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The Real Origins Of An Evangelical Hit Piece

The media struggle with whether to describe Religious Right as buffoons unable to grasp simple science or shrewd political geniuses leading us to theocracy.

Depending on what day it is, the Religious Right is viewed as being full of unintelligent buffoons incapable of grasping simple facts of science or they are shrewd political geniuses secretly leading our nation to become a full-fledged theocracy. Some days, they’re both.

Apparently, that was the case when Politico decided to run Randall Balmer’s piece on conservative evangelicals – “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.”

While one would think Politico would be interested in running balanced journalism, Balmer’s disapproval of those he considers to be the Religious Right drips from every paragraph. He literally has written books about the evils of conservative evangelicals who have led people “astray from the gospel of Jesus Christ to the false gospel of neoconservative ideology and into the maw of the Republican Party.”

In this article at Politico, Balmer attempts to make the case that the Religious Right was founded on a support for segregation and not opposition to abortion. To do so, he highlights Bob Jones University as characteristic of broader conservative evangelicalism and ignores much of the nuance involved in the historical developments.

Take for instance his point about Southern Baptists not being very vocal about abortion and, in some cases, even somewhat supporting the practice. It is true that many evangelicals came around latter on the issue than Catholics, but it is also extremely significant that during 1970s conservatives were not in positions of power in the Southern Baptist Convention. Moderates and liberals dominated the leadership of the denomination.

Balmer ignores this, in favor of establishing the narrative that conservative Baptists were only concerned about segregation. He should know the basic history of the SBC because he is currently promoting his most recent book, which just happens to be on one of the most famous moderate Baptists – former President Jimmy Carter.

He is able to demonstrate that one organization, Bob Jones, was actively racist. Other leaders and groups said they were troubled by what they saw as religious liberty violations. Now, you can claim they really were motivated by racism, but then you would have to support that. Balmer merely relies on the tangental connections to Bob Jones to raise insinuations about the others.

In fact, he goes on to document, contrary to his entire premise, that it was the issue of abortion that galvanized evangelicals and caused them to become active and passionate about political involvement. Once the rank-and-file evangelical came to understand the reality of abortion, they were vehemently opposed to it.

When does that not happen with any group of people when an issue is quickly thrust into the national conversation? It takes people time to digest the facts and determine how their faith should influence them. Within five years of Roe v. Wade, evangelicals were clearly pro-life and passionate about it, regardless of what other issues had preceded it on the radar of certain leaders.

No one can deny that many white Christians were wrong on the issues of race, including and especially Southern Baptists. The SBC itself acknowledged this when its members voted to apologize for the denomination’s role in past racial sins. But neither can one deny that much progress has been made, including the election of an African-American pastor as the current president of the convention.

It is true that those corrections were made rather recently and Balmer is discussing the past. But then that raises the question, why? Why write this story now? What makes this topic worthy of such a significant story in Politico in 2014, if it is not relevant to currently understanding the political leanings of evangelicals? It seems obvious that the attempt to link modern conservative evangelicalism with a foundation of racism would only be done if you are seeking to undermine the movement currently.

But, if this is the route they want to go, I’m excited Politico is interested in pieces on the potentially questionable history of current political organizations. Surely this must mean they have run a substantial story on the well-known links between Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and eugenics. For some reason though, after searching for her name on their site, I didn’t find any such pieces.

I found stories about Republicans making “claims” about Sanger’s racist past, but no in-depth research and reporting by Politico on that topic. In fact, most of the pieces that mention Margaret Sanger do so, not to insinuate the radicalism of her and the organization she founded, but the extremist views of the one daring to make that connection. Take for example: “Ken Cuccinelli suggested Planned Parenthood is racist.”

Oddly enough, I’ve never seen the following quote from Sanger in a Politico piece detailing the history of the abortion movement in America. In Woman, Morality, and Birth Control, she wrote:

We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities. The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal. We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.

I’ve never seen them quote from Woman and the New Race when she writes about applying “a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.”

Now, one could argue that there is a difference between connecting modern conservative evangelicals with the founding of the Religious Right in the 1970s and tying Margaret Sanger stated beliefs in the 1920s and 30s to Planned Parenthood today. But here’s the problem with that. No one on the Religious Right is handing out awards named after Bob Jones, whereas the abortions rights group does so annually with Sanger.

Politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi have accepted the Planned Parenthood Federation of America Margaret Sanger Award, the group’s “highest recognition of leadership, excellence, and outstanding contributions to the reproductive health and rights movement.”

While modern evangelicals have apologized and sought forgiveness for past mistakes on race, Planned Parenthood continues to wrap themselves in the mantle of Sanger. Their highest award is named in her honor. Making that connection doesn’t require an intentional ignoring of crucial facts.

Balmer claimed to be giving readers the “real origins of the Religious Right,” but instead he just gave readers four pages of insinuations and a revealing look at those who would consider that message established fact, but believe the printed racist views of the founder of Planned Parenthood to be inconsequential. That’s the real origins of an evangelical hit piece.

Follow Aaron on Twitter and at his blog, The Wardrobe Door, where this piece first appeared.

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