Most people — including myself — thought that the rise of the Religious Right and their takeover of the Republican Party started in 1973 when the Supreme Court handed down their ruling on Roe v. Wade. After all, the evangelicals take a back seat to no one when it comes to telling us that life begins at conception and that every sperm is sacred.
However, according to a piece in Politico by Dartmouth Professor Randall Balmer, it wasn’t the right to life that got them riled up. In fact, a number of fundamentalist and evangelical churches agreed with the ruling, one leader going so far as to say “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
Although a few evangelical voices, including Christianity Today magazine, mildly criticized the ruling, the overwhelming response was silence, even approval. Baptists, in particular, applauded the decision as an appropriate articulation of the division between church and state, between personal morality and state regulation of individual behavior.
So what was it that fired up the Christian soldiers to take over the party and inject it with their own dogmatic view of morality and purity if it wasn’t abortion?
It was another court ruling and it nothing to do with the right to life.
In May 1969, a group of African-American parents in Holmes County, Mississippi, sued the Treasury Department to prevent three new whites-only K-12 private academies from securing full tax-exempt status, arguing that their discriminatory policies prevented them from being considered “charitable” institutions. The schools had been founded in the mid-1960s in response to the desegregation of public schools set in motion by the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. In 1969, the first year of desegregation, the number of white students enrolled in public schools in Holmes County dropped from 771 to 28; the following year, that number fell to zero.
In Green v. Kennedy (David Kennedy was secretary of the treasury at the time), decided in January 1970, the plaintiffs won a preliminary injunction, which denied the “segregation academies” tax-exempt status until further review. In the meantime, the government was solidifying its position on such schools. Later that year, President Richard Nixon ordered the Internal Revenue Service to enact a new policy denying tax exemptions to all segregated schools in the United States. Under the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which forbade racial segregation and discrimination, discriminatory schools were not—by definition—“charitable” educational organizations, and therefore they had no claims to tax-exempt status; similarly, donations to such organizations would no longer qualify as tax-deductible contributions.
On June 30, 1971, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued its ruling in the case, now Green v. Connally (John Connally had replaced David Kennedy as secretary of the Treasury). The decision upheld the new IRS policy: “Under the Internal Revenue Code, properly construed, racially discriminatory private schools are not entitled to the Federal tax exemption provided for charitable, educational institutions, and persons making gifts to such schools are not entitled to the deductions provided in case of gifts to charitable, educational institutions.”
Paul Weyrich, the late religious conservative political activist and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, saw his opening.
“The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition,” Weyrich wrote in the mid-1970s. “When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.”
In other words, if the government could deny tax-exempt status to schools and universities that practiced racial segregation, then what is the world coming to?
And thus was born the Religious Right, cloaking their racism in morality and picking up the right to choose as a convenient hostage. We’re seeing it borne out today with their obsession with voter ID laws, strict immigration reform, the dismantling of the welfare safety net, and providing a subtext for everything they do in opposition to whatever it is that Barack Obama comes up with even if they thought of it themselves.