The culture war has always been about race

On Tuesday here, we talked about how the 1980 presidential election was far more shaped by the Cold War than by anything like the contemporary culture war issues that later came to the fore during and after Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Reagan was overwhelmingly popular with the white evangelical voting bloc that today is preoccupied with the “social issues” that they promote as the proper concern of “values voters” — abortion, homosexuality, abortion, birth control, abortion, prayer in schools, and religious liberty (i.e., the liberty to define one’s religion as opposition to abortion and homosexuality). But culture-war concerns were far down the list of reasons why those white evangelical voters supported Reagan in 1980. In 1980, “values voters” were still mainly Cold Warriors — far more concerned with the Russians than with the gays or the baby-killers.

Sen. Jesse Helms accepts the "Proudly Pro-Life" award from the National Right to Life Educational Trust Fund in 1998.
Sen. Jesse Helms accepts the “Proudly Pro-Life” award from the National Right to Life Educational Trust Fund in 1998.

Abortion and homosexuality came later. They were products of Reaganism, not the other way around.

But Reagan’s 1980 campaign was not exclusively about the Cold War. As a candidate, and subsequently as president, Reagan did make one culture-war issue a major theme and subtext of his agenda. He made that clear in an infamous campaign speech in which he, for the first time, declared his support for “states rights” at the Neshoba County Fair, outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

That just so happens to be where the Klan murdered civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964. Those murders were investigated by the FBI, not by local or state law enforcement. The Neshoba County sheriff was actually arrested and accused as part of the murder conspiracy. He was acquitted by an all-white jury in the 1967 trial which was perceived, by many white Mississippi residents, as an insulting instance of federal meddling in what should have been a state and local matter.

So it was not a coincidence that Reagan just happened to visit Neshoba County a dozen years after that trial to deliver a speech endorsing “states’ rights.” Nor was he unaware of the history and enduring use of that euphemism and all that it meant from Calhoun to George Wallace.

Here’s Emory University historian Joseph Crespino discussing that speech in the larger context of the Republican Party’s successful “Southern Strategy” to convert Dixiecrats into Republicans:

The national GOP was trying to strengthen its southern state parties and win support from southern white Democrats. Consider a letter that Michael Retzer, the Mississippi national committeeman, wrote in December 1979 to the Republican national committee. Well before the Republicans had nominated Reagan, the national committee was polling state leaders to line up venues where the Republican nominee might speak. Retzer pointed to the Neshoba County Fair as ideal for winning what he called the “George Wallace inclined voters.”

This Republican leader knew that the segregationist Alabama governor was the symbol of southern white resentment against the civil rights struggle. Richard Nixon had angled to win these voters in 1968 and 1972. Mississippi Republicans knew that a successful Republican candidate in 1980 would have to continue the effort.

On July 31st, just days before Reagan went to Neshoba County, the New York Times reported that the Ku Klux Klan had endorsed Reagan. In its newspaper, the Klan said that the Republican platform “reads as if it were written by a Klansman.” Reagan rejected the endorsement, but only after a Carter cabinet official brought it up in a campaign speech. The dubious connection did not stop Reagan from using segregationist language in Neshoba County.

It was clear from other episodes in that campaign that Reagan was content to let southern Republicans link him to segregationist politics in the South’s recent past. Reagan’s states rights line was prepared beforehand and reporters covering the event could not recall him using the term before the Neshoba County appearance. John Bell Williams, an arch-segregationist former governor who had crossed party lines in 1964 to endorse Barry Goldwater, joined Reagan on stage at another campaign stop in Mississippi. Reagan’s campaign chair in the state, Trent Lott, praised Strom Thurmond, the former segregationist Dixiecrat candidate in 1948, at a Reagan rally, saying that if Thurmond had been elected president “we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.”

So, yeah, that happened. The Southern Strategy worked. Throughout the South, the party of Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens switched places with the party of Calhoun and Andrew Johnson.

And that same Southern Strategy also created the space for the religious right — the large, now uniformly partisan white evangelical voting bloc. Those white evangelical voters today — not just in the South, but throughout the country — are overwhelmingly Republican. Ask them why and they’ll tell you, honestly and accurately, that it’s mainly because of the current roster of culture-war issues — abortion, homosexuality, abortion, etc.

Those issues have now replaced the original “states’ rights” issues that initially won over so many of those same voters a generation ago, before the genital-based culture war had arisen to political significance. Back then, in the years leading up to the 1980 election, the leaders of the nascent religious right were people like Jerry Falwell. And in 1980, Falwell wasn’t yet a culture warrior. He was, rather, someone better described by Retzer’s cautious phrase, a “George Wallace inclined voter.”

Here’s political scientist Daniel Schlozman summarizing how “The Christian Right changed how we talked about race“:

The Christian Right emerged from school desegregation — and forged a movement around taxes and religious freedom. In 1978, the Internal Revenue Service sought to revoke tax exemptions for schools formed as white-flight havens from the public schools. The backlash was overwhelming. The IRS received more than a quarter of a million letters against the proposed rules. Congressional hearings reframed the issue from an attack on segregation to an attack on religion by meddlesome bureaucrats. As Newt Gingrich, then a freshman representative, explained, “The IRS should collect taxes — not enforce social policy.”

Early in 1979, Jerry Falwell formed Moral Majority, the premier organization for the new Christian Right. Falwell ran a segregated academy that would almost certainly have run afoul of the IRS guidelines. In 1967, the same year the local public schools desegregated, Lynchburg Christian Academy opened its doors. As of the fall of 1979, it had an all-white faculty, and only five African-Americans among the 1,147 students.

In August 1979, Congress inserted riders into the appropriations bill for the Treasury Department to prevent the IRS from implementing the proposed regulations. A fight over desegregation had galvanized white evangelicals to oppose meddlesome bureaucrats, and the movement was born.

Today, “religious liberty” is a euphemism arguing for the right of white Christian bakers to refuse service to gay couples seeking wedding cakes. Back then, “religious liberty” was a euphemism for the right of white Christian schools to refuse to accept black students.

Reagan was elected president in 1980 thanks in no small measure to white Christian voters who supported him due to what Crespino delicately describes as his willingness to be linked “to segregationist politics in the South’s recent past.” But by the end of Reagan’s second term, he and his party enjoyed the overwhelming support of white evangelicals, including many who held little conscious regard for that old-style segregationist politics. They didn’t, en masse, become Republicans because the GOP had embraced the politics of the old segregationists. They became Republicans, en masse, because of abortion and (later) gay rights.

The anti-feminist genital-focused culture war issues seemed to have completely replaced the earlier anti-civil-rights race-focused culture war issues.

But what does “replaced” mean there? Sometimes we replace something by getting rid of it altogether and then putting something new in its place. Other times, we replace something with a stand-in, like the way golfers replace their ball on the green with a coin. That marker occupies the same place as the ball it re-placed, but it does so in order to signify the continuing presence and existence of the prior thing.

Which kind of replacing happened here? Are the sex-obsessed culture wars of the post-Reagan years a substitute for the race-obsessed culture wars of the pre-Reagan years? Or are they a proxy for that same old argument?

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