I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Whatta week! The stories were flyin fast ‘n’ furious. SAGLRROILYBYGTH can’t be blamed if we missed some of the action. Your humble editor has collected a few of the biggies:

What did Trump’s religious-freedom order do?

Do we now have a Protestant on the Supreme Court? Sorta, as Richard Mouw points out. Why aren’t there more evangelical jurists?

READING

Words, words, words…

Catholics and science: A long love affair.

More than a culture-war battle: Elesha Coffman reviews Treloar’s Disruption of Evangelicalism at Christianity Today. Instead of the same old story of fundamentalists fighting modernists, Treloar argues for a wide middle in evangelical churches.

Was Susan B. Anthony really the great-godmother of pro-life feminists? Historian Daniel K. Williams sets the record straight at First Things.

They do not like her. Students at Bethune-Cookman University booed mercilessly as Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos tried to deliver a commencement speech. Many stood and turned their backs to her.

Trump seemed to pick his commencement audience better. The Liberty crowd didn’t even seem to mind the fact that he obviously didn’t know nuthin about the Bible. HT: LC

Does Bob Jones University really regret its racist past? As John Fea notes, the school has made moves to put its new anti-racist rhetoric into action.

What is life like for conservative students on liberal college campuses? The New York Times profiled a few of Berkeley’s conservative dissenters.

Thanks to all who sent tips and stories.

Pro-Life: From Liberal Catholics to Conservative Protestants

Who are the folks who stand outside of family-planning clinics these days, warning young women that some planning services are nothing but the cruelest form of murder? As historian Daniel Williams argues in a recent article in the journal Religions, the “pro-life” movement shifted from its early roots as a socially liberal Catholic cause to a politically conservative Protestant one.

Is this kind of thing inherently "conservative?"

Is this kind of thing inherently “conservative?”

For those of us interested in the historical development of America’s culture wars, Williams’s article is a must-read. As he explains, in 1972 the first generation of pro-lifers pulled from the civil-rights and anti-war wing of liberalism. At the time, Williams argues, “it seemed unthinkable that anyone would equate the pro-life cause with political conservatism.”

What happened?

As anyone with a pulse is well aware, these days the pro-life movement is firmly in the hands of culturally and politically conservative evangelicals.

Williams argues that pro-life Catholicism had its roots in the 1930s. Back then, Catholic intellectuals and activists often tied their theological arguments against abortion to the dominant New Deal liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

After Vatican II’s liberalizing reforms in the early 1960s, liberal Catholics forged even tighter bonds between liberal Catholicism and secular Great-Society anti-poverty programs. As Williams recounts, anti-racist liberals tied new abortion laws to genocide against African Americans.

Around the time of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, liberals began shifting their thinking. Instead of an issue of the rights of an oppressed and voiceless minority, abortion became a question of women’s rights.

On the conservative side, anti-abortion activism lost its connection to anti-war and anti-poverty campaigns. It lost its overwhelming connection to liberal Catholicism. Instead, it became wrapped in the Protestant-dominated language of “family values,” Williams writes.

For many of us who follow culture-war politics, it can come as a shock to read Williams’s re-creation of recent evangelical history. Even up to and during the early 1970s, many conservative evangelical organizations and intellectuals did not take a recognizably pro-life position.

Everyone interested in the full story should check out Williams’s article as well as his other work. It serves as a reminder that the seemingly hard-and-fast positions of our culture-war trenches have actually shifted dramatically over the years.

And for many of us, it prompts important questions:

  • Does pro-life seem inherently “conservative?”
    • Why?
  • Do some SAGLRROILYBYGTH who consider themselves “liberal” also consider themselves “pro-life?”
    • Why?
  • If you are “pro-life” and conservative, do you think the two go together?
  • Would it be possible these days to be a real pro-life liberal?
  • Is there something different about Catholic pro-lifers vs. Protestant ones?

Conservative Christians: More Racist than Pro-Life

HT: JS

Historian Randall Balmer made the case recently in the pages of Politico that the Christian Right did not emerge as a response to loosened abortion laws.  Rather, the “real” roots of the New Right, Balmer argues, were in the defense of racial segregation.  Unfortunately, the argument looks more like punditry than history.

