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

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Mr. Marley is Assistant Professor of History, Vanguard University.

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.

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andy mahan - 9/18/2006

How out of touch. Marley is either trying to revise history, or is ignorant of it. Christian political groups after the 1960’s did not pattern themselves after the strategies used to gain full civil rights for blacks. Christian ideals and principles WERE THE BASIS of the civil rights movement. Christianity was an integral part of the civil rights movement the absence of which would have prolonged the suffering of southern blacks for many more years. The most notable figure of the time, Martin Luther King was a BAPTIST minister. He worked with other CHRISTIAN churches and organizations to coordinate marches, boycotts and protests.

From the inception of this great nation, it was the CHRISTIAN organizations and churches that started and propelled the anti-slavery movement from the first settlers to the civil war to the protests of the 1960’s and including the work of Christian churches today to attain equality for all.

No Christians that I know of assume the “victim” role as has been made so popular by practically every other group in the U.S. That mindset is antithetical to Christianity itself. Not that Christians are not discriminated against and forced to endure pain for their love of Jesus Christ, (in fact there are few other groups that are so openly and routinely attacked) but they don’t consider themselves victims in the ways that, say women and blacks have portrayed themselves in order to receive the wide array of special consideration under the law. If one were to study the line of Supreme Court cases over the past 50 years the evidence is overwhelming that Christians have lost much of there past rights and liberties in the free exercise of their religion.

As a result of these encroachments on the rights of Christians, people like Rex Reed and Pat Roberson have organized efforts to stop the further erosion of our first amendment rights. It is not that the tactics used are borrowed from the 1960’s, because the 1960’s borrowed them from times before, and they were implemented only by the grace of God and the involvement of Christians.

andy mahan - 9/18/2006

Thanks for your input Mr. Luker, very insightful. Your claim that “Had it been a "Christian identity" movement in any sense, it would have shunned such support” [that of non-Christians?] is an obvious fallacy. Today’s anti-Christian liberal establishment hardly existed in the 60’s. If not viewed through the prism of the more recent liberal disdain of Christianity one could not come to that conclusion. After all, liberal thought in the United States originated in Christianity, thus Christian ethics and the civil rights movement were, and are, inextricably linked. No condition of the 1960’s would have necessarily required that the Christian leaders of the civil rights movement “shun” support of non-Christians. Are not fundamental Christians the most loyal supporters of Israel? To Christendom there can be no greater difference than the rejection that Jesus Christ is God, made man. Yet Christians recognize the common beliefs with their Jewish brothers and have built on that. Even today Christian groups have united with various others against oppression of all kinds. Christians may not agree with them entirely but build on commonality of interest. It was the Catholic Church that first organized interdenominational councils and remains a major financial and spiritual supporter of them. Christians do not actively “shun” any group, they are accepting of all groups. Conversely, various groups do actively “shun” Christian ethics. The relatively recent liberal rejection of all things Christian began with the differences surrounding abortion and has expanded with the liberal embracing of relativism and the rejection of the absolutist ideology of Christianity.

Luker’s statement, “Mahan's argument utterly ignores the degree to which the crm embraced the support of all sorts of people who made no claim to being "Christian", is pretty much on mark with the following proviso. Mahan chose not to ignore, nor to detail, the participation of every non-Christian person or group. Mahan thought that that would have been outside the scope of the article. Still, Mahan thought most would understand that every single person involved in the civil rights movement was not Christian. Mahan misinterpreted who is his audience. Nonetheless, as I said originally, Christians, Christian ethics, and Christian organization were by far the largest positive contributor to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Lasting today, black Christian churches remain the hub of political activity in the black community.

Finally any honest review of pop culture, legal history or social history attests to my statement that Christian groups certainly do not present themselves in the perpetual victim roles as so many of the minorities (homosexuals, blacks) and majorities (women).

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Merely for the benefit of anyone interested...

Both the Prohibition movement and the W.C.T.U. yet exist. For information concerning the Prohibition movement one might go to http://www.Prohibition.org &/or Prohibitionists.org Why two websites? Because there is an battle royal being waged for control of the Prohibition Party, which is on the ballot in some states.

The W.C.T.U. is (or at least was a handful of years ago)headquartered in Minneapolis.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005


40 million (and counting) in America alone victims doesn't qualify as genocide? Well O.K., then how about the infantcide of generations of Americans?

A baby in the womb isn't human? Look at your own children & ask yourself "What if?"

Christians aren't being oppressed? Try telling that to the Christians of the Sudan, Indonesia, etc. And here at home there isn't a concerted effort being mounted by the Left to drive all expressions of religion out of the public square? Us Christians are told time and again that we should not formulate political opinions based upon our Christian consciences. That to do so is an infringement of the separation of Church & state.

