Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Encore: Angie Maxwell on how Confederate Christianity took over the Republican party

Encore: Angie Maxwell on how Confederate Christianity took over the Republican party

(This episode first premiered August 28, 2021.)

A lot of people know about the “Southern Strategy,” the multi-year plan of 20th century Republicans like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon to get white voters in the South to stop voting for Democrats. But what isn’t widely known is that the GOP itself was changed by the electoral coalition that it attracted.

While lingering support for racial segregation played an important role in flipping the South toward the Republican Party, the voters who changed their partisanship and the ones who followed them have views that do not reduce to simple racism.

In her book “The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics,” Angie Maxwell, a professor at the University of Arkansas, takes a deep look at how conservative politics was changed in both policy and style as Republicans reconfigured their entire concept of outreach around appealing to white fundamentalist Protestants.

In this episode of Theory of Change, Maxwell discusses how the loss of the Civil War and negative media coverage of the John Scopes evolution trial in Tennessee were some of the reasons that many white Southerners felt aggrieved from the rest of the country, and how this set the stage for a politics that pandered to this resentment. Some white Protestants went to Republicans because the party decided to actively court supporters of racial segregation, others because the GOP rebranded itself into a party for fundamentalist Christians, and finally, still other party switchers went to the GOP because it stopped supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and other policies they believed to be violations of traditional roles for women.

As Maxwell notes, those choices by GOP elites and voters ultimately led to the rise of Donald Trump, an event which many political observers couldn’t anticipate. The idea that voters constantly concerned with cosmic and earthly battles with Satan would support a thrice-married serial adulterer who owned strip clubs and casinos didn’t make sense.

But, as Maxwell argues in the discussion, the white evangelical bargain with Republicans was never about shared ideals, so much as it was about politicians obeying and genuflecting to the ideas and the culture.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: This is Theory of Change. I’m Matthew Sheffield.

A lot of people have heard of the “Southern Strategy,” the long-term political plan of early American conservatives to win presidential elections by getting the votes of white people who lived in the southeast. Many historians and political scientists have written about the Southern strategy over the years. But what still isn’t widely known is how the Republican Party itself changed as it focused so heavily on winning over white Southern Protestants.

From its very beginnings, the Republican Party up until that point was a northern Yankee party for city dwellers, industrial workers and university professors and farm workers. But that’s not who votes for Republicans nowadays, the huge influence of Southern Protestant culture played a big role in how the GOP changed.

What’s interesting also is how American Christianity itself has at least in many ways, been remade in the image of Southern white evangelicalism. So joining me today to talk about all this is Angie Maxwell. She’s an associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas. And she’s also the author of the Long Southern Strategy, How Chasing White Voters in the South changed American Politics. Thanks so much for being with me today. Angie.

ANGIE MAXWELL: Thank you for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right, well, so there’s a lot to cover here. Your book is really kind of, I think, groundbreaking in a lot of ways, because it looks at the Southern strategy from kind of the opposite direction. So a lot of people have written about the Southern strategy. But they haven’t written about this aspect that you did in yours. Why do you think that that is the case?

MAXWELL: Well, I guess the best way to explain it is to say I feel like many people have written about what I would call like the short Southern strategy. So there’s, there’s two answers to this. First, is this, the short Southern strategy. So it’s kind of the story we have in our heads that Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon in the 60s, tried to capitalize on Southern white voters who were frustrated with the direction of their National Democratic Party, particularly on issues related to civil rights, and with some effort by Republicans could be brought into the Republican fold. And then of course, we say, well, Nixon wins the South. And there we have it, right, the short Southern strategy, playing to these kind of aggrieved Southern whites.

But I started to think about what a longer game it has been. Because even though Nixon wins the South in ’68, and ’72, the South completely goes back to blue for Native Son, Jimmy Carter, 10 of 11 states, and Republicans have to figure out once again, do they continue to try to make those investments? Was it a temporary gain? Or was it something that was going to kind of be the future of their party and a new base? And that kind of back and forth actually happens over the course of about 40 years. And so it’s a two steps forward kind of one step back dynamic.

And so I wanted to see the Southern strategy in this longer perspective, right. That’s the first way that it’s different. And secondly, is I was looking at not just the policy positions that Republicans took to win the Southern white voters, but also the style of politics that they adopted, the one party political system that had dominated the south for most of its history, gave rise to a really distinct type of politics. And in order to really convert those diehard Southern Democrats to the Republican Party, you are going to have to do more than just take certain policy positions, you are going to have to kind of embrace that white Southernness. And so the book’s about both aspects of that effort.

SHEFFIELD: And a lot of it, as you said, you were talking about aggrieved Southerners–aggrieved in many cases about, not only, but this idea there was this idea, very common in the south after the Civil War, that became a term the “Lost Cause.” How much of that do you think was playing a role in in white Southern politics before the Southern strategy?

MAXWELL: Sure. Well, the Lost Cause kind of mentality is, I guess the best way that I always think of it personally, is, it was kind of an alibi. It was kind of a story that white Southerners told themselves after the war to deal with their grief and to deal with their resentment over reconstruction and to make somehow the failed effort seem somewhat noble and maybe not as much about maintaining slavery, right?

So it’s a little bit of a coded kind of mask for what was really going on. And kind of speaking in those kind of coded terms was definitely part of the Southern strategy and something that white Southerners would have been used to–the famous examples about, like law and order, right, under Nixon?

That phrase, meaning one thing, kind of to white Southern audiences, while not being explicitly direct about what it’s about, right? And so we see sometimes just the need to tell a story that things are okay, or we’ve moved past racism or structural racism isn’t still a problem, or the war effort was about heritage, right? And protecting a way of life, that kind of that kind of those stories are something that’s very common in Southern white culture.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And and we’ll get into more of that later in the discussion here. But so so basically, just to set the timeframe that we’re talking about here, American conservatism is a pretty young phenomenon in the historical sense and political sense. It was a collection of loosely organized people that were kind of affiliated with industrialists who decided they didn’t like Franklin Roosevelt.

That’s where it kind of grew out of in the beginning and–as a political movement at least–and then it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that they were going to be Republicans. And, so let’s do you want to talk about that a little bit? What are some of the other party strategies that people explored in the very early beginnings?

