Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Religious Right

"Fresh Air" from NPR has been doing a series of programmes over the last week all on the theme of presidential politics, in anticipation of the upcoming Democrat and Republican party conventions. One very interesting interview they re-broadcast was with Randall Balmer, a priest and researcher who is author of the Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism and editor-at-large of Christianity Today. Balmer has written a book called God in the White House, which studies the surprisingly recent overt 'religionization' of American politics. I heard the interview when it was first broadcast in earlier this year, but was perhaps listening more carefully this time.

What really struck me was the somewhat bizarre nature of event that Balmer credits as the catalyst for the formation of what we now know of as the "Religious Right". Most presume it was Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that made abortion legal in the US. But that was in 1973 and, as Balmer points out, in 1974 the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the most conservative mainstream religious major organisations, actually passed a resolution supporting the right to legal abortions. Rather, Balmer argues, it was the rescinding of the tax exempt status of the evangelical Bob Jones University for its overt racism that led to the organization of the Religious Right. This was a drawn out legal process that was fought through the late 1970s and culminated in a Supreme Court decision in 1983 that supported the IRS's position against the university - basically that a racist organization could not be classified as "charitable" and therefore it could not qualify for tax-exemption as charities do. The Federal Government seen to be attacking a religious organisation, was the spark that lit the fire on right, bringing the evangelicals back into American politics for the first time since their defeat at the Scopes Trial in 1925, although he notes that it was actually the presidency of the born-again Jimmy Carter that actually set the wider stage for the reintroduction of overt religious language in American politics.

The university rescinded its ban on inter-racial dating only in 2000. It maintains a ban on homosexuality and has never re-applied for tax exemption.

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