Well, when our family became established here in 1732 there was little separation between Church & state.

As any student of education in America should know, the extensive Catholic education system was established by Catholic immigrants because the pervasive Protestant ethic that prevailed in the government-operated schools posed a strong threat to the handing down of the Faith from generation to generation. This militant anti-Christianity is a comparative new occurence.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

David Salmonson,

Jews have had to put up with "hassles around high holidays?" Perhaps part of the reason that is so is that Jews comprise less than 3% of our population, but Christians comprise,depending on who is doing the counting,anywhere from 47% to 52% of the population.

Moreover,this country was, each of the colonies were, established by and for Christians. The majority should submit to the demands of each minority group that wanders to these shores that their cultures should replace ours? In addition, fortunately, us Christians are increasing both as a percentage of the population and in absolute numbers, albeit slowly.

If you don't like it here,then perhaps you should consider exercising your freedom to leave, eh? Do send me a postcard, will you? Please choose someplace sunny & warm, so I'll emjoy visiting you,sponging a beer off you.

Whether or no you move elsewhere, it sometimes appears that the columist Joe Sobran was correct some years ago, when he wrote, "This Protestant culture is brilliant, but it seems to lack the will to survive. Consequently, it appears destined to be a short-lived society."

Despite his pessimism, it may be that enough, by & large Catholic, Hispanics will immigrate to salvage this nation from the destruction being wrought by the secularists among us.


Jonathan A Liberman - 6/16/2004

"Moreover,this country was, each of the colonies were, established by and for Christians. The majority should submit to the demands of each minority group that wanders to these shores that their cultures should replace ours? In addition, fortunately, us Christians are increasing both as a percentage of the population and in absolute numbers, albeit slowly."

If you would like to continue on with this basis, then we should take into consideration the native americans, whos culture was practicaly taken over, and forgotten, by the christians coming over from england.

Also, yes, this country was founded by christians, however, they came here to escape religious opression and oddly enough, welcomed others here for the same purpose. This country is not a christian country. The majority may be christian, but that does not make it so. Our goverment is not, or atleast, should not, be defined of religion.

Please excuse my some what scattered thoughts, I am currently lacking in sleep.

Jonathan A Liberman - 6/16/2004

"Moreover,this country was, each of the colonies were, established by and for Christians. The majority should submit to the demands of each minority group that wanders to these shores that their cultures should replace ours? In addition, fortunately, us Christians are increasing both as a percentage of the population and in absolute numbers, albeit slowly."

Jerry Lee Bowyer - 6/6/2004

The author gives a lot of history of the crm, but almost none of the origins of the religous right. If he had this question would be clearer. In it's early phases the RR was indeed a persecuted group. The movement began as a resistance movement to harsh treatment of home and Christian schoolers and attempts to tax churches in violation of the 1st amendment. Later all of this withdrew and was, apparently, forgotten. The religous right became more of a cultural transformation movement and less of a 'leave us alone' movement.

David Lion Salmanson - 6/5/2004

Yeah, starting with Morris Dees. But I see them as pretty similar. My beef here isn't so much with his politics (although I dislike them) it's his vision of The Church. Congregations as big as his simply cannot minister to the flock. Rightly or wrongly, he's just another Aimee Semple McPhereson to me until I get some hard proof otherwise. He's not Jim and Tammy Faye but maybe Al Sharpton is the best comparison.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/5/2004

Mr. Livingston,

"Love it or leave it?" Please. If you don't like open discouse, religious diversity and change, perhaps you'd prefer someplace where they didn't exist?

You have no idea how much real minorities adapt to your majority culture: what we ask is usually a pittance of accomodation in return, and the rights due to all citizens.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/5/2004

Dave, You're a better man than the one who tells David Salmanson to leave the United States if he finds Christian hegemony here bothersome. You fought in Viet Nam with men and women who were Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists and none of the above and I suspect that you believe that their service entitled them to a voice in public affairs here -- even if their voice complained about some elements of our national life. I'd broaden that to say that responsible American citizens have every right to express themselves without being bothered by you telling them to get out of the country if they don't like it. You owe David Salmanson an apology.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/4/2004

David, You and I can cross swords or sword crosses about this again, but you explain to me how Falwell can have fooled so many African Americans in Lynchburg that he is pastor to more of them than any Afro-preacher in town. Just because he is on the wrong side of most political issues doesn't necessarily mean that he is corrupt. Self-interested? More than anyone else? I know a lot of c*****n s**t liberals who can't be counted on if their green is threatened.

