Towards a Congregational Explanation for the Christian Right: Bellevue Baptist Church and the Republicanization of American Evangelicalism

Laurence Connell

Teaching assistant of American Studies at the University of Manchester.

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Laurence Connell, Towards a Congregational Explanation for the Christian Right: Bellevue Baptist Church and the Republicanization of American Evangelicalism, Journal of Southern Religion (20):

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On November 2, 1980, Dr. Adrian Rogers delivered a sermon on the importance of voting from the pulpit of the twelve thousand-member Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, where he had been senior pastor since 1972. Taking place just two days before that year's presidential election, Rogers used the occasion to argue for a government that was more in touch with Christian principles, and to remind his evangelical audience of their moral duty to participate in the electoral process. “You need to vote,” the charismatic preacher proclaimed. “You are sinning against God [if you don’t vote] . . . and when you vote . . .you vote principle. You find out what is right from the Word of God. And you vote [for] that principle.” However, Rogers avoided endorsing either of the two main presidential candidates during his polemic. “Don’t put your hope in any political process, or in any political person. You put your faith in God . . . It’s not right and left, it’s right and wrong,” Rogers concluded.1 In contrast to Rogers’ politically impartial tone, however, the 1980 presidential election turned out to be an emphatically partisan occasion for white evangelicals like those who attended Bellevue. Whereas in previous campaigns evangelicals were roughly as likely to vote Democrat as they were to support GOP candidates, in 1980 over two thirds of born-again Christians turned out for Republican nominee Ronald Reagan, helping the former Governor of California achieve a landslide victory over his Democrat rival Jimmy Carter. More unexpectedly, rather than being a temporary phenomenon, evangelical loyalty towards the Republican Party has lasted for more than a generation and continues to be as strong as ever today. Indeed, white evangelicals have proven to be a firmly Republican constituency at every presidential election since the pivotal 1980 race, including the contest between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton in November 2016.2

How did white evangelical churches like Bellevue, which avoided making direct partisan endorsements from the pulpit, become mobilized on behalf of the Republican Party? Although scholars have addressed the relationship between the Christian Right and GOP leaders in considerable detail, there has yet to be a historical examination of the Republicanization of evangelicals at a congregational level, which addresses this important question.3 A local, congregational analysis of a significant case study like Bellevue Baptist Church offers the opportunity to observe the evangelical political realignment from a “bottom up” perspective—an approach which the social and political sciences sometimes adopt, but which historians of the Christian Right seldom considered. This historiographical oversight is significant because it has resulted in a gap in historians’ understanding of how individual churches—as spaces where relevant discourses are created and contested—were themselves involved in the movement’s transformations at a broader level.4 A close historical analysis of a significant megachurch like Bellevue, therefore, has the potential to enhance our understanding of the mechanisms behind the evangelical movement’s late-twentieth century transformation into a firmly Republican constituency. Thanks to its sensitivity to important local forces, such as neighborhood desegregation and the development of the suburbs, the congregational perspective is also able to shed light on the question of how racial, urban, and demographic history contributed to the build-up of an evangelical alliance with the GOP.5 Indeed, as trailblazing works on congregational “white flight” have already shown, rather than “operat[ing] in a vacuum,” evangelical churches have been profoundly affected by the tumultuous “spatial and racial dynamics” of urban environments in the second half of the twentieth century.6

Through a case study of Bellevue Baptist Church, this essay suggests that evangelicals’ Republicanization was in part a symptom of how churches responded to the challenges of urban change and desegregation in the post-civil rights era. By underlining the links between twentieth-century American evangelicalism and important post-war structural and urban developments in the South and beyond, the congregational perspective situates the Christian Right firmly in the context of the broader phenomenon of the Sunbelt and the recent “spatial turn” in US political history. These studies have observed working- and middle-class political realignments through the lens of the political, cultural, and economic undercurrents that existed in metropolitan environments during the desegregation era.7 Among other things, the significance of these studies lies in the emphasis they place on grassroots mobilization. Until relatively recently, it has been common for historians to assume that the political reorientation of white southerners during and after the civil rights movement was primarily the result of an initiative known as the “Southern Strategy,” a framework which shares many interpretive overlaps with top-down theories of the Christian Right.8 This explanation is right to point out the efforts made by conservative leaders such as Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Richard Nixon to exploit the simmering racial resentments of white southerners during an age of minority political enfranchisement. Nevertheless, as landmark works like Mathew Lassiter’s monograph on the Silent Majority show, in reality the Southern Strategy was more a responseto the new form of racial politics emerging in the suburbs of southern cities, rather than its cause. “It was the suburban strategies developed in the Sunbelt South,” Lassiter’s study convincingly argues, “not a Southern Strategy inspired by the Deep South and orchestrated from the White House, [that] provided the blueprint for the transformation of regional politics.” Thus, although the GOP adopted conservative political and racial discourses like the Silent Majority, their origins can be found in the struggles that played out at a grassroots level rather than in the corridors of power in Washington.10

This article argues that, at a congregational level, the Republicanization of white evangelicals was thanks in part to the formation of a white, suburban political culture at churches like Bellevue, which mirrored Republican-Party conservatism. This, when extended to similar  congregations elsewhere in the Sunbelt, helps explain the unprecedented electoral loyalty that born-again Christians started to display towards the GOP from the early 1980s onwards. However, the creation of this political culture had little to do with direct mobilization in Bellevue’s pulpit. As indicated by the sermon he delivered on the eve of the 1980 presidential election, Bellevue’s pastor Adrian Rogers was wary of bringing partisan politics into his church. Although heavily involved with campaigning during his three terms as president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)—including his well-publicized crusade to reintroduce prayer in public schools—Rogers considered church to be an inappropriate venue for discussing party politics. “I see myself more as a prophet than a politician. I'm not a political creature,” Rogers declared in an interview conducted in 1993.11

Rather, this essay demonstrates that in the absence of concerted efforts to actively mobilize particular voting behavior at the church, Bellevue’s Republican-friendly political culture actually emerged indirectly, through its relationship with urban and demographic change and in particular, the church’s increasingly strong connections with the suburbs. From the church’s establishment in 1903 up until 1989, when the church relocated to a prosperous white suburb in East Memphis, Bellevue was located in the historic inner-city neighborhood of Midtown. Although for the majority of the twentieth century Midtown was predominantly white, desegregation and the advent of busing in the 1970s transformed the racial constitution of the neighborhood. But like countless other white churches in inner-city areas across the nation, Bellevue’s response to demographic flux was sluggish, and the church continued to have a de facto white membership throughout the post-civil rights period. Meanwhile, the mass urban departure of laypeople, combined with the lack of any willingness to attract African American residents, meant that Memphis’s suburban districts started to have an influence—in cultural and political terms—on Bellevue long before it physically relocated. By the beginning of the 1980s and the watershed presidential election, Bellevue’s congregational culture had already begun to resemble the new form of political, economic, and “color blind” conservatism that, as other studies have shown, was cultivated in Sunbelt suburbs like those in Memphis.12 At a congregational level, the influence of this Republican-friendly suburban political culture—rather than mobilization—helped forge an electoral alliance between white evangelicals and the GOP. Lastly, as well as revealing the congregational mechanisms behind the region-wide Republicanization of evangelicals, this political-cultural framework also offers an explanation for how born-again pastors and churchgoers could be so heavily affiliated with the GOP while at the same time eschewing overt partisan politics from within the pulpit.