I’m a big fan of Professor Balmer.  In fact, I’m re-reading his book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory right now as I begin research for my next book.  And his Politico essay is certainly worth reading in its entirety.  But he makes more of a political argument here than a solid historical one.  If I were to offer a more precise headline, I’d suggest something far less catchy, but closer to the historical truth, something terrible like, “The Real Roots of the Christian Right: Not Biological Reproduction, but Cultural Reproduction.”

The Roots of Racist Academies?

The Roots of Racist Academies?

In other words, in the late 1970s, evangelical Protestants got involved in politics in big numbers because they were worried about preserving their status as a certain sort of favored class in American life.  This included things such as racial segregation, but to say that racial segregationism drove the movement is woefully misleading.  It was a broad sweep of issues, most urgently educational issues, that drove evangelicals back into politics in the 1970s.

Balmer makes the solid case that abortion did not spark the emergence of the New Christian Right.  The timing just doesn’t work.  In the immediate aftermath of the Roe v. Wade decision, evangelicals seemed largely indifferent to the issue of abortion.  For readers who find this hard to believe, a look at Daniel Williams’ book God’s Own Party will help.

What DID motivate conservative evangelicals, Balmer notes, was the increasing pressure on private religious schools from the IRS.  In the wake of decades of desegregation laws, the federal government had begun revoking tax exemptions from private schools that discriminated on the basis of race.  As Balmer correctly points out, this anti-federal animus motivated far more conservative evangelicals in the 1970s than did pro-life campaigns.

Nevertheless, Balmer’s conclusion doesn’t hold water.  “Although abortion had emerged as a rallying cry by 1980,” Balmer insists,

the real roots of the religious right lie not the defense of a fetus but in the defense of racial segregation.

It is true that school segregation played a role in the rise of the evangelical private school movement.  And it is certainly true that Bob Jones University maintained a rigorous white supremacist position long after most other white conservatives had abandoned it.  But to argue that racial segregation somehow formed the “real roots” of the New Christian Right oversimplifies the historical realities.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m no apologist for racism or for conservative evangelicalism.  I agree that many white conservative evangelicals, like other white Americans, had and have a shameful attitude toward racial equality and racial integration.  My argument is an academic one: If we want to understand the history of conservative evangelicalism, we won’t get far by insisting that racism was the “real root” of their political activism in the 1970s.

That sort of argument is sadly similar to attempts by conservatives to smear all Democrats by citing the radical words of leftists such as Saul Alinsky or Bill Ayers.  It’s not that some Democrats don’t sympathize or even follow Alinsky or Ayers.  But to say that such folks are the “real root” of liberal thinking is just not accurate.

To make a better historical case, Balmer should have argued that issues about schooling motivated evangelicals in the 1970s to get involved in politics.  Those issues included racial segregation, but they also included questions of school discipline, perceived drug use at schools, perceived immorality at public schools, and a host of other issues.  For all these reasons, a burst of new private schools popped up to serve conservative evangelical families.  And the defense of such schools drove many evangelicals into politics in the 1970s.

Were these schools “segregation academies?”  The history is clear, but not simple.  Certainly, some white evangelical parents—along with white non-religious parents—chose private religious schools as safe racist harbors in the days of school desegregation.  The timing proves it.  Though many evangelical parents may have cited 1960s Supreme Court rulings such as Engel v. Vitale (1962) or Abington v. Schempp (1963) as the time when public schools went to hell, the burst of private Christian schools did not happen until the late 1970s.

Not coincidentally, those were the years when large school districts came under pressure for the first time to desegregate by race.  But we commit an intellectual error if we conclude glibly that such schools ONLY represented racist havens.  I’ve wrestled with the question of “Christian day” schools and racial segregation in a book chapter a few years back.  Consider a couple of complicating factors.

The situation in Louisville, for instance, seems at first to confirm the hypothesis of racial integration as a primary factor in the growth of private evangelical schools.  After that city’s court order to bus children in 1974 as part of an ambitious desegregation plan, there was a spike in enrollment at the city’s existing Catholic and secular private schools.  In addition, a crop of new evangelical schools immediately opened to serve white families who did not want to bus their children.  One study found that most of the parents at these new evangelical schools identified desegregation as their primary reason for leaving the public schools.  Another academic study of Louisville’s desegregation history, however, suggests some important qualifications.  At two private evangelical schools that had existed for years before the 1974 court order, only one of sixty-eight fundamentalist families used the schools as a “haven” from busing.  Although whites fled from public schools to a range of private schools, this indicates that at least some of the existing evangelical schools did not take advantage of the surge of white interest in private education.

