The New Southern Strategy
How Christian Persecution Became White Supremacy’s Newest Disguise
At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and an at-large member of the Louisiana GOP delegation,1 announced from the stage that he would be casting his vote for Donald Trump and encouraged his fellow evangelical Americans to do the same. “Perkins’s endorsement could be a tipping point for the religious right moving behind the party’s newly-minted nominee,” suggested The Hill.2
The prediction proved prophetic: on Election Day, White evangelicals turned out in force for Trump, with over 80 percent voting for the Republican ticket. Their game-changing status became undeniably clear, but so did an unsavory truth about their “values voter” identity. For all their talk of morals and virtues, Trump’s misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and bigotry were never really obstacles for the “faith, family, and life” crowd, but part of the appeal.
Coded racism’s ever-evolving lexicon has served to mask the long courtship, but on November 8, 2016, with Perkins serving as the proud officiant, the Christian Right finally consummated its marriage to White Nationalism.
Who is Tony Perkins?
Perkins first emerged on the national stage in 2003 when he became president of the Family Research Council (FRC), a right-wing policy shop and the Christian Right’s leading voice in Washington, D.C. It was an impressive consolation prize after his failed 2002 run for the U.S. Senate, in which he sought to oust incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu.
Having served for seven years as a member of the Louisiana House of Representatives, Perkins was an established and well-known candidate, but finished last in the four-candidate primary after local media resurfaced details of an old racially-charged scandal: while working as the campaign manager for Woody Jenkins’ own senatorial bid in 1996, Perkins paid $82,500 for the phone bank list of former gubernatorial candidate and ex-Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke and then concealed the purchase.3 The revelation was a huge blow, ultimately resulting in Perkins’ fourth-place finish, and (seemingly) the end of his political career.4
But now we live in different times.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, an affiliation with David Duke proved to be far less taboo than it was in 2002, as then-candidate Donald Trump demonstrated reluctance to disavow Duke’s endorsement without significant consequence.5 The conventional wisdom about how closely connected an elected official can be to an unabashed White supremacist has shifted dramatically. The historic relationship between the Christian Right and White Nationalists has also become more and more conspicuous, and Perkins’ reputation isn’t suffering at all.
Alongside its legislative affiliate, FRC Action, Perkins’ FRC focuses on advancing “faith, family, and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview.”6 At both national and local levels, the organization coordinates lobbying efforts, media work, leadership training programs, and high-profile conferences. Perkins runs the show and also hosts a radio program, Washington Watch, which offers “daily insight from leading political figures and culture warriors”7 to more than 250 stations, likely reaching tens of thousands of listeners nationwide.
Over the last 15 years, Perkins has expanded FRC’s size and influence, nearly doubling its annual revenue, expanding the organization’s pastor network from less than 2,000 to nearly 25,000,8 and establishing the annual Values Voter Summit as the Christian Right’s premier political event of the year. The effect has been tangible: FRC played a prominent role in the fight over California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative in 2008, rallying voters across the state to reject state-wide marriage equality.9 The organization also claims credit for the growing momentum to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers.10
At the same time, Perkins has raised his own profile, amassing tremendous personal political power both nationally and internationally. A 2016 survey conducted by the American Culture & Faith Institute (ACFI), a Christian Right research organization dedicated to mobilizing conservative voters, revealed that among “SAGE Cons”—their category for “Spiritually Active, Governance Engaged Conservative Christians”—Perkins was considered one of the top five most influential political analysts in the U.S. The report concluded that although Perkins isn’t a full-time media professional, “His daily radio program, Washington Watch, along with the numerous articles he published over the course of the [2016 presidential] campaign, clearly hit home with the conservative Christian community.”11
ACFI’s research also showed that 94 percent of SAGE Cons voted for Donald Trump in 2016.12 As both a public-facing figurehead of the Christian Right and a behind-the-scenes bellwether for the conservative movement, Perkins played a major role in delivering this decisive constituency to a candidate who didn’t initially inspire much evangelical enthusiasm.
