In all the recounting of Jerry Falwell’s life, almost all of the focus has been on Falwell’s ‘religiously’ motivated positions. But this ignores Falwell’s first political activity: to defend the system of American apartheid known as segregation. Racism, not abortion or other ‘religious’ issues, was what gave rise to the ‘religious’ right. Max Blumenthal reminds us of this:
Indeed, it was race-not abortion or the attendant suite of so-called “values” issues-that propelled Falwell and his evangelical allies into political activism….
Falwell launched on the warpath against civil rights four years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate public schools with a sermon titled “Segregation or Integration: Which?”
“If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made,” Falwell boomed from above his congregation in Lynchburg. “The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.”
Falwell’s jeremiad continued: “The true Negro does not want integration…. He realizes his potential is far better among his own race.” Falwell went on to announce that integration “will destroy our race eventually. In one northern city,” he warned, “a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife.”
As “massive resistance” against civil rights failed, Falwell, along with many Southern whites, withdrew to ‘Christian’ academies: all-white academies that would spare their children the ‘horror’ of integration:
Then, for a time, Falwell appeared to follow his own advice. He retreated from massive resistance and founded the Lynchburg Christian Academy, an institution described by the Lynchburg News in 1966 as “a private school for white students.” It was one among many so-called “seg academies” created in the South to avoid integrated public schools.
For Falwell and his brethren, private Christian schools were the last redoubt. Rather than continue a hopeless struggle against the inevitable, through their schools they could circumvent the integration entirely. Five years later, Falwell christened Liberty University, a college that today funnels a steady stream of dedicated young cadres into Republican Congressional offices and conservative think tanks. (Tony Perkins is among Falwell’s Christian soldiers.)
From its inception, the ‘Christian Right’ was inseparably joined at the hip with perhaps the greatest scourge of U.S. history: racism towards African-Americans. In fact, try as they might actual social conservatives (typically Catholic) could not gain any traction with abortion:
While abortion clinics sprung up across the United States during the early 1970s, evangelicals did little. No pastors invoked the Dred Scott decision to undermine the legal justification for abortion. There were no clinic blockades, no passionate cries to liberate the “pre-born.”
…”The Religious New Right did not start because of a concern about abortion,” former Falwell ally Ed Dobson told author Randall Balmer in 1990. “I sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority, and I frankly do not remember abortion ever being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something.”
The only way the religious conservatives could interest Protestant segregationists was by defending the ‘seg academies’:
For Falwell and his allies, the true impetus for political action came when the Supreme Court ruled in Green v. Connally to revoke the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory private schools in 1971. Their resentment was compounded in 1971 when the Internal Revenue Service attempted to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating. (Blacks were denied entry until that year.) Falwell was furious, complaining, “In some states it’s easier to open a massage parlor than to open a Christian school.”
By Christian, Falwell actually means segregationist. Every issue, except segregation, failed to interest Falwell:
“I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed,” Weyrich recalled in an interview in the early 1990s. “What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.”
In 1979, at Weyrich’s behest, Falwell founded a group that he called the Moral Majority. Along with a vanguard of evangelical icons including D. James Kennedy, Pat Robertson and Tim LaHaye, Falwell’s organization hoisted the banner of the “pro-family” movement, declaring war on abortion and homosexuality. But were it not for the federal government’s attempts to enable little black boys and black girls to go to school with little white boys and white girls, the Christian right’s culture war would likely never have come into being.
This history is something to remember when one hears diatribes against ‘religion’ that rightly focus on theopolitical conservatives. They have transformed their original hatred and fear of black people–although not entirely–into hatred and fear of gays and ‘uppity’ women. The embrace of racism is the Christian Right’s original sin.
Great Minds Think Alike: Go read Lindsay.