Regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will remember the Author's Corner interview we did in April with Randall Balmer on his new book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. In this book Balmer offers a new interpretation of the origins of the Religious Right. (Actually, fans of Balmer's work will know that he first put forth a version of this argument in his Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America). Here is what Balmer wrote in that interview:
I’d been batting about the idea for a biography of Carter for several decades, but I always found reasons to delay, in part because I didn’t have an angle on the project. I did research at the Carter Center and the presidential libraries of Reagan and Ford. I also did archival work at Liberty University and Bob Jones University, but the most important work I did was in Paul Weyrich’s papers, which (improbably enough) are held at the University of Wyoming, Laramie. My findings there allowed me, finally, to demonstrate beyond all doubt that the genesis of the Religious Right had nothing to do with the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.
Balmer elaborated on this argument in a recent piece on the origins of the Religious Right at Politico in which he argued that the movement coalesced around the desire of Southern fundamentalists to protect segregated Christian schools, and not around the anti-abortion crusade. Here is a taste of that piece:
I've said similar things elsewhere, but - as much as I usually take his side - I think Balmer's only half-right here. He's right, of course, that Roe v. Wade was not the catalyst people think. And in looking for another origin, he's right to point to taxation, and right to point to segregation academies - but there's a lot more to the story than just the academies. It's telling, for example, that he uses Bob Jones as an example. In the very politically conservative (we sang Lee Greenwood's God Bless the U.S.A. in Sunday morning service during the first Gulf War) but also very Northern fundamentalist and evangelical circles in which I spent my childhood, BJU was looked at as a kind of weird, inbred cousin. This view was, from what I've seen, shared by a large percentage of northern evangelical leaders throughout the seventies and eighties - even the most conservative of them were, by and large, Moody Press people, not BJU folks.
Those regional distinctions - broadly, between Northern/Canadian, Old Southern, and Southwestern
evangelicals - started to break down, I think, a lot later than Balmer claims. He's right to point to taxation - it's just that the fears were driven by different things in different regions. In the Old South, yeah, it was the segregation academies. In the Southwest, it was, I think, part of the broader regional culture of John Birch conservatism, which overlapped quite a bit with conservative evangelicalism. In the North (and to a certain extent the Ozarks), though, I strongly suspect that anti-federal/anti-tax attitudes developed among evangelicals in a widespread way as they sought to opt out of late capitalism - they saw tax burdens as a way to obligate people to participate in regularized wage labor, which tore social institutions apart. This opting-out is particularly apparent in, for example, people's explanations for their attraction to Amway and other kinds of multi-level marketing - they overwhelmingly talk about it as a way to achieve self-sufficiency and to reintegrate work and family life. (I suspect, also, that attraction to these kinds of business enterprises reinforced preexisting negative attitudes toward taxation; anyone who's dealt with small-business or independent contractor taxes can tell you how much more onerous the administrative, and often financial, burden is compared to simple employment taxes).
There's a lot more to the story, of course - the whole question of the southernization of the United States, for one, but also, for example, the fracture of radical evangelicalism during the seventies and eighties. A few brief thoughts, though: first, the story of the religious right is not, for the most part, a story about evangelicals changing their minds, but a story about new and different people thinking of themselves as part of the evangelical coalition. (To that extent, it's also a story about class and intellectual respectability). Second, it would be instructive to produce work on the apartheid controversy in the American Dutch Reformed community, given their long-standing tradition of private schooling but also their ties to the Michigan GOP and their prominence within the evangelical left (especially the Wolterstorffs).