Dead Sea. Schaeffer and Koop argued that any society that countenanced abortion was captive to “secular humanism” and therefore caught in a vortex of moral decay.

That is how abortion (and the battle against “secular humanism”) became the rallying cry for religious conservatives to become engaged in politics. It is interesting to note that Reagan went on to make C. Everett Koop his Surgeon General and, after being the single vote on the Supreme Court to align with religious conservatives on the Bob Jones University case, he elevated William Rehnquist to be Chief Justice.

What we see now in the Trump era is that religious leaders and institutions are still being galvanized about issues related to their tax exempt status via the candidate’s promise to repeal what they call the “Johnson amendment,” which prohibits tax exempt charitable institutions from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Such a move would allow religious institutions to campaign on behalf of political candidates, while donors could write off contributions to those efforts as tax free charitable donations.

Also, it was no accident that Chris Wallace started off the final debate with questions about the Supreme Court – including the candidates’ position on abortion. What we hear mostly from the grassroots support for Trump among religious conservatives is that they can overlook his flaws because he will appoint pro-life justices to the Supreme Court. All other issues fade in light of stopping what they refer to as the “murder of babies.”

There is a reason why Christian conservatives are – for the most part – maintaining their allegiance to the Republican Party, even one that nominates Donald Trump. This is the history of how that political bond was formed and how it survives today.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.