Bellevue Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Movement

In order to trace the origins of Bellevue’s Republicanization, it is necessary to go back to the 1960s, two decades before the 1980 election campaign, when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in the South. The manner in which Bellevue responded to the prospect of integrated worshipping in the 1960s would set a precedent that would have important long-term effects on the church in the post-civil rights era. Like many other white evangelical churches during the civil rights movement, Bellevue avoided voluntarily contemplating the “race problem” in the South. However, the issue was forcibly brought to the attention of congregations like Bellevue when desegregation campaigns started spreading to churches. Inspired by the lunch counter sit-ins that had been taking place in southern cities for several years, the “kneel-in” movement was a racially mixed group of anti-segregationists that used the same method of direct action as its secular counterpart as a way to test white churches’ tolerance for integration.13 Although more limited in scope, “number of participants and degree of social disruption” than sit-ins, kneel-ins possessed a unique moral dimension: the use of religious institutions as sites of protest fore-fronted the ethical implications of racial discrimination, meaning kneel-ins were “moral spectacles par excellence.”14 A kneel-in typically involved black or racially mixed groups attempting to enter a segregated church to worship. The visit was then categorized as either a “spectacle of embrace” or a “spectacle of exclusion,” depending on the church’s response to the campaigners.15 The first documented kneel-in took place in August 1960 in Atlanta, Georgia, and within months the movement had spread to cities all over the South. By April 1961, as many as two hundred churches across the nation had been targeted.16

As the largest white congregation in the city, it is unsurprising that once the kneel-in movement arrived in Memphis, Bellevue was one of the first churches targeted.17 The response of Bellevue’s leaders and laypeople to the prospect of racially integrated worshipping suggests that the church made an effort to position itself at the ideological center of concurrent discourses on race. This means that unlike a large proportion of other white congregations in the South, during the early 1960s Bellevue did tolerate the presence of African Americans in its pews and was, in principle, open to the prospect of racially integrated worshipping. Dr. Ramsey Pollard—the church’s pastor during the 1960s—had anticipated the arrival of civil rights campaigners to his church and, even if the congregation was not used to blacks attending regularly, adopted a conciliatory approach towards their presence. In an interview conducted after his retirement, Pollard claimed that while he was pastor at Bellevue he had always welcomed African Americans, and that he saw no biblical reason why whites and blacks could not worship together. He recalled bringing his deacons together shortly before the kneel-ins and telling them, “we are going to be put to the test,” and that “the thing for you to do, the biblical thing for you to do, is that if these Negroes want to come to this church, let them come. Make no issue of it, let them be seen where they want to be seen . . . Don’t say anything that would hurt their feelings. Just treat them like you treat everybody else.”18 Pollard also claimed to have declared to the church, “there is no ground for excluding black people from your church . . . You can do it on prejudice, you can do it on earthly reasoning; but so far as the Bible is concerned, you can’t.”19

Bellevue’s first contact with the kneel-ins happened on August 28, 1960, when a small group of African Americans were allowed entry into the church but were given seats in a separate section of the sanctuary, “on the third floor balcony” overlooking the pews.20 This may have been because there was not enough space to seat them in the sanctuary’s main seating area, but it could also have been because the ushers deemed it more suitable for them to sit away from the audience’s white members. The choice of seating for the protestors resulted in an altercation, with some “arguing with the ushers in the church vestibule.” Three of the young African Americans who had entered Bellevue were subsequently arrested and dealt with unsympathetically in court, with an attorney arguing the scene as a “calculated scheme” to disrupt services at Bellevue.21 Pollard also recalled a separate, apparently more peaceful, instance of a kneel-in, “when one of the international leaders . . . [Ralph] Abernathy . . . came here and brought about forty or fifty [black activists]. It happened that there wasn’t a vacant seat downstairs, everything was full so they had to go upstairs to be seated. Nobody said a word about it.”22 This latter incident involving the prominent minister and civil rights campaigner Ralph Abernathy cannot be independently verified; however, Pollard’s anecdote hints at Bellevue’s willingness to appear racially moderate, and to visibly distinguish itself from the unconcealed racism and segregation of many, though not all, Southern Baptist congregations at the turn of the 1960s.23

Thus, by making an effort to accept the presence of African Americans in its pews and to deny that a biblical mandate for segregation existed, Bellevue’s racial politics were, by the standards of white Southern Baptist congregations at the time, moderate. But there were limits to the church’s racial progressivism. Unlike more liberal white Protestant congregations in Memphis and elsewhere, there was no attempt made by Bellevue to tackle the problem of racial inequality directly.24 Neither did Bellevue ever actually embrace the Midtown neighborhood’s changing demographic constitution by “reaching out” to the African American population in an effort to persuade them to join the church permanently, thereby strengthening the congregation’s connections with its neighborhood. As a result, Bellevue continued to be a de facto segregated congregation throughout the height of the civil rights movement, despite the changing racial composition of the Midtown neighborhood where the church resided.

Although Memphis was slower than many other southern cities to desegregate its public schools, the gradual collapse of Jim Crow during the 1960s did result in the city’s central districts gaining a greater African American presence.25 This essay describes Bellevue’s attitude during the civil rights movement as a form of laissez-faire racial centrism: that is, when challenged, the principle of toleration appeared to act as a guiding principle, but there were no attempts to intervene to reverse racial segregation and inequality in the neighborhood. Bellevue’s approach towards racial integration was, in part, a symptom of the prevailing assumption that due to differences in the way their faith was typically practiced, blacks and whites were always destined to worship separately, whether or not segregation had been constitutionally outlawed. A comment Pollard made in 1975, three years after his retirement, about the possibility of African Americans regularly attending Bellevue, was telling: “They [African Americans] are not going to come to your church [often], they don’t want to come. They’ve got better preachers than we have in the first place, and they want to be with their own people.”26

The complex issue of theology is, of course, also important. For decades now, scholars have debated about the role theology has played in supporting and disrupting segregation during the civil rights movement and beyond. It is common to view the rigidity of the color line in churches as a symptom of incompatible theological worldviews.27 Whereas theological conservatives (including hardline biblical “inerrantiasts” like those at Bellevue) tended to see inequality as a product of individual failure, liberals (a disproportional number of whom were African American) were more likely to point to the structural underpinnings of social problems. These differences have fed into the solutions conservatives and liberals prescribe for social problems, with the former more likely to endorse individual salvation and the latter to support collective intervention. Some scholars have blamed the perseverance of racial barriers in churches on these theological divisions.28 However, this rule of thumb is complicated by the malleability of theology in terms of justifying different—often contradictory—ends, depending on the historical and cultural context. For example, historically, many theologically conservative evangelicals have acted collectively (and therefore ostensibly against their theological credentials) in order to address perceived social ills such as abortion. Meanwhile, during the civil rights movement theology often acted as a pretext behind which to hide sinister agendas. This was particularly the case with the SBC, which in the 1960s became embroiled in a bitter conflict over the biblical legitimacy of segregation. As studies show, during this period many of the SBC’s uncompromising conservatives used theology as a way of legitimizing their racism and segregation.29

