Adam Parsons on Randall Balmer and the Origins of the Religious Right

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:
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.

In my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction I used Balmer’s

argument in my explanation of the origins of the Religious Right because it seemed to make sense. But I also suggested that the traditional view, that the Religious Right gained prominence in response to Roe v. Wade, was also correct.  For me it was a combination of things that brought about the rise of the Religious Right.  I was less concerned than Balmer about the exact event that got the movement started.

While I was browsing Facebook last night, I came across another take on Balmer’s thesis about the origins of Christian Right.  Adam Parsons is a doctoral student in American history at Syracuse University.  You may recall that we have featured some of his work before here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Here is his take on the Balmer Politico essay:

I started to write a comment on this piece, which I’ve seen floating around a lot recently, and decided just to share it on my own page:
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

Adam Parsons

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).

Thanks, Adam.

2 thoughts on “Adam Parsons on Randall Balmer and the Origins of the Religious Right

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  2. Mr. Fea,

    Thank you for your compelling book “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation…” I read it last year, and while admittedly I found your non-committal conclusion a little unsatisfying, it was nonetheless a brilliant work and a fascinating read.

    In regards to Mr. Balmer's viewpoints, I am solidly against him. While the taxation issues of the early 70's no doubt provided a peg for the development of the New Right, Mr. Balmer exaggerates the role of these policies in order to pursue a very obvious agenda…that is, attempting to link the origins of the religious right to segregation and racism, and thereby discredit them. As an African American, I am certainly aware of the unflattering aspects of the christian right's past racial views. However, 1) Jerry Falwell, along with many of the other early CR leaders, expressed consistently, on the record, concern for a broad sweep of moral issues confronting America. 2) The backlash against abortion was, for the most part, swift and severe on the part of the vast majority of evangelical leaders at the time of Roe v. Wade (Mr. Balmer is extremely disingenuous when discussing this). And 3) regardless of what some small cabal of christian leaders discussed on a conference call in the early days of the movement, the success of the movement was driven by the millions who participated at the grass roots level and at the ballot box. These individuals were, and continue to be, motivated more by the abortion issue than by any other single issue (although issues such as federal encroachment and gay marriage also serve as catalysts, obviously).

    Thank you again for your great work, I look forward to reading more from you.


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