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Publisher's Summary

A surprising and disturbing origin story

There is a commonly accepted story about the rise of the Religious Right in the United States. It goes like this: With righteous fury, American evangelicals entered the political arena as a unified front to fight the legality of abortion after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.

The problem is this story simply isn’t true.

Largely ambivalent about abortion until the late 1970s, evangelical leaders were first mobilized not by Roe v. Wade but by Green v. Connally, a lesser-known court decision in 1971 that threatened the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory institutions - of which there were several in the world of Christian education at the time. When the most notorious of these schools, Bob Jones University, had its tax-exempt status revoked in 1976, evangelicalism was galvanized as a political force and brought into the fold of the Republican Party. Only later, when a more palatable issue was needed to cover for what was becoming an increasingly unpopular position following the civil rights era, was the moral crusade against abortion made the central issue of the movement now known as the Religious Right. 

In this greatly expanded argument from his 2014 Politico article “The Real Origins of the Religious Right”, Randall Balmer guides the listener along the convoluted historical trajectory that began with American evangelicalism as a progressive force opposed to slavery, then later an isolated apolitical movement in the mid-20th century, all the way through the 2016 election in which 81 percent of white evangelicals coalesced around Donald Trump for president. The pivotal point, Balmer shows, was the period in the late 1970s when American evangelicals turned against Jimmy Carter - despite his being one of their own, a professed “born-again” Christian - in favor of the Republican Party, which found it could win their loyalty through the espousal of a single issue. With the implications of this alliance still unfolding, Balmer’s account uncovers the roots of evangelical watchwords like “religious freedom” and “family values” while getting to the truth of how this movement began - explaining, in part, what it has become.

©2021 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (P)2021 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

What listeners say about Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right

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Needs more nuance, but basic thesis is right

Summary: An expansion of his 2014 Politico article.

This is a very short book that is an expansion of a well-known and controversial article. I listened to the book, and it was less than 2 hours. In paper, it is 128 pages, but those cannot be dense pages.

The rough thesis is that the rise of the religious right was not originally because of concern over abortion or gay rights as the story is sometimes told, but because of the IRS investigation or religious schools' segregation stances. On the narrow thesis, I think that it is hard to argue against race playing a role. Segregation academies, as they are sometimes called, were a response to public school integration requirements, and these Christian schools, which just happened to usually be all white, just happened to appear in the years following Brown v Board. By 1970 (following an IRS rule change), the IRS started to research the rise of these schools and sent requests to the school to ask about their integration policies. Many schools obfuscated or allowed in a small group of minority students to avoid IRS investigation. But Bob Jones and a few others schools were vocal in their segregation. After several initial court cases, the IRS revoked Bob Jones' tax exemption in 1976. Eventually, there was a Supreme Court case in 1983. (Ronald Reagan had a campaign stop at Bob Jones in 1980. George W Bush had a campaign stop in 2000. Also in 2000, Bob Jones University revoked its ban on interracial dating. In 2017, Bob Jones University regained its tax exemption.)

Up until the early 1970s, there was not a strong political movement within the religious right. Some Evangelicals were trying to raise concerns about abortion, but it was not a significant issue. The SBC had a weak resolution in support of allowing limited abortion in 1971. It was not until 1980 that the SBC had a resolution clearly opposing abortion.  The Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern in the fall of 1973 did not mention abortion at all.

Balmer is broadly right in the basic thesis that racial concerns were one of the contributing factors that gave rise to the religious right. I think there was a bit more nuance and detail in Bad Faith than in the Politico article, but I think there should still have been more nuance and detail. This is a concise book, but if he was clearer about how limited his claims are, I think this would be a better book. I know that many understood the Politico article to have a more expansive thesis, something like, "abortion was never really a concern of the religious right, it was always just covert racism all along." That more expansive thesis would be too strong, but I think that the more expansive thesis is a misreading of the article facilitated in part by Balmer not limiting his claims more clearly.

My complaints here are similar to my complaints about White Evangelical Racism. Butler was clear early on that she was talking about a subset of Evangelicals and not all Evangelicals. But at the same time, there was not really enough detail or investigation about why some Evangelicals were more comfortable being complicit in racism or openly embracing segregation. Similarly, in Bad Faith, the thesis about concerns over government investigations of Christian schools around segregation does not spend enough time investigating the various reasons the IRS investigation may have been concerning to a variety of Evangelicals. Many areas, especially in the rural north, did not have Christian schools in the area at all, regardless of segregation status. Some Evangelicals were opposed to segregation but also were concerned about the precedent of regulation of the tax-exempt status of churches based on belief.

A more nuanced investigation would not necessarily undermine the main point that Evangelicals in the religious right (and today) are often willing to work with other Evangelicals that are more overtly embracing forms of racism that they would personally do not embrace. Part of the problem here is that we cannot simply assume a shared definition of racism. For example, racism among White Evangelicals is largely thought of as solely individual animus against individuals of a different race. Black and other racial minority Christians tend to think of the idea of racism more expansively and primarily think of it as a cultural system or institutional reality as well as individual animus.

The strong reaction against Balmer's original piece, I think, was largely based not just on a more expansive understanding of Balmer's thesis, although I think that is part, but also on the individualistic understanding of racism. By saying that race was an important part of the development of the religious right, Balmer was not saying that all, or most, Evangelicals involved were individually racist in all their interactions. Instead, like Jemar Tisby's main point in Color of Compromise, some Christians have opposed racism in all of its forms throughout the history of the United States. But most Christians were willing to be complicit with a culture that practiced a form of racial hierarchy. Or, if they did not actively support a racial hierarchy, they were unwilling to oppose that racial hierarchy enough to end it.

This is a form of complicity that all of us as Christians are involved in every day. We do not endorse slavery, but most of us are not actively investigating our chocolate or our electronics, or other products to ensure that they have no involvement with slave labor. That is not active support of modern slavery, but there is a level of complicity because it is fairly well known that the Chinese are enslaving ethnic minorities and using their labor for manufacturing and that the labor-intensive parts of chocolate production have had a history of the use of slave labor. Or, we may not actively be trying to destroy the environment, but our lifestyles contribute to climate change; we are complicit.  As Christians, we need to become more comfortable admitting complicity in communal, cultural, or systemic sin, and then also become more active in addressing that systemic sin.

If you are unfamiliar with Balmer's basic argument, I would read the original Politico article. If you are hoping that this book would be much more nuanced and investigate the reasons why some would have been concerned about the government investigation of Christian schools, even if they were opposed to segregated schooling (let's be honest, many White Evangelicals in the 1970-80s would have thought was within the rights of the school to discriminate because they also had an individualist free-market view of contractual law). I wanted this book to be better than it was. It was more detailed and nuanced than the article, but it wasn't as good as I thought it should have been.

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So glad that I listened!

It truly helped me to understand how we got here as a country, and the rise of Christian Nationalism

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Post hoc, ergo propter hoc!

Shockingly poor research, full of strawman arguments, logical fallacies, and confirmation bias. It is obvious that Mr. Balmer has an axe to grind and attempts to retcon history in effort to achieve some sort of personal catharsis about the 2016 election. He conflates issues, affirms consequents, and performs any and all mental gymnastics he has to in order to arrive at his predetermined conclusions. He conflates evangelical leaders from 40+ years ago with evangelicals that weren't even born yet and have no connection with the people or causes he asserts that drive them. The book is remarkable in only two regards.
1. That it somehow was published despite its poor logic and evidence... but I guess they publish books on Bigfoot too.
2. That readers cannot see that this is at heart a political book supported by faulty logic and confirmation bias.