In other words, in this historical and cultural context, it would be a mistake to view racial divisions as a direct symptom of theological differences. As one would expect from a laissez-faire approach toward race—notwithstanding the aforementioned events when the issue was forced upon the church—Bellevue appeared unwilling to participate directly in debates about the biblical legitimacy of segregation. In any case, staunch segregation was more likely to exist in smaller, more rural SBC congregations that had weaker denominational connections than Bellevue had during the 1960s.30 But, it is also clear that Bellevue’s conservative, inerrantist theology did play a role in justifying the congregation’s emphasis on spiritual priorities outside of the “race problem.” These barriers, combined with church leaders’ responses to urban change during the first post-civil rights decade, ensured Bellevue remained a de facto segregated congregation during the 1970s, in turn paving the way for a congregational environment which increasingly resembled the suburbs.


From desegregation to busing in Memphis

Like in hundreds of other cities across the nation, the Court ruling of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education marked a turning point for race relations in Memphis. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that the transportation of pupils was necessary method to correct insufficient levels of racial integration in public schools. Responses to the ruling varied, but in Memphis, busing was met with fierce opposition from the city’s white communities and the local political elite. At the time of Swann, Memphis was still being governed by an openly segregationist Mayor, Henry Loeb, who in 1967 had run a successful election campaign on a “white unity ticket.”31  In 1971, the final year of his administration, Loeb attempted to block busing by introducing an ordinance that would give the council veto powers over education spending.32 The following year, when pupil transportation was first implemented in Memphis, a Supreme Court judge struck down Loeb’s ordinance, but the Mayor’s actions were indicative of the degree of white backlash against busing. Months before the first round of busing was due to take place, white Memphians launched the “Citizens Against Busing” campaign, which included two days of boycotts that temporarily removed tens of thousands of white students from public schools.33 Like its counterpart in City Hall, this civic form of resistance ultimately failed to obstruct pupil transportation, and by September 1972 thirteen thousand students in Memphis were being bused from their homes to schools in other neighborhoods.

With the constitutionality and implementation of busing safely assured, many white families in Memphis resorted to other ways of avoiding racially integrated schooling. The most common method was to abandon the affected neighborhoods. Busing thus triggered a widespread and almost instantaneous increase in the levels of “white flight” in Memphis. One of the reasons for this response was the initial effectiveness of busing. Unlike the city’s sluggish response to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954, busing was proving to be an efficient way of addressing racial imbalances in schools. By the third full academic year of busing, sixty thousand African American pupils were being transported from their homes to schools in other neighborhoods. White communities responded by withdrawing pupils from public schools and enrolling them in private, suburban schools that were outside the Swann ruling’s legal jurisdiction—thereby undermining much of the effectiveness of busing in correcting radical racial imbalances in schools. Within a few years of Swann, twenty thousand white pupils had been permanently removed, so that by the end of 1973 the proportion of white children enrolled at public schools had dropped from 42% to 32%.34

Meanwhile in Shelby County, the authority responsible for Memphis’s suburbs, the county struggled to cope with the demand for building new private schools.35 Between the fall of 1972 and the spring of 1973, twenty-six new private schools were built, in addition to the sixty-four that already existed in the city.36 Thus, thanks to the white response to a measure that had been designed to overcome the negative effects of de facto racially separated public schools, during the 1970s the Memphis public school system actually became more segregated than prior to busing. Over time, the situation became increasingly extreme. In 1979, a US Department for Health, Education, and Welfare study found that the Memphis public school system was one of the most segregated in the whole country.37 More than ten years later, in 1990, Memphis's private schools were at least twice as segregated as any other private school system in the country.38 The failure of successive attempts to implement meaningful integration in Memphis’s schools led one legal scholar, writing in 2008, to conclude that the “promise of Brown, an end to separate and unequal education, seems to have evaded Memphis entirely.”39

The extremity of segregation in Memphis’s schools reflected the racial composition of the city’s neighborhoods. While African Americans lived in the same inner-city areas where the majority of public schools were, increasing numbers of whites began to reside in the suburban districts where private schools were being built. State-sponsored, racially discriminatory housing allocating practices—and a City Hall that continued to act disproportionately in the interests of whites (the first black Mayor of Memphis, W. W. Herenton, was not elected until 1991)—further assisted the white consolidation of the suburbs. At the same time, the development of the Sunbelt further accentuated the socioeconomic gulf between blacks and whites, and inner-city and suburbs. Although Memphis was not as successful as other southern metropolises such as Atlanta or Houston in attracting private investment, the industries that did arrive in the River City during the Sunbelt’s growth tended to build headquarters in the suburbs.40 As a result, neighborhoods like Germantown in East Memphis thrived. The latter is indeed an illustrative example of the demographic characteristics of Memphis’s suburban boom. Between 1970 and 1980, the district’s population soared by 600% from 3,474 to 21,467 residents, compared to a net population increase of just 3.7% and 7.6% for Memphis and Shelby Town respectively.41 Meanwhile, during the same period, the proportion of white residents in Germantown rose from 67% to 90%, meaning the district’s increase in population can be explained almost entirely by the influx of new white residents from inner-city Memphis and other neighboring areas.42

In 1972, the year after the Supreme Court delivered the Swann ruling, Bellevue inaugurated its first new pastor in twelve years. At just forty years old, Dr. Adrian Rogers was a relative unknown in southern evangelical circles at the time of his appointment. Since 1964, Rogers had been preaching at First Baptist Church in Merritt Island, Florida, a mid-sized congregation of around thirteen hundred members. Bellevue’s Pulpit Committee were hoping for a pastor who could reinvigorate the aging audience that Ramsey Pollard had left behind and were impressed by the level of congregational growth and youthfulness Rogers had brought to First Baptist. Although expectations were high at the time of Rogers’ arrival, few could have anticipated the extent of the Floridian’s success during his thirty-three years as pastor at Bellevue. Unlike his predecessor, Rogers was a gifted orator whose charismatic preaching style swiftly earned him a reputation among white evangelicals in the region. Moreover, Rogers preached a hardline theology at a time when there was an almost unprecedented demand to worship at conservative evangelical churches, and while “mainline,” moderate churches were in decline. In numerical terms, Rogers’ success at Bellevue came about almost instantaneously, and continued throughout his pastorate. Within three years of his arrival, Rogers had attracted around two thousand new regular attendees, and by 1980 Bellevue’s congregation stood at over eleven and a half thousand members, compared to a figure of eight and a half thousand at the beginning of his pastorate.43

One of the most obvious characteristics of Bellevue’s growth during the early Rogers era and beyond was its almost uniformly white racial composition. Although Rogers was against racial discrimination and adopted a color-blind approach towards the presence of African Americans in his church, like Dr. Pollard before him, he refrained from actively attempting to attract black worshippers. Alongside the theological factors discussed above, the main reason for this relates to what the church perceived its main spiritual purpose to be. Although other ministries, such as community outreach, existed at Bellevue, the church’s priority—both before and throughout Rogers’ pastorate—was to evangelize as many people as possible by attracting new attendees. In other words, like other theologically conservative evangelical churches, church growth was the cornerstone of Bellevue’s religious mission.