Another statistic that confounds glib conclusions about the primarily racial motivation for new Christian schools is that the largest recipient of white students fleeing from desegregation was not private evangelical schools but rather the booming suburban public high schools of the 1970s and 1980s.  Contrary to popular impressions, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the numbers of students attending private schools nationwide dropped from 13.6 percent in 1960 to 9.8 percent in 1990.  Meanwhile, the proportion of white students attending public elementary and high schools nationwide increased markedly.  Those students, however, had moved mainly into suburban public schools.  For instance, the suburban schools surrounding Atlanta served ninety-eight percent of the area’s white students in 1986.

Throughout the twentieth century, conservative evangelicals cared deeply about education.  In the 1970s, savvy political organizers recognized that many evangelicals thought schooling had become threatened.  As Professor Balmer correctly points out, part of that perception came from the perceived “threat” of racial mixing in schools.  But that was only one element of the perceived danger to education.

The real roots of the Christian Right can’t be limited only to racism.  Rather, we will do well to understand how profoundly important educational issues were to the new political mobilization that swept evangelical America in the 1970s.

Missouri Loves Company: Catholics in Fundamentalist America

Missouri’s Catholic Bishops support Missouri’s proposed constitutional amendment.  In a recent statement, the Missouri Catholic Conference supported Amendment 2, which will go before voters on August 7.  The bishops’ statement argued that the amendment would ensure religious people’s rights in the public square.  As they put it:

“Increasingly, it seems, religious values are becoming marginalized in our society. People of faith need assurance that they remain free to exercise and express their religious beliefs in public, provided just order be observed, without threat of external pressure to conform to changing societal ‘norms’.”

For some, this defense of public religiosity by Catholic bishops seems unremarkable.  But from a historical perspective, this Catholic endorsement of religion in public schools signals a shocking turnaround in the history of religious life in America.

In the nineteenth century, after all, intense Catholic political pressure led to “Bible Wars” in public schools.  For many Protestants, the reading of the King James Version of the Bible in public schools seemed natural.  As Steven Green has argued in his new book, these nineteenth-century battles determined much of the role of public religion long into the twentieth century.

This history of Catholic protest against a Protestant-dominated public religiosity resulted in lingering anti-Catholic animus on the part of many conservative Protestants.  In the 1928 Presidential election, for example, self-described Protestant fundamentalists vehemently opposed Al Smith’s candidacy in the Democratic Party due to Smith’s Catholicism.

Yet even in the 1920s, we can see connections between conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants.  William Jennings Bryan tried hard to recruit Catholic anti-evolution writer Alfred  McCann to testify at the Scopes trial, for instance.  These connections received a boost in the 1950s with the strengthening of anti-communism on the Right.  And Catholics such as William F. Buckley and Phyllis Schlafly assumed new leadership roles in the postwar conservative revival.

By the 1970s, the issue of abortion fused even stronger connections between conservative Catholics and Protestants.  As Daniel K. Williams has argued, abortion politics brought pro-life Catholics into the fold of the “New Christian Right.”

The recent statement by Missouri’s Catholic bishops demonstrates how seamless these connections have become.  Early 1920s fundamentalism in America often included a virulent anti-Catholicism.  But by 2012, we need to include conservative Catholics in any sensible study of conservative religion in American public life.

Some readers have objected to ILYBYGTH’s broad definition of “Fundamentalist America.”  And they are right: “fundamentalism” in the American context usually refers to one subset of conservative evangelical Protestants.  But if we hope to understand the broad sweep of conservative religious activism in America, if we want to talk about the conservative side of America’s culture wars over the proper role of religion in the public square, we need to include a much broader coalition of religious groups.  Not only conservative Catholics, but also Pentecostals, Orthodox Jews, Mennonites, conservative Lutherans, and others who don’t fit within the smaller boundaries of small-f fundamentalism.

The recent statement by Missouri’s Catholic bishops is just further proof of how the times are a-changing.  When conservative Catholics can get behind an amendment protecting religion’s role in public schools, we know the old Catholic/Protestant split has become largely irrelevant.