In this article I’ll be discussing the birth of the southern strategy, a political phenomenon born of an unholy alliance of two unlikely groups. Depending on your political orientation, personal beliefs and ideological system you may vehemently disagree with what I’m about to say or alternatively you may just see it as common sense but here goes.
Religion has largely directly contributed to the ruination of modern America.
While I place a significant portion of the blame at the feet of capitalist greed, religion has had an overwhelming influence in retarding the growth and in fact has caused us to actually regress as a society. Nearly every battle we’ve had to fight in this nation in the last 60 years has had a religious contingent that was on the side of conservatism. Now I’m not blaming all religions, in fact, I’m blaming one specific segment of the religious population of America but I do find that in the grander scheme it could be argued that the others are certainly complicit in other ways (such as anti-intellectualism and anti-science movements), but that’s an argument for another day.
A Little Background
First let’s discuss some of the main tenants of conservatism in order to better understand the topic at hand. Typical tent poles of conservative beliefs often include: tradition, hierarchy, authority, property rights, religion, parliamentary government that enforces social stability and continuity over progress.
Most experts agree that modern conservatism finds it’s roots in Edmund Burke, the 18th century politician who opposed the French Revolution on the basis of stability and “the devil you know” arguments and while there is no single set of policies that are globally associable with the concept of conservatism due to the fact that it’s situational; conservatives by and large seek to preserve the status quo of their place and time (or possibly restore that of a time before them).
So, knowing what we now know about conservatism you have to ask yourself; Are things the way I’d like them to be? Do I see progress to be made? Do I want to go back to “the way it used to be”? If not, then you’re most likely not a conservative by most definitions. You may have some opinions or ideas that have overlap into beliefs held by conservatives but that doesn’t make you one. It merely means you share common ground with some aspect of conservatism, for example: “private property” or whatever it may be.
Now, with that covered, let’s talk about some specifics. Because it’s a hefty charge I have leveled; religious people and their beliefs are to blame for many of our problems in this nation, especially in the last handful of decades.
First, keep in mind that Abrahamic religions and their associated organizations are inherently conservative and progressiveness is the exception, never the rule, which is deliciously ironic given that Jesus was highly progressive and a borderline communist.
Criswell and the Southern Baptist Convention
Though there are near countless ministers, pastors, priests, churches and denominations I could accusingly point towards, I’d like to start our story off with a fellow named Wallie Amos Criswell. Arguably the most influential person ever in the Southern Baptist Convention, President of the Convention from 1968 to 1970 and Senior Pastor of the absolutely enormous First Baptist Church of Dallas.
You see, Southern churches and their teachings had, at this point, already been warped near beyond recognition after generations of accommodating the slavery and oppression of their fellow man which made them almost unbelievably eager to lend aid to the likes of white nationalists. In fact the entire reason the Southern Baptists exist is because in 1845 they split from their Northern brethren over the issue of slavery, or rather their intention to continue and support the practice. Their entire institution is built upon the scarred backs of those slaves.
Religion is malleable, near endlessly, and as demonstrated throughout history can be mobilized to aide in the support of the most horrific practices and in this instance the Southern Baptist Church and Convention was set up in order to specifically protect slavery and white supremacy for the Southern States.
In 1956 the case of Brown v Board of Education (which ultimately ended public school segregation) was heard before the United States Supreme Court and it posed a significant issue for this particular sect and region of the country. This was a region and people that, by and large, were fully in support of the existing Jim Crow segregation laws and had (and have) never truly gotten over their loss of both the Civil War and the loss of the men, women and children they purported to own which collectively made up the backbone of their regional and state economies.
So, on February 21st, 1956 W.A. Criswell delivered a speech to the Southern Baptist Convention in Columbia, SC to an overflowing crowd. In his ethnocentric, racist screed, he urged his fellow Southern Baptists in attendance (many of whom were ministers themselves) to be “true preachers of the gospel”; warning them that evangelism comes at a cost. Using a warning that they were about to endure a “baptism by fire” he segued into vigorous attacks on the forces of desegregation, expressing his shock at the cowardice demonstrated by his fellow ministers who refused to “speak up about this thing of integration”.
“True Ministers” he continued, must passionately resist government mandated segregation on the basis of it is “a denial of all that we believe in”. He levied the charge of blasphemy and being unbiblical at the leaders of other denominations that supported desegregation arguing that desegregation was unchristian, undemocratic and anyone supporting it was “soft in the head”.
He even invoked a thinly-veiled attempt at using the n-word in a “joke” that used the word chigger and said that the NAACP has East Texans saying cheegro now instead.