Perhaps the most important consideration for Bellevue’s leaders was how to maximize the number of regular attendees without compromising on the church’s strict theological conservatism. The most influential approach towards church growth during the second half of the twentieth century was the Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP), which argued that the most efficient way of attracting church members was to appeal to people from the same social and demographic background. As Donald McGavran suggested in his 1970 study of church growth techniques, “men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.”44 It is clear that during Rogers’ tenure HUP strongly influenced Bellevue’s growth strategy. Dan Lester Greer, a Bellevue layman who completed a PhD dissertation in 1995 on the ministries of his church, claimed that Bellevue’s explosive growth during the Rogers pastorate had been achieved by directly targeting what was considered the most “reachable” group (i.e. whites). “There is nothing wrong or unbiblical about people preferring to spend time with the people who are most like them,” Greer argued.45 Rogers himself appeared to be equally unfazed by the racial composition of his church’s growth strategy. In an interview conducted in the 1990s, he reasoned that, “there’s a naturalness for people to want to congregate with people they’re culturally comfortable with.”46 Meanwhile, Bellevue’s doctrinal conservatism (which blacks are less likely to ascribe to), as well as the SBC’s reputational problems that had lingered as a legacy of the organization’s history of racism prior to and during the civil rights movement, are certain to have further reduced the likelihood that African Americans would attend Bellevue.47

Becoming Suburban

Since Rogers conducted his campaign for growth during the acceleration of white flight in Memphis, the number of Bellevue congregants who were living in the suburbs increased considerably during the 1970s and 1980s.48 For the purposes of this essay, this is significant because of the kind of culture that Memphis’s suburban boom was creating. “Island suburbs” is the metaphor Matthew Lassiter uses to illustrate the increasing racial and socioeconomic—as well as geographical—distinctness of peripheral neighborhoods in Sunbelt cities. Lassiter interprets the formation of the island suburbs as part of an agenda to protect white privilege during the busing era and to limit the advantages gained by minorities during the civil rights movement. This entailed suburban districts receiving a disproportionate amount of investment and resources and, as Lassiter shows, the implementation by local authorities of  “‘exclusionary zoning policies’ which defended the suburbs from ‘integration and socioeconomic diversity.’”49 Memphis’s suburbs are in many ways typical of the effects of this metropolitan endeavor across the Sunbelt. While inner-city Memphis continued to struggle with poverty and unemployment, the neighborhoods on the city’s suburban fringes were becoming bastions of white, middle-class prosperity. In Germantown, for example, the percentage of people with four or more years of college education rose from 8% in 1970 to 26% in 1980. Meanwhile, in the same neighborhood, the median household annual income rose from $9,000 to $22,000 during the same ten-year period—an increase that comfortably eclipsed the citywide and nationwide average rise in earnings.50 As these figures demonstrate, during the busing era suburbs preserved, if not accentuated, the socioeconomic inequalities between whites and blacks that characterized the twentieth century. As suggested by historian Wanda Rushing, by the end of the 1970s, Memphis consisted of two “economic and social landscapes, suburban sprawl and affluence outside the I-240 [interstate] expressway ring and urban poverty within.”51

These socioeconomic developments in the Sunbelt suburbs had political implications. The various forces that helped create the suburban boom were part of a significant partisan realignment in American politics, the result of which was the Republican consolidation of the South. In conjunction with the behavior of political elites in City Hall and in Washington, as well as the business strategies of Sunbelt boosters, suburban residents themselves formed a powerful grassroots entity—known as the “Silent Majority”—which sought to protect and preserve post-civil rights white privilege.52 As conservative, white, and wealthy homeowners, many of these suburban residents were, thanks to the Democratic endorsement of the civil rights initiative, in need of a political home.53 The Silent Majority therefore represented a constituency that, for Republican Party leaders from Nixon onwards, was too lucrative to ignore. Nixon’s proposal, made during the build-up to the 1972 presidential election, to suspend busing—the Silent Majority’s principle grievance—via a student transportation “moratorium” left little doubt about who was the Republican Party’s main electoral priority. Meanwhile, the Silent Majority’s approach towards race—which Lassiter defines as a “discourse of suburban innocence that depicted residential segregation as the class-based outcome of meritocratic individualism rather than the unconstitutional product of structural racism”—provided the GOP with a politically acceptable way of being racially conservative during the age of “color-blindness.”54

A central argument of this essay is that the Republican consolidation of the Sunbelt suburbs facilitated the white evangelical exodus to the GOP during the late 1970s and 1980s. This occurred thanks to the connections that white congregations were forging with suburban neighborhoods during the busing era. Between the 1950s and the 1990s, thousands of white churches from across the theological and denominational spectrums withdrew from inner-city areas of American cities and relocated to suburban neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the religious dimensions of “white flight” have seldom been the subject of historical enquiry.55 Further research is therefore required in order to understand more comprehensively the various historical, religious and political implications of congregational suburbanization. Perhaps the most significant revelation of Bellevue’s own relocation is that it reveals the interconnectedness of conservative evangelicalism’s explosive post-war success, the movement’s late-twentieth century political transformation, and the development of the Sunbelt suburbs.56  Although Bellevue did not complete its move from Midtown to the East Memphis neighborhood of Cordova until 1989, from around the mid-1970s the church’s congregational environment started to show signs of being influenced by the suburbs’ socioeconomic, cultural, and even political attributes. In other words, Bellevue was, during this period, becoming suburban—a process that helped pave the way for the church’s eventual withdrawal and led to the creation of a Republican-friendly political culture.