MAXWELL: Well, I guess I would say that, I don’t know if American conservatism is, is relatively young. I think maybe American conservatism was kind of default and American progressivism is what was young. And when progressivism or kind of modern American presidents like Roosevelt that start to make that job, the executive so much larger, expand its scope and capacity, expand the role of government, when that happens, there is a need to kind of define what the objection to that is, right? What is the objection to government creating all of the social programs and the infrastructure that it created to try to put a basically put a floor underneath the economy during and after the Great Depression.

And that could have gone in a couple of different ways. If FDR’s efforts had–if he had not been a four-term or three-and-a-little-bit term president, perhaps it would have been kind of an anomaly, right? This big government effort was for the purpose of getting us out of the Great Depression.

But it becomes something that in the south financially, the region becomes very highly dependent on that kind of federal income. And that sets up a really different relationship between the states and the federal government. I think conservatism was started to embrace this concept of state autonomy and define itself that way. And that just kind of happened to work perfectly in terms of protecting Jim Crow. Does that make sense? It’s not always what state right state rights was about, but it dovetailed pretty nicely with kind of a growing American conservatism.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, but as a just purely party phenomenon. We had–

MAXWELL: –sure

SHEFFIELD: You could argue that the Democratic Party before Roosevelt was more conservative than the Republican

MAXWELL: Oh, absolutely.

SHEFFIELD: So and, and like in the early days of conservatism, American conservatism, mid 20th century, there were a lot of people who they identified as Democrats more and they were conservative, and they were not going to be Republican and then there were other parties, too.

MAXWELL: Yeah, I was talking–I’m glad you say that. Because when I said that, I felt like American conservatism is not that young, it’s kind of been the default, I don’t, I don’t tie it to one party historically. I think Southern Democrats were as conservative as you–as you come. Their national party, under FDR and then under Truman started to shift. The national party under those presidents. Southern Democrats were not shifting.

In fact, they were not shifting. They were so staunch in that conservative American conservatism that they left, you know, in 1948, and walked out and decided to run their own candidate, and that for president in the form of Strom Thurmond. So what we didn’t know in the 1950s, you look at middle of the 20th century, like you said, is we didn’t know which party was going to go which way. So if you look at the platforms in the 50s, from the national parties on things like civil rights, they’re almost identical.

And  you kind of didn’t know, but the national Democratic Party seemed like it was moving in a little baby steps in a pro-civil rights direction. But the Southern Democratic Party was the opposite. The national Republican Party was also–had been, at least rhetorically, kind of pro civil rights. But there was a growing conservatism that was kind of anti-labor, Midwestern, rural America that was starting to push back in that party. And what’s what’s hard, I think, as I look back on it, with the vantage of hindsight is, it’s a shame that one party, that the parties had to go in opposite directions on these issues, right? Who says one party has to be the champion of civil rights in the 60s and 70s? And one has to be the party is effectively at times trying to limit some of the some of that change. It’s a shame that we couldn’t have debated over like the best way, right, to deal with structural inequities based on race or racial uplift. Because there’s definitely tons of debate you have on what policies do work and help, right? It’s shame we couldn’t have done that, as opposed to really making it a polarized partisan issue. And I think there were a lot of people in both parties that disagreed with the way their party went, we know that to be sure,to be true.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and the conservatives eventually decided that they were going to try to take over the Republican Party, but it was a–actually, to some degree, not that difficult for them because they were so well organized. National Review was founded in 1955. And Barry Goldwater got the Republican nomination not even 10 years after that. And of course, National Review wasn’t the only the only aspect of American conservatism. But that’s, that’s a pretty rapid ascent within one party. And one of the interesting things about that is that they, the early conservatives, actually, a lot of them were former communists themselves. And they actually copied a lot of Stalinist political tactics, that’s something that isn’t widely known and used them as a way of organizing within the Republican Party. So like they would send people into Republican meetings, and then they would have different–they’d have like, a group of people who would pretend not to know each other, and then they would cheer each other on.

MAXWELL: Well, that is definitely a book that you should write, I was not aware of that.

I will say this, the conservative impulse within the Republican Party was really strong, going into the 1950s. It just it just, it had trouble, kind of breaking apart with kind of establishment east and west coast Republicans, but it did not like big government, it was very concerned about labor. Right? Did not, you know, it was a big–did not like unions, was really concerned about communist infiltration. And in that, and then and then, you know, and this is interesting, but conservatives in the Republican Party really, really didn’t want [Dwight] Eisenhower on the ticket.

SHEFFIELD: That’s true.

MAXWELL: They did not they really wanted Taft, they really did, from Ohio. And they were devastated because Eisenhower kind of came on late in the convention. And they felt tricked. They felt like it was kind of unfair how it happened. And that really motivated them to get organized. Taft, unfortunately, died of cancer, like a year or two later. And so his part of the story kind of fades, but they’re so angry that he gets robbed of the nomination in ’52 that they really do start organizing and they start form–and they start looking for, how can we grow this conservative part of the part of the Republican Party? How do we do it? And they start clubs throughout the south, where they start trying to recruit people, they look at [Orval] Faubus actually, Clarence Manion looks at Faubus after 1956, the governor who–

SHEFFIELD: Do you want to, do you want to talk about both who Clarence Manion was in and Orval Faubus for those who don’t know who they are?

MAXWELL: Sure, it [Manion] was just a Republican operative. And a–he was very involved in kind of strategizing for the party,

SHEFFIELD: And a talk radio host.

MAXWELL: And a radio host. So he had access to audiences, which is actually a really important point. And they just, they know their numbers. They know they do not have enough. So how can they grow that base within the Republican Party? They start seeing, do they have some alliances with some very upset white Southerners who, (not all white Southerners, it’s never all) who really feel kind of in a partisan purgatory when the national Democratic Party starts really moving in the kind of a more pro-civil rights direction. They think can we be–can we build kind of an alliance here?

