Reflections on Randall Baumer’s book - Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right
Updated: Aug 9
Guest Message by Scotty Patton
In his book, Randall Baumer first establishes his credentials as a member of the evangelical faith, with a story of his invitation to a closed-door meeting with conservatives in 1990 in Washington DC, on the tenth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s election. Paul Weyrich, who Baumer describes as the architect of the religious right, declared to Baumer that abortion had nothing to do with the emergence of the religious right. Since Goldwater in 1964, Weyrich had been trying to mobilize evangelical voters on several issues, but nothing galvanized them until the U.S. government’s challenge of tax-exempt status of racially segregated schools. Abortion was considered to be a “Catholic issue.”
Historically, evangelicalism was a social reform movement about the shaping the nation. The Bible was seen by evangelicals as God’s revelation, and was taken seriously and/or literally. The movement focused on personal conversion (from the story in John where Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again), and on bringing others to the faith (from the command in Mark to go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation).
In the 19th and well into the 20th century, evangelicals engaged in a broad spectrum of social reform efforts, many towards helping the marginalized in society. It was considered to be the “Second Awakening,” to bring the kingdom of God on earth. Evangelicals of the time focused on issues such as education, prison reform, advocating for the poor and for the rights of women, opposing violence in war, supporting gun control, supporting temperance in response to problems with alcohol (including spousal and child abuse), and ending of slavery (by evangelicals in the north). It was an effort to reframe society to pave Jesus’ way for the second coming (postmillennialism). This is in marked contrast to today’s religious right.
Evangelicals started to take ideas from John Nelson Darby and became convinced they had been interpreting the Bible incorrectly. Jesus would return not after the millennium but before the millennium (premillennialism). The second coming could come at any moment, so it was either be “raptured up” to heaven or be “left behind.” This eventually was taken to mean that there was no responsibility for addressing society’s ills, a “theology of despair.” Evangelicals stayed out of the political fray well into the 20th century, what was the point of working on society if the rapture was coming soon?
Baumer refers then to the John Scopes trial in 1925, where Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution. Prosecutors won the case, but evangelicals lost in the court of public opinion. This led American evangelicals to double-down on their rejection of the larger culture. Combined with premillennialism, evangelicals sought to protect their children from corruption from the outside world, and this included a Christian education rather than a public education.
Skipping ahead, Nixon was endorsed by Billy Graham and won the 1972 presidential election for republicans, but George McGovern as an evangelical appealed to evangelical voters. This led to the Chicago Declaration in 1973 that reaffirmed evangelicals’ historical commitment to social issues such as feeding the poor and women’s equality. Later, Jimmy Carter as a born-again evangelical sounded the themes of the Chicago declaration. As president he was a champion for human rights and environmental policies, and appointed more women and minorities than any previous president. But he was beset by problems including a sluggish economy, high interest rates, and the Iran hostage crisis, and there was a group of evangelicals conspiring against him.
Next the author discusses the “abortion myth.” Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson claimed that evangelical leaders were shaken out of complacency by the Roe versus Wade decision in 1973 that legalized abortion at a national level. But the myth does not bear of scrutiny. Evangelicals considered abortion to be a Catholic issue until the late 1990s. Christianity Today convened a conference in 1968 that included 26 evangelical organizations. They issued a statement: “whether abortion is a sin we are not agreed,” and that in some cases there’s “necessity and permissibility.” The abortion issue still had no traction. Some groups with historic ties to evangelicalism pushed for legalization of abortion. The United Methodist Church General Conference called on state legislatures to repeal laws restricting abortion. In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution to work for legislation to allow the possibility of abortion. W.A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said “I have always felt it was only after a child was born that it had a life separate from its mother and became an individual person.” That is not what the religious right is saying today.