The Perkins/Trump Love Affair
Though Perkins was first a supporter of Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) in the 2016 Republican primaries, he quickly became one of Trump’s most important links to the White evangelical vote. Once it was clear that Trump would secure the Republican Party’s nomination, conservatives began scrambling to either reaffirm or realign their loyalties. In June 2016, Perkins helped organize a gathering of nearly 1,000 leading conservative Christian ministers and activists from across the country for a closed-door meeting with Trump in New York City. The goal was to help the group better “understand” the presumed nominee before the November election.13
The coalition laid out a set of core requirements for Trump to gain their support: a commitment to “pro-life” judges; a conservative running mate; and a promise to uphold the party platform,14 which FRC played such a key role in shaping that Jeremy Peters of The New York Times described it as the “Tony Perkins Platform.”15
Trump managed to satisfy these demands, and on Election Day, the coalition’s faithful flocks followed through on their leaders’ pledge of support.
Despite a seemingly endless barrage of positions, policies, revelations, remarks, and tweets that are antithetical to the purported Christian value of “loving one’s neighbor as oneself,” Perkins continues to function as a critical bridge between the current administration and White evangelicals, serving both as Trump’s advisor and as his cheerleader and interpreter. When adult film star Stormy Daniels publicly disclosed her affair with Trump, for example, Perkins quickly attempted to put out the fire by doling out a “mulligan” for the president’s “personal failings.”16
And Perkins’ loyalty has paid off: he boasts of regular visits to the White House,17 and is a prominent member of the president’s ad hoc evangelical advisory board, along with many of the Religious Right’s other leading figures, including former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. Richard Land, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and another member of the advisory board, bragged in an interview on Washington Watch that under Donald Trump, the Religious Right has gained “unprecedented access” to the White House and its policies.18
Religious Freedom and the Anti-Christian “Disease”
In May 2018, the Christian Right gained even greater authority with the appointment of three far-right evangelicals, including Perkins and former FRC president Gary Bauer, to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan commission “dedicated to defending the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad.” Its nine volunteer members are tasked with reviewing “the facts and circumstances of religious freedom violations” and suggesting policy solutions to the president, the State Department, and Congress.19
In the past, progressive critics have accused USCIRF of being ineffective, anti-Muslim, and disproportionately focused on the persecution of Christians.20 Under the Trump administration, the latter of those charges is no longer a liability, and the first is now being mitigated by the addition of a new “Religious Liberty Task Force,” announced in July 2018 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a way to combat “dangerous” secularism.21
As PRA Senior Research Analyst Frederick Clarkson has carefully documented, religious freedom was initially conceived of as an important strategy for protecting religious minorities from the dominant culture’s religious imposition, and preserving the separation of church and state.22 Given the Christian Right’s role in redefining this progressive value to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people, women, and others who don’t align with the Right’s ideological views, their increasingly dominant presence in the USCIRF—and throughout the Trump administration—is cause for much concern.
Following the announcement of his appointment to the Commission, Gary Bauer was blatantly clear about his priorities, tweeting that his primary focus would be the “growing persecution of Christians."23
Perkins, too, depicts Christians as an oppressed and persecuted class that is under constant siege by “secularists” for their anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion convictions. Though he’s quick to acknowledge that American Christians aren’t as threatened as others—“we can face name-calling and ‘hate’ lists” whereas Christians in the Middle East have been put to death for their beliefs,” he said—Perkins is just as quick to link the two, arguing, “the opposition to Christians here and abroad is rooted in the same opposition—it’s just different in degree.”24
Perkins and FRC also have a long track record of spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric, charging, among other things, that Islam is “incompatible with the Constitution” and therefore not entitled to the same rights and protections that the Christian Right claims as unrestricted First Amendment guarantees.25 In a 2015 editorial entitled, “How Do You Solve a Problem like Sharia,” Perkins warned of the national security threat posed by “radicalized Muslims,” and advocated for “better, safer vetting protocol” for immigrants—a foreshadowing of Trump’s infamous “Muslim Ban.”26
Perkins said that Muslims in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria—whom he refers to as anti-Christian “tyrants”—were emboldened by the Obama administration’s “indifference toward religious persecution.” Writing at FRC, he argued:
Little by little, they let their deep hatred for certain faiths turn violent. As time passed, and they grew more confident that the United States government wouldn’t intervene, their attacks became bolder, more ferocious. Innocent men, women, and children were gunned down, beheaded, raped, tortured, or chased from their homes simply because of who they were and what they believed. It was like a disease that America’s silence left to fester.27
Now Perkins has the weight of the government behind him as he goes to battle against this anti-Christian “disease,” the cure for which is assuredly bad for LGBTQ people, women, and Muslims.