It is useful to view Bellevue’s suburbanization in terms of a shift in the socioeconomic status of the church’s laypeople. Throughout the majority of the twentieth century, Bellevue was a typical urban Southern Baptist congregation and the majority of its members were from working class backgrounds, unlikely to be educated beyond high school, and often had low wage service sector or blue-collar jobs. A Christian Century article on Bellevue published in 1950 observed that “Among the many citizens of Memphis, not many great and not many mighty are members of the Bellevue Baptist Church . . . Other churches enroll most of the prominent members of this midsouth city of 350,000, but Bellevue Baptist carries on its rolls . . . the common people.”57 But as part of a trend for upward mobility in Southern Baptist circles during the second half of the twentieth century, a large proportion of Bellevue’s members would become wealthier and more middle class in later years.58 As a Bellevue layman interviewed in 1993 put it, “Lots of [Bellevue members] came to this town with mud on their shoes but became reasonably prosperous.”59 Meanwhile, forty-three years after the publication ran its first feature on Bellevue, Christian Century returned to find that Bellevue’s contemporary congregation was made up of “middle-income, small business types and first generation suburbanites.”60 Indeed, the type of young, upwardly mobile family that was settling in the suburbs was precisely the constituency that Dr. Rogers targeted from the beginning of his pastorate in 1972. Rogers “attracted many young families [during the 1970s and 1980s]. There is no doubt about that,” recalled Rogers’ daughter Janice Ediston in an interview conducted after her father’s death.61

The fact that Bellevue attracted a large number of young white families—even while the church remained physically located in the inner-city—is demonstrative of the exceptional popularity of Rogers as a pastor; but it is also suggestive of the compatibilities that existed between the form of Christianity practiced at Bellevue and the conservatism of many suburban whites. Most obviously, Bellevue’s theological conservatism espoused an individualist explanation for social conditions that was remarkably similar to the Silent Majority’s color-blind account of segregation and racial inequality. Research shows that, even in the absence of overt prejudice, conservative theology has continued to influence the way white evangelicals approach social issues such as race. Emerson and Smith, for example, found that when asked about the causes of racial inequality, many contemporary evangelicals interpreted the phenomenon as a symptom of insufficient leadership, or suggested that the problem was a media construction rather than a reality.62 In both conservative evangelicalism and the Silent Majority, this individualist discourse has had a role in legitimizing existing prejudices or, as discussed above, justifying churches’ hands-off approaches towards the issue of racial integration. In the case of Bellevue during the 1970s and beyond, the discursive overlap between conservative theology and the Silent Majority’s color-blind ideology helped the church accommodate the suburban culture of East Memphis in its various different forms.

The compatibilities between the Sunbelt suburbs and Bellevue’s religious culture also related to the church’s decision to relocate from Bellevue Avenue in the city’s historic Midtown neighborhood to Cordova, a district thirteen miles East of the church’s original site. Although the move itself should not be considered inevitable, Bellevue’s exceptional popularity under Rogers’ pastorate made some form of enlargement of the church’s facilities a necessity. In the first ten years of his tenure, Rogers had helped attract almost four thousand new regular worshippers to Bellevue, as well as doubling and quadrupling the church’s Sunday school attendance and charitable donation income respectively. By the beginning of the 1980s, in order to cope with the demand to attend his sermons, every Sunday Rogers was forced to do three separate services from the pulpit of Bellevue’s increasingly outdated sanctuary. In September 1982, Bellevue’s Long Range Planning Committee launched its “Ten Year Plan,” with a proposal to spend $30 million on an ambitious building program. Surprisingly, during the early stages of the Ten Year Plan, Rogers and the Planning Committee appeared committed to staying in Midtown rather than relocating the church. In an interview with a local Memphis newspaper in September 1982, Rogers declared that “We have decided, emphatically decided, that God has planted us right here in the heart of Memphis, Tennessee.”63

However, plans to expand the current campus were undermined by the church’s difficulties acquiring land, including what Rogers referred to as the “highly exorbitant” valuation of some of the parcels of land Bellevue wanted to build on.64 For two main reasons, this effectively ended the church’s chances of remaining at its current location. Firstly, staying on the current site without expanding the facilities was incompatible with the church’s aims of baptizing as many people as possible over the next decade. Alongside the multimillion-dollar building program, a central target of the Ten Year Plan was to baptize ten thousand people. Although Rogers claimed he was interested in increasing his church’s social ministry, he was also wary of becoming distracted from what he saw as the main purpose of his job. “I think those of us who are firm believers in the faith . . . we almost sometimes get negative to social work because some who are in it use it as a substitute for the gospel of Christ, and I think that's tragic,” Rogers argued in an interview with a local Memphis newspaper.65 Thus, with the current sanctuary already bursting at the seams, and the church unable to expand its facilities, there was no prospect of Bellevue achieving its baptism while it remained on Bellevue Avenue. The second reason why Bellevue was destined for relocation was that there was a massive congregational mandate—at all levels of the church’s hierarchy—for a move to the suburbs. By the middle of 1983, a report commissioned by Bellevue, which argued East Memphis would be a far more demographically appropriate location for the church than Midtown, had already convinced Rogers and the Planning Committee that relocation was the best option. Indeed, the demographic suitability of East Memphis was undoubtedly consistent with Rogers’ preferred model of church growth, as discussed above. In October 1983, shortly after the Long Range Planning Committee had absorbed the report’s findings, Rogers organized a special church meeting during which he explained the details of the proposed relocation to Cordova. The question of whether to remain or relocate was then put to a vote among the 4,000 members who were in attendance. Of the 2,000 votes cast, less than ten voted against the move to Cordova.66

The resounding outcome of the vote is suggestive of the extent to which Bellevue, in most ways apart from its physical location, had already become a suburban church. Further underlining this is the locations that the majority of Bellevue members were living at in the years running up to the decision to relocate. The report commissioned by Bellevue regarding the viability of the move found that relocating to Cordova would mean the church would be closer to seventy percent of the congregation in comparison with the Midtown site, and within a fifteen-minute drive of the homes of sixty percent of current members.67 “Most of us all lived out there [in the suburbs] and were driving past that property [in Cordova] to get to Midtown,” one member of the Planning Committee recalled.68 Meanwhile, the strong mandate to relocate is also indicative of Bellevue’s approach towards the potentially dubious ethical implications of “urban withdrawal.” As the few existing studies on evangelical “white flight” show, when faced with the prospect of suburbanization, congregations in different geographical and theological contexts to Bellevue’s experienced deep ethical crises and congregational splits.69

In contrast, despite criticism from local clergymen and some negative newspaper coverage, Bellevue’s leadership and congregation appeared to interpret the relocation in unambiguously positive terms.70 Perhaps the biggest concern was how to ensure the elderly members who still lived in Midtown could continue to attend the church in the Cordova era.71 Otherwise, the church created a celebratory atmosphere during the long build-up to the relocation, heralding the prospect of converting ten thousand new souls at the new site as a “Victory in Jesus.”72 Meanwhile, during church meetings and fundraising campaigns, the purchased land upon which Bellevue would build its new campus was referred to as “our Canaan,” meaning the Cordova site was considered the church’s very own Promised Land. “It’s a dream come true,” one Bellevue layman exulted after the inaugural Sunday service at the new campus, mirroring the joy felt by the congregation as a whole.73 Ultimately, it was the spiritual priority of soul conversion, combined with comparatively weak connections with the local area, and demographic considerations, which enabled Bellevue to focus on these positive connotations and sidestep the negative ethical implications of suburbanization. As Dochuk writes, “Protestants, like their Catholic and Jewish counterparts, understood and responded to the urban crisis in ways that were consistent with the spiritual outlook of their religious institutions.”74

