On June 24, 2022 the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, and white evangelicals swooned. The Christian Right, founded nearly half a century ago in a groundswell of zeal to protect the unborn, at long last had achieved its ultimate aim. After all, wasn’t this the whole reason the Christian Right emerged in the first place?
Not so fast, says the historian Randall Balmer. In reality, Balmer says, when the court handed down its sweeping Roe decision in 1973 white evangelicals shrugged. They considered abortion a Catholic concern. Balmer argues the real root of the Christian Right was not Roe, but a rather more obscure court case: Green vs Connally, a 1971 district court ruling that declared segregated schools were not entitled to tax exemption. When the IRS later moved to rescind the tax exemption of Bob Jones University, white evangelical elites reacted with alarm. To prove it, Balmer has Christian Right leaders on the record boasting that the tax exemption case was the foundation of their organizing. What Balmer calls the “abortion myth” came later to hide the disturbing truth: the pro-life movement was never really about protecting life; it was about protecting racism.
Balmer’s argument has probably become the most popular academic account of the origins of the Christian Right. He has been telling this story for many years, but the real breakthrough to public awareness came with a widely shared 2014 Politico op-ed. I heard him deliver the same argument in person at a small conference in 2017. Recently, I was surprised to hear my own relatives repeating Balmer’s claims. Now, in Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right, Balmer has given his story its most comprehensive treatment yet.
The book is compelling in its simplicity and explanatory power. Alas, it’s so simple that it crumbles upon inspection. Credulously taking self-interested political elites at their word, Balmer’s popular story portrays a world of backroom cunning and strategic masterstrokes that awakened the sleeping giant of the evangelical masses. Yet it fails to adequately explain why the tax exemption case never served as a locus for mass organizing in the way that abortion so obviously and so successfully did. It fails to explain why the 1978 midterm elections demonstrated the electoral dynamite of abortion politics at the grassroots before evangelical elites caught up with the gathering wave. It fails to mention that Bob Jones University was an extreme outlier in evangelical higher education. The vast majority of evangelical colleges had already integrated in the 1960s and were happily in compliance with new federal rules. Indeed, part of the identity of these more mainstream evangelical institutions was precisely that they weren’t like the extremist and fundamentalist Bob Jones.
Balmer’s popular story also glosses over early and obvious signs of white evangelical pushback against Roe. Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of white evangelicalism, immediately blasted Roe as a decision “for paganism, and against Christianity,” and speculated that the court’s reasoning could enable “mass extermination of undesirables.” The editors darkly warned that the court’s turn against “the laws of God” might herald a day when the American state would persecute evangelical Christians. The same issue hinted that the court’s decision could lead conservative Catholics and Protestants to overcome their historic divisions in order to “fight abortion.” This is hardly the shrug of Randall Balmer’s imagination.
And so, while challenging the Christian Right’s founding myths, Balmer’s popular story introduces a new myth of its own. Call it the myth of pro-life insincerity: this myth tells us that one of the most successful activist movements in modern American history is somehow not about what it appears to be about, is really little more than a cover for elite-driven racist reaction. (In an aside toward the end of the book, Balmer alleges that he does not doubt the sincerity of pro-life activists. In response I’ll just note once again that the book is called Bad Faith). This enormous condescension serves no useful purpose. It does not help historians understand the complexity of the past or present. It does not help citizens engage in good faith dialogue or find common ground. It does not even help advocates for reproductive rights, who, after all, would do well to take the true measure of their opponents and understand the forces arrayed against them.
In reality, far from being a nefarious or simple racial reaction, the rise of the Christian Right was overdetermined: a collective outpouring of opposition to dozens of profound changes in American life, from the rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s to the growing push to secularize public space. For opponents and supporters alike, abortion became entangled with broader questions of family, gender, and sexuality. On these questions, many Americans believed Democrats had become hopelessly out of touch. As the cultural critic Christopher Lasch wrote, “Liberalism now meant sexual freedom, women’s rights, gay rights, denunciation of the family as the seat of all oppression, denunciation of the ‘patriarchy’” and on and on. However unfair Lasch’s caricature was, it accurately captured conservative perceptions of a disintegrating moral order. By the 1980s, it was utterly mainstream to assume that morals had declined, that families used to be stronger, that America was in danger of losing a defining Christian character. Politicians who dared to ignore this groundswell did so at their peril.