David Lion Salmanson - 6/4/2004

Well Bill O'Reilly and his listeners claim it almost every night on his radio talk show. What they don't udnerstand is that the examples they provide are the types of things us non-Christians have been putting up with on a daily basis as long as I've been alive. Just one example, one caller complained a teacher assigned homework over Easter weekend. Jews routinely have to negotiate all kinds of hassles around Passover, the High Holidays etc.. And despite recent name changes, we all know it is Christmas vacation, not "Winter break." Can't display a cross on your desk? Tell it to the Sikh who had to cut his hair and ditch his turban to keep his job. Christains are finally treated like everybody else and some (actually a powerful, politically connected minority with strong ties to the Republican party) cry discrimination. Feh.

And Ralph, the day Falwell does something that is not in Falwell's best interest is the day I believe his change of views on race is genuine. Figuring out that black folks have green too is not the same thing as repentance.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 6/3/2004

"No Christians that I know of assume the “victim” role as has been made so popular by practically every other group in the U.S."

What about those Christian Right leaders that claim that Christians are oppressed, by the "liberal" media, by the ACLU, by gay people and feminists?

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 6/3/2004

You make some excellent points in your post, particularly with regards to the dominant motif of Christian America, however, I would respectfully include a few comments:

1) “there is no unified "Christian right" any more than there was a unified "civil rights movement.”

Your points is well taken and accurate however, like the Civil Rights movement, the lack of unity does not mean we cannot glean certain generalizations about the rhetoric or struggle, both of which shared many common themes, just as the contemporary Christian Right movement. In defense of the author, I do not believe his claims to be inaccurate, absent any statistical data to the contrary. It does seem that the movement is “predominantly” white, even with the presence of numerous exceptions.

2) “The second is that the civil rights analogy has not been the dominant motif of the various conservative Christian groups. Rather, the usual theme is that a previously Christian America is being subverted by a small but influential liberal establishment - folks Francis Schaeffer called "secular humanists." It really borrows much more from Cold War rhetoric than the civil rights movement.”

On this, I could not agree more. I believe that your analysis if quite correct.

3) “The third is that the pro-life movement (which is far braoder than Operation Rescue) is, in fact, the moral equivalent of the civil rights movement. More than that, it is the moral equivalent of the abolitionist movement of the 1830s-1850s.”

I will not drag this discussion into one about the morality of abortion, but I do not believe that they were at all equivalent. The abolitionist movement was based on two groups that had different conclusions of the same people: Many abolitionists did not believe that blacks were equal to whites, just as many slaveholders. What was at issue was whether they should be slaves. There was more ambiguity with both sides of the civil rights movement, but the level of persecution was unambiguous, which is why it took TV pictures to convince much of the nation to push the issue.

Abortion is a philosophical difference. No amount of scientific data will settle the issue, as it could have the black-equality issue, had modern science been around then. The very fact that the unborn do not represent an identifiable group distinct from the mother is itself, enough to make the issue very different from Civil Rights.

4) “Liberals, who usually defend the weak and the powerless, are curiously unmoved by this genocide.”

Even if abortion is murder, I do not believe it meets the criteria of genocide. In any event, I would point out that while many people who approve of abortion are liberals, not all liberals approve of abortion. Abortion is embraced by more Democrats than liberals, just as the Patriot Act is more popular with Republicans than conservatives.

I consider myself to be extremely liberal, for example, and yet I would have little problem with overturning Roe v. Wade and leaving the decision to the states where it belongs, rather than the federal government. Just an antidotal personal example.

Hans Vought - 6/2/2004

I think that several caveats should be offered in response to Marley's article. The first is that there is no unified "Christian right" any more than there was a unified "civil rights movement." There are important differences between evangelicals, fundamentalists, and pentecostals, between denominations, and between black and white Christians. Certainly it is wrong to make the straightforward assertion that all evangelicals are "middle-class whites."

The second is that the civil rights analogy has not been the dominant motif of the various conservative Christian groups. Rather, the usual theme is that a previously Christian America is being subverted by a small but influential liberal establishment - folks Francis Schaeffer called "secular humanists." It really borrows much more from Cold War rhetoric than the civil rights movement.

The third is that the pro-life movement (which is far braoder than Operation Rescue) is, in fact, the moral equivalent of the civil rights movement. More than that, it is the moral equivalent of the abolitionist movement of the 1830s-1850s. There is no greater moral issue before this nation than the unjustified slaughter of millions of unborn babies. Liberals, who usually defend the weak and the powerless, are curiously unmoved by this genocide. The New York Times and other mainstream media have ignored the trials on the new law outlawing partial birth abortions, perhaps because they do not wish their audience to hear the scientific testimony of Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand in New York that unborn babies suffer excruciating pain as they are killed. Those who speak up on behalf of innocent, defenseless victims are the greatest moral heroes, and we should acknowledge them as such.

