In Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right, (Eerdmans, out now), Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, historian, and professor of religion at Dartmouth College, seeks to dismantle one of the most persistent narratives about the conservative Christian political movement known as the Religious Right: that it emerged as a response to the 1973 Supreme Court decision about the legality of abortion, Roe v. Wade.
In his concise volume, Balmer argues that race—particularly the defense of racial segregation in religious institutions—is the actual founding principle of the Religious Right. Balmer spoke to PW about the “heartbreaking” direction his own tradition has been pulled, and how he hopes white, evangelical readers will have an honest reckoning with the recent past.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Would you call the Religious Right racist?
I have resisted for a long time labeling evangelicals as racist. But after the 2016 election, as I began to put the whole history together, that conclusion became inescapable. I'm not saying all grassroots evangelicals are racist. But I think there is a subconscious racial bias that figures into their politics, as this movement has been directed by its leaders since 1980 at least. It's also notable that evangelicals were not visible on the march from Selma to Montgomery. They were not in the vanguard of the Civil Rights struggle. And we have to account for that.
Why do you think “the abortion myth” has persisted as the founding narrative about the Religious Right?
I speculated in an earlier book, back in 1989, that there was some sort of visceral identification evangelicals had with the vulnerability of the fetus. They see themselves as being vulnerable and victims in this society. The other reason, frankly, is that the leaders of the movement just keep hammering away at it again and again and again.
What philosophy undergirds the Religious Right’s efforts, exemplified by Bob Jones University, to protect their ability to discriminate on the basis of race?
Bob Jones, Sr. understood [racial discrimination] as being mandated by the Bible. Of course, evangelicals proport to interpret the Bible literally, and so he cherry-picked various verses from the Bible and used that to justify his segregationist stand. Those sorts of defenses have been around for a long time, going back when you had evangelical theologians in the South who used the Bible to justify slavery. Bob Jones University had been a segregated institution from its formation in 1927. As school districts began to desegregate under court order, that is when churches started segregation academies to evade desegregation. [Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status in 1976 because of its discriminatory practices.]
How did the 2016 election change your view of the relationship between American evangelicalism and race?
I just don't know any other way to explain why evangelicals would support someone like Donald Trump. The 2016 election allowed evangelicals and evangelical leaders finally to give up the pretense that this was a movement about family values, and to circle back to the charter motivation of the entire movement, which was the defense of racial segregation. Or to put it plainly, racism.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I really want them to take in the history of 19th-century evangelicalism, which leaned in a very different political direction from that of the Religious Right in the 1980s and beyond. Evangelicals in the 19th century weren’t perfect. They had a lot of blind spots, and they were certainly paternalistic and even colonialist at times. But they compiled a distinguished record of social reform that was almost invariably directed toward those on the margins of society. If contemporary evangelicals understand that, they can see the tragedy of how dramatically the Religious Right has diverged from that noble heritage.
Why do you reflect on yourself as the storyteller of this history?
This for me is not a dispassionate topic, this is my life. These are my people. This is my tradition. And to see it's so perverted and so corrupted by this pursuit of political power and influence is to me heartbreaking. I'm not coming to the topic to exploit or destroy this movement. I'm somebody who's very much engaged in that world and with those sensibilities and yet sees it going in the wrong direction.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer and coauthor of ‘The Yoga Effect: A Proven Program for Depression and Anxiety’ (Da Capo / Lifelong, 2019).