The political realignment that conjoined religion, racists, and the GOP…
Republicans over the past 60 years have traded in a dark and hypocritical con that has had a grip on political elections since that time. The GOP decided in the time of Nixon to employ a racist strategy to claim an entire section of the country in what was euphemistically called “the Southern Strategy.” Truth be told, we are still living with its fallout. With the passage of the voting and civil rights legislation by the Congress under LBJ, Republicans rushed in to claim southern Dixiecrats who clung to their racist past in defiance of federal law. History and the courts had been trending against segregation since the end of WW II. The nation with the support of southern Democrats slow-walked attempts to end the effects of the “separate but equal” doctrine under the Plessy v Ferguson decision by the Supreme Court of 1896 that preserved racial injustices throughout the nation. It took more than ten years, for example, for the 1954 Supreme Court in the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision — the renunciation of Plessy — to begin to enact the integration of schools demanded by the ruling. Even then it required federal intervention to enforce the law. Nixon and his team traded in the resistance among southern whites to accept racial equality to build a coalition whose allegiance to the party was based upon racial animus wrapped in a flag.
Fast forward to today as the “strategy” lives on. LBJ predicted this with the signing of the Civil Rights legislation of 1964, in an apocryphal aside to someone after he signed the bill into law:
“There goes the South for a generation,” Lyndon Johnson is said to have predicted as he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. Actually, it’s been generations, but otherwise Johnson was dead-on. For 40 years, the Democratic Party begged Southern Democrats to return to the fold. Always undignified, this pleading eventually became futile as well, like Shirley Booth calling for her dead puppy in Come Back, Little Sheba.
— Tim Noah, in Slate, January 27, 2004
Johnson’s prediction has held through the present generation as Republicans, too, made a fateful choice that day. The Nixon blueprint had a corollary that is often overlooked. The Nixon team identified another crack in the oldline Democratic coalition, the religious vote, and more specifically, the Roman Catholic vote. At that time one of Nixon’s prominent aides Pat Buchanan, a Roman Catholic and fierce conservative, had designs on what had been a political given since Al Smith ran for president and lost to Herbert Hoover-and especially after the nation elected their first Catholic president in 1960. As Buchanan noted in an interview in 2014:
The amazing thing is to look at the figures. Nixon won 22 percent of the Catholic vote against Jack Kennedy in 1960, he won 33 percent in 1968 and he would have won more that year if Wallace hadn’t been in the race (emphasis mine). I don’t think it would have been much more, but I think if Wallace had been out of the race we would have won the race going away. But in 1972, he won 55 percent of the Catholic vote against George McGovern, who Tom Eagleton called the candidate of amnesty and abortion. So cultural, moral and social issues brought postwar Catholics into the Nixon new majority.
— Interview with Sean Salai in America Magazine
What was the attraction for Catholics to abandon the party that had defended many of them as immigrants and generally supported their status as middle-class stalwarts in urban centers throughout the country? Why would Buchanan specifically mention George Wallace-a southern scourge and virulent racist? The answer may lie in the Church’s vision of its mission as it evolved along with its members’ fortunes. As the last batch of southern European immigrants gradually moved up in class, they were becoming more conservative. The urban flight of the mid-century included them as educational advantages and fuller assimilation helped them form a new middle-class within American suburbs. As urban parishes built by and for immigrants declined, the church followed their faithful into the more affluent suburbs. Even the clergy were evolving as higher-ups cavorted with the political class and were brought along by scheming politicians like Nixon and, later, Ronald Reagan:
But beginning in the 1970s, Catholics began moving toward the Republican Party. One reason was that “have-not” New Deal Catholics became “haves.” Income differences between Catholics and white Protestants narrowed when Catholics left big cities for sprawling suburbs… Republicans saw political opportunities. In 1971, Richard Nixon promised federal aid to parochial schools, saying, “We must see to it that our children are provided with the moral and spiritual and religious values so necessary to a great people in great times.” In 1984, Ronald Reagan extended full diplomatic recognition to the Vatican, declaring, “[T]he United States holds Pope John Paul II in high esteem. . .[and] we admire the courageous stands he takes in defense of Western values.” Both won the Catholic vote.
