John Birch Society Ascendant in Trump’s Speech to Evangelical Christians
They’re partying like it's 1964 at the Values Voter Summit. That was the year insurgent candidate Barry Goldwater snagged the Republican Party’s presidential nomination from the sweaty palms of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, with a mighty assist from a rising faction of right-wing ideologues and the fear-mongering organizers of the John Birch Society. Today, after years of exile for its extremist teachings and opposition to civil rights legislation, John Birch Society is back in the fold, with an exhibit booth at the annual gathering of right-wing evangelicals and a speech delivered by Republican standard-bearer Donald J. Trump that echoed many of the society’s ideas.
Nearly the entire agenda of the first day of the conference—which is convened by the Family Research Council’s political arm, FRC Action—was devoted to rallying support for Trump or bashing his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. That is, except when speakers were pushing the idea that religious liberty is under attack because laws protecting individuals’ rights to legal goods and services require private establishments that serve the public to accommodate all who seek such goods and services. Since the right of same-sex couples to marry became the law of the land, religious-right outfits such as First Liberty Institute and Alliance Defending Freedom have made evangelical business-owners who refuse to provide services to same-sex couples something of a cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre. Other iterations of so-called religious liberty assertions have involved pharmacists who refuse to dispense morning-after contraception to women who are eligible to receive it.
At the religious right-wing confab, the thrice-married, foul-mouthed reality TV star received an enthusiastic reception from the crowd gathered in the ballroom of Washington, D.C.’s Omni Shoreham Hotel. Trump spoke without a teleprompter, but remained disciplined in hitting points he knew would be appreciated by the audience, even if done in his characteristically staccato and truncated syntax. “[In] A Trump administration,” he said, “our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended, like you’ve never seen before…. You know it. And that includes religious liberty. Remember, remember.”
The hitch with the right’s so-called religious liberty claims is that their exercise would require either rewriting or jettisoning Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—the part that bans discrimination by private enterprises defined as providing a “public accommodation” “on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.” The Birch Society famously opposed the 1964 CRA, ostensibly on the grounds that it was the work of communists who were purportedly infiltrating all aspects of American life, according to the paranoid views of JBS founder Robert Welch. The Society’s publications carried screeds against civil rights activist Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., tarring them with the red brush.
The practical result of the Birch Society’s red-baiting was the Society's promotion of racial segregation, even if its leaders used their anti-communism as a cover. And JBS, which claims not to be affiliated with any religion, was always close to the Christian Reconstruction movement that formed many of the ideas around which the religious right later coalesced. Among the beliefs of Christian Reconstructionist theologian R.J. Rushdoony was a proscription on racial mixing.
As conservatives organized around a potential Goldwater nomination in 1962, William F. Buckley, National Review founder and the leading intellectual of what was then called the New Right, sought to purge the John Birch Society from the conservative movement and the Goldwater campaign, given its reputation for extremism, especially after its leader alleged that General Dwight D. Eisenhower was part of a communist conspiracy. JBS became anathema. Even Phyllis Schlafly, described by Welch as “one of our most loyal members,” denied her involvement with the Society, according to the New York Times. Yet even amid the controversy, delegates to the 1964 Republican National Convention voted down a measure that would have repudiated JBS. (Update: The Southern Poverty Law Center has published a 1959 letter from Schlafly in which she says both she and her husband are members.)
However marginalized JBS remained as an entity, the ideas it promoted continued to replicate in the DNA of the religious right and the conservative movement. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Society shifted its aim from targeting alleged communists to raising an alarm on the purported horrors of internationalism. Deeply suspicious of any kind of globalism, JBS has led the right’s charge against the United Nations and fomented the conspiracy theory that embedded in the fine print of the North American Free Trade Agreement is a plan for a North American Union modeled on the European Union—a plan, Birchers say, for the end to the national sovereignty of the United States and for a single currency to be adopted by the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
Now, in the Age of Trump, the John Birch Society is finding new legitimacy in evangelical circles and in the broader conservative movement.
Among the JBS triumphs recounted by current President John McManus to Chad Bull, a JBS member and an activist with the Christian Reconstructionist Chalcedon Foundation, in an undated interview on Chalcedon’s website, are
"exposing and blocking the plans of the United Nations to steer American children away from their religious-based heritage with indoctrination leading to the worship of the earth goddess Gaia, the substitution of the blasphemous 'Ark of Hope,' and the adoption of the UN’s Earth Charter [and] successfully blocking ratification of the subversive Equal Rights Amendment."
The late Phyllis Schlafly, who died earlier this week, might take issue with McManus’ claim to that second point, having organized a ground army of fearful Christian women with her successful Stop ERA movement. She may have been a Bircher herself, but I doubt she’d let the men of JBS take full credit for her greatest victory.
In his speech, Trump delivered a paean to Schlafly, not for any of her accomplishments, but for her decision to endorse his presidential campaign. “She was so brave,” Trump said of Schlafly. “She endorsed me, and that was not the thing to do at the time. People said, Trump? She said, He’s going to win, you don’t understand. He knows how to win, he’s going to win. They said, Phyllis, not going to be Trump. And we went boom, boom, boom.”
In Trump, it seems, Schlafly thought she had found another Goldwater—but one who had a better shot at victory.
Other notes Trump hit in his speech echoed the John Birch Society (though not all). Trump’s opposition to trade agreements comes right from the FAQs on the JBS website, as does his tough-guy stance on undocumented immigrants. He now talks about reducing government regulation, another JBS bugaboo. He’s also promised to repeal “the Johnson amendment”—the tax code provision that forbids religious institutions claiming a tax exemption to endorse candidates or engage in electioneering. (There’s no position on the Johnson amendment listed on the JBS website.)
Trump’s rhetoric and positions have earned him the appreciation of Birch Society leaders. The current issue of its magazine, New American, features a cover story titled “Trump vs. the Establishment” that is highly appreciative of the candidate.
If it has not offered Trump an endorsement, perhaps it is because it dare not call too much attention to its Trump-love for fear of tainting the candidate’s chances. (A reader informs us that, as a matter of policy, JBS does not endorse candidates.)
Toward the end of his speech, Trump noted that he would attend Phyllis Schlafly’s funeral on Saturday. There, he will find himself in the company of Schlafly’s fellow travelers, who bear the influence of the John Birch Society.