I am not making a new claim here. Historians such as Robert O. Self and Daniel K. Williams have given us complex narratives that amply demonstrate the multi-causal rise of the Christian Right. That it took some years after the earthquakes of the 60s and 70s for this revolt to gain partisan organization is hardly surprising. Putting this all down to race is the kind of just-so causation story that freshman undergraduates in my history classes are taught to avoid. The simple story flatters the prejudices of those of us who want to believe the worst of the Christian Right. But the past is more complex than that, and the best historical scholarship has already given us better stories.
Balmer’s myth remains important, however, because it is representative of the deeper myths we tend to believe about evangelicalism. Imagine, if you will, a history of the civil rights movement that ignored the black church. Imagine a history of gay rights that ignored gay culture. Imagine a history of the feminist movement that acted as if white feminists were the only voices in the room. Scholars who tell narrow, top-down, elite-driven stories of these movements are unlikely to be taken seriously. But precisely these kinds of stories continue to drive the discussion around evangelicalism. Popular discourse about evangelicalism exhibits an astonishing indifference to the religious and social bases of evangelical identity. Furthermore, despite thick continuities through over two centuries of American evangelicalism, the myth persists that politically mobilized white evangelicalism is a strange new product of the 1970s. Despite the centrality of evangelicalism to American culture, the myth persists that to speak of white evangelicals is, by definition, to speak of political reactionaries. Outside the specialist subfield of the history of evangelicalism—where great work is being done!—simplistic political stories reign supreme as the only stories worth knowing about evangelicals.
So it is no coincidence that centering the Bob Jones tax case as the supposed origin of the Christian Right makes white evangelicals look like quaint and easily manipulated reactionaries. This is the main reason people want to believe the story! Pundits have been insisting that white evangelicals must occupy this reactionary role ever since the Scopes Trial and the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s. Unhappily for the apostles of American secularization, white evangelicals keep refusing to play the part assigned to them. Instead of being hapless yokels unable to cope with modern life, the fundamentalists and their white evangelical descendants have consistently proven to be among the most nimble, adept, and pragmatic activists on the American scene. This ought not be surprising. After all, evangelical Protestants were in many ways the establishment in the 19th century, and they have never forgotten that fact. Indeed, they have been trying to take America back for God and reassume their rightful place ever since the Protestant consensus in American life began to splinter over a century ago.
As the historian Matthew Avery Sutton has demonstrated, the idea that white evangelicals ever retreated from the public square is a myth. No sooner had mass consumer culture emerged than white evangelicals were some of its most eager users, employing spectacle, celebrity, sports, radio, and television to advance the gospel and grow their movement. In the decades after the Scopes Trial, while pundits imagined that fundamentalist religion had been consigned to its rightful marginal place, in fact white evangelicals were engaged in a flurry of institution-building, from colleges and missionary societies to evangelistic organizations like Youth for Christ and Campus Crusade to umbrella advocacy groups like the National Association of Evangelicals. From the fusion of evangelical revivalism and cold war politics in the 1950s to the unmooring of social consensus in the 1960s, white evangelicals remained at the center of American life, seeking through private activism and public policy to save souls and restore a Christian nation.
Race and Evangelicalism: A More Complex Story*
So to understand our current moment, we need to tell more complex stories about this evangelical past. Race does matter a great deal to this history, but in a far more interesting and peculiarly evangelical way than the simple story allows. There’s no question that the civil rights movement disrupted and challenged evangelicalism, as it did all of American society. But here, again, the nimbleness and pragmatism of evangelicalism quickly became apparent. During the civil rights era, black evangelicals became much more prominent in the evangelical world. They tried to break through the exclusionary borders of white evangelicalism, and they used the words of scripture as their calling card. After all, didn’t the Bible say that in Christ there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free? The black evangelist Howard Jones declared, “The church must demonstrate the truth that as Christians we are one in Christ, regardless of race and nationality, and that all racial barriers lie shattered at the foot of his cross.”
In the context of the overt structures of Jim Crow segregation, black evangelicals’ calls for colorblind inclusion became powerful and effective challenges to the evangelical status quo. In response, white evangelicals gradually discarded theologies of white supremacy and embraced a kind of Christian colorblindness: all our equal and united in Christ and we should focus on our identity in Christ, not race. The gospel was colorblind. This theology emerged not as a partisan political maneuver, but as the result of a nationwide reckoning among evangelicals as they sought to grow their movement and make it appealing to the American mainstream in a rapidly changing racial landscape. To show this spiritual equality in practice, white evangelical institutions became more inclusive. Billy Graham hired Jones as the first black evangelist for his team. White evangelical colleges proactively recruited black students. Churches that had been proudly segregated for decades now threw open their doors. These were big and important changes.