Baumer argues that the Greene versus Connelly decision in 1971 was the real catalyst for the formation of the religious right. The decision meant that any organization that engaged in racial segregation or discrimination was not a charitable organization, and could not maintain tax exempt status. Nixon ordered the IRS to enact policy denying tax-exempt status to all segregated schools in the United States. Paul Weyrich reasoned that this issue could make evangelicals into a formidable voting bloc – a “moral majority.” He had failed to energize the evangelical voters with issues such as pornography, school prayer, the proposed equal rights amendment, and even abortion.
In their response to IRS inquiry, Bob Jones University officially stated that they did not admit African-Americans. Bob Jones himself argued that racial segregation was mandated in the Bible. But Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich reframed this as an argument about religious freedom. Baumer points out that Christian schools would say they didn’t accept federal dollars so were immune from government structures, but argues that tax-exempt status is a form of public subsidy. In 1976, the IRS rescinded Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status. This is what galvanized early leaders of the religious right, not abortion; opposition to abortion came later.
Baumer argues that while Carter tried to reduce the number of abortions in America, he did not seek a constitutional amendment banning it which cost him support from evangelicals, who instead supported Ronald Reagan, even though Reagan had just signed the most liberal abortion law in the United States. Reagan courted the evangelical vote, saying things like “Jesus is more real to me than my own mother.” In Dallas at a campaign speech attended by 20,000 evangelicals Reagan said he endorsed evangelicals and “what you are doing.” In his speech, he stated his support for creationism and railed against the unconstitutional regulatory agenda of the IRS versus independent schools, but he made no mention of abortion, the proposed equal rights amendment, gay rights, or school prayer. Evangelicals voted to put Ronald Reagan in office, turning on Carter who was one of their own.
Baumer says the abortion myth is important because it distracts from the issue of festering racism in America that is not being addressed, and cites problems such as African-American ghettos, red lining in real estate, and police brutality. The author had always defended evangelicals against charges of racism until 2016 when Donald Trump was elected; then he looked at the history of the emergence of the religious right since Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan sought the repeal of the Rumsford fair housing act which sought to eliminate racial discrimination in housing. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He ran a California gubernatorial campaign based on “law and order” and “state’s rights,” which are thinly veiled racist code-words about keeping blacks “in their place.” Reagan supported apartheid in Rhodesia in South Africa. As president he gutted the civil rights commission by dismissing the commissioners and replacing them with anti-women’s rights and anti-civil rights members.
The author discusses other figures in the rise of the religious right: Jerry Falwell, who formed the segregated Lynchburg Christian Academy that would not admit blacks, and who denounced Martin Luther King as a communist subversive; Tim LaHaye of the “moral majority”; Terry Perkins who ran a senatorial telemarketing campaign using David Duke’s company (Duke was closely associated with the Ku Klux Klan); Ray S. Moore who formed the Foundation for Moral Law which supported Alabama secession and the repeal of the 14th amendment (equal protection); and Donald Trump and his birther conspiracy, and who called Mexicans “rapists and criminals.” Stuart Stevens, a republican consultant, said Trump openly ran on racial grievance. Baumer asks, where did family values go? Trump is three times married, a former casino operator, self-confessed sexual predator, who said “some good people” were marching in the white nationalist march in Charlottesville.
Baumer argues that the religious right is not about advancement of biblical values but is rooted in perpetuating racial segregation. He says the religious right hides behind high-minded issues such as abortion and religious freedom, but is really organized to allow evangelicals to continue policies of racial exclusion, and that single-issue white evangelicals are complicit on a whole range of policies that would be an anathema to 19th century evangelicals.
I ask myself, where is God’s kin-dom in this? How can we keep hope and faith amid a hostile and “alternative facts” reality? I believe our hope and faith reside in our moment and our joy, in the here and now, and in doing the work of Jesus even when things seem hopeless. We are offered an invitation to our own ‘theology of despair.’ But I would reject that. I still believe in the gifts of faith: it may get worse before it gets better, but you can’t keep a good God down. I believe it is in following in the way of Jesus that we will find our hope and our faith. To quote Brian Sirchio: “Do something beautiful for God - do something small, but do it with great joy!”