By Joel A. Bowman, Sr.
In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated facilities were legal, so long as facilities for Black and white people were “equal.” The Plessy v. Ferguson case, as it was named, constitutionally sanctioned what are known as “Jim Crow” laws. Such laws barred African Americans from sharing the same public facilities as whites, establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine that would stand for the next six decades.
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case in which it was unanimously ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first Black Supreme Court justice, served as the chief attorney for the plaintiffs. In the decision, Justice Earl Warren wrote that “in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place,” as segregated schools are “inherently unequal.”
To be sure, Brown v. Board of Education was one of the legal cornerstones of the Civil Rights Movement. It led to the end of “de jure” segregation, that is, segregation imposed by law. However, “de facto” segregation, or separation of groups that occurs by fact, rather than by law, has persisted. It would surprise many that the religious right actively engaged in segregationist efforts in the decades following Brown v. Board of Education, specifically in the 1970s.
Randall Balmer said, “One of the most durable myths in recent history is that the religious right, the coalition of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, emerged as a political movement in response to the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion.” But, contrary to popular belief, abortion was not the issue that led to the political mobilization of white evangelicals and fundamentalists. In fact, in the period immediately following Roe v. Wade, the fight against abortion was seen as a Roman Catholic issue.
So, since abortion was not the foundational issue of the religious right, what was? The issue was the move toward school desegregation that was brought about by Brown v. Board of Education. The simple truth is that a large swath of parents in the religious right movement did not want their children attending the same schools as children of color. Therefore, they formed whites-only “segregation academies.” Many of these K-12 private academies were Christian-affiliated.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon ordered the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to set forth a new policy denying tax-exempt status for all segregated schools in the country, in keeping with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Donations to such institutions would no longer qualify as tax-deductible contributions. The late religious conservative activist, Paul Weyrich, saw this as an opportunity to garner political power.
Weyrich had tried to mobilize a large voting bloc of religious conservatives, but the issues of pornography, prayer in schools, and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, had not generated enough interest. The Green v. Connally ruling upheld Nixon’s executive action against segregation academies, thus capturing the attention of evangelical leaders. Most notably, this included the late Jerry Falwell, who himself had a church-related segregation academy, Lynchburg Christian School. Falwell famously protested, “In some states, it’s easier to open a massage parlor than a Christian school.”
Bob Jones, Jr., founder of Bob Jones University, had previously argued that racial segregation was mandated in the Bible. However, Falwell and Weyrich, being the pragmatists they were, framed their opposition to the IRS in terms of religious liberty. In this instance, “religious liberty” was simply a code for racial segregation. Falwell, with the help of Weyrich and others subsequently formed what he called “The Moral Majority.” The rest, as they say, is history.
In the late 1970s, as President Jimmy Carter was preparing to run for a second term, abortion would finally become the galvanizing issue for the religious right. This resulted from the collaborative strategizing of Falwell, Weyrich, and theologian, Francis A. Schaeffer. Interestingly, evangelical and fundamentalist leaders would blame Carter, a Democrat, for actions taken against segregation academies, though it was Nixon, a Republican, who initiated these actions.
Since the 1980 election of President Ronald Reagan, white evangelicals, writ large, have been bedfellows with the GOP. Such an unholy union between the two eventually resulted in the 2016 election of one, Donald Trump. Trump, the most blatantly racist and corrupt president of recent history, continues to enjoy the loyalty of most of the ideological descendants of The Moral Majority. Or, better said, The Immoral Majority.
By Joel Bowman