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The Religious Right Is Not a Subsidiary of the Alt-Right

March 27th, 2017 | 13 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In a recent essay for The New Republic, religion reporter Sarah Posner contends that the Religious Right has “effectively become a subsidiary of the alt-right, yoked to Trump’s white nationalist agenda.” By effectively wedding themselves to Trump’s narrative about ‘American carnage,’ she goes on, evangelicals have “returned the religious right to its own origins—as a movement founded to maintain the South’s segregationist ‘way of life.’”

That is a provocative thesis, which—if true—would put the final blow into the already hollowed corpse of one of the most criticized political movements in American public life. One would expect that as excellent a reporter as Posner would have some substantive evidence, some smoking gun from life inside some of the central Religious Right institutions. But she does not. It is a thesis without evidence—but one that Posner really seems to want to be true.1

After all, this is at least her second iteration of her argument—and it is no stronger than her first go. Last October, Posner profiled Richard Spencer, who has successfully wormed his way into becoming the It Boy for white nationalism. Spencer, Posner records, considers the Religious Right as a front for the alt-right’s nationalist, racist aspirations. Posner writes:

While Spencer reviles conservatives, he believes they secretly share his white nationalist beliefs. “Saying that you want a culture of life, or Christian values,” he said in a recent podcast, “that’s just basically saying you want to live in a white country that’s normal and decent.” Or, as he explains to me at the Willard, the Family Research Council’s name already implies a call for “more white children.” In Spencer’s eyes, the Alt-Right is an “intellectual movement” so powerful that “in the future, we’re going to be thinking for conservatives…” This superior Alt-Right intelligence will eventually allow the movement to harness the institutions the religious right built, he believes, and entice religious conservatives into white nationalism. It would be easy enough, he says, because “there’s not a single intelligent person in that entire world.”

That story generated the first iteration of Posner’s attempt to yoke the Religious Right and the Alt-Right. In a New York Times op-ed published one day after her Rolling Stone essay, Posner functionally repeated Spencer’s claims. As she puts it, “hitching their wagon” to Trump means that “religious-right leaders are also tying their fortunes to the alt-right…”

Now, one might reasonably wonder what the Religious Right thinks of Richard Spencer’s suggestion that “family values” are simply a front for racism. I’m no Alt-Right aficionado, but it is not clear to me that Spencer is credible enough a source to simply take his word for it. There is a significant gap between the Alt-Right wanting to become allies with the Religious Right, and the Religious Right going along with the scheme. But by the end of the Posner Trilogy, one has no idea what the Religious Right in fact thinks about the Alt-Right—because Posner does not even report that she tried to ask them.

Instead, she throws the weight of her argument on to Randall Balmer’s contention that the origins of the Religious Right were about racism. See, the Religious Right were originally racists; the Alt Right are racists; ergo, the Religious Right and Alt Right are clearly besties! Never mind that huge swaths of the post-Christian Alt-Right would barely be able to stomach the nationalistic piety of the Values Voter Summit. Their constituencies simply do not align. While the Religious Right is predominately white, the grandmas who are keeping the Family Research Council and the American Family Association alive would almost certainly think ‘cuckservative’ is a swear word. None of the sociology seems to matter, though, given the story Balmer tells. The history of the Religious Right reveals all.

Only Balmer’s history is wrong. As his story goes, the Religious Right galvanized around the 1983 Supreme Court decision to strip Bob Jones University of its tax exempt status for its interracial dating ban. It’s a convenient story, and has a grain of truthfulness—the Religious Right did express an exceptional amount of concern about the Court’s decision and its impact on religious liberty protections for Christian institutions. But the anxieties that the Bob Jones decision exacerbated within the Religious Right had been building within the movement for a long time—and they had far less to do with race than Balmer (and Posner) assumes. It is a history that deserves retelling.

