Beliefnet
In a previous column I sought to analyze how the Republican primaries revealed the decline of the religious right. Those primaries made it obvious that though it is still potent in places like South Carolina, the religious right has created a sufficient backlash so that it has become an ineffective political base in the pursuit of victory in a national campaign.

This conclusion was supported not just in John McCain's overt attack on the leadership of the religious right, but also in George W. Bush's rapid backpedaling to disassociate himself from the "Bob Jones" mentality following his defeat in Michigan. In light of this trend, it seems appropriate to call to mind how this political constituency came into being in the first place.

The origins of the religious right were clearly in the South. Its leadership is even now made up largely of ordained evangelical and fundamentalist preachers, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson being the two best-known. Its membership base consists principally of white, working-class religious believers who reflect the cultural values of that region.

The first thing to note is that racial prejudice is the unadmitted presence in the background that helped the religious right to emerge as a political force. Prior to the federally ordered changes in the region's racial practices, these white Southerners were members of the democratic solid South. The Roosevelt coalition that came to power in 1932 was made up of labor unions and ethnic minorities in the North, white working class people in the South and intellectuals throughout the country. This coalition rode into dominance in the wake of the Depression which made bread and butter issues the unifying symbol of America's working classes. The Depression also created the path to success for the Democratic Party that had been out of power since the election of Woodrow Wilson to a second term as president in 1916.

The Roosevelt coalition began to show serious strains 16 years later, when Harry Truman in 1948 lost the intellectual left to Henry Wallace and his Progressive Party over the issue of Communism, and he lost the blue-collar white South to Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and his Dixiecrats over the issue of race. Yet despite these losses, Harry Truman still eked out an upset victory over his lackadaisical Republican opponent, Thomas Dewey.

In 1952 and 1956, the nation rested from its weariness with war and post-war dislocation by electing the fatherly Dwight Eisenhower, who sought not change but brought to the Presidency something that came to be called "benign neglect."

But the forces of change unleashed by World War II could not be contained, even by the enormously popular Eisenhower. The Supreme Court passed the desegregation ruling during his years as president, and Eisenhower was forced to uphold the law by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard to insure the peaceful desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School. That episode alone was enough to keep the South leery of the Republican Party a bit longer.

In 1960 the old coalition worked once more to elect by the slimmest of margins John F. Kennedy to the presidency. His Roman Catholic persuasion troubled those evangelical Southerners, but that was tempered by the presence of Southerner Lyndon Johnson on the ticket. Without that concession Kennedy's election would never have been achieved. Kennedy's assassination, however--combined with President Johnson's forcing of a series of civil rights bills through the Congress as a memorial to the fallen president and his appointment of Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice, to the Supreme Court--were enough to bring that coalition tumbling down.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran a "Southern Strategy" in his quest for the Presidency. He was not successful in the election, but he brought an abrupt end to the days when the South could be counted on to be solidly Democratic--and he found that in that white South, racial fears trumped economic interests every time.

Goldwater's Southern appeal was found in his conservative, almost libertarian, hostility to big government. This resonated with the South's devotion to States' Rights, which was nothing but a code word to cover the overt racism that marked their segregated region. It was, after all, the power of the Federal Government that disrupted Southern white life with desegregation and busing court orders.

Nixon turned the Goldwater strategy into victory in 1968 and 1972 with the help of George Wallace, a southern Democratic governor whose war against the national leadership of his party was a revival of the Dixiecrat strategy of 1948. It was clearly racial fears that propelled Wallace into the campaign, but secondary issues were urban rioting (which elicited the cry of "law and order"), the Vietnam War, and the protest movements which flew in the face of the military traditions of the South rooted in the Civil War.

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