But is there really an epidemic of Christian persecution in the U.S., or is it just a useful stand-in for a different kind of fear?
The continued allegiance of White evangelicals to Trump despite his marital infidelity, blatant misogyny, theological ignorance, and profanity-laced volatility is confounding to many. Trump’s adherence to the Christian Right’s anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ agenda is often assumed to be the key attraction in this perplexing courtship, but what’s rarely highlighted or discussed is the other part of this voting bloc’s two-part identity: that is, that they’re White.
The Christian Right’s entrance into politics is generally thought of as a logical conservative backlash to the sexual revolution and the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Resistance to homosexuality and abortion has dominated the conservative agenda for so long that the racial resentment that first spurred evangelicals into action is often forgotten. But before Roe was ever a household name, it was the encroaching threat of desegregation that ultimately wedded (White) preachers and (White supremacist) politics.
In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in Coit v. Green that racially discriminatory private schools were not eligible for tax-exempt status. The case was part of a broader effort by the federal government to enforce the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in 1975, the IRS sought to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University (BJU), a private evangelical school in Greenville, South Carolina, because the school’s regulations forbade interracial dating. (Prior to 1971, the school had denied admission to Black students altogether.)
BJU challenged the IRS, but in 1983 in an eight-to-one decision, the Supreme Court upheld the government’s right to deny tax-exempt status to the school on account of its racially discriminatory policies. Upon learning of the Court’s decision, the Rev. Bob Jones III proclaimed, “We’re in a bad fix in America when eight evil old men and one vain and foolish woman can speak a verdict on American liberties… You no longer live in a nation that is religiously free.”28 In other words, Jones’s definition of religious freedom included the right to racially discriminate.
Paul Weyrich, one of the most important architects of the modern Christian Right (and a friend and role model to Perkins29), was paying attention. Weyrich, a devout Catholic, had for years attempted to galvanize evangelical allegiance to his political agenda. In his book, Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament, author Randall Balmer recalls Weyrich explaining the eventual evolution of Christian Right political engagement:
“I had discussions with all the leading lights of the movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, post-Roe v. Wade,” [Weyrich] said, “and they were all arguing that that decision was one more reason why Christians had to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.”
“What caused the movement to surface,” Weyrich continued, “was the federal government’s moves against Christian schools.” The IRS’s objection to segregated schools, he said, “enraged the Christian community.”30
With right-wing evangelical leaders finally paying attention, Weyrich moved quickly, directing their rage and energy into the formation of institutions that would become the bedrock of the New Right: the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Free Congress Foundation, and the Council for National Policy, all of which he co-founded.
The Council for National Policy (CNP), often considered a who’s who of the Right, is a secretive organization that networks right-wing donors and their operative allies to collaborate on long-term movement strategy.31 Though the organization intentionally works under the radar and keeps its membership confidential, the Southern Poverty Law Center obtained and published one roster from 2014, which listed Perkins as CNP’s vice president.32 Subsequent reports on CNP events indicate that Perkins has since been promoted to head of the secretive organization.
Given the Religious Right’s deeply entrenched racist history, it’s not surprising that until relatively recently, the language of racial reconciliation was entirely foreign in evangelical spaces.