Bellevue’s first service at the new location in November 1989 completed the process of congregational suburbanization that had begun decades earlier during desegregation and the early busing era. Bellevue’s campus in Cordova is, of course, a fitting symbol of the transformations that the church—as well as the movement as a whole—have undergone over the last three generations. One journalist covering his first visit to the new site in 1993 could not help but notice the contrast between the struggling Midtown neighborhood that had recently been left behind and the “trappings of middle class America [that were] evident everywhere” at the Cordova campus.75 Indeed, the multimillion dollar sanctuary, built on an expansive 300-acre site, is a testament to how closely linked the extraordinary post-war growth of white evangelicalism was to the development of racially and socioeconomically distinct suburban enclaves in large American cities like Memphis.76 The lavish sanctuary in Cordova is therefore an indication of the influence of the Sunbelt suburbs on this brand of conservative white evangelicalism. With this in mind, it is not necessarily surprising that during its long process of suburbanization Bellevue showed signs of mirroring the political culture of the Sunbelt suburbs.

As is well documented elsewhere, during the height of the Christian Right’s influence, successful pastors like Rogers were often heavily involved in campaigning about key evangelical “moral issues.” For example, during his three stints as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Bellevue preacher spent a large amount of time campaigning for the reintroduction of school prayer and the banning of abortion.77 Occasionally, Rogers’ engagement with these kinds of issues trickled down to Bellevue itself. For example, during a sermon on the eve of the 1980 presidential election, Rogers argued that it was evangelicals’ moral duty to preach to and participate in the government. During the same sermon, he also urged his audience to “speak up” about the issue of abortion, which he was convinced was “going to bring us down as a nation if we don’t solve it.”78 Meanwhile, the church also became temporarily involved in the Christian Right’s campaign to veto the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In May 1980, during one of the tensest phases of the showdown between pro- and anti-ERA campaigns, four thousand people descended on Bellevue for a major three-day conference on “Christian women's concerns.” Rogers used his opening speech at the conference to “warn . . . against yielding to humanistic morality,” arguing that “a woman is infinitely superior to a man—at being a woman—and a man is infinitely superior than [sic] a woman—at being a man . . . We are equal,” Rogers concluded, “but thank God we are not the same.”79Conservative evangelicals like those at Bellevue were indeed the ERA’s most vocal opponents, and their influence helped block the amendment’s passage through Congress. As a result, thanks in part to Ronald Reagan’s willingness to appeal to the born-again constituency on the eve of the presidential election, the GOP dropped its long-standing support of the ERA during its National Convention in July 1980. These occurrences are consistent with how, during the height of the Christian Right, evangelicals were being urged to apply conservative evangelical theological principles to what, by the early 1980s, had been identified as the main moral concerns.

However, Bellevue’s engagement with these issues was sporadic and, despite the courtship between the Christian Right and the GOP during the 1980 presidential election and beyond, it did not extend to any kind of partisan endorsement of the Republican Party while Rogers was fulfilling his duties as pastor of the church. This was consistent with the general policy of Rogers and his fellow megachurch pastors, which was to eschew any form of partisan mobilization in the pulpit. The Floridian preacher never explicitly endorsed the GOP during his sermons because he believed church was an inappropriate venue for discussing party politics. Rogers was not alone in being a conservative evangelical pastor who, during the Christian Right’s peak, avoided making partisan political pronouncements from the pulpit. Indeed, his televangelist colleague Jerry Falwell was probably the most politically active evangelical preacher of the 1980s, but “as a minister, he did not want to appear too blatantly partisan . . . Like other fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, he thought it was unseemly for a pastor to participate directly in a political campaign.”80 Although it is important not to take these evangelical pastors’ claims for granted, there has been a tendency to exaggerate the influence of top-down attempts made by the conservative evangelical movement to engineer Republican voting; scholars have tended to assume the prevalence of this kind of activity in conservative evangelical churches rather than verify it through historical observation. In reality, it was much more acceptable for blatant partisan activity to exist in the SBC itself rather than in churches, at least during the denomination's notorious “Conservative Resurgence.” This is indicated by the SBC’s official approval of the Republican Party’s plans to reintroduce school prayer, and by the appearance of Vice President George H. W. Bush at the Convention’s annual meeting in New Orleans in 1982. As far as church leaders and laypeople were concerned, these events were separate or at least far removed from the day-to-day activity of the church. “The denomination was never at the forefront of his [Rogers’] mind or ministry” while working at the church, argued one Bellevue member.81

During Rogers’ pastorate, staunch patriotism was another feature of Bellevue’s congregational culture that was consistent with its suburbanization and closer affiliation with the GOP. Ever since 1976, the US bicentennial and Rogers’ fifth year as Bellevue’s pastor, the church has held an annual “Celebrate America” day. During the 1992 event, the program featured performances of songs such as “America, Lift up your Voice,” military enactments, and a “presentation of flags” by the United States Marine Corps Color Guard.82 During his visit to the church in 1993, which coincided with the Celebrate America day, historian of American Protestantism Randall Balmer noticed an “adulation for the military and an old-fashioned patriotic fervor” at Bellevue.83 During the performances themselves, Balmer noticed that the worship center “looked for all the world like the Republican National Convention.”84 He also noted the militaristic tone of Rogers’ Sunday services, which featured renditions of “Victory in Jesus” and “Mighty Warrior” by the church orchestra and choir. Sometimes, Balmer suggested, Bellevue’s Republican-friendly political culture would manifest itself more explicitly. When Balmer asked a Bellevue layman how his theology affected his vote, he opined that “someone who pretends that his beliefs don’t affect how he votes has jello for brains.” Another layperson suggested that “voters coming out of Bellevue Baptist [are] conservative and Republican”—that is, “if they’re really in tune with what's being taught here.”85 Celebrate America day—as well as other features such as the church’s library, which houses books by neoconservatives like George W. Bush—demonstrates how Bellevue’s congregational culture was becoming more Republican-friendly during the Rogers pastorate.

Despite Rogers’ ostensible avoidance of partisan endorsements, some considered Bellevue’s recent flirtation with politics and its engagement with moral issues to be excessive, and an unwise distraction from the core purposes of the church. This was a view held by Bellevue layman Dan Greer, who claimed that sometime in the mid-1990s, in the wake of Bill Clinton’s electoral success and the apparent lull in the conservative movement’s influence, Bellevue came to the realization that “the answer for the church was not in Washington but was in a renewed faith in God. This entire, painful process was a real blessing,” he continued, “because the church was beginning to be involved in many social and moral issues that were draining resources away from the main mission of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world.”86 In other words, Greer concluded, Bellevue had become “distracted by the seductive powers of the entire political process.”87 Although not everyone involved with the church during the 1980s agreed with the notion that the moral issues that that the Christian Right helped bring to public attention had distracted Bellevue, Greer’s complaint is nonetheless telling of the extent to which Bellevue's congregational culture had changed during the 1980s.