And they look at Faubus, like I said, as this like pro-states rights governor, but then Barry Goldwater, who takes a really hard stand against labor unions and organizing criticizes Eisenhower for it. And he’s this young senator who’s very charismatic, they feel like is it a kind of abandon the Faubus idea, and they really start looking at Goldwater. They wanted him to run in, in ’60. But some of those conservatives–but that he, he refuses, just thinks it’s not a good idea. And of course, they finally secure, like you said, you know, kind of a 10 year process to get their party’s nomination, and that is a heated convention in 64, with about half the Republican Party being very upset that Goldwater’s the nominee and the other half, having organized for 10 years being overjoyed.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, there were some echoes of that, of that moment in the 2016, Republican National Convention–


SHEFFIELD: –with Donald Trump, where there were just a lot of Republicans who didn’t want him, people were claiming they were going to try to stage a walkout strategy.

MAXWELL: Sure, and you know, it’s a really important point, because it’s always important to remember that nominees, especially in contested years are rarely unanimous. So when we talk about this strategy, we sometimes say, while the Republicans all decided to go play up the anti-civil rights thing, actually a fraction of the Republican Party that were pushing for a nominee for a lot of different reasons, and some strategists thought Goldwater’s vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, could maybe win them over some voters in the south and break the Democratic stronghold there, the electoral map. That does not mean that everyone that supported Goldwater in the Republican Party, were supporting him for that same reason. Does that make sense? So it’s like, it’s always important to me to remember, it’s easy for us to see it in hindsight. But on the ground Goldwater meant different things to different people. And there were conservatives, conservatism didn’t equal just anti-civil rights, right, in any way, shape, or form.


MAXWELL: And I never want to make it sound like that. Because it don’t that don’t think that to be true.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So I mean, and even before, though, that Goldwater had secured the nomination, there were a few different Republican consultants and conservative election advisors who were talking about this idea that, that there are votes to be had among white Southerners. And, and they had written some books about that and white papers. Did you want to talk briefly about just some of those people like Kevin Phillips or–

MAXWELL: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Kevin Phillips writes after Goldwater’s campaign, the most famous book kind of “The Emerging Republican Majority.” Now, this seems so common-sense to us in 2021. But you have to recognize what a bloc the South had been for the Democratic Party. I mean, Republicans had such a narrow path to electoral victory, they did not have, well, we might flip Georgia or North Carolina or Texas, it was just Democrat, right?

And so it really limited your your, your your choices when you’re putting together an electoral strategy. So what happens is when the National Democratic party starts kind of embracing this more pro-civil rights stance, there are strategists, one of the other famous ones is Lee Atwater, who realizes the South is ripe for some two-party competition because there was enough disaffected people.

And he also knew, and this is very important, that they did not have a two-party infrastructure in most places in the South. And that building from the bottom up, was going to be really difficult. If they could get Southerners to at least split ticket and vote for a Republican conservative presidential candidate, even if they did not have a strong robust Republican Party, they could launch having a–growing a Republican Party in the cell. Tried to–they tried to get Southerners to say, look, you have no choice in this one. Goldwater’s the only one that voted against the Civil Rights Act that’s running. If you vote for, you know, Lyndon Johnson, you will get the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You will enfranchise you know, African Americans in pockets of the south for for whom, and for many white leaders that was very threatening based on the numbers, right, so they really tried to sound like it was a one off. They were building something.


MAXWELL: So Lee Atwater, that strategy he really pushed. And he’s going to train a whole bunch of people. Strom Thurmond, just so you know, Lee Atwater worked in South Carolina politics and Strom Thurmond was the first Southern politician in 1964. He immediately switched parties. So not just supported Goldwater and stumped for him, which he did, but switched his official label from Democrat to Republican. That’s how definitive and influential that kind of South Carolina contingency of all of this was.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And there were other people out there like Morton Blackwell, he’s another example, who was who was very big on that. And then briefly, and he’s not mentioned a lot in your book, but William F. Buckley, he was the son of Texas oil barron, and they moved to Connecticut. People nowadays aren’t remembering him for his more Southern roots. But he was somebody who not only was his family was from the south, but he also practiced a Southern mode of politics, rhetorical style, that was very pugilistic. There was, in fact, one famous moment where he threatened to punch Gore Vidal, the left-wing author in the face and called him offensive term for a gay man. And that’s, in many ways, he sort of set the template for a lot of what came afterwards, even though he himself kind of calmed down as he got older.

So what we’ve talked about so far, that’s–these are some things that a lot of people know. But there are other aspects about the Southern strategy. And that’s what a huge part of your book is about. And so not just race or partisanship, but also a lot of what happened to the Southern white vote had to do with opposing feminism and women’s rights. And so let’s maybe talk about that. I think the key figure there is a Phyllis Schlafly, who was not a Southerner.

MAXWELL: She was not. Well, I guess the best place to kind of start with that is just to say, that  after 1976 election, when Jimmy Carter, of course, Native Son, the South goes back to blue. Republican strategists at that point are doing a post mortem on elections. What did we do wrong? Have we lost the South because of Watergate? After Nixon, was that a fluke? Do we double down on these efforts, do we not? And the Republican Party has always been very advanced in terms of its polling early on, and not just horse race polling who will win, but kind of deep psychological dives.

And Reagan, one of Reagan’s pollsters and strategists, Richard Wirthlin, does a big poll of American women, like 40,000 American women, because women were starting to turn out in higher and higher numbers in election cycles, and he says–categorizes these women into 64 types, and gives them names like Helens and Bettys, and he’s trying to just do an analysis like what motivates them to vote. And he finds a strong contingency of these anti-equal rights amendments, supportive of traditional gender roles, white women, particularly in the south. And so if they’re going to make inroads in the south, they’re going to restore, repave, those inroads they’d made with Nixon and Goldwater. They felt like adding that, particularly in a moment when–it’s not that race, racial issues are always significant in elections. But the urgency and intensity right after in the middle of the civil rights movement is just a very different phenomenon than when you’re kind of a decade beyond that, right? And so, the Equal Rights Amendment and its passage was the hot topic, the anti-ERA movement, which Schlafly is seen as the figurehead of and really long work, right?

SHEFFIELD: And we’re talking in the 1970s here.