Carl McIntire and the Religious Liberty Crises of the 1970s

Only one radio station in American history has ever had its license revoked because of its programming: Carl McIntire’s WXUR, in 1970. A self-described fundamentalist, McIntire relentlessly challenged the socialist and progressive theologies of the mainline Protestant ecumenical groups, and tirelessly announced across America’s airwaves the gospels of liberty, capitalism and Jesus Christ. His reward for these efforts was a two-decade fight with progressive organizations who sought to use the so-called “Fairness Doctrine,” which the FCC had implemented in 1949, to silence him. They eventually won, prompting hundreds of stations across the country to pull McIntire’s programming off out of fear and threatening one of his central bases of national influence.

But McIntire would not let his martyrdom be in vain. As Markku Ruotsila writes in Fighting Fundamentalist, his stellar new biography of McIntire, the episode allowed McIntire to present himself as “the victim of political persecution and as a champion of freedom of speech,” which was precisely what he wanted. The miscalculation of his progressive foes “ended up swelling the ranks of the Right and deepening the resolve of the fundamentalist faithful.”

Ruotsila’s portrait seriously undermines Balmer’s hypothesis that the Religious Right was created ex nihilo by the Bob Jones decision. As Ruotsila tells it, the conservative Christian community’s “sense of grievance was fed at least as much by instances of government action against their access to the media as it was by the IRS’s assault on their schools.” For fundamentalists, freedom of speech and religious liberty were under attack, which required a counteroffensive. “No man,” Ruotsila writes, “kept this perception and this call to action alive as much as did the principal victim of the liberals’ assault, Carl McIntire.”

On Ruotsila’s telling, Carl McIntire was a major contributor to the (re)politicization of conservative Protestant Christianity in the twenty century. He both prefigured the tactics of the Religious Right and was then overshadowed by their emergence, making him something of a forgotten forerunner of the movement. Part pastor, part political activist, the full-time agitator McIntire was as divisive as he was influential. He studied with J. Gresham Machen, mentored Francis Schaeffer—who was instrumental to the emergence of the Religious Right—and fell out with them both. He chafed against Machen’s abandonment of political activism, and set up his own magazine (the ‘Christian Beacon’) and denomination to counter it. That became a familiar tune; he eventually established the American Council of Christian Churches to fight the Social Gospellers, the Commies, the Catholics and just about anyone else who got in his way. But especially the Commies. McIntire was there in the 60s, helping kill the influence of mainline Protestantism on American political life by saturating the airwaves (including in the press) with allegations that they were un-Christian and un-American.

It is true that McIntire resisted the civil rights movement, but Ruotsila’s picture of the racial dynamics of his life makes them seem more complicated than that fact alone would suggest. (His small denomination had several African American pastors in it, for instance.) Instead, Ruotsila thought the Civil Rights movement was a threat to capitalism and freedom. With typical verve, he suggested that the “Communists are surely behind it.” Ruotsila is judicious; he acknowledges that the argument was “carefully framed to obscure [McIntire’s] own prejudices,” but proposes that he “also genuinely believed it to be a statement of fact.”

McIntire’s opposition to the Civil Rights movement, in fact, was an enormous missed opportunity for groups who could have been natural allies in their opposition to federal government power. Ruotsila points out that in the 60s, the IRS targeted two groups: black civil rights leaders, and white Protestant fundamentalists like McIntire. Under Kennedy’s administration, independent, fundamentalist churches in McIntire’s network reported being harassed by the IRS because they were not part of recognized denominations. In 1965, a series of unfounded attacks on McIntire appeared in the press, which Ruotsila describes as a “coordinated effort by a relatively small coterie of liberal religious and civic groups.” The Johnson administration carried on the harassment of religious fundamentalists through the IRS, and McIntire was even hauled before the FBI for an inquiry about whether he was personally involved in the Kennedy assassination. (Seriously.)

Naturally, McIntire made the most of the mortal danger such governmental powers posed to freedom, which his foes painted as “paranoia and conspiracies.”  But Ruotsila’s judgment on all this is straightforward: As “bizarre as McIntire sometimes sounded, the fact was that he was under siege and was being targeted.” McIntire had, indeed, sometimes gone as far as to call for investigations into his foes. But “never had he done what liberals now started doing to him—advocating and lobbying for silencing him on the air by federal order.”

