A Theology for Racism: Southern Fundamentalists and the Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

Scarcely anyone expected it. For more than fifty years evangelicals kept studiously aloof from American politics. They sang hymns and tended to souls, but left the burden of legislation and social policy to their more worldly counterparts in the Protestant mainstream ... that their own pastors would lead a political movement seemed out of the question." (1)

So Princeton sociologists Robert Liebman and Robert Wuthnow begin their analysis of the New Christian Right and its phenomenal political impact in America during the late twentieth century. They describe the rise of such organizations as the Moral Majority, Religious Round Table, and Christian Voice, and the efforts of political activists to mobilize fundamentalist Christians, particularly independent Baptists, for their cause. (2) These fundamentalists coalesced in response to various social and political issues including abortion, homosexuality, the Equal Rights Amendment, public school prayer, and the trend toward "secular humanism" in contemporary American life. They hoped to reclaim America as a Christian commonwealth based on the teaching of Scripture and "traditional family values." Liebman, Wuthnow, and other analysts of the New Christian Right seem particularly impressed that the movement appeared on the scene "largely without warning or anticipation." (3) Indeed, they observe that "the fact that evangelicals had refrained from politics for so long meant that (their) appearance was something truly exceptional." (4)

Such observations seem generally correct. Evangelical/Fundamentalists currently demonstrate a political activism heretofore unknown among persons of their religious persuasion. Present trends did not develop "without warning," however. Fundamentalists have been speaking out on moral and political issues throughout most of this century. In fact, this study suggests that the response of southern fundamentalists to the civil rights movement of the 1960s serves as an important guide for understanding their involvement in the New Christian Right of the 1980s. Southern fundamentalists, particularly independent Baptists, provided significant leadership to the Moral Majority and other such organizations from the beginning. (5) Any understanding of the contemporary movement cannot overlook the earlier social and political attitudes expressed by southern fundamentalists in response to the civil rights movement.

This study suggests that the civil rights movement created a cultural and religious crisis that compelled southern fundamentalists to respond. At the same time, their response to particular social, political, and racial imperatives was filtered through their self-proclaimed fundamentalist ideology. While fundamentalism itself is not inherently racist, the southern fundamentalists cited here expressed their own racist sentiments largely through the medium of their fundamentalist theology.

Southern fundamentalism is difficult to define. Clearly, it is no monolithic movement. In a 1986 article on southern fundamentalism, historian Samuel Hill Jr. delineated several types of evangelicals evident within the framework of southern religion. These include the "Truth party," concerned for correct belief; the "Conversion party," primarily interested in personal evangelism; the "Spirituality party" stressing continuous experience of the Divine presence; and the "Service party," whose representatives aim at racial and communal reconciliation. (6)

In general, this study is concerned with what Hill calls the "Truth party," the primary representatives of fundamentalist dogma in the South. These individuals emphasize "correct belief," eschew cooperation with those who deviate from doctrinal conformity, tend to be "anti-culture, and live and die by precision in definition and behavior." (7) Theirs is a separatist fundamentalism characterized by a theology of overagainstness in their response to other Christian traditions. …