MAXWELL: Right, yeah, so the Equal Rights–the first 12 months of the Equal Rights Amendment, it was ratified by over 30 states, it just looks like a done deal. It’s just going to–and then all of a sudden, it really stops in its tracks. And Phyllis Schlafly organizes this anti-ERA movement, which tells women that if the ERA is ratified, that it’s going to force them to work. It tells them it’s going to force them put their children in government daycare. It says that men won’t have to pay child support anymore.

SHEFFIELD: And says men can use women’s restrooms.

MAXWELL: Yeah, yes. And it says that, it also told stay at home women, or homemakers, that feminists judge them and that feminism was not choice. Feminism was you must adopt the lifestyle of a working woman.

And Schlafly also partnered with religious organizations. Most notably, she worked with some counterparts in the Mormon Church. To help kill the amendment in Utah, specifically, she worked with Lottie Beth Hobbs, who was a woman who is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, kind of a leader there and an author to help organize women in the Southern Baptist Church to kind of rally against the Equal Rights Amendment. A lot of times in the south, even though Schlafly is national organization didn’t say this. But a lot of times in the south, these anti-ERA campaigns, kind of dovetailed with anti-civil rights and anti-integration efforts. So in Georgia, for example, there were demonstrations where women shouted, we don’t want to de-sex-igrate, right? Kind of merging the two things and saying there’s too much change too fast.

So it does, the era, the anti-ERA campaign has a pretty has a pretty big influence on politicizing Southern white women and getting them to the polls. Now, this what’s important to note is in 1980, when Ronald Reagan gets the Republican nomination, the Republican Party then drops the Equal Rights Amendment from its platform. For the first time in 40 years, they were actually the party that had it on their platform first. And this was to the great devastation of a lot of Republican feminists who just had no idea the party was going to kind of would abandon their efforts. That’s how powerful Schlafly’s organizing was. It’s important to note too, that that ERA fails in in the south and really loses its momentum. Because of a lot of those defeats.

There was also the infamous 1977 National Women’s convention in Houston, which Phyllis Schlafly organized a counter convention. And the reason that’s important and there’s, there’s a great book on it called Divided We Stand by Marjorie Spruill, that just came out a few years ago. But the reason it’s important is because there were Republican politicians paying attention to that convention, because there were so many American women that went, and Phyllis Schlafly started using the slogan, “family values.” And there were Republican strategists who go, ‘Whoa, that’s hitting a nerve that’s tapping into something that’s really important.’ We know from polling data after the 1980 election, how significant the anti-ERA stance of the Republican Party and feeling and those sentiments was a major driver for Southern white women who voted for Reagan. He increased his share among them in 1984, too. So that helps the Republicans recapture the South.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and that meme, the “family values” idea, that is, even now, it’s something that you see in Republican messaging. In fact, there’s a large conference of Religious Right people every year called the Values Voters Conference, and it all goes back to that particular moment.

And actually, that’s, that’s a kind of a good segue to the next aspect of what we’re talking about here, the aspect of religion. And the introduction of your book starts off with a quote, which I think is is very illustrative. It’s from a historian named Glenn Feldman, he said, “the South did not become Republican, so much as the Republican Party became Southern.” And that was, I thought, that was a great way to start off your book. And a lot of that does come into religion and the aspect of anti-feminism hooks into that also, because in the south, the local Protestant churches are–and even to a large degree now–but certainly much more in the mid 20th century and earlier, they were the hub of the community, right?

MAXWELL: They absolutely were. So in parts of rural and particularly small towns, the church was kind of the central organizing institution of the community. Much in the same way the African American church would do the same in the south, among that among that community.

And so there was something there’s something very specific about, just like Jim Crow was such an institution for so long in the south. Segregation, the church, if anything could rival it in its defining the region and its kind of way of life, it would be it would be the church.

And so if you really want to kind of knock-out punch of those Southern voters is find a way to reach them at the pews. Which exactly what the Republican Party did, I mean, after Reagan, and then of course, George HW Bush, another native son of the South Bill Clinton came along. He does not carry the whole south. It’s not like a reversal the way it happened with Carter. But he does win several Southern states and he starts to pick up some gains, and others and, and even among, among religious voters in the beginning, the Republican Party, really strategically trying to look at what what part of the Southern electorate doesn’t kind of show up.

And there were evangelicals, particularly white evangelicals in the south that did not concern themselves with kind of worldly affairs, particularly Southern evangelical white women, they kind of left that to the politicians and so on. So it’s convincing those people that they, they have kind of a moral obligation to participate in and to vote and that’s an effort that starts in the 80s, and continues even to this day. So I would say it’s pretty solidified now. Churches passed out voter guides, Republican politicians started attending, like the Southern Baptist Convention, or sending a message and a note, and really started going to some of these large gatherings, Southern evangelicals. And that combination of hitting kind of white racial angst, which manifests in different ways in different decades, and traditional kind of gender roles, and evangelical kind of Christian nationalism. Those components, they do not get you all Southern voters. But they get you enough to win.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, let’s maybe circle back the idea that of Christian nationalism, that’s something that wasn’t a thing in the south to some degree after the famous Scopes Monkey Trial.

MAXWELL: This is true.

SHEFFIELD: A lot of a lot of Southerners decided that, well, you know what, we can’t teach–we can’t stop the idea of evolution in schools. So that reminds us of the idea that Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world. And so let’s take our focus inward, and let’s take our focus on conversion, converting people, and let’s do that. But that changed, and especially with the Southern Baptist Convention, you want to talk about that a little?

MAXWELL: Sure. Absolutely. And you get into Scopes, which my book that I wrote before this one, which is called The Indicted South: Public Criticism, Southern Inferiority and the Politics of Whiteness, is about moments in the South’s history where there was such intense public criticism of the region. What happens to that community after the fact?

SHEFFIELD: Do you want to very briefly just talk about what the Scopes trial was just for those who don’t know?

MAXWELL: Absolutely. I’ll try to be super brief. But okay, 1925 scopes trial. The year prior, the Tennessee legislature had passed something called the Butler Act, which bans the teaching of evolution in public schools. This was the result of a lot of generational angst about children that were kind of embracing the roaring 20s and kind of throwing off their parents Victorian kind of values, and maybe not leaving and leaving the church. And it’s the growth of higher education. And so they said, ‘this is happening, because they’re going to college’ or ‘this is happening, because they’re starting to teach all this fancy new science,’ right?

