I grew up as a member of a Southern Baptist Church. I say “a” church, rather than “the” church, because for decades each of the churches that went under the label Southern Baptist had a considerable degree of freedom. It would be going to far to claim that many of these churches were “liberal,” but there were certainly some that were far more liberal, especially in urban areas, and a good number of churches everywhere that were solidly in the moderate range of Protestant churches. Two years before Roe v. Wade, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) published a position on abortion that supported its use in cases of rape or incest, when there was evidence of severe medical issues with the fetus, or when going forward with pregnancy would cause damage to either the emotional, mental, or physical health of the mother.
The Southern Baptist Convention is the system that loosely connects the churches. For years, it was pretty much what is sounds like—an annual get together where members from the various churches gave speeches, ate traditional convention rubber chicken, and talked about the focus of the church over the coming year. For decades, most churches looked on this convention as a huge bore, and finding someone willing to attend usually required fingering a deacon who wasn’t quick enough to come up with an excuse.
But starting in the late 1970s, a group of extreme conservatives within the church got a simple idea. They encouraged their members to volunteer for the convention, and they reached out to like-minded members of other churches to persuade them to come. As soon as they held a majority at the convention, they demonstrated what so many members in all those churches had forgotten: The convention held incredible power. Using that power, they redefined what it meant to be a member church, requiring that each church swear to follow a very strict set of teaching, including things like biblical inerrancy and conservative social positions. At all levels, from pulpits, to seminaries, to missionaries, progressives and moderates were expelled.
Almost 2,000 churches left the convention. The conservatives didn’t care. That only helped them to purify their revised organization; in the wake of those departures they grew stronger by incorporating the idea of “mega-churches” that recreated many of the institutions, like youth sports leagues, that had once been part of the community. The SBC emerged from this takeover apparently weakened, but ultimately grew to be a powerhouse in the conservative movement and a cornerstone of the modern Republican Party. Whenever you see the term “evangelicals,” you can think of it as “Southern Baptists and others,” because the SBC is now the largest organization on the “Christian Right” by far—over 47,000 churches and 14 million members.
The reason for recounting this history is that something very similar has happened with Republican organizations at the state and local level. Attending a county-level Republican Party meeting two decades ago wasn’t much different from sitting through an evening at the Kiwanis Club. Most of the discussion was centered on local events, planning the details of getting out the vote for local races, and sorting out which local candidates had put in enough time with ambulance districts or school boards to deserve being supported for a state or county office. Now those meetings still talk about getting out the vote … when they’re not talking about fighting the replacement of the white race by an invasion of diseased and deviant brown people, or deciphering the latest missive from Q.
It’s easy to look on Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Rep. Lauren Boebert, and Sen. Ron Johnson as aberrations. The truth is they’re the tip of a massive iceberg, the great bulk of which is hidden down at the state and county level.
That iceberg can be glimpsed in the 47 state legislatures where bills have been advanced to make it more difficult to vote. It can be seen in bills like Missouri’s Federal Government Oversight legislation, which would allow Republicans to secede without seceding, by simply voting to reject federal laws. It’s visible through the endless statements from county Republican organizations promoting racism, violence, and white supremacy. And it’s visible in county sheriffs who proudly run on a platform of not enforcing state or federal laws.
As Dave Neiwert has written many times for Daily Kos, the Republican Party is no longer a partner in American democracy, but a source of disruption. Republicans can’t distance themselves from the extremist elements in their party, because those extremists are the core of their party. It’s the more reasonable Republicans, those who still believe in the American experiment in democracy, who are on their way out. The GOP hasn’t just become radicalized, it is still radicalizing.
And as Melissa Ryan writes at The Progressive, Republicans at the state and local level are now fully engaged in spreading the Big Lie about the 2020 election, promoting conspiracy theories in which racist and anti-Semitic themes are not even hidden, and openly supporting violent white supremacist militias. Jan. 6 doesn’t represent a cautionary tale for them. It’s the Alamo. It’s Bunker Hill. It’s the starting gun on a race they’ll do anything to win.
It would be nice to think of Donald Trump as the sign of a party rotting from the head. But the Republican Party has been eaten by fascism from the feet up—and they’ve already shown that the nation is vulnerable to an attack from the same direction.