For years, the religious right tried to lose its racist image, reverting to homophobia as its hatred of choice. As it joins the Tea Party fray, it may once again have to own both.
Now that popular conservatism has given itself over so avidly to racial resentment, it’s curious to remember how hard the right once tried to scrub itself of the lingering taint of prejudice. Indeed, for a decade and a half the Christian right — until recently the most powerful and visible grassroots conservative movement — struggled mightily to escape its own bigoted history. In his 1996 book Active Faith, Ralph Reed acknowledged that Christian conservatives had been on the wrong side of the civil rights movement. “The white evangelical church carries a shameful legacy of racism and the historical baggage of indifference to the most central struggle for social justice in this century, a legacy that is only now being wiped clean by the sanctifying work of repentance and racial reconciliation,” wrote Reed.
“Racial reconciliation” became a kind of buzz phrase. The idea animated Promise Keepers meetings. “Racism is an insidious monster,” Bill McCartney, the group’s founder, said at a 39,000-man Atlanta rally. “You can’t say you love God and not love your brother.” The Traditional Values Coalition distributed a video called “Gay Rights, Special Rights” to black churches; it criticized the gay rights movement for co-opting the noble legacy of the civil rights struggle.
Throughout the Bush years, homophobia and professions of anti-racism were twinned in a weird way, as if the latter proved that the right wasn’t simply still skulking around history’s dark side. At a deeply surreal 2006 event at the Greater Exodus Baptist Church, an African American church in downtown Philadelphia, leaders of the religious right invoked Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks on behalf of gay marriage bans and Bush’s judicial nominees. At the end of the evening, several dozen clergymen, black and white, joined hands in prayer at the front of the room. “Black Americans, white Americans,” said a beaming Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council. “Christians, standing together.” The whole premise of compassionate conservatism — which shoveled taxpayer money towards administration-friendly churches like Greater Exodus Baptist — was that the right cared as deeply as the left about issues like inner city poverty.
What a difference an election makes. Even if you believed that compassionate conservatism was always a bit of a con, it’s amazing to see how quickly it has vanished, and how fast an older style of reaction, one more explicitly rooted in racial grievance, has reasserted itself.
Today’s grassroots right is by all appearances as socially conservative as ever, but its tone and its rhetoric are profoundly different than they were even a year ago. For the last 15 years, the right-wing populism has been substantially electrified by sexual anxiety. Now it’s charged with racial anxiety. By all accounts, there were more confederate flags than crosses at last weekend’s anti-Obama rally in Washington, DC. Glenn Beck has become a far more influential figure on the right than, say, James Dobson, and he’s much more interested in race than in sexual deviancy. For the first time in at least a decade, middle class whites have been galvanized by the fear that their taxes are benefiting lazy, shiftless others. The messianic, imperialistic, hubristic side of the right has gone into retreat, and a cramped, mean and paranoid style has come to the fore.
To some extent, a newfound suspicion of government was probably inevitable as soon as Democrats took power. At the same time, with the implosion of the Christian right’s leadership and the last year’s cornucopia of GOP sex scandals, the party needed to take a break from incessant moralizing, and required a new ideology to take the place of family values cant. The belief system analysts sometimes call “producerism” served nicely. Producerism sees society as divided between productive workers — laborers, small businessmen and the like — and the parasites who live off them. Those parasites exist at both the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy — they are both financiers and welfare bums — and their larceny is enabled by the government they control.
Producerism has often been a trope of right-wing movements, especially during times of economic distress, when many people sense they’re getting screwed. Its racist (and often anti-Semitic) potential is obvious, so it gels well with the climate of Dixiecrat racial angst occasioned by the election of our first black president. The result is the return of the repressed.
It’s not, after all, as if the Christian right was something completely removed from the old racist right — rather, as Reed acknowledged all those years ago, they were initially deeply intertwined. The Columbia historian Randall Balmer has shown that Christian conservatives were not, contrary to their own mythology, initially mobilized by their outrage at Roe vs. Wade. Rather, what spurred them into action was the IRS’s attempt to revoke the tax-exempt status of whites only Christian schools, schools that had been created specifically to evade desegregation.
The Christian right was always rooted in an older style of reactionary politics. Before he became a political organizer himself, Falwell — who ran one of those Christian segregation academies — attacked Martin Luther King Jr. for his political activism. (“Preachers are not called to be politicians, but to be soul winners,” he said.) Before Tony Perkins was basking in homophobic interracial amity, he paid Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke $82,500 for his mailing list. In 2004, David Barton, then the vice president of the Texas GOP, spoke at an event featuring white preachers and ministry workers dropping to their knees before their black brethren to plead for forgiveness. Thirteen years earlier, Barton had twice been a featured speaker at meetings of the Christian Identity movement, which preaches that blacks are sub-human “mud people.” One could go on and on.
As racism grew politically unacceptable, the Christian right was able to channel resentment over the decline of white male privilege into a Kulterkampf directed at more acceptable enemies, like gays and lesbians. The movement borrowed heavily from Catholic theology and convinced itself that it was in a righteous struggle against a culture of death, not a culture of diversity. Now the mask is off. One wonders if fifteen years from now, they’ll bother apologizing all over again.