This is when we get zoology and botany and all these specialties. And so there just becomes kind of a belief that if you’re going to teach things like the theory of evolution, that somehow teaching that is what was causing students or young people to then question a hierarchical, spiritual religious faith. Then parents always the parents get upset about what their kids are being taught sometimes when generations shift.

So they when they banned that, the ACLU decided to file a lawsuit they looked for, they advertised for people who wanted to test the law. John Scopes was a football coach and science teacher at Ray County, Dayton, Tennessee. And he–they decided to him alongside with a couple of other businessmen in town decided it’d be great publicity for the town, and that they could turn it into kind of event. They’d make some money off of people coming to watch this great trial. Right?

They got a lot more than they bargained for. It was an absolute media circus. It was the first major trial that was covered live on the radio, people could listen to we layed telegraph wire, across the country to be able to do that, the railroads expanded because a number of people coming to Dayton, Tennessee. It was on the front page of the London Times, the Los Angeles Times, it was just everywhere for just days and days and days of the trial. And it’s because the famous, the most famous defense attorney, the in his generation, Clarence Darrow, was representing, he decided to go down there and represent Scopes and William Jennings Bryan, three-time candidate for president and former Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson.

SHEFFIELD: And a Democrat.

MAXWELL: And a Democrat decides to show up and help the prosecution. And so you have these two great orators and giants in their respective professions, in this tiny little town, and the whole world paid attention.

And Darrow put Bryan right on the stand and started questioning him about his literalist interpretation of the Bible. And through the grueling testimony and questioning, Bryan kind of cracked slightly and kind of admitted that the seven days of creation, those could be time periods, right. And and Darrow jumps on it. And it’s pretty devastating to Bryan, he intended to make a giant closing speech and redeem himself, but Darrow moved for an immediate verdict, which made closing speeches not happen.

Two days later, two days later, Bryan dies, just goes to sleep and doesn’t wake up. And so this little thing becomes this giant media event. And what it does is it humiliated fundamentalists, because the media coverage of it was so eviscerating.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And the fascinating thing about it that, to me, is that a lot of people saw the trial through the coverage, the media coverage of HL Mencken, who was a columnist, one of the very first syndicated columnist, and the interesting thing about HL Mencken is that he was also a conservative, but he was an atheist conservative. And needless to say, you don’t see a lot of those in the Republican Party anymore. They’re not allowed.

MAXWELL: And Mencken had long criticized the south for many things. And he actually leaves Dayton, Tennessee, early because he thinks it’s going to all be a big nothing. Then he’s mad himself, because he’s covering it from afar. But it wasn’t just him, the nation dubbed it Tennessee versus civilization. The New York Times called the people in Dayton cranks and freaks. I mean, it was, it was hostile coverage.

So what was the outcome of the case?

So the outcome of the case, which we knew this, but Scopes is found guilty, with a little fine. And they wanted that because they wanted to appeal, right? They want to test the constitutionality of the law in the first place, right? But so the actual outcome of the case, without the story, it’s more how it how the narrative changed after that.

So the intent, the criticism was so intense of fundamentalists, that they kind of went underground. People that wrote that day, intellectuals and people like Mencken that wrote at that time said, ‘oh, fundamentalism died today.’ It didn’t die when underground, created its own network of private colleges and private universities, one named William Jennings Bryan college that opens five years later, in Dayton, Tennessee. So it says, we can’t–this majoritarianism that we thought we could impose certain things in the public school system, if that doesn’t work, we will just build our own kind of network, focus on our religious space, not worldly concerns. And people who were not paying attention, didn’t see how expansive that world was becoming, and how cohesive and how ripe, it could be in time, for politicization.

SHEFFIELD: And it certainly played into the the racial aspect of the Southern strategy later, because a lot of these schools that were established after Scopes, they were racially segregated. And then in the after Brown versus Board of Education was handed down which said that–the Supreme Court case that said that you couldn’t have segregated public schooling, that a lot of white Southern segregationist supporters begin transferring their children into these pre-established Christian day schools.

MAXWELL: They did.

SHEFFIELD: And then that later, then that later, was a key component in getting some segregation supporters into the Republican Party, because during the Carter administration, you had the the IRS said, if you’re going to have private segregated schools, you’re going to lose your tax exempt status. And that was kind of a really a galvanizing thing for a lot of people like Jerry Falwell, for instance. You want to talk a little bit more about that?

MAXWELL: Yeah, I can say, I’ll say this. What’s interesting–I mean, it is all connected in lots of ways. The way I’m sure that the world political world we live in now will look 20 years from now we’ll draw all kinds of connections to things happening now. But the network of kind of private Christian spaces, whether it’s universities, it was K through 12 schools, popular culture, everything, radio stations, television stations eventually build up Christian bookstores. I mean, the whole kind of move–pop culture movement does create a really kind of self-segregating religious space.

Now when integration hits the courts, and people are upset about their child being bused into far places, or they are anxious about integration and what it’s going to look like in their community, people sought out private schools. And if those private schools were religious space schools, and they could afford to go there, they did, they also created new schools. And then in some places, like Virginia, they eliminated compulsory school attendance. And so you see the advent of homeschooling, of the homeschool movement, and it really taking off.

And some of that were people who were–it’s not the only reason the homeschooling takes off. But that effort does pick up when people are trying to avoid their children attending integrated goals. And so there’s a collision right there of this kind of religious selfs, kind of, I don’t know, withdraw or fundamentalist kind of going underground, and civil rights movements that they come into collision in the schools, right, and then what policies we set up for schools where there’s going to be prayer in school, where they’re going to have tax exempt status, all of those things that are getting debated in the 70s. galvanize that community, dramatically.

Those sometimes people are there for different reasons, but those issues affected private schools in ways. And even funding for those–the Supreme Court in that Lemon, in that Lemon versus Kurtzman that Lemon test where they say ‘well, religion has to be out of public schools to a degree that it doesn’t have to be basically micromanaged by the courts.’ So if it’s funding for something that is at a school, at a private school, but is a secular in its purpose–the federal government’s helping with transportation, something like that.