— John Kenneth White, The Hill, September, 12, 2020
THERE, I SAID IT
A line was crossed by Republicans when they abandoned the black community’s fight for equality in favor of the segregationists. After all, theirs was the party of Lincoln” whose lineage included Lincoln’s war to end slavery. Their new coalition of southern whites-a Solid South coalition — was not enough to cover the loss of the black vote, however, and Nixon knew it. The Viet Nam war offered another avenue to solidify a base for conservatives by masking the overt racism of the southern strategy by adopting the war and painting the anti-war demonstrators as liberal (nee democratic) operatives who were anti-American and unpatriotic because of their stance on the war. It didn’t help that the war itself was fathered by both parties. The natural division, not unlike the one we face today, was appropriated by Republicans and made the wedge issue of the day. Democrats at the time were at a distinct disadvantage as their national convention was turned into a riotous battle between protestors and the Chicago police. But truly, the Democratic Party and the nation were traumatized by the epidemic of assassinations that decimated its political and cultural leadership. In a way, Republicans were taking advantage of circumstances many would attribute to their southern white supremacist base.
Roe v Wade was perhaps the final brick in the wall as the late 20th century coalitions became reset. Republicans have managed to turn two court rulings into their now perfected politics of grievance. Is it a wonder that the GOP has descended into an anti-democratic movement that rejects lawful elections? The abortion issue and the stance against Roe V Wade were critical to their realignment because it was so hypocritical. The ploy was a conscious transactional decision to attract Catholics into a Religious Right coalition that would augment a Solid South made up of white voters, many of whom were bigots. Throw in a few evangelicals and Republicans adopted a set of grievances many of them cared little about but found useful in their manufactured culture wars. Their base is made up of alliances with those who comply with the democratic process but only when it is convenient.
In the Democratic Party, on the other hand, abortion as an issue was fought within its ranks as a matter of conscience. When Bob Casey, Governor of Pennsylvania requested and was refused an opportunity to speak against the Democratic party platform plank defending a women’s right to choose, it caused a serious rift. The party, at that time, chose to stand with women and Roe. The GOP had no such squabble. They were at ease denying women the protections afforded by both the courts in Roe and the freedoms inscribed in the constitution’s first amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Freedom of religion, meant to the founders something much different than what has passed as political opportunism. The founders feared the intrusion of religious beliefs in the public square and, therefore, wanted a healthy separation between government and religious affairs:
One of the decisive battlegrounds for disestablishment was Jefferson’s colony of Virginia, where the Anglican Church had long been the established church. Both Jefferson and fellow Virginian James Madison felt that state support for a particular religion or for any religion was improper. They argued that compelling citizens to support through taxation a faith they did not follow violated their natural right to religious liberty.
— THE FIRST AMENDMENT ENCYCLOPEDIA
They really were advocating for a freedom from religious intervention as a right that should be protected as well as an individual’s personal right to worship — or not. The distinction is unsubtle, the Supreme Court struggled with the decision, but ultimately ruled based on privacy rights of women found in the due process clause of the 14th amendment. The 7–2 decision was modified but upheld in a 1992 case brought by Casey which was his lawful rejoinder to his party’s snub.
Using abortion as a divisive religious issue is beyond hypocritical. Roe has been more valuable to their political purposes as law than it may be if it is overturned. The religious implications involved would necessarily supersede medical concerns and science arguing the viability of the fetus at various stages of its development. A ban would ignore the complexities of human conception and a woman’s right to life in consultation with her doctor.
Racism and religion, then, can only coexist in a political world that pretends to care about protections but defaults to power. In the end, it helps explain how a political strategy could create a seemingly anomalous coalition of white angry men and religious zealots. A half-century later this base would defend an insurrection in an attempt to overturn a fair and lawful election-an alliance that defiled the flag and desecrated our founding document. So, is it a wonder that the coalition that defines the Democratic Party is made up of blacks, women, and especially black women? Is it a wonder that Black churches are at the center of community political activism?
BEGGING THE QUESTION
As much as I hate to write this, Donald Trump is not the underlying problem, and neither was Nixon. We chose them and not the other way around. It would be trite and not altogether wrong to blame human nature. Confessors tell us free will offers the opportunity to choose. The hopeful side of me wants to suggest that the present difficulties are opportunities and that the past 5 years have been a speed bump. But then I am reminded of the question that has haunted mankind since the dawn of creation — -are we as a species inherently good? Evil?
Richard Le Gallienne, a British author and poet of the turn of the 20th century, has captured my sentiments at the moment. Le Gallienne had a darker view of human nature that I recognize in these times. His words are haunting if true…
“There is something mean in human nature that prefers to think evil, that gives a willing ear and a ready welcome to calumny, a sort of jealousy of goodness and greatness and things of good report.”
There, he said it for me.
Originally published at https://vincerizzo.substack.com on November 4, 2021.