Monday, July 20, 2009

The racial politics of the Christian Right

During the 2008 US presidential campaign, liberals rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of attacking Reverend Wright while failing to take note of the nutcases that McCain was hanging around with. Pastor John Hagee didn't really have too much explaining to do over his rabid racism, homophobia, sexism, etc. Evidently, his flock had no trouble with his ideas: when it came to such matters, he was preaching to the converted. This moment occurred to me while reading up a bit on the way in which the Right responded to the defeat of segregation.

Joseph Crespino has done some of the best work on this, particularly in In Search of Another Country, in which he notes that the most effective segregationists, the ones who kept it going for longest and were most successful in countering the effects of desegregation, were those who advocated in a 'colour blind' fashion. (You know the drill - states rights, liberal elites, bureaucrats, federal dictatorship, etc.) This was not a novel strategy - Crespino points out that the Jim Crow legislation introduced in Mississippi in the 1890s made no explicit reference to race. And, as Ira Katznelson has shown, racism in the 'New Deal' operated through 'racially laden' provisions rather than exclusions explicitly aimed at African Americans. But it was effective and by 1980, the seeds of a counterrevolution were bearing fruit. In another essay, 'Civil Rights and the Religious Right', Crespino dealt with how the Christian Right emerged substantially in response to desegregation measures. It's an important story, because while the 'new atheists' grapple ineptly with the finer points of theology, surely the point about such movements is the social interests they express.

Richard Viguerie, one of the pioneers of the Christian Right's direct mailing strategy, observed of the movement that what really "kicked the sleeping dog" was the efforts by the IRS to remove tax exemptions from "segregation academies". These were the hundreds of Christian schools set up across the states of the old Confederacy in response to desegregation laws, to enable white people to send their kids to private schools from which black students were effectively excluded. They didn't always make their exclusion explicit. The Briarcrest Baptist schools system in Mississippi proclaimed that it accepted and encouraged black enrollment but, dang it, there just weren't any black students ready to give it a try. White enrollment in public schools collapsed in some areas in the first year of desegregation and by 1970, 400,000 children had been enrolled in "segregation academies". By 1976, Christian academies outnumber the old secular schools across the South. The Nixon administration couldn't offer much but promises and comfort to segregationists. Nixon was personally sympathetic: "Whites in Mississippi can't send their kids to schools that are 90% black; they've got to set up private schools." But there was sufficient pressure to ensure that the administration grudgingly obliged the IRS, initially with some latitude as to how to enforce the policy, to remove tax breaks from said 'academies' (usually low rent affairs with inexperienced teachers and rote learning from antiquated sources). The IRS initially accepted the school's own say-so that it didn't discriminate, but by 1978 had to draw up guidelines, based on demographic formulae, by which schools could be deemed 'reviewable' and subject to further investigation. If the number of black students was substantially below what it should be, the case for tax exemption could come under review.

And this was what decisively galvanised the Christian Right. They called it 'racial quotas', and 'reverse discrimination'. It was an attack by big gummint. That was when Bob Billings and Paul Weyrich founded the National Christian Action Coalition. Their stance was simple: they had nothing to do with those old reactionary zealots of the segregationist era, and certainly didn't advocate the state subsidising racial oppression. They simply objected to the federal government using its fiscal power to discourage legitimate cultural and political choices. They were supported in this stance by neoconservatives writing in The Public Interest. In the Senate, their cause was championed by Jesse Helms, who had used similar language in defence of southern segregation. By 1980, the GOP was pledging to "halt the unconstitutional regulatory vendetta" against the segregation academies. Bob Billings joined the Reagan campaign and became its advisor on religious matters. Reagan himself made a point of addressing students Bob Jones University, one of the most notoriously segregationist academies in the south, which had banned interracial dating and lost its tax exemptions. He recycled the mytheme of 'reverse discrimination', arguing that the IRS policy was tantamount to 'racial quotas' and that: "You do not alter the evil character of racial quotas simply by changing the colour of the beneficiary". No subtlety there: the blacks, he affirmed, had the run of the place - and he would do something about it. Which he did by 1982, when the University briefly regained its tax exempt status, before the Supreme Court slapped it down.

Of course, the channelling of the old segregationist spirit was a crucial part of the Reaganite campaign, and this wasn't just in the language of the Christian Right. At the Neshoba fair in Mississippi, in 1980, Reagan had championed "states' rights", while his local campaign director confirmed that they were reaching out to "George Wallace voters". Trent Lott, who headed Reagan’s Mississipi campaign, lauded Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat presidential candidate in 1948: "If we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today". And the Christian Right had other concerns, bearing on the social and moral order - they had homophobia and misogyny to attend to, for example, and they generally disapproved of communists and troublemakers. But, the issues that were to so exercise the Christian Right in later years - school prayers, and so on - had done nothing to electrify them as the segregation academies had. It has been argued that the Republicans incorporated the Christian Right because it was the only potentially popular component of their coalition, when their main goals would only benefit a narrow sector of corporate power. This is probably true, but it is just important to notice that this was part of the broader 'southern strategy' adopted by the Right. It showed that counterrevolution was still on the table, that the gains of the Sixties open to challenge and subversion, and that the working class could still be powerfully divided by race. The furious race-baiting of the McCain campaign last year presumably worked on the assumption that this old spirit was still alive.