In Personal Faith, Public Policy, a 2008 call-to-arms for the Christian Right co-authored by Perkins and Rev. Harry R. Jackson, Jr., a popular Black evangelical megachurch pastor, the authors lay out “a comprehensive strategy that can bring evangelicals together across racial and denominational lines.” Adding to the traditional bread-and-butter issues of the Christian Right—“the sanctity of human life, the preservation of marriage, and the defense of our Christian faith”—the authors argue that other contemporary issues should be addressed, including immigration, poverty, the environment, and racial reconciliation.33
In the book, Perkins recounts how he publicly repented for the “racism of white evangelicals that had divided the body of Christ” at an event in 1992.34 But that posturing didn’t stop him from purchasing David Duke’s phone list four years later, or prevent him from addressing the Louisiana Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), a White nationalist organization, while he was a Louisiana state legislator in 2001. Perkins insists that he didn’t know about either Duke’s connection to the list or the CCC’s racist history, and that he “opposes racial discrimination.” But his efforts to resist it have consistently proven hollow.35 Despite Perkin’s claimed advocacy for a more expansive vision of the Christian Right agenda, the issues highlighted on FRC’s website are still limited to Life, Marriage and Family, and Religious Liberty. And after FRC hosted Trump at its 2017 Values Voter Summit, the Rev. William Barber, one of the most prominent faces of the contemporary Religious Left, blasted Perkins’ organization as “no more represent[ing] Jesus than did the church authorities who backed slavery.”36
Meanwhile, Greenwell Springs Baptist Church, Perkins’ home church in Louisiana, didn’t welcome its first Black members until 2006,37 and the church’s staff is still entirely White.38 The church is an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which, with over 15.2 million members, represents one of the Christian Right’s most dominant voices.39 (It’s also one of its Whitest, with a membership that’s 85 percent White, even though SBC churches are most prevalent in regions where African Americans compose a higher proportion of the general population than the national average.40)
Founded in 1845, the SBC’s formation was the result of a split between White Southern Baptists who disagreed with the abolitionist sentiments and activities of their Northern church brethren. In other words, the SBC was established for the express purpose of defending slavery. During the Civil Rights Movement, members of the convention almost unilaterally supported segregation. And though the SBC formally reversed course in 1968 with the passage of an official statement endorsing desegregation and confessing a share of responsibility for the failure to create “conditions in which justice, order, and righteousness can prevail,”41 the denomination effectively fed into the tide of White racial resentment throughout the 1950s and ‘60s.
During those years, the conservative movement expressly established unity through intentional exploitation of racial polarization. As the Civil Rights Movement and the dismantling of Jim Crow laws provoked a deepening of pre-existing racial tensions throughout the South, Republican strategists sought to win over White, conservative voters in the region who had traditionally supported the Democratic Party.
It was known as the “Southern Strategy,” and it worked. Between 1948 and 1984, the Southern states—previously a stronghold for the Democratic Party—became key swing states. Unabashed racists like David Duke continued to overtly express and nurture anti-Black attitudes, but most Republican politicians sought to present a more “respectable” image in order to win over White Southerners. They did so by talking about “law and order” (a critique of the strategies and tactics of the Civil Rights Movement) and deploying rhetoric about protecting “states’ rights”: a coded way to express their opposition to federal enforcement of civil rights for Black people and to federal intervention on their behalf. (More recently, the Right similarly insisted that decisions regarding marriage equality should be determined at the state level rather than by the federal government—a thinly veiled attempt to disguise their homophobia.)
In 1981, Lee Atwater, a top Republican strategist, explained the covert intent of this terminology in a 1981 interview with political scientist Alexander Lamis:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n*****, n*****”. By 1968 you can’t say “n*****”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] Blacks get hurt worse than Whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut taxes, we want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n*****.”42
Ultimately, the goal was to talk about race without actually talking about race.
The Southern Strategy was effective, but it also pigeon-holed the Republican Party as the party of White racial resentment. Kevin Phillips, a conservative electoral analyst and one of the biggest promoters of the Southern Strategy, proclaimed in 1970, “From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that.”43
But Phillips didn’t take into account the reality that White people would eventually become a minority in the United States, and without the demographic edge of a White racial majority, winning a national, democratic election becomes significantly more difficult with a platform that actively oppresses and alienates people of color.
The solution, of course, to maintaining a White Christian-dominated society (that wants to at least appear democratic), is to simply place restrictions on who can or can’t vote. Paul Weyrich understood this better than almost anyone.
