Southern denominations faced enormous social and political pressure from plantation owners. Public expressions of dissent on the subject of slavery in the South were not merely outlawed, they were a death sentence.
.. Baptist ministers who rejected slavery, like South Carolina’s William Henry Brisbane, were forced to flee to the North. Otherwise, they would end up like Methodist minister Anthony Bewley, who was lynched in Texas in 1860, his bones left exposed at local store to be played with by children.
.. Generation after generation, Southern pastors adapted their theology to thrive under a terrorist state. Principled critics were exiled or murdered, leaving voices of dissent few and scattered. Southern Christianity evolved in strange directions under ever-increasing isolation. Preachers learned to tailor their message to protect themselves. If all you knew about Christianity came from a close reading of the New Testament, you’d expect that Christians would be hostile to wealth, emphatic in protection of justice, sympathetic to the point of personal pain toward the sick, persecuted and the migrant, and almost socialist in their economic practices. None of these consistent Christian themes served the interests of slave owners, so pastors could either abandon them, obscure them, or flee.
.. What developed in the South was a theology carefully tailored to meet the needs of a slave state. Biblical emphasis on social justice was rendered miraculously invisible. A book constructed around the central metaphor of slaves finding their freedom was reinterpreted. Messages which might have questioned the inherent superiority of the white race, constrained the authority of property owners, or inspired some interest in the poor or less fortunate could not be taught from a pulpit. Any Christian suggestion of social justice was carefully and safely relegated to “the sweet by and by” where all would be made right at no cost to white worshippers.
.. Stripped of its compassion and integrity, little remained of the Christian message. What survived was a perverse emphasis on sexual purity as the sole expression of righteousness
.. Guarding women’s sexual purity meant guarding the purity of the white race.
.. Graham never made any difficult statements on race, never appeared on stage with his “black friend” Martin Luther King after 1957, and he never marched with King. When King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Graham responded with this passive-aggressive gem of Southern theology, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.”
.. There is no changing the white evangelical movement without a wholesale reconsideration of their theology.
.. Why is the religious right obsessed with subjects like abortion while unmoved by the plight of immigrants, minorities, the poor, the uninsured, and those slaughtered in pointless gun violence? No white man has ever been denied an abortion. Few if any white men are affected by the deportation of migrants.
“White Democrats will desert their party in droves the minute it becomes a black party.”
Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority, 1969
Thirty years ago, archconservative Rick Perry was a Democrat and liberal icon Elizabeth Warren was a Republican. Back then there were a few Republican Congressmen and Senators from Southern states, but state and local politics in the South was still dominated by Democrats. By 2014 that had changed entirely as the last of the Deep South states completed their transition from single-party Democratic rule to single party rule under Republicans.
.. Analysts often explain the great exodus of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party by referencing the Southern Strategy, a cynical campaign ploy supposedly executed by Richard Nixon in his ’68 and ’72 Presidential campaigns, but that explanation falls flat. Though the Southern backlash against the Civil Rights Acts showed up immediately at the top of the ticket, Republicans farther down the ballot gained very little ground in the South between ’68 and ’84. Democrats there occasionally chose Republican candidates for positions in Washington, but they stuck with Democrats for local offices.
.. Crediting the Nixon campaign with the flight of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party dismisses the role Southerners themselves played in that transformation. In fact, Republicans had very little organizational infrastructure on the ground in the South before 1980
.. The flight of the Dixiecrats was ultimately conceived, planned, and executed by Southerners themselves, largely independent of, and sometimes at odds with, existing Republican leadership. It was a move that had less to do with politicos than with pastors.
.. Southern churches, warped by generations of theological evolution necessary to accommodate slavery and segregation, were all too willing to offer their political assistance to a white nationalist program.
.. Forget about Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan. No one played as much of a role in turning the South red as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church.
.. When you’ve lost the ability to mobilize supporters based on race, religion will serve as a capable proxy.
.. What was lost under the banner of “segregation forever” has been tenuously preserved through a continuing “culture war.”
.. Religion is endlessly pliable. So long as pastors or priests (or in this case, televangelists) are willing to apply their theological creativity to serve political demands, religious institutions can be bent to advance any policy goal.
.. The Southern Baptist Church was organized specifically to protect slavery and white supremacy from the influence of their brethren in the North, a role that has never ceased to distort its identity, beliefs and practices.
.. In a passage that managed to avoid explicit racism, he described what would become the primary political weapon of the culture wars:
Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision…to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made – a land of the free and the home of the brave.
.. Long after the battle over whites’ only bathrooms had been lost, evangelical communities in Houston or Charlotte can continue the war over a “bathroom bill” using a rhetorical structure Criswell and others built.
