Biggest myth about the origins of the Christian right debunked by Dartmouth historian
Little Rock anti-integration protest. (Library of Congress)

Historian Randall Balmer, who is currently a professor in the arts and sciences at Dartmouth College, has written a lengthy piece for Politico that blows apart one of the biggest myths about the origins of the Christian right as a political force in the United States.

According to popular mythology, the Christian right was spurred into action after the Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion throughout the United States.

But Balmer says that this gets history wrong: The Christian right really got its start opposing desegregation.

In particular, Balmer looks at several Christian schools that defied the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

"One such school, Bob Jones University -- a fundamentalist college in Greenville, South Carolina -- was especially obdurate," he writes. "The IRS had sent its first letter to Bob Jones University in November 1970 to ascertain whether or not it discriminated on the basis of race. The school responded defiantly: It did not admit African Americans."

The school made minor efforts to appease the IRS's concerns about racial discrimination by admitting a select number of black students -- but it still strictly forbade interracial dating at the school.

In 1976, the IRS rescinded the school's tax-exempt status, and that's when the fireworks began.

"For many evangelical leaders, who had been following the issue since Green v. Connally, Bob Jones University was the final straw," writes Balmer. "As Elmer L. Rumminger, longtime administrator at Bob Jones University, told me in an interview, the IRS actions against his school 'alerted the Christian school community about what could happen with government interference' in the affairs of evangelical institutions. 'That was really the major issue that got us all involved.'"

Read the whole essay here.