Greer aired his grievances in 1995, long after the process of becoming suburban at Bellevue had begun and six years after the church had completed its physical relocation to its new campus in Cordova. Although scholars have yet to fully explore the effects that these connections have had on white evangelicalism, the case study of Bellevue indicates that the influence of urban and demographic history helped pave the way for one of the movement’s most important twentieth-century moments: its transformation from a roughly bipartisan group into a Republican voting bloc. The absence of partisan mobilization at conservative churches like Bellevue may come as a surprise to some observers of the Christian Right. After all, during the 1970s and 1980s figures such as Jerry Falwell were undoubtedly responsible for increasing the visibility of their brand of evangelicalism and, after decades of failed attempts, for finally infiltrating the Republican Party establishment. But seeing the Republicanization of evangelicals in terms of a shift in congregational culture at churches like Bellevue demonstrates how it was possible for white evangelicals to remain faithful to the Party for so long, well after the influence of Falwell et al. had faded. Partisan mobilization was not necessary because the congregational culture of suburbanized evangelicalism translated easily into Republican politics. Meanwhile, the congregational angle demonstrates that the history of one of America's most successful denominations should be considered firmly rooted in—and largely a product of—its spatial surroundings. As this essay has shown, Bellevue’s recent history is in many ways symptomatic of the socioeconomic, political, and cultural convergence of white evangelicalism and the Sunbelt suburbs. Thus, to see the Christian Right (and the associated Republicanization of white evangelicals) as an exclusively top-down phenomenon is to overlook the movement’s connections with other—equally important—areas of the post-civil rights conservative ascendency.

1Adrian Rogers, “The Great Debate between Church and State,” church sermon, November 2, 1980, sound recording, Dianne Mills Central File, Bellevue Baptist Church, Cordova, TN.

2Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “8 Charts on Which Evangelicals Will (and Won’t) Vote Trump on Super Tuesday,” Christianity Today, February 29, 2016, accessed May 10, 2017,

3The most satisfying and up-to-date studies on the relationship between evangelicals and the Republican Party are monographs by Daniel K. Williams and Matthew Avery Sutton, which show that, contrary to what has been assumed by previous works, born-again Christians spent much of the twentieth century attempting to forge links with the GOP. Therefore, “what was new in 1980 was not evangelicals’ interest in politics but, rather, their level of partisan commitment.” Daniel K. Williams, God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2010), 2; Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014).

4For examples of top down studies, see David Karol, Party Position Change in American Politics: Coalition Management (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Steve Bruce, The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Right: Conservative Protestant Politics in America, 1978–1988 (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1990); Kenneth J. Heineman, God is a Conservative: Religion, Politics, and Morality in Contemporary America (New York: New York University Press, 1998). Bruce J. Schulman (ed.), Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), in particular the essay by Paul Boyer, “The Evangelical Resurgence in 1970s American Protestantism,” 29–51.

5A handful of studies have addressed the question of how race related to the build-up of the Religious Right in the 1970s. Dan T. Carter sees right-wing politics in the 1970s as a reaction to the racial liberalism of the 1960s: From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996). Similarly, Randall Balmer interprets the rise of the Christian Right as a racial backlash rooted in the movement’s resistance to the newly-authorized powers of the Internal Revenue Service to withdraw tax exemption status from segregated Christian schools and Colleges. Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Politico Magazine, May 27, 2014, accessed April 6, 2016, Meanwhile, Carolyn Dupont traces the segregationist roots of the Southern Baptist Convention’s “Conservative Resurgence,” a close relative of the Christian Right. Carolyn Renee Dupont, Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1975 (New York: New York University Press, 2012). Meanwhile, Daniel K. Williams interprets the Republicanization of evangelicalism as part of an "“amalgamation of social and economic conservatism.” Daniel K. Williams, “Jerry Falwells Sunbelt Politics: The Regional Origins of the Moral Majority,” The Journal of Policy History 22, no. 2 (2010): 126. A good overview of the limitations of the top-down interpretation can be found in Devon B. Shapiro, “From Left to Right? White Evangelical Politicization, GOP Incorporation and the Effect of Party Affiliation on Group Opinion Change” (honors thesis, Bowdoin College, 2013), Honors Projects, Paper 2,

6Darren Dochuk, “‘Praying for a Wicked City’: Congregation, Community, and the Suburbanization of Fundamentalism,” Religion and American Culture 13, no. 2 (2003). See also Mark T. Mulder, Shades of White Flight: Evangelical Congregations and Urban Departure (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015).

7Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton, : Princeton University Press, 2006). These studies of southern politics owe much to the earlier trailblazing work by Thomas Sugrue, whose case study was Detroit. Thomas J. Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (2005 repr., Princeton,: Princeton University Press, 1996). The spatial turn is part of a broader revival in the field of American political history, which Princeton scholar Julian Zelizer has devoted an entire study towards understanding. Zeilizer’s monograph includes a whole chapter on recent interpretations of the history of modern conservatism, including a discussion of Lassiter and Kruse’s work on white southerners. Julian Zelizer, “Rethinking the History of American Conservatism,” in Governing America: The Revival of American Political History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 68–89.

8Kevin P. Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority (Anchor Books, 1970; Princeton University Press, 2016); Joseph A. Aistrup, The Southern Strategy Revisited: Republican Top-Down Advancement in the South (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996).

9Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 6.

10Much of Lassiter’s work is based on the case study of Charlotte, North Carolina, and how middle class whites in the city resisted busing through a “color-blind discourse that evaded the historical roots of residential segregation and shaped the legal stance of the Nixon administration.” Matthew D. Lassiter, “The Suburban Origins of ‘Color-Blind’ Conservatism: Middle Class Consciousness in the Charlotte Busing Crisis,” Journal of Urban History 30, no. 4 (2004): 549.

11Adrian Rogers, quoted in Randall Balmer, “Churchgoing: Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis,” Christian Century, May 5, 1993, 487.

12See Lassiter, The Silent Majority.

13The first detailed study of the kneel-in movement uses Memphis as its main case study: Stephen R. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

14Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour, 11. Original emphasis.

15Haynes, 15. Haynes’ terms “spectacles of embrace”and “spectacles of exclusion” have been adapted from Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abington Press, 1996).

16Haynes, 21.

17As Haynes is right to point out, “the more prominent and centrally located the congregation, the more powerful the spectacle. This is undoubtedly why churches in the town square or city center, or churches that were ‘first’ in their respective denominations, were the most common targets.”As the largest SBC congregation in the city, Bellevue perfectly fitted this description. Haynes, 15.

18Ramsey Pollard, interview by Lynn E. May, 1975, Historical Commission, Southern Baptist Convention, Oral History Program, Southern Baptist Presidents, 12.

19Pollard, interview, 34.

20Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour, 26.

21“Two Negroes, White Arrested at Church,” Tri-State Defender, September 3, 1960, 2, quoted in Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour, 26.

22Pollard, interview, 34–35.