Ben H. Severance - 6/2/2004

Mr. Mahan,

You are quite right to rebuke the author's dubious thesis. Reform movements throughout American history have drawn heavily on Christianity for their goals and rhetoric. The manifold reform movements of the ante-bellum period all displayed a profound Christian zeal, one unleashed by the Second Great Awakening of such reformers as the Rev. Charles Finney. For school reformer Horace Mann, public education and evangelism were virtually synonymous. For W. L. Garrison and others, Abolitionism was a Christian crusade to expunge slavery. The Temperance movement condemned alchohol as "Demon Rum," which had to be purged out, in part through a Christian conversion. Moving into the 20th Century, we see that the Progressive Movement was also, to a great extent, an evangelical movement whose goals were to restore democracy to the people by subduing the pursuit of Mammon (aka the industrial trusts). Teddy Roosevelt himself invoked Christian imagery in his run for president in 1912. His Bull Moose party declared that the nation was "standing at Armageddon." His reform party adopted "Onward Christian Soldiers" as its campaign song. These examples should suffice to demonstrate that Marley has wrongly reversed the order of events. As you say, it is Civil Rights that owes a debt to Christianity, not the other way around.

Charles V. Mutschler - 6/1/2004

"Today’s anti-Christian liberal establishment hardly existed in the 60’s. " Perhaps. But I would think an argument could be made that there was a lessening of support for conservative Christian world view in much of the United States, including the intellectual community long before the 1960s. The Scopes trial and the public support for enlightenment thinking compared to bibilical literalism comes to mind.

Charles V. Mutschler

Christopher Alan Danielson - 5/31/2004

Since this is a historical discussion board, why don't you provide some examples of the histories you cite, like Luker does? At this point you are just engaging in political rhetoric instead on reasoned discussion. Also, many disadvantaged groups have not cast themselves as "perpetual victims." There has certainly been a phase of empowerment, such as Black Power, Gay Liberation, Women's Liberation, or the empowerment of the nonviolent Christian tradition of the civil rights movement. That has become so standard in the canon of recent U.S. history that you can get that from any survey textbook, but I can cite some more specific ones if you prefer.

Christopher Alan Danielson - 5/30/2004

Good point Mr. Luker. I notice that Mr. Mahan also neglects to mention ecumenical liberal church groups like the National Council of Churches and their role in the civil rights movement, and the large number of Jews and nonreligious people who took part. Such liberal Christian organizations have generally received little favor from the the later Christian Right.

On a more partisan level (which I usually do not like to get into on these boards), my own observations of the Christian Right do not support Mr. Mahan's view. They frequently define their freedom in a negative fashion - they claim victimhood when others gain rights (when gay people ask for nondiscrimination legislation or the right to marry, when women demand access to abortion or birth control, or when non-Christians ask that official sanction of religion by civil authorities be removed). Considering the number of Chritians in this country, I seriously doubt they can make the claim that they "are so openly and rountinely attacked" when one looks at the discrimination that say, GLBT Americans suffer. I don't hear stories of Christians in America being dragged to death behind automobiles or beaten with gun butts and tied to fence rails.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/30/2004

For all his breathlessness, Andy Mahan seems to me to be closer to the mark than is the author of this article. Just as a minor quibble, I'd like for the author of this article to point out to me where MLK quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If MLK ever quoted DB, it wasn't because he had read DB's work -- but that wouldn't necessarily have stopped him.
More to the point, one of the great contributions of Taylor Branch's _Parting the Waters_ was its development of the degree to which King was in some ways modeling his way of doing civil rights campaigns on Billy Graham's contemporary evangelistic campaigns. More recently, David Chappell has underscored how deeply indebted the Southern movement was to indigenous religious traditions, how unprepared even unwilling the Southern white church was to defend Jim Crow, and how alien the style of the Southern movement was to the assumptions and values of a Northern, secular liberalism -- alliance with which it needed in order to prevail.
So, yes, the sense of minority grievance which grew like a plague in the 1980s when everyone began looking to their minority status for special protections does, in some sense, look back to the civil rights movement as the last greatly successful movement for social change in the United States. But feminism, for example, had rightly also looked to that example, as well. "Minority" and "oppressed" we would learn were not synonymous terms. But all of this is a much more complicated picture than the author of this article quite encompasses. There's Jerry Falwell, for instance, who publicly opposed the crm in the 1960s and then subsequently embraced it and today ministers to more African Americans in Lynchburg, Virginia, than any Afro-minister in the city. What does one make of such a fact? Is it Jerry Falwell's true and faithful repentance? Or, is he merely exploiting a movement which he had opposed? I'm inclined to think the former.
Finally, Mahan's argument utterly ignores the degree to which the crm embraced the support of all sorts of people who made no claim to being "Christian". Had it been a "Christian identity" movement in any sense, it would have shunned such support.