Founders of the pro-family movement are reacting skeptically to an article published this week at Politico that claims their movement was founded on racism.
University professor Randall Balmer insists the social conservative movement failed to coalesce over abortion, prayer in school, the Equal Rights Amendment, and every other hot-button issue of those days, many of which percolate even today, but rather over an obscure Supreme Court case called Green v. Connally.
Balmer, who teaches at Dartmouth, calls it a “durable myth” that “evangelicals and fundamentalists” became politically active only after Roe V. Wade gave the US abortion on demand.
“In fact,” he says, “it wasn’t until 1979 – a full six years after Roe – that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion cause was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools.”
According to Balmer, from the mid-sixties onward, as a response to Brown v. Board of Education, scores of private Christian schools began popping up, created expressly to keep out blacks. Black families in Holmes County, Mississippi, brought suit to remove the tax-exempt status of some of these schools. The IRS determined that any school created within a certain radius and within five years of a desegregation order would prima facie be considered a “segregation academy” and lose tax exemption.
According to Balmer this was the catalyst for the entire pro-family movement. It was what brought evangelicals out of the political wilderness, since they did not believe the Bible wanted them in politics, and into the political fray. And the man supposed to be behind it was Paul Weyrich, founder of many influential political organizations in Washington, D.C., including the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (called ALEC).
According to Balmer the new “moral majority,” the phrase first used by Weyrich, needed a catalyst to move the evangelicals into the activist camp. According to Balmer, nothing worked, not pornography, not prayer in schools, not the Equal Rights Amendment. What worked was the protection of racist admissions policies.
There is no question that IRS meddling in private schools was on the radar of social conservatives at that time. The Bob Jones University case was well known. Bob Jones expressly forbade blacks from admission and eventually lost its IRS status because of it.
Was this the catalyst for a whole movement? Balmer offers scant evidence. In fact, Balmer offers only one piece of evidence. He quotes a man named Elmer L. Rumminger, who worked at Bob Jones University: “That was really the major issue that got us all involved.” That is all the evidence that Balmer offers that the foundation of the moral majority was the protection of segregated schools. It is unclear whom Rumminger meant by “us all” or even if the founders of the movement knew Rumminger’s name.
Then, going against his own thesis, Balmer says what really got the movement going was the thing he said didn’t get the movement going: abortion. Balmer writes, “But [Jerry] Fallwell and Weyrich, having tapped into the ire of evangelical leaders, were also savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would be a challenge. It had worked to rally the leaders, but they needed a different issue if they wanted to mobilize evangelical voters on a large scale.”
He describes how the abortion issue was used quite effectively to elect pro-life conservatives to the US Senate in the 1978 elections. For instance, pro-life Republicans won both Senate seats in Minnesota (one for the unexpired term of Hubert Humphrey) and the governorship.
Balmer does get one thing right, and that is the abortion issue was not on the radar screen of Protestants at that time, and if it was they were in support of it and Roe v. Wade. In the beginning opposition to abortion was largely from Catholics, which also explains the resistance to the issue at least for some Protestants.
Evangelical Mike Farris, founder of the Moral Majority in Washington State and now head of the Home School Legal Defense Fund, told Breitbart News he came late to the pro-life cause. Not until a Lamaze class did he begin to see the humanity of the unborn child. Farris now has ten children. He also says Green v. Kennedy or the defense of racial discrimination played no part in the founding of the Moral Majority or the Christian right.
Connie Marshner, who was Paul Weyrich’s right hand for many years, told Breitbart News that “Balmer has the wrong end of a stick – just what a secular liberal would read into history. In fact, a multitude of factors all came together at the right time.”
Marshner, who was chairman of President Reagan’s Family Policy Advisory Board, explained, “Abortion was not initially opposed by Protestants because the mainstream denominations are squishy, and others thought it was a Catholic issue.” At the same time noted evangelicals Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop began traveling the country talking about the issue, and the conservatives had begun the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Then,” she says, “in 1978, Jimmy Carter’s IRS published in the Federal Register a proposed regulation which would have automatically denied tax exemption to any private school that was founded within five years of a de-segregation order within a certain number of miles.” Christian moms had prevailed on pastors to open schools as a reaction to the increasing failure of public schools – remember the Why Can’t Johnny Read meme from those days? – and now they were being charged with racism and threatened with legal action. She said this woke up the pastors who became increasingly active.
One of the best short histories of the birth of the pro-family movement is Allan Carlson’s 1980 essay published in the American Spectator. In his piece the only mention of private schools was praise for the 1980 GOP platform that opposed federal meddling in private schools.
Carlson’s piece is overwhelmingly about the denigration of the family by radical feminists who called marriage “a wretched institution” that was “constrictive, corrosive, grinding, and destructive.”
Carlson, founder and head of the Howard Center and the World Congress of Families, says one of the galvanizing moments was the 1970 White House Conference on Children that defined the family as “a group of individuals in interaction.” The American Home Economics Association defined the family as “a unit of two or more persons who share resources, share responsibilities for decisions, share values and have a commitment to one another over time.” Carlson wrote that such definitions would include “a pair of winos sharing a boxcar and a bottle.”
Then there was the 1979 White House Conference on Families – note the use of the plural. This was a huge issue at the time and still is. It signals that someone is messing with the definition of the family, and this helped grow the nascent social conservative movement.
Even if Balmer is right, and he has offered no convincing evidence, that it was efforts by the IRS to remove tax-exempt status from private schools that are the “real origins of the religious right”, he still has offered no evidence that the creation of such schools were racially motivated or anything other than what Marshner says they were: an effort to provide an alternative to failing government schools.
It is likely that any social conservative leader from those days reading Balmer’s piece would see something totally foreign to them. It is a puzzle that Politico published it without talking to any of the players from those days.