.. He had constructed a strangely circular, quasi-libertarian argument in which a right to oppress others becomes a fundamental right born of a religious imperative, protected by the First Amendment.
.. A generation later you might hear Southern Baptists mention that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Baptist minister. They are less likely to explain that King was not permitted to worship in a Southern Baptist Church. African-American Baptists had their own parallel institutions, a structure that continues today.
.. However, in public Graham was careful to keep a safe distance and avoided the kind of open displays of sympathy for civil rights that might have complicated his career.
.. King was once invited to speak at a Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville in 1961. Churches responded with a powerful backlash, slashing the seminary’s donations so steeply that it was forced to apologize for the move. Henlee Barnette, the Baptist professor responsible for King’s invitation at the seminary, nearly lost his job and became something of an outcast, a status he would retain until he was finally pressured to retire from teaching in 1977.
.. In 1967, Mississippi began offering tuition grants to white students allowing them to attend private segregated schools.
.. Battles over the status of these institutions reached a climax when the Carter Administration in 1978 signaled its intention to press for their desegregation.
.. Televangelist Jerry Falwell would unite with a broader group of politically connected conservatives to form the Moral Majority in 1979. His partner in the effort, Paul Weyrich, made clear that it was the schools issue that launched the organization, an emphasis reflected in chain events across the 1980 Presidential campaign.
.. The Southern Baptist Convention expressed support for laws liberalizing abortion access in 1971. Criswell himself expressed support for the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe, taking the traditional theological position that life began at birth, not conception. The denomination did not adopt a firm pro-life stance until 1980.
.. In August of 1980, Criswell and other Southern Baptist leaders hosted Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan for a rally in Dallas. Reagan in his speech never used the word “abortion,” but he enthusiastically and explicitly supported the ministers’ position on protecting private religious schools. That was what they needed to hear.
.. The new President would not forget their support. Less than a year into his Administration, Reagan officials pressed the IRS to drop its campaign to desegregate private schools.
.. in 1981, Reagan advisor Lee Atwater let down his guard, laying bare the racial logic behind the Republican campaigns in the South:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N…r, n…r, n…r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n…r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N…r, n…r.”
For decades, men like Atwater had been searching for the perfect “abstract” phrasing, a magic political dog whistle that could communicate that “N…r, n…r” message behind a veneer of respectable language.
.. It was religious leaders in the South who solved the puzzle on Republicans’ behalf, converting white angst over lost cultural supremacy into a fresh language of piety and “religious liberty.”
.. By the late 80’s religious activists like Stephen Hotze in Houston were beginning to cut out the middleman, going around pastors to recruit political warriors in the pews. Hotze circulated a professionally rendered video in 1990, called “Restoring America,”that included step-by-step instructions for taking control of Republican precinct and county organizations. Religious nationalists began to purge traditional Republicans from the region’s few GOP institutions.
.. A young Texas legislator, Rick Perry, spent much of 1988 campaigning for his fellow Southern Democrat, Al Gore.
.. Moore criticized those who stirred up hatred against refugees and ignored matters of racial justice. He drew sharp criticism when he denounced the Confederate Flag, explaining, “The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”
.. Moore drew the obvious comparison last year between Trump and Bill Clinton
.. As religious leaders lined up solidly behind Trump last fall, Moore commented, “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”
.. In the end, evangelical voters backed Donald Trump by a steeper margin than their support for Romney in ‘12.
.. Today, W.A. Criswell’s Dallas megachurch is pastored by Robert Jeffress
.. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, retooled the ministry he inherited, turning it into something a civil rights era segregationist could love without reservation. Graham, who earns more than $800,000 a year as the head of his inherited charity, has made anti-Muslim rhetoric a centerpiece of his public profile and ministry.
.. Graham explained that black people can solve the problem of police violence if they teach their children “respect for authority and obedience.”
.. For Jeffress, the heir to W.A. Criswell’s pulpit, to champion an effort to silence Moore, reflects the powerful persistence of an unacknowledged past. After being pressed into an apology for his “unnecessarily harsh” criticisms, Moore has been allowed to keep his job – for now.
.. Public perception that a “Southern strategy” conceived and initiated by clever Republicans turned the South red is worse than false. By deflecting responsibility onto some shadowy “other” it blocks us from reckoning with the past or changing our future.
.. A refusal to honestly confront our past leaves us to repeat our mistakes over and over again.
.. Texas House member Rick Perry was taking a chance in 1989, when he decided to leave the Democratic Party to become a Republican. He leaned heavily on the emerging religious right and their campaign to convert the state’s Democratic majority. His efforts were richly rewarded. Baptist mega-pastor Robert Jeffress was a major supporter along with other evangelical leaders. Now Perry, after becoming the longest-serving governor in Texas history, sits in Donald Trump’s cabinet as the Secretary of Energy.