McIntire thus set the template for the Religious Right, both in his tactics and in his sense of grievance about the government—but he would not be the new movement’s leader. Francis Schaeffer’s returned to his mentor’s ways in the late 1970s, helping to galvanize the New Christian Right. Jerry Falwell was not simply a fundamentalist cut from the same cloth as McIntire: he was also a correspondent, a supporter, and a fellow victim of government overreach. During the Carter administration, the IRS took action against Falwell, which “precipitated the cancellation of Falwell’s television program on forty stations and more than a hundred stations’ refusal to carry it.” Falwell’s  ‘Moral Majority’ would embody McIntire’s political vision, even if Falwell betrayed McIntire’s purity instincts by partnering with more moderate ‘evangelicals.’ Still, McIntire’s populist methods, his use of boycotts and petitions, his use of radio all became parts of the Religious Right’s arsenal, along with his use of grievances to animate support on his behalf.

This history is the indispensable backdrop for understanding why the Bob Jones decision so threatened conservative Christians. While evangelicals indisputably have a less-than-exemplary record on questions of race, their own history within the South is not necessarily identical or equivalent to the history of the Religious Right. The most charitable interpretation of Bob Jones is that the Religious Right defended the wrong practice for the right reasons, namely, the freedom of religious institutions to govern themselves.  But given the extensive anxiety about the IRS, the FCC, and other federal government efforts to impinge upon fundamentalist preachers, almost any similar case would have generated the same kind of outrage. The history of the Religious Right can be reduced to defending racial purity only if the 1970s and Carl McIntire simply never happened.  

We shouldn’t let the religious right off the hook, but we should criticize them fairly.

The Religious Right should have seen this coming, of course. It was inevitable that in signing up with Trump, they would be viewed as responsible for what happens while he is in office. And so they should be. But being held responsible for what his other supporters do and say is a different matter. While it is politically expedient for progressives to pursue such a narrative, it is immensely dangerous to force the Religious Right to carry the cross of the Alt Right. They are not natural bedfellows—and those who oppose both should wish to see them divided against each other, and not united in their grievances against progressives.

The reasons for this are many, but I’ll name two. First, the alt-right is a virus that, once set loose, may prove far more vicious and violent than the Religious Right ever did. While I have no doubt it is tempting for progressives to pursue the death of the Religious Right by such means, the unintended collateral damage of such an effort could be considerable. Viruses are not so easily controlled once released into the wild as we might think. Progressives once shouted repeatedly that traditional marriage supporters were on the “wrong side of history” as a way of pre-emptively undermining their confidence. The strategy was effective, as it is far harder to hold onto your views as a minority. But if the Alt Right is bad, why embolden them by perpetuating their hopes that they will have a home within the institutions of the Religious Right?

Such is the prudential reason. But there is one further principle that ought to restrain progressives: charity. Two groups aligned upon the same candidate, but for very different reasons and aims. Collapsing those reasons together not only creates an intellectual muddle: It undermines the social conditions for true and genuine self-reflection within the Religious Right about what they have wrought on America. Such a tactic contributes to social distrust and division, inasmuch as it over-accuses and so emboldens Religious Right leaders to reject all the rest of the critiques that will doubtlessly come their way the next four years. Keeping apart constituencies that Donald Trump (somehow, for now) holds together is an act of civic friendship—and we are in a great need of those these days.

The fabric of American society has been rent apart for the past thirty years, and the Religious Right has been centrally—though by no means solely—responsible for that. And yet as contentious and as divisive as the culture war has been, progressives and conservatives could plausibly unite around the proposition that the alt-right’s aspirations and ethos represent a serious and grave step backward for American life. Such common ground will not undo the ill will the past thirty years have generated—but it could be the start of a mutual effort to stitch together again the fraying stitches of our common life.

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Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.