There is still today a Southern Baptist Church. More than a century and a half after the Civil War, decades after the Methodists and Presbyterians reunited with their Yankee neighbors, America’s largest Protestant denomination remains defined, right down to the name over the door, by an 1845 split over slavery.
Southern states have never supported multi-party politics. From their founding, their white majorities have channeled virtually all “legitimate” political expression through a single, racially-aligned party. Over the past fifty years as the overt defense of white supremacy has become politically problematic, maintaining that monolithic political control has been a greater challenge. Religion has played a critical role in allowing white communities in the South to continue to wage a “culture war” that was lost under a different banner.
In 1956 there may have been no more influential figure in the Southern Baptist Convention than W.A. Criswell, the pastor of the enormous First Baptist Church in Dallas. The Supreme Court had recently struck down racial segregation in schools in the Brown v. Board of Education case. A conflict was building between the Eisenhower Administration and the Governor of Arkansas over a plan to desegregate Little Rock’s public schools. Dr. Martin Luther King was organizing bus boycotts in Montgomery. It was not certain where Baptist congregations would line up on the emerging movement for racial justice. Criswell took the opportunity to clarify the matter.
At a convention in South Carolina Criswell turned his popular fire and brimstone style on the “blasphemous and unbiblical” agitators who threatened the Southern way of life. Southern Baptists were not alone in defending segregation, at least not in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement. What made the Baptists unique in their long, stubborn defense of white supremacy was the relative independence from any centralized authority and the absence of any accountability to congregations and officials outside the South.
Baptists felt no such pressure and the independence of their congregations left them functioning very much like the entrepreneurial “evangelical” churches that dotted the southern landscape. These unaffiliated institutions, relics of the days when settlement, civilization, and accountability were very limited in the South, were the main competitors to the Baptists for attendance and money.
Instead of feeling pressure from Northern coreligionists concerned about the violence of Jim Crow, Baptist ministers and congregations mostly felt squeezed by competition from ever more radical institutions that popped up like hot dog stands whenever someone felt the “spirit” move them. Southern Baptists had nothing to gain and everything to lose from taking a courageous stand for justice. With very few exceptions, they didn’t. Those few congregations that did, like University Baptist Church in Austin, faced enormous difficulty and wielded no influence in the wider denomination, barely clinging to their place in the communion.
Criswell’s 1956 speech in South Carolina contained all the usual racist invective, but there is an element of his argument that was eerily prescient. He described an approach to preserving white supremacy which would outlast Jim Crow. In language that managed to avoid explicit racism, he built the primary political weapon of the culture wars.
Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision…to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made – a land of the free and the home of the brave.
Long after the battle over whites’ only bathrooms had been lost, Houston’s evangelical community can continue the war over the “bathroom bill” using a rhetorical structure Criswell and others built. That same machinery is operating in other areas with explicit religious support.
That legacy continues to haunt the South. Criswell’s rhetorical framework, repeated over and over again by religious and political figures as the fight over segregation played out, retains a powerful pull. Separated now from its explicit racist origins it continues to provide leverage in the lingering fight to preserve what remains of white supremacy.
In August of 1980, Republican Presidential nominee Ronald Reagan visited Criswell’s church for a campaign rally. Reagan could not have anticipated what his opening to the newly rebranded Southern segregationists would mean for the country and the Republican Party. There were many Republican figures of different persuasions beginning to emerge in Texas. Reagan chose to honor Criswell. His short-sighted choice, like others made by national Republican figures, would influence the balance of power in a South struggling to determine what would come after segregation.
Texas’ new Republican Lt. Governor is a Southern Baptist talk radio host named Dan Patrick. He is also the state’s most enthusiastic proponent of privatized public schools. Patrick describes this idea as a move toward innovation, a means of liberating the education system to embrace new methods and technologies. Patrick’s innovation is actually very old, first introduced by a fellow Southern Baptist in 1953.
Patrick’s tuition voucher ideas were passed into law in 1954 under pressure from Georgia’s segregationist Governor Herman Talmadge. The purpose of the plan was to ensure that segregation could survive even if the Federal Government intervened. Georgia passed a constitutional amendment that gave the legislature the right to privatize the public school system entirely, replacing it with private, per-student vouchers to attend any institution they chose. The law remained on the books in Georgia until the new Constitution was ratified in 1982.
You can be confident that Patrick will never utter the word “segregation” in the fight to implement Talmadge’s Jim Crow Era plans in modern Texas. Thanks to Rev. Criswell and countless others who learned to cloak their arguments in constitutional and religious terms, he doesn’t have to. As the White Citizens Councils and other institutions of segregation-era political power in the South lost their official legitimacy, religious institutions were ready to pick up the slack.
Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.
Criswell’s rhetoric, adopted so broadly and consistently by Baptists and other evangelicals, helped build a new refuge for Dixiecrats. Deprived of the language used for more than a century to keep whites aligned under single party rule, religious institutions gave those frustrated Dixiecrats a bridge to somewhere, a place to go to be reunited under a new, old banner. Baptists and evangelicals gave white southerners their key to a new fortress in a new party. Evangelical religion has become the key to maintaining single party rule in the South after segregation.
Their rising power forced a rebranding of some issues and shifted the political emphasis on some others. On the whole, however, the Dixiecrat agenda has survived with its core intact. Today it is less explicitly racist and more explicitly theocratic, but the fundamental approach to government that evolved under slavery and Jim Crow continues under a banner of “religious freedom.” When Southern Baptist Reverend and Republican Presidential contender Mike Huckabee criticizes Beyonce’s assault on “holiness” it isn’t hard to hear what he’s really talking about.
In 1965, after Johnson’s landmark Civil Rights Act was passed, the Southern Baptists formally abandoned the fight against segregation with a passive statement urging members to obey the law. In 1968 they endorsed desegregation. That same year the Southern Baptists elected Criswell as their leader.
Southern Baptists, in a remarkable break with the past, renounced and apologized for their role in defending slavery…in 1995. The denomination issued an explicit endorsement of the Civil Rights Acts…in 2014. Southern religious fundamentalists, not just the Baptists, have held tightly to every element of white supremacy so long as it retained the slightest patina of credibility, only letting go when those positions became so utterly poisonous as to no longer serve their purposes.
As long as Southern white majorities can be frightened or cajoled into racial solidarity, those states will continue to be dominated by the same monolithic single-party politics that have prevailed from their founding. Decades ago it was blacks and Communists. Recently it was homosexuals. For a while to come it may be Muslims or atheists. Some fearsome alien has always been called on to separate Southern voters from accountable representation. There is no end in sight.
History is a powerful tide, especially when it runs unseen and unacknowledged. Many difficult years lie ahead before the Southern states join the union in a more authentic manner. In the meantime, the influence of the Dixiecrats will continue to drag the Republican Party and interfere with national efforts to embrace the 21st century.