Howard Jones, for one, thought that the new colorblind gospel was a mortal threat to the discrimination he had experienced in white evangelical spaces. But by the late 1960s, a far more ambiguous reality was coming into view. The idea of unity in Christ could be used to press for inclusion, but white evangelicals quickly discovered it was also a potent tool to avoid racial discussion and reform in a new era of official equality. All too often, black and white evangelicals who dared to demand change found the colorblind gospel thrown back at them: if we’re one Christ, why are you talking about these divisive racial things? In the ensuing decades, evangelicals would deploy theologies of racial colorblindness to elevate black voices and to silence them, to press for change and to hold the line, to break down barriers and to rebuild them.
In the face of this complexity, the popular story centered around Bob Jones University imagines reactionaries pining for the good old days of Jim Crow. That gets it exactly backward: it was precisely the declining need to defend a regional system of segregation that enabled evangelicals to unite across historic regional divides and experience explosive growth in their movement. In the decades after the civil rights movement white evangelical churches grew by leaps and bounds. Southern Baptists added over two million people to their member rolls between 1970 and 1985. The Assemblies of God and the Evangelical Free Church tripled their numbers. While overtly racist fundamentalist churches became increasingly marginalized and liberal Protestant denominations declined, white evangelical denominations embraced an ambiguous colorblind gospel that was exceptionally well-tuned to appeal to America’s burgeoning suburbs. Far from being simple reactionaries, white evangelicals became creative religio-racial entrepreneurs who successfully positioned themselves in the mainstream of America in an age of colorblindness.
Undergirding these ostensibly colorblind congregations was a church growth industry that deliberately invested in whiteness in order to spread the gospel. Drawing on missionary theory developed in caste-conscious India in the 1930s, evangelical church growth experts taught that people like to worship with people like themselves. Donald McGavran, the founder of the Church Growth Movement, wrote in 1955 that “It does no good to say that tribal people ought not to have race prejudice. They do have it and are proud of it. It can be understood and should be made an aide to Christianization.” McGavran had in mind an attack on paternalistic western missionary strategies that disrupted indigenous social bonds in the Global South. He did not want people to feel that becoming a Christian meant becoming a western individualist. In places like India, this meant that the invitation to become Christian should not compel people to relinquish their caste identities. Rather than understanding caste as an obstacle to the formation of Christian churches, McGavran believed missionaries had to start seeing castes as pathways for God’s work. Christianity could spread further and faster along caste lines than across them. As McGavran developed these ideas from the 1930s to the 1950s, he was quite explicit that this “peoples” based approach did not apply to the individualistic and modern United States.
But the events of the 1960s transformed the evangelistic calculus. In the wake of black power and the revival of white ethnic identities, McGavran and his disciples concluded that Americans, too, had deep-seated bonds of race, language, and belonging that could be harnessed to spread the gospel. Defining whiteness as merely another part of the American mosaic, evangelical church growth experts updated McGavran’s “peoples” approach and applied it to the United States. They declared that the “homogeneous unit principle” taught that American churches would grow fastest if people did not have to cross barriers of race, class, or language. By the middle of the 1970s, this approach had become the hottest trend in evangelical church startups. Spread through ubiquitous pastoral seminars and influential institutions like Fuller Seminary, the ideas of the Church Growth Movement became commonsense in the white evangelical mainstream. This was pragmatism on steroids in pursuit of the ultimate goal: salvation of souls. And here we must pause and take seriously the ideas animating evangelical activists. McGavran knew that all human beings faced an eternal destiny, and only the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection could save them. It was incumbent upon evangelicals to use the best possible methods to bring the greatest numbers of people into the Christian fold. What could be more important than that?