But if it’s anything of more depth that the court’s going to have to regulate, then the court says we’re out, and so all of that starts to really shift how these schools are going to financially self-support, and just how strict the government is being about separation of church and state. You see, several decisions have been during Carter’s time.

Now, this all dovetails the exact same time as the Southern, I’ll say it quickly, Southern Baptist Convention, really shifts. The Baptist Church, primarily in the south had been a, for most of its history had been very independent, no hierarchy, soul competency, personal relationship with God didn’t need this high church, you know.

SHEFFIELD: You could call it anti-clericalism.

MAXWELL: Absolutely. And the Southern Baptist Church had split from the Baptist Church nationally over the issue of slavery. It had, it has that history. But the the day to day politics of it were very much not coordinated, to the degree that they’re, that they’re going to become. So in 19, in the early 1970s, two leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention–they’re not really leaders yet, they’re young at that time. But Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, meet and decide that the moderate Baptists need to go, that they are being too passive about all these changes in American life. And so they hatch a plan to get a fundamentalists elected as head of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979.

And when I say hatch a plan, they really have walkie talkies, like we’re going to talk to this candidate, because when the members who are chosen by their churches to attend the Southern Baptist Convention, tend–no one ever campaigned, it was kind of like, people just followed their hearts, who they thought would be a good leader. It was not formal policy. And these guys orchestrated that and they are successful. And then you start to see that the president, the fundamentalist president of the SBC appoints fundamentalists to the committee on committees which then appoint fundamentalists to the other committees, and slowly over the next decade, the SBC becomes something very different. Women are kicked out of seminary. It is codified, the doctrine of wifely submission is re-codified into the SBC rulebook per se. And things pretty dramatically change and politicians and political leaders build relationships. And the SBC goes after those relationships to that’s definitely a two way street.

SHEFFIELD: Well and they also change the church’s position on abortion.

MAXWELL: They do.

SHEFFIELD: Were there actual Republican elected, or consultant people that were involved in this takeover?

MAXWELL: No, no, no, this was totally an internal phenomenon. But what it does, is that it is because of the changes in the secular world, in the public landscape, that is what upset these young fundamentalists to think that their, their denomination should become more proactive, and take positions on these issues in a really dramatic fashion. And they feel like the moderates in there are just saying, ‘just let everybody do their thing. That’s not our concern.’ And they’re tired of that. They want to be proactive, they don’t– they do. And so that fundamentalist takeover, though, and the fact that the fundamentalist becomes so strict in what the interpretations are, and because they start challenging members to vote, to pass out voter guides to get active and engaged.

SHEFFIELD: This is the Christian position on X.

MAXWELL: Excactly. To the point of this is who you should vote for guys.

SHEFFIELD: If you are a Christian.

MAXWELL: Correct. If you are a Christian, if you’re a member of this church, and you did lose a lot of moderate members that left or felt exiled and purged from the organization, but they also started really affecting things at the ballot box. They get so excited, I mean, they become kind of, so enamored with their ability to influence the elections, they think about, maybe they could run their own person, right?

And then they run Pat Robertson, and then what they realized was that, because they were really mad at Reagan. They were really mad at Carter, because they thought he was one of them, and then they were like, ‘no, you’re not.’ And then Reagan, they felt like paid a lot of lip service to them. But by the end of his second term, they are frustrated, they just felt like he said a lot, but didn’t do a lot.

‘So we’re going to run our own person.’ And then when they realize, this is super important, when they realize that they’re not that big in number to run their own and win a Republican nomination or independent candidate like Pat Robertson, then some of these Southern evangelical leaders say, ‘okay, look, we don’t need a litmus test on the candidate. I don’t care what their personal background is, we just need them to do the things we want them to do.’

And that’s so critical. Because I remember, one of the questions I get asked the most when we do all this polling on religious voters is, people are like, ‘well, surely the Southern Baptists are not going to vote for Mitt Romney. He’s a Mormon, they said for years that Mormonism was a cult. And I’m like ‘they’re going to vote for him.’

And they’ll go: ‘Surely they will not vote for Donald Trump. You know, he’s been divorced multiple times. Just he doesn’t have a history with the church, different personal choices and scandals.’ Yes, they are.


MAXWELL: And not because, and people are always thinking it’s hypocritical. And it’s fine to look at it that way if they want to. But I’m just telling you, it didn’t start with those two candidates. When evangelical leaders started saying ‘it’s about who does the things we want them to.’ They’re politicos, it’s like, ‘I don’t care if you’re of our faith, whatever, if you’ll do, if you’ll side with us on these things, if you’ll appoint the right people to the bench, if you’ll issue an executive order on this, we got your back.’

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And then there was also a big focus among the fundamentalists on missionary work inside the United States. And so you had this rapid expansion of Southern Protestantism outside of the South. So like Southern California was a huge area they focused on, but they focused a lot on on the Midwest, and also did try to encourage people in other denominations to say, ‘look, you may not agree with us on all the particular doctrines here, but let’s realize who our common enemy here and that is religious pluralism and non Christians.’

MAXWELL: That’s a super important point, because the cross denominational unity that gets built. I mean, I grew up Catholic in a very Baptist little town in Louisiana. That Catholic versus Baptist thing was serious. And over the course of my lifetime, it just, it just disappeared. It was like an issue. And then it just disappeared.

And remember, Catholics had been such a big part of, of course, JFK’s coalition. So one of the things that happens as a result of the organizing over the Equal Rights, the anti-Equal Rights organizing, and the prayer in school issues is that you started to see some cross denominational kind of support, and that you started to see this kind of rise of the Christian Right, which is more than just one denomination.

And it’s a pretty, pretty amazing phenomenon, to think about how many denominations kind of come together under this slogan of kind of family values, honestly, it’s under the campaign of George W. Bush, after Clinton kind of starts to pick up some votes in the south. And some of Bush’s strategists say one thing we need to do is we need to put–we need more religious voters, we need to put some stuff on state, we need to put some amendments to state constitutions on the ballot. To get people to come out on particularly the issue of gay marriage and banning gay marriage.

So even those pockets of evangelicals that still just kind of hadn’t shown up in the numbers they wanted at the voting booth.


