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How the Christian Right Borrowed the Rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement

Which groups can legitimately claim to be minority in a hostile world? Who is oppressed and who is just complaining? In a culture that loves to shift that blame, where American soldiers who tortured Iraqi POW’s claimed to be victims themselves, where does it end? If every group is a minority, and every person a victim, what does this say about the appeal of minority status in America?

The great achievement of the civil rights movement was that it forced many reluctant whites to realize that African-Americans were oppressed and changes had to be made. This success spawned a wave of imitators from every point on the American political spectrum. Therefore it should not be surprising that, starting in the late 1980s, the Christian Right became the first conservative group to claim oppressed minority status. The Christian Right reached the height of its power when it declared itself a descendant of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. While it seems astonishing that white middle class Christians could claim to be oppressed, evangelical theology is filled with such rhetoric (the Left Behind books are a good example). Scholars who study these two groups as only political organizations miss their religious similarities.

When evangelical Christians reasserted themselves politically in the mid 1970s, they were triumphant, and their rhetoric demonstrated their optimism. They created the Moral Majority, Christian Voice, and Religious Roundtable; organizations with names that were meant to project power and leadership. Triumphalism, however, usually does not work if the self-described majority is really a small minority. In 1982 the Moral Majority claimed more than five million members. How a group that totaled less than 3 percent of the population could claim to be a majority proved to be the fatal, unanswerable question. The Christian Right of the Ronald Reagan era was never the power broker that they claimed to be. Reagan took their votes but ignored their agenda and the Christian Right’s resulting disillusionment led to a new wave of activism. This new phase was more successful than the earlier incarnation and part of the reason was that it purposefully copied the civil rights movement. There were two Christian Right groups that were explicit in their adoption of minority rhetoric and they were also the most successful groups of the 1990s; the Christian Coalition and Operation Rescue.

Pat Robertson was the most visible leader of this new “Christians as a minority” argument. After his campaign for president ended in 1988, he increasingly used the rhetoric of oppression to gain sympathy for his cause. Robertson compared Christians in America to Jewish Holocaust victims during a discussion of the film The Last Temptation of Christ. He claimed, “once you assault what people believe, like Hitler did the Jews in Germany, the next thing you do is go after them. . . . that’s the first opening shot, if you will, in the war to destroy the Christian population in America and the world.”

While Ralph Reed, now a campaign strategist for President George W. Bush, ran the Christian Coalition he explicitly compared the Christian Right to the civil rights movement. Reed’s 1994 book Politically Incorrect contained chapter titles like "To The Back of the Bus" and "The New Amos and Andy." He claimed that Christians were constantly “under attack whenever they enter the public arena.” While he did not believe, as Robertson did, that Christians were being systematically persecuted, Reed claimed that conservative Christians had been “viewed as less than full citizens.”

To help maintain this image, the predominantly white Christian Coalition attempted to reach out to African-Americans. In 1977 Reed announced the creation of the Samaritan Project, which was an outreach to traditionally Democratic African-Americans. Among the goals announced at a Coalition run “Congress on racial justice and reconciliation” were obtaining federal funds for low income area schools and scholarships for disadvantaged youth. The Coalition pledged to raise $10 million to help rebuild black churches that had been attacked by arsonists. However within months of Reed’s departure in September 1997 the project was cancelled.

The one Christian Right group that tried to surpass the Christian Coalition’s efforts to sound and act like the civil rights movement was the pro-life group Operation Rescue. The group was founded in 1987 by Randall Terry who had read books by Martin Luther King, Jr. and was influenced by the documentary on the civil rights movement "Eyes on the Prize." He liked the success of King’s tactics and hoped that the positive memory of the African-American freedom movement could help mainstream his group.

Operation Rescue’s tactics were taken directly from civil rights movement protests. Abortion clinics were converged on by sometimes hundreds of protesters who blocked the doors, while singing the civil rights movement anthem “We Shall Overcome” or other songs. Protesters were asked to read and sign a card that pledged that the participant would, “commit to be peaceful and nonviolent in both word and deed.” These cards, and similar ones used by the Christian Coalition, were based on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s pledge cards. He claimed his ideas “came directly out of the civil rights activities of Dr. King. By the mid 1990s Operation Rescue had led hundreds of protests and tens of thousands of demonstrators had been arrested. Operation Rescue’s biggest problem was that it never faced a figure like Sheriff “Bull” Connor who defied the federal government and attacked African-American protesters in the 1960s. Instead, Terry faced a unified local, state and federal government, who eventually drove Operation Rescue out of business. While Operation Rescue may not have been totally successful no matter what tactics it used, claiming a historical link to King gave the group a boost it would have not received with any other method.

The Christian Right used many of the same philosophical and religious ideas that empowered the civil rights movement. The most obvious place to notice similarities was in their use of scripture to defend their causes. Leaders of both groups looked at the Old Testament as examples. King used the Prophet Amos’s hope of seeing justice flow like a mighty stream and Terry used Psalm 82 and its call to rescue “the weak and fatherless.” They also both quoted theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazis for his resistance to Adolf Hitler. Importantly, both movements were led by ministers who saw their missions as divinely guided and this gave them confidence in the face of adversity. So while many outsiders did believe Robertson’s claims, many evangelicals believe that they live in a world that is openly hostile to them.

The Christian Right was not the moral equivalent to the civil rights movement on a number of levels. Americans respond to minority rhetoric, but the words have to be backed up with near universal acceptance of a group’s minority status in order to have a long term impact. Not being able to pray silently in a public classroom is one thing; not being allowed to vote is another. The fact that Christian Right leaders decided to use the rhetoric of the civil rights movement legitimized both the tactics and cause of the struggle for racial equality even if they did not intend to do so. The memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the struggle he led was so powerful that it was only a matter of time before it was adapted by other groups who tried to make it fit their own purposes.