The homogeneous unit principle even enabled Southern Baptists and other evangelical denominations to launch thousands of new Hispanic, Asian, and black congregations during the 1980s and 1990s, proving more successful than most liberal churches in actually including people of color within their denominations. Yet whether this was healthy pluralism or an updated form of segregation remained an open question. In any case, church growth experts taught that questions of social justice were of secondary concern next to the overriding importance of growing churches. And so in an age of white flight, most white evangelical pastors and church planters focused on a target demographic that almost guaranteed church growth: the white middle class in growing suburbs. One of the most famous and influential of these pastors, Rick Warren, trained under the leading church growth thinkers of the era and cited McGavran as one of his main influences. He founded his Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, precisely because it was a booming region full of his target demo. Warren and his leadership team created a composite character to focus attention on the precise kind of person they wanted their church to reach: “Saddleback Sam” was a wealthy white man.
Black evangelicals were quick to point out the irony of these race-conscious church growth strategies. While white evangelicals were in fact making a racial bet and investing in whiteness in the name of spreading the gospel, on the ground in local homogeneous churches race seemed to all but disappear. What was left was a privatized faith where white identity could all too easily blur with Christian identity. Black evangelical pastors such as Clarence Hilliard warned that “Specialists in getting quick, easy decisions for a strange, mystical, theologically white Christ are rapidly increasing.” In his view the church growth craze failed to challenge believers to take up their cross and confront the racist structures of American society. Instead, American Christians got a comfortable Jesus and a ticket to heaven. The Black evangelical activist and community organizer John Perkins took in the same scene and called white evangelicalism “the most segregated, racist institution in America.” Perkins wasn’t taking issue with the Christian Right. He was talking about more fundamental structures of evangelical life and thought. While white evangelicals treated their movement’s success as a sign of God’s blessing and their own devotion to the gospel, Perkins declared that a gospel that didn’t confront American racism was “no gospel at all.”
But Perkins found it was hard to argue with success. By the 1980s, white evangelicals were beginning to get a heady sense of their own power. The simple story tells us this was the age of Falwell’s Moral Majority and the Reagan Revolution. The more important story tells of burgeoning member rolls in local churches as pastors paired a colorblind gospel message with targeted appeals to the white middle class. Self-assured in their ownership of the gospel and their theological rigor, white evangelicals felt emboldened to expand their influence by any means necessary. They had proven themselves eager adopters—as they had been for two centuries!—of the latest technological tools and cultural trends in a bid to grow their movement and take America back for God. As they faced the new millennium, white evangelicals nursed intoxicating dreams of a third Great Awakening and an America restored in a new age of revival.
Two decades of rapid change have dealt a severe blow to this evangelical confidence. Sweeping cultural transformations from gay marriage to the rising salience of transgender rights made many white evangelicals feel like strangers in their own country. Church growth abated as the number of Americans claiming no religious affiliation surged. Declining church membership and lost cultural authority were nothing less than a crisis for a movement that had imagined revival just around the corner. As white evangelical ascendance turned to decline, confidence morphed into fear. In this context, many evangelicals saw the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe as one of the few bright spots on a dark horizon.
Being pro-life had become a key marker of evangelical identity and belonging, yet in their self-imposed isolation from black Christians, white evangelicals had crafted an exceptionally individualistic and narrow conception of a pro-life ethic. And they insisted that this peculiar ethic was God’s law that must govern the country. The possibility of an interracial and bipartisan pro-life coalition that concerned itself with gun violence and health care and poverty as well as abortion foundered on the refusal of white evangelicals to take seriously the black evangelical voices in their midst. White evangelicals had not come to know how one might be a faithful Christian without power, how one might seek the public good even in the face of public hostility. In short, white evangelicals did not learn what they might have from the black church: how to live in a hostile world without fear and without the need to dominate others. If evangelicalism could not with its own resources make America a Christian nation, white evangelicals would look to harness the power of government to compel Americans toward righteousness. For black evangelicals, this lunge for power was familiar. They had already seen white evangelicalism’s ruthless pragmatism up close. Now the rest of the country became aware of it through the movement’s deathlike embrace of Donald Trump’s anti-democracy movement.
White evangelicalism is a tradition haunted by loss: the loss of influence, the loss of a prior moral order, the loss of an imagined Christian nation. The white evangelicals who have coalesced around Trump are not pining for a new Jim Crow, as a narrative of simple racist reaction might imply. Instead, they seek a new Christian order, even if its form is authoritarian. It is this Christian nation, not a pluralist democratic one, that most white evangelicals seek to create. And that’s why the crisis of evangelicalism is a crisis of American democracy.
*This section is drawn from my book.