MAXWELL: These issues that were very important to those organizations and those communities to get them to show up. And that really solidified that kind of the Red South over the course of the three issues, like playing the race card, playing towards kind of traditional gender roles, anti-feminism, and playing towards kind of a religious kind of Christian nationalism. That the Republican Party kind of won over the South, the national level, but all that trickled all the way down over those decades as a strong Republican infrastructure is built and then becomes dominant at the state and even local level south, which the Democratic Party had not had to contend with, and is still trying to recover.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well and it changed who the Republican electorate is quite a bit. So before the Southern strategy before it came to its full fruition under George W. Bush, you had people who had post graduate degrees, they for a lifetime actually were Republican. And the same thing was true of Asian-Americans. Actually, a majority of them voted for Republicans. But over time as these different elements of, as you’re talking about, the the idea of traditional gender norms, Christian nationalism, and sort of white, soft, white ethno-nationalism, they kind of drove out a lot of people who were less religious or less Christian, not white. And so that’s kind of what’s happened on the Republican Party became a different party, because of the white conservatives.

MAXWELL: And we can measure these things.


MAXWELL: And we measure on scales of racial resentment, what people say about their own attitudes about this “modern sexism,” another scale of questions of Christian nationalism scale, we do this, in this book we do. And among white voters falling into one of those three categories, kind of above the norm, accounts for about 95% of Trump’s vote. It’s implied.

But I do need to say this, it’s really important. So in the south, there’s a lot, there’s a significant number of white voters who are all three of those things. They test high on all three, they express racial resentment, modern sexism–women too–and kind of Christian nationalism. But most people are two of three or one of three. It’s why it takes all three, it kind of takes hitting at all three. We sometimes assume–particularly critics love to make things worse by going ‘oh, well, they’re all just a bunch of racists, they’re all just a bunch.’ And the truth is, is there are some people who express those feelings. But there’s a lot of people that are one and not the other.


MAXWELL: And that’s one of the reasons that the stances over time and the Republican power–

SHEFFIELD: Have to shift.

MAXWELL: Yeah, shift and they bring in, yeah, so Western Republicans, they didn’t come in on the issue of segregation and civil rights angst, they came on issues related more to family values. And nuance is important, I think.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And we’re and we’re seeing that in the present day, where you’ve got this kind of emerging contingency of people that were calling themselves the Intellectual Dark Web for a while, and they–most of them are not religious. You’ve got Joe Rogan, he says he’s an atheist. You’ve got Dave Rubin, who for a long time was an atheist activist. And you’ve got other people, Brett Weinstein and others who, again, they they have no particular interest in Christian nationalism. But what they do have an interest is, is some of the other things right now.

MAXWELL: Absolutely.

SHEFFIELD: Right now, a big one is anti-feminism and you’re seeing that also with the rise of a lot of far-right Hispanics and evangelical Hispanics. And there is a big effort among a lot of the religious right currently now to try to convert a lot of black Christians and get them into Christian nationalism and use anti-feminism as a, as a tool for them.

MAXWELL: Yes, I mean, our highest percentages of people who express modern sexism, and again, that’s what people say about themselves. They say about themselves. It is most–the highest numbers are among white males, higher in the south than outside of the South. Really high among white women, also in the south, and very small among African Americans, they’re a little bit more among men these particular questions, but and among Latinos, it’s not as high as whites. But there’s definitely, among women and men.

Those distinctions are significant, because when we have elections that are as close as our elections are, in terms of the states that go this way or that way by a couple points, that’s all that you need. That’s all that matters. That’s all that matters. So sometimes I think sometimes pundits are like ‘oh, how many people could that really be that they’re going to target to do this?’ But you know, a couple of points is a big deal when elections are so close.

It’s important to kind of see that not that nuance, but also to realize, yes, Americans did sort themselves over time. And it took time. Republican feminists, for example, they stuck with the Republican Party for a while thinking like ‘this might, like the next administration might change or like how do we,’ they didn’t want to leave their party. They were sad their party left them. They felt like, they felt they could bring it back.

So it takes a while. But over time, they do sort and that makes the Republican Party base, a very different, different thing because of those choices to win those Southern voters, the party at large.

SHEFFIELD: Well, so we’ve got a live stream question from audience member named Jenise Huffman. And her question is: “How do you think evangelicals’ embrace of Trump will change Christianity in America?” And I would maybe add that one of the other interesting things that we’re seeing is that because a lot of white Americans are leaving fundamentalist religion, that the fundamentalist religions just by default are becoming more minority. And we’re seeing that to some degree with the Southern Baptist Convention recently. Do you want to talk about some of these developments a bit? Like things are pulling in multiple directions currently, it seems like.

MAXWELL: There are I mean, Trump’s success with evangelicals did not surprise me, just because of like the history that I said about, ‘will he just simply do the things we’ve asked to do that we want our community wants him to do, we don’t care who the messenger is, who’s the who’s the actor in it.’ So I don’t think that his candidacy or his administration, that way changes Christianity. But I think what Trump has done to kind of the polarization within how intolerable opponents of Trump find him have pushed some churches to kind of a breaking point and feeling like they’ve got to feel like some are going back underground. A little bit like ‘this is a mess, this is dividing our congregation.’

I felt like others are doubling down. And in both directions, you’ve seen churches decide to take a stand against Trump and there’s an organization, Christians Against Christian Nationalism, that has really become activated and organized. And then you see others that are organized even more so to kind of a far-right.

It’s like he’s thrown, kind of thrown a wrench in it. And we’re going to, I think there’s going to be movement in every single direction: underground, more engaged to the right, and then a rejection of that also at the same time. And I don’t know where it’s going to fall.

I mean, the Southern Baptist Convention this year, the most kind of fundamentalist candidate did not win. Nor did the progressive. Turns out when you have a runoff, kind of the guy who was slightly less fundamentalist, just slightly less, is who ended up being successful.

And I just wrote a piece about that, because it reminded me of–it’s kind of a warning to me about 2024 because the Republican primaries are, don’t do a runoff. They are winner take most for most of them. So you can get 37 percent if there’s a crowded field, 32 percent of a crowded field, and you can get most of the electors. And in the south, because the Southern states are getting, that tend to go Republican the general election, the Republican Party gives them a ton of bonus delegates to the primaries, bonus delegates for the convention.