Speaking at a Religious Right gathering in Dallas, Texas, in 1980, Weyrich revealed part of the anti-democratic methodology by which he intended for his movement to gain domination: “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people—they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.”44
In other words, as writer Noah Berlatsky observes, “A party built on demonizing and attacking marginalized people is a party that will have to disenfranchise those same people if it is to survive.”45
Voter disenfranchisement has become a racialized, anti-democratic epidemic in the decades since. After Trump’s 2016 victory, Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, observed,
The most intense voter suppression efforts can be traced to a 2013 ruling issued by the U.S. Supreme Court that gut [sic] a core provision of the Voting Rights Act. Since the day the ruling was issued in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, states have unleashed a seemingly-coordinated campaign to make voting more difficult. Those efforts bore fruit during the 2016 presidential election cycle.46
As Lee Atwater explained in 1981, when overt racism becomes socially unacceptable you have to be more abstract in your language and in your strategy—you talk about “states’ rights” and the economy when unabashed resistance to civil rights, justice, and equality becomes uncouth. Today, the codes are shifting again.
Bob Jones’ complaint that “You no longer live in a nation that is religiously free” when you’re prevented from discriminating against people on the basis of their race, signaled a change in the Southern Strategy’s trademark code language. The rhetoric of “states’ rights” wasn’t sufficiently masking the goal of maintaining White racial dominance anymore, but Jones had successfully identified a new alternative: religious freedom.
The Christian Right is currently using their version of religious freedom to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people, restrict access to comprehensive reproductive health care, and obstruct Muslims and other non-Christians from their constitutional rights. But in the initial corruption of the principle, the Christian Right had cast religious freedom as a tool of White supremacy and racism, and that remains their prevailing interpretation.
Being associated with White supremacists like David Duke might not carry the same sort of campaign-ending consequences that it once did, when earlier generations of candidates were compelled to disavow Duke or return White nationalist campaign contributions, but in today’s America, White people are generally still reluctant to think of themselves as racist. However, fear among White Americans sparked by demographic shifts and their imminent fall from racial majority status, coupled with the rising resistance of Black and Brown-led justice movements (and eight years of a Black president), has ushered in new tidal waves of White racial resentment and fear.
Conveniently, within the self-image of the Christian Right, Whiteness and Christianity are often synonymous, and it’s far easier to sound the alarm about “Christian persecution” than to admit the truth of one’s racism. Additionally, claiming victimhood is far preferable than owning one’s complicity in the perpetuation of another’s oppression.
Trump caught on early. In a January 2016 interview with the right-wing Christian Broadcasting Network, then-candidate Trump responded to a question from David Brody about protecting Christians by saying that Christians are “under siege”:
You look at Syria where they’re chopping heads off, specifically of Christians, and others… we have to do something, we have to band together, we have to become stronger as Christians because it is very bad what’s happening with respect to Christianity. We’re just not banded together properly, and we have to stick together whether it’s very, very serious things like is happening over in the Middle East or things such as “Merry Christmas” where you don’t see it anymore in department stores.47
The rhetoric of Christian persecution strategically sparks fear in evangelicals, many of whom are on the lookout for indicators of the “end times” and the impending apocalypse which is believed to be a necessary precursor to Jesus Christ’s return.48
This fear is then amplified by the racist, xenophobic fears underlying anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-Black sentiments, serving to galvanize and unify White racial resentment.
Last year, Trump declared to the triumphant attendees at FRC’s Values Voter Summit (VVS), “In America, we don’t worship government—we worship God.”49
He went on to highlight all the ways in which he has advanced the Christian Right’s religious freedom formula, contorting it into a tool of oppression that privileges conservative Christians and justifies discrimination against LGBTQ people and women, all the while portraying it as a necessary shield against rising persecution.
Perkins was thrilled. “In an era when public prayer and displays of faith are so readily attacked,” he wrote, “social conservatives were heartened to hear this reaffirmation of the role religion has played—and is still playing—for the public good of our country.”50
Significantly, the 2017 VVS also featured Steve Bannon, a former strategist in Trump’s administration, and co-founder of Breitbart News, which he described in 2016 as “the platform for the alt-right.” Breitbart has also been referred to as an “online haven for White Nationalists.”51
But Bannon’s appearance at VVS served to soften his and the Alt Right’s image among White evangelicals, helping strengthen the increasingly public bond between the Christian Right and White nationalists.
What Bannon and Perkins both know is that the relationship between Christian supremacy and White supremacy is the real “traditional marriage.” Because ultimately, the Christian Right isn’t just concerned with asserting and maintaining theocratic dominance in the U.S.—they’re fundamentally invested in White dominance. Left unchecked, their growing power represents one of the greatest threats to multi-racial democracy this country has ever known.⬛