The Racial Right: The Racist Origins of the Christian Right Wing

In the winter of 2011, onlookers at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Watts Street in New York City looked up and saw the face of a troubled African-American child with the caption, “The most dangerous place for African Americans is in the womb,” plastered on a billboard. The outcry was almost instantaneous, eliciting uproar from the New York City Council as well as from the mother of the girl featured in the advertisement. Eventually, it was removed. But the question of why the pro-life movement seemed to be targeting a heavily minority area with an African-American centered poster looms, and more broadly, the question of why the pro-life movement feels the need to target minority groups at all.

The Christian Right, the story goes, was founded on the back of the pro-life movement, which in itself grew to include opposition to gay rights, assisted suicide, liberal sexual attitudes and a variety of other social issues. But its impetus, as is popularly believed, began with many Christians’ basic opposition to what they saw as a rapidly changing society in the 1970s. But, 1970s society only just legalized abortion and still didn’t accept gays. Instead, it was one where private schools were integrated and where affirmative action replaced Jim Crow segregation. It was a world of which Southern religious voters increasingly did not approve. Instead of beginning with Roe v. Wade, as the Christian right likes to claim, the discontent that helped organize Southern religious voters began with Brown v. Board. Amidst this cultural change and turmoil, a new movement of conservatism coupled with Southern evangelism burst onto the political scene. And even today, its power is undeniable, while its racially incendiary roots are largely ignored.

After the court ruled on Roe v. Wade in 1973, the response of most evangelicals was a resounding “no comment.” It was even positive, with publications like the Baptist Press declaring, “religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court decision.” One decision did rattle the bones of many Southern evangelical leaders, however. In the early 1970s, the IRS began to exclude private Christian academies that enforced segregation despite receiving non-profit tax status — a decision that mitigated one of the last remaining vestiges of segregation — and shook the foundations of the then-heavily segregated evangelical educational infrastructure.

Many of the most heavily segregated institutions were quickly buried in paper work and litigation in an attempt to salvage their tax status while also resisting integration. The process prompted future Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell to quip that, “In some states, it’s easier to open a massage parlor than a Christian school.” The fact that that school would most likely be a segregated one, however, was strategically left out of Falwell’s narrative.

But most leaders of the Evangelical movement understood that no matter how much they or their followers might be displeased by the federal government’s intervention against discriminatory policies, they’d lost on this issue nationally and with Northern evangelicals. They realized that a signature issue like abortion or the preservation of the traditional nuclear family would play better and be far less controversial as policy and a political platform. And so, the modern Christian Right was founded, followed by victories in November and a rollback in affirmative action policies at the federal level, even as abortion and school prayer remained almost untouched on a large scale.

Even today, its power is undeniable, while its racially incendiary roots are largely ignored.

Today, however, that same Christian Right finds itself in an odd predicament. It’s success in the 1970s and ‘80s was a function of different demographics. With modern America moving closer and closer to a majority-minority state, the calculus has changed. The Evangelical movement still has a strong base in the South. But if it wishes to survive into the future, it must expand beyond it. Its survival is imperiled by the fact that the movement’s lack of reckoning with a deplorable segregationist past leaves it vulnerable to being perceived as insensitive by the very members of groups it must attract. Bob Jones University, which notably resisted integration until around the 1980s, only began allowing interracial dating relatively recently. And the amount of minority students on Christian college campuses remains notably low, many having minority representation on campus as meager as two percent or less.

Yet remaining low is not the same thing as dying out. As the (roundly criticized) recent pro-life billboards demonstrate, the Christian right is willing — albeit, somewhat obtusely — to make a play for minority votes and support. The question then becomes whether or not a movement that was founded in its early years on trying to rally Christians for the cause of segregation and abortion can ingenuously call itself a racially diverse group, or even one that has the potential for racial diversity moving forward. If it doesn’t, however, it will mean the end. The political power it gained in an age of white working class power will mean nothing in a world where immigration reform and police brutality dominate headlines, rather than the moral decline of America’s spirituality.

Abortion and gay marriage might have worked to win over the whites of Southern Appalachia. But there’s no guarantee they will work for growing Hispanic populations or the long ignored African-American communities that have been used more as a prop than as a group of potential constituents. Unless the Christian Right can find solutions that appeal to these groups on the diverse spread of issues that a they care about, beyond abortion or moral decrepitude, then the Christian right may go the same way as the institutions of blatant segregation it once sought to defend, rolling over or dying out.