And because the Southern states put their primaries so early on the calendar, that 30 percent that a Trump-like candidate could win in the south can be enough to not only take most of the delegates in the state, but then to get such a big lead in the delegates in the states for the national convention that it can be it.

The only way to beat it is if everyone else gets on the same page behind one candidate, like what happened in the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s like the people who didn’t want the most extreme guy, they got together with–when the slightly more moderate made the run off and said we’ll support him, right?


MAXWELL: But you don’t have that option in those primary kind of systems. So I think some stuff is changing. I think there’s fractures within the Southern kind of evangelical church. I worry our politics don’t set us up for nuance. Our systems, our voting processes, and that’s what makes me concerned.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, this has been a great discussion. Let me just ask you one last question. And that is, I think there’s a temptation for a lot of people to not be as interested in history because they think it’s over, it doesn’t matter. But I think, and you can tell me whether you agree with this or not, but the idea of we’re seeing so much denial of the Covid-19 pandemic right now, in the south. Lots of people, the majority in many states, are not getting vaccinated. And like when former President Trump had a rally in Alabama the other day, he was booed by the crowd for recommending to them that they get vaccinated. Do you think that this is a manifestation of the things that you were writing about? And shows that it’s continuous?

MAXWELL: I will respond in this way. So we did–I didn’t say as much about this. But the kind of long Southern strategy was not just about the positions that strategists within the Republican Party and the candidates that got the nomination took. It was about the style of politics that they embraced. That quotation from Feldman ‘the South didn’t become Republican, the Republican Party became Southern.’ One party politics that dominated the South through most of its history was not a real contest of ideas. It was a contest of personalities, and kind of political entertainment.

The region has long had large rallies, the politicians’ tent revival like–an absolute, an absolutism in the political rhetoric, right? You’re either for it or you’re against it, and us versus them kind of culture that existed. I mean, that is, in a sense, what Jim Crow was, us versus them, or one side or the other. All of that dynamic had already been there. It always shows up when you have one party domination which is actually not good for politics at all, because you don’t have a contest of real ideas and policy reform.

And so, the Republican Party had to embrace a little bit of that. I mean the large rallies that they had for Goldwater in ’64. When he launched his operation Dixie, it was supposed to be a few campaign stops in the South. They roll out massive rallies with 100 young women in Alabama, in Mobile, in white dresses to greet him a pageantry of sorts. That was the style and it was a ‘you’re either on our team or you’re on the other team.’ And there’s kind of a loyalty or a kind of rivalry dynamic that is set up and it becomes part of people’s identity.

And what I see now, I mean there’s always been people that have been distrustful of vaccines, but that was a very small group of people. What I see now is some kind of rivalry and identity issue related to it, which is ‘I have been, I’m on this side. And if I go get vaccinated,’ and this just my opinion, I’ve not, I’ve not polled or done scholarship on this. ‘But if I go get vaccinated, then somehow that is siding with the other team.’ And they’ve so demonized that other team, that they’re just can’t do it.

SHEFFIELD: ‘I’m giving in to the atheist liberals.’

MAXWELL: ‘Yeah, I am.’ But yeah, they just can’t bring themselves to do it. One thing we do know, some research that people have done shows is that once you know someone close who passed, I know, we always journalists, you know, the stories when someone has lost a loved one and still won’t get vaccinated. But we’ve seen that when people know someone, it does become kind of real at a different place. And we do see vaccination numbers, they have really ticked up in Arkansas. So some things do cut through that. But when it’s an abstraction, when it’s something that isn’t happening to people right around you, you think it’s really hard for those people to break that psychological attachment to the us versus them.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and it’s hard to appeal outside of that identity politics, because I mean, that’s something that which is kind of interesting. As a dynamic you constantly see Southern Republicans complain about liberals and their identity politics, but their entire political structure is about white Christian identity politics.

MAXWELL: It is. I mean would argue that a certain wing of the Republican Party is the one who really launches those identity politics. And they do so right as African American voters flocked to the Democratic Party. ‘That’s your identity’ to white Southern voters. ‘Or is this your identity?’ Right?

And the problem we tend to look at, we tend to always go ‘well, they’re so irrational, why are these poor white people voting against their economic self-interest?’ That’s the question always about the South.

But they’re, they’re rational identity voters, they’re not rational economic voters. For some people in the south, the economic situation is just really never going to change very much and they don’t look at government as something that’s going to help them, they don’t. And, and there’s, there’s also, because people did not always have means and access in rural parts of the South, there’s a culture of not going to the doctor. There’s not a culture of preventative medicine in certain places. It’s like you go as a last resort. So they don’t have a primary care doctor. And they don’t kind of think about these preventative kind of things. Now they’ll go do vaccinations if they need to, for mandates, because there’s mandates to send their kids to public school.

SHEFFIELD: Or their job.

MAXWELL: Or their job, they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it, but they did a cross the bridge when they come to it. They don’t go to it, right? That culture has been there a long time. And so when you add that with kind of the identity issues that have been kind of co-opted related to vaccines, it’s kind of a ripe environment for the weaponization of this current public health crisis.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and it’s too bad. And I wish we had more time to talk about all this. This has been a great conversation. I always like talking to you.

MAXWELL: I appreciate that.

SHEFFIELD: But yeah, we’re going to have to wrap it up.

MAXWELL: Oh yeah.

SHEFFIELD: So the guest today has been Angie Maxwell, and she’s an associate professor at the University of Arkansas. She’s on Twitter, her username, I’m going to spell it out for the audio listeners. It’s AngieMaxwell1. So just the number. And you also have your own website, Mason Jar Politics, right?

MAXWELL: That’s right.

SHEFFIELD: Okay, cool. And then I’m going to just briefly put the book on the screen so everybody can see it.

MAXWELL: Thank you, I appreciate that.

SHEFFIELD: The full title of the book is The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics.

I appreciate you being here.

MAXWELL: Thank you so much, Matthew. I appreciate it, appreciate a thorough conversation. Thank you.

SHEFFIELD: Thanks for listening today, Theory of Change is made possible thanks to people like you. If you liked what you heard today, please be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast platform and leave a nice review. That actually is really helpful.

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Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.