The Religious Right is a broad coalition of evangelicals that has exercised considerable influence in politics and public policy forums since the mid-1970s. Seeing itself as the antidote to a decadent culture that sought to impose its values through liberal government, this movement represented a new attitude toward politics on the part of conservative Christians, who had often traditionally eschewed political action. It also represented a new constituency for the Republican Party, which historically had not relied on evangelicals as an important part of its base.
A crucial component in the transformation of southern politics, the Religious Right is national, extradenominational, and thrives on grassroots support, though national leaders often attract a great deal of attention. Mississippi contributed significantly to the rise of the Religious Right in part because it possessed the two chief ingredients that nourished this movement: a preponderance of evangelicals and intense resentment toward the liberal movements of the 1960s.
Well before the rise of the Religious Right, evangelicals exerted a great deal of political influence in Mississippi. For example, in 1907, years before the national Prohibition amendment, Mississippi adopted a state-level alcohol ban that remained in place until the 1960s. In 1926 Mississippi passed an antievolution law that was not invalidated by the state Supreme Court until 1970, long after the rest of the country had done away with such measures. In spite of their clear influence on Mississippi law and society, however, evangelicals often disavowed their own influence and discouraged one another from direct political involvement, claiming that politics was not the proper sphere for the church. Evangelical leaders maintained that their most important work was to spread the Gospel; as they faithfully executed this task, they believed, desirable social and political transformations would inevitably ensue—the cumulative effect of salvation wrought one soul at a time.
The social and political upheaval of the 1960s simultaneously transformed many conservative Americans’ attitudes toward both the federal government and American culture. Though many Americans regarded that decade’s sweeping changes in southern race relations as a long-awaited realization of basic democracy, conservatives, including many white southerners and evangelicals, often saw these changes through a dramatically different lens. According to their thinking, the same governmental drive to aggrandize power and to intrude into the personal lives of Americans that had motivated school desegregation and voting rights legislation also produced the high court’s 1962 decision rendering public prayer in public schools unconstitutional. The same decadence that had spawned interracial sit-ins and Freedom Rides also flaunted itself in the more permissive morality displayed in the hippie movement, in more explicit material in movies and television, in the lyrics of rock music, in a rising divorce rate, and even in public school textbooks. Believing that a misguided government encouraged an immoral culture, evangelicals needed a new approach to their social and political environment. No longer advocating change through the indirect path of evangelism, religious leaders began in the 1970s to maintain that the “church belong[ed] in politics up to its eyebrows.”
Though often perceived as a monolithic bloc of hard-liners, the Religious Right in Mississippi and elsewhere embraces both moderate and extreme elements. Families have found the movement particularly appealing, since the perceived combination of moral license and expanded governmental power appeared to assault their ability to raise children according to their own dictates. With the creation of the Christian Action Commission (organized in part as an answer to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission, which many Mississippi Baptists regarded as too liberal and overly concerned with social issues such as racial equality), Mississippi Baptists endeavored to address rising concerns about public morality by offering programs on the Christian family, pornography, alcohol and drug abuse, and Christian citizenship. Though in its early years the Christian Action Commission claimed it was not a lobbying organization, it did “alert Baptist leaders of pending legislation on pertinent matters.” By 1982, when commission director Paul Jones registered as a lobbyist, the agency clearly demonstrated evangelicals’ new attitude about the appropriateness of political activity.
An important Religious Right organization, the National Federation for Decency, which became the American Family Association in 1987, has Mississippi origins. Briefly allied with the Moral Majority, the group, under the direction of a Tupelo Methodist minister, Donald E. Wildmon, proved enormously successful at bringing corporate giants such as Sears, Proctor and Gamble, and CBS to adopt sponsorship policies that reflected standards acceptable to conservative Americans. Perhaps even more important, in 1989 Wildmon organized grassroots support for a letter-writing campaign that brought the National Endowment for the Arts to the center of the struggle over issues of decency, public funding, and cultural control.
Highly issue-driven, the Religious Right has consistently opposed abortion rights as one of its highest priorities. Indeed, to many the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights represents the nadir of America’s recent immoral trajectory. Nationwide and in Mississippi, the struggle over abortion rights highlights the Religious Right’s extradenominational character. The Jackson-based group Capitol Connection and the more radical Christian Action Group, along with representatives of the national Operation Rescue, have worked to increase pro-life activity in the state, to provide free treatment and support for women who decide against abortion, and to pass legislation that might help mitigate the effects of the Roe decision. In 1993 these groups worked together with representatives of more than sixty churches to hold demonstrations in Jackson that drew more than two thousand protesters, and their support was essential in the drive to get the Mississippi legislature to pass of a bill requiring parental permission before women under the age of eighteen could receive abortions. Nevertheless, in 2011 the Mississippi electorate voted down the anti-abortion Ballot Initiative 26, or the “Personhood Amendment,” which aimed to outlaw abortion by claimed that “personhood” is achieved at conception. The Colorado-based evangelical Christian group Personhood USA sponsored the bill.
In recent years, opposition to homosexuality has been another salient issue for the Religious Right. In Mississippi, this conflict took the shape of organized resistance to the creation of the Metropolitan Community Church in Jackson and, as in many states, the adoption in 2004 of an amendment to the state’s constitution banning same-sex marriage. Yet both the campaign against abortion rights and the effort to oppose homosexuality have also vividly and consistently elicited responses from an evangelical contingent that refuses to be aligned with the Religious Right. Furthermore, the large constituent of black evangelicals in Mississippi has also confounded the neat alliance between conservative religion and conservative politics, as many black evangelicals embrace an ideology that merges conservative religious doctrine with a more progressive political philosophy.
In recent developments, in 2016 the Mississippi legislature passed HB 1523, the Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act. Authors of the act said it protected the rights of business owners and public officials from providing services to people getting married, or renting or selling them property, or offering child care or medical treatment if doing so would violate religious convictions about same-sex marriage or gender identity. In June 2016 US District Court judge Carlton Reeves ruled that the bill violated the 2015 Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized gay marriage and, more broadly, he stated this ruling overturned efforts by the state legislature to “put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others.”
- Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (2007)
- Carolyn Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1975 (2015)
- Samuel Hill, Southern Churches in Crisis (1966)
- William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (1996)
- Randy Sparks, Religion in Mississippi (2001)