Bottom line, W.A. Criswell and the hard-liners within the Southern Baptist Convention were racist.
So, what’s this have to do with anything, especially given the grander scheme that I implied above?
With this act, and following his lead, his fellow Southern Baptists and those sympathetic to the cause of segregation and racism created through their many speeches and acts, formed a quasi-libertarian argument for segregation and white nationalism.
Now, in 1965 after the second Civil Rights Act was passed, the Southern Baptists officially discontinued their fight against desegregation with a tepid statement telling followers to “follow the law” and 3 years later they officially endorsed desegregation though in that same year they elected Criswell to lead the denomination so one doesn’t have to think very much as to the nature of their true positions.
So how do the political right and the religious bigots of our country become the inbred amalgamation that we see before us today?
Many would enter the fray with the Southern Strategy here but really it was not much the doing of political strategists as it was done at the behest of the religious themselves. You see, it really came down to private schools.
Private schools were their way of maintaining segregation long after desegregation was forced upon them. It all stems from a 1967 decision involving Mississippi giving tuition grants to white students to attend private segregated schools. Though the tuition move was struck down, the tax-exemption that the schools enjoyed remained, as well did the segregated nature of the schools. It was this that allowed evangelical churches across the South to build a great deal more of new private so-called schools, many explicitly segregated.
The line in the sand came when in 1978 the Carter administration indicated that they were going to seek to forcibly desegregate these school and it was this move that led to the political activity we now see today.
These schools had become an excellent source of both income and recruitment for the churches they served. In 1979 televangelist Jerry Falwell, may he forever burn in hell, connected with more politically active conservatives to form the “Moral Majority”. His partner in this god-forsaken endeavor was a man by the name of Paul Weyrich, may he too burn forever in the fiery pits of hell, and Paul made it explicitly clear that the origins of this movement lay in the decision of Green v Connally rather than Roe v Wade (which is commonly thought by many today to be the primary evangelical issue). He, himself, insisted that it was the attempts made by the IRS to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of it’s racial discrimination policies that was the ignition source for their movement.
The Solution to Their Problems
It was in August, 1980 that Criswell and fellow Southern Baptist leaders hosted a political rally for then Presidential candidate Randal Reagan who expressed blatant and explicit support for the ministers’ position on protecting private religious schools during his speech at the rally. And supporting the above point about abortion being a non-issue, he never mentioned it once during the same speech.
With this newfound support from a candidate and the pressures being felt from the Carter administration, a new phenomenon was created. Where previously ministers were often reluctant to utilize their pulpits for the expression of political rhetoric, now they became activists for the Reagan campaign. Preaching and espousing the virtues of why their congregates should (and often times, must) vote and support the man.
It was less than one year into his new administration that Reagan upheld his end of the bargain and officials from his administration pressed the IRS into dropping it’s campaign to desegregate private schools.
Saying the Quiet Part Outloud
This, this was the unholy alliance forged in the fires of racism and political corruption that created the shitstorm we see before us today.
In 1981, Reagan’s advisor, Lee Atwater made the historic mistake of dropping his guard for a moment during an interview which put a very fine point on just what had happened behind the scenes.
Now I’m going to read, verbatim what this man said. Please remember, these are his words. The words of a bigoted, close-minded man but I believe firmly in maintaining historical accuracy and the integrity of the record so for that I’m going to read the racial epithets he used. If this bothers you, I suggest you skip ahead.
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”Lee Atwater, 1981
And there it is folks. Laid out for bare. This is how the southern racists and bigots became so entwined with the political right. It was sheer opportunism on both their parts. The right had a candidate that needed voters and policies they wanted to enact and the racists needed someone to protect them from an ever encroaching progressivism.
And this effect hasn’t lessened over the years, in fact it was demonstrated in a study conducted in 2005 by political scientists Nicholas Valentino and David Sears in which they showed that a Southern man holding a conservative position on any other topic than race is no more or less likely than a conservative Northerner to vote for a democrat. BUT when they answer a survey that has an identifier involving anti-black rhetoric such as “If blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites” they were twice as likely to vote conservative.
The legacy of the actions of the religious people and their institutions in the US South and the back room dealings made by the political right in this country are not only our history but our present. They continue to define and divide to this very day. This is why the race issue is ever so prevalent. It not only divides us as a people, in order for those in power to maintain and grow their power, it is also an issue of primacy for an entire voting block of our nation. Until we find a way to move our fellow Americans past these outmoded ways of thinking, truly heal the wounds caused by these bigoted ideologies and move forward together as a nation these tactics will continue to work upon us.