Christians have been disguising one thing as another at least since 336 AD, when the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to co-opt the Roman solstice celebration of Saturnalia and the “barbarian” Celtic Yule festivities by officially declaring December 25 Jesus’ birthday. That way, Christians marking the birth of Christ could slide right in to already established pagan holidays around the same date, take them over, and eventually pretend that the late December holiday had been about Jesus all along.
In the same way, white conservative Christians who helped give us the Trump hellscape have long pretended that their political movement is about traditional morality and opposition to abortion. That, like Constantine’s juggling the date of Christ’s birth, is a cynical retrofit. The right-wing white Protestant evangelicals (and “traditionalist” Catholics) who support Trump by an 80 percent-plus margin actually became a conservative political force because of racism.
That much should be clear by now, since their claims of morality evaporated like water in a hot skillet once they threw their support behind an amoral con-man who pays off porn stars and Playboy playmates to either keep quiet or have abortions. Their excuses for a man who hides his moral emptiness behind sociopathic cruelty only make sense once you realize that Trump and conservative white Christians share something more powerful than the Gospels: white supremacy.
White fundamentalist Christianity has always had a racist streak. It was used to justify 17th and 18th century slaughter of Native Americans and enslavement of black people in the 19th century. It’s why the pro-slavery Lutheran Missouri Synod and Southern Baptists split from northern abolitionist churches in the years leading up to the Civil War.
In our era, their political muscle was first flexed by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the early 1980s, when legions of politically savvy evangelicals were the primary force behind sweeping Ronald Reagan into office. It’s continued ever since, whether campaigning for Trump or against abortion rights. And it always came spewing sanctity, claiming to be a crusade to oppose gay marriage, abortion, contraception, and anything else offensive to Old Testament morality.
The truth behind the emergence and continued political muscle of conservative white Protestants and Catholics is a good deal uglier and is based in racism. To understand the white nationalism behind white conservative Christianity in modern America, you have to go back to the mid-1950s, when a 20-something pastor on the make named Jerry Falwell bought the old Donald Duck soft drink bottling plant in Lynchburg, Virginia and turned it into the Thomas Road Baptist Church.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling outlawing school segregation in Brown v Board of Education, many whites, especially in the South, staged mini-riots at newly de-segregated schools. Then, they began setting up their own private schools, “segregation academies,” to avoid integration.
It was against that backdrop that 25-year old Jerry Falwell took to the pulpit in the converted Virginia bottling plant in 1958 to deliver a sermon called “Segregation or Integration: Which?” A dark twin to Dr. King’s sermons of light and hope, it laid out the philosophy that still governs conservative Christianity.
“If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident the 1954 decision would never have been made,” Falwell grumbled. “The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line. Integration will destroy our race.”
Falwell put his money where his mouth was. In 1966, he founded the Lynchburg Christian Academy, a segregationist academy for white students. Things went along smoothly for Falwell, and he concentrated his efforts on maintaining white supremacy mostly in the Lynchburg, Virginia area.
But in 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in Green v Connally that racist segregationist academies couldn’t claim tax exemptions as religious schools. That ruling began both the alliance between right-wing Catholics and racist Protestants and kick-started conservative Christians into political action.
The evangelicals’ political creation myth claims that conservative Christians didn’t become active until 1973, following the Roe v Wade decision, and that the animating issue was abortion. Like just about everything else about the conservative Christian movement, that’s a lie. Their activism began two years earlier, and the driving issue wasn’t abortion. It was racism.
In 1976, the IRS took away the tax-exemption of Bob Jones University in South Carolina because it refused to admit black students. That same year, Paul Weyrich, a conservative Catholic from Wisconsin who had just founded a right-wing D.C. think tank he dubbed The Heritage Foundation, drove to Virginia to meet Falwell. They founded a movement they called The Moral Majority. The issue uniting them, Weyrich recalled in a 1990 interview, wasn’t abortion or even morality. It was all-white schools being forced to admit black students.
If it hadn’t been for Donald Trump, the coalition between conservative Catholics and right-wing Protestants might have been able to hide behind the smokescreen of family values and allegedly Biblical morality indefinitely. It might have even worked if the candidate was someone like Mike Pence, a Catholic who had converted to evangelical Protestantism and who camouflaged white nationalism behind a façade of stiff-necked morality.
Instead, conservative white Christians threw their wholehearted support behind a man whose moral landscape looks like the back of Rick James’ van. Adultery, porn actress payoffs, reported payments for secret abortions, bragging that he could grab women in the crotch and get away with it, and lining up contestants to his Miss Teen America pageant – teens – to offer them a chance to win if they came up to his penthouse all didn’t square well with professions of moral rectitude.
But that doesn’t matter anymore. Now that their conservative white Christianity is out in the open as white nationalism with sketchy scriptural footnotes, evangelicals roll with it. Their religion was never much more than white supremacy covered in Biblical icing anyway, so they’re not bothered by the hypocrisy.
Beside, under Trump, they can say, “Merry White Christmas” again.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.