23Throughout much of the 1960s, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was itself embroiled in a bitter internal conflict about the biblical and ethical justifications of segregation. Having been established in the mid-nineteenth century because its pro-slavery stance conflicted with northern Baptists, tensions between racially liberal and conservative factions of the SBC came to a head during the civil rights movement. A majority of Southern Baptist congregations, particularly those in rural areas, were openly segregationist, and many SBC laypeople and leaders actively participated in the widespread campaign of “massive resistance” in the South. See Numan Bartley, The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South During the 1950s (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1999). For the role of the Southern Baptist Convention in resisting integration, see Dupont, Mississippi Praying.Further evidence that Bellevue’s racial moderation was unlike other large white congregations is that the church never experienced a crisis over the issue of racial segregation. In his study of the kneel-in movement, Haynes’ main case study, Second Presbyterian Church, also in Memphis, endured a deep church split over the issue. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour.

24Darren Dochuk’s case study of Highland Park Baptist Church in Detroit, for example, had an “ongoing commitment to mass revivalism in the community [which] was as much about maintaining a collective, public presence in Highland Park [the church’s neighborhood] as it was about saving individual souls.” Dochuk, “‘Praying for a Wicked City,’” 172.

25The River City was often praised for the relative peacefulness with which desegregation occurred, but the all-white Memphis City Council was nonetheless extremely slow to implement the Brown Vs. Board of Education ruling of 1954. Indeed, the city spent most of the 1960s either deferring integration or granting what one legal expert described as “token desegregation.” Daniel Kiel, “Exploded Dreams: Desegregation in the Memphis City Schools,” Law and Equality 26, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 263. Nonetheless, Memphis’s neighborhoods were often quicker than the city’s schools to integrate.

26Pollard, interview, 35.

27In what is considered a seminal work on the topic, Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith’s 2000 monograph argues racial segregation in churches is a result of unassailable theological differences between black and white congregations. Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

28Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith.

29In her study of white evangelicals’ approaches towards race and segregation in Mississippi during the civil rights movement, Carolyn Dupont argues that many Baptists espoused a theory of behavior that “construed morality in entirely individualistic terms and rendered the structures of inequality invisible.” Since every individual was entirely responsible for—and therefore completely deserving of—his or her plight, inerrantist theology enabled racial conservatives to “argue that the Christian faith had nothing to do with a corporate, societal problem like segregation.” Dupont, Mississippi Praying, 242. A majority of Southern Baptist congregations, particularly those in rural areas, were openly segregationist, and many SBC laypeople and leaders actively participated in the widespread campaign of “massive resistance” in the South. See Numan Bartley, The Rise of Massive Resistance: Race and Politics in the South During the 1950s (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1999). Further evidence for Bellevue’s racial moderation is that unlike other large white congregations the church never experienced an internal crisis over the issue of racial segregation. In his study of the kneel-in movement, for example, Haynes' main case study, Second Presbyterian Church—also in Memphis—endured a deep church split over the issue. Haynes, The Last Segregated Hour.

30Dupont, Mississippi Praying, 81. Bellevue has produced a total of four Southern Baptist Convention presidents, including the incumbent Dr. Steve Gaines, who has been pastoring at the church since 2005. Pollard was himself president of the SBC during his first year as pastor at Bellevue in 1960. During the civil rights movement, the significance of this strong connection with the SBC was, as suggested by Dupont’s observation, less of a likelihood to diverge from the denomination’s center ground—in racial terms or otherwise.

31Michael K. Honey, Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008).

32Kiel, “Exploded Dream,” 290.

33Kiel, 292.

34Kiel, 295.

35Roger Biles, “A Bittersweet Victory: Public School Desegregation in Memphis,” The Journal of Negro Education 55, no. 4 (1986): 479.

36Biles, “A Bittersweet Victory,” 479.

37Biles, 483.

38Kiel, “Exploded Dream,” 298.

39Kiel, 297.

40Memphis’s most significant example of private sector investment during the Sunbelt boom was when, in 1973, distribution company FedEx moved its global headquarters from nearby Arkansas to Memphis International Airport in the southeast of the city.

41United States Census Bureau, “Census of Population and Housing: Decennial Censuses,” accessed May 13, 2015,; United States Census Bureau, “Census of Population and Housing: Decennial Censuses;” Richard L. Forstall ed., “Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990,” United States Census Bureau, accessed May 13, 2015,

42Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development, “Germantown Parkway Area Study: Background Report,” p. v, BBT—Germantown Parkway Area folder, Dianne Mills Central Files, Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, TN.

43Shelby County Baptist Association, “Annual Sessions, 1970 Minutes,” Diane Mills Central Files, Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, TN; Shelby County Baptist Association, “Annual Sessions, 1980 Minutes,” Diane Mills Central Files, Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, TN.

44Donald A. McGavran,Understanding Church Growth(Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1970), 233.

45Dan Lester Greer, “Bellevue Baptist Church as an Example of the Megachurch Model in Church Growth” (D. Min. diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1995), 51.

46Adrian Rogers, quoted in Balmer, “Churchgoing: Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis,” 488.

47Andrew Trundle identifies the failure to appeal to African Americans as the main reason for the recent decline in the SBC membership in Shelby County, Tennessee—an area encompassing Memphis itself. Andrew Trundle, “Doctrine, Demographics and the Decline of the Southern Baptist Convention in Shelby County, Tennessee,” The Rhodes Journal of Regional Studies 2 (2005): 66–97.

48Although there is no record of precisely when individual members of the church moved to the suburbs, the scale of white flight in Memphis between 1970 and 1980—as well as findings of the interviews conducted for this research—make it reasonable to conclude that a highly significant proportion of Bellevue’s congregation withdrew from the inner-city during this period.

49Lassiter, Silent Majority, 13.

[50]Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development, “Germantown Parkway Area Study: Background Report,” p. v, BBT—Germantown Parkway Area folder, Dianne Mills Central Files, Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, TN.

51Wanda Rushing, Memphis and the Paradox of Place: Globalization and the American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 4.

52Elizabeth Shermer’s study of Phoenix, Arizona offers an illuminating insight into how influential businessmen and government officials created a new “business climate” in Sunbelt cities which successfully attracted private investment by relaxing regulations, weakening unions, and lowering corporate taxation. Sunbelt boosters’ success, Shermer shows, helped pave the way for other, more far-reaching, neoliberal policies at a national level. Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

53Recent quantitative analysis of Gallup surveys conducted during the early 1960s suggest that the Democratic Party’s stance on race was the single most important reason why southern whites defected to the GOP, versus other factors such as economic development and rising political polarization. Ilyana Kuiemko and Ebonya Washington, “Why did the Democrats Lose the South? Bringing New Data to an Old Debate,” The National Bureau of Economic Research, working paper no. 21703 (2015).

54Lassiter, Silent Majority, 1.

55Two exceptions to this lack of scholarly interest in religious forms of white flight are excellent studies by Darren Dochuk and Mark Mulder, both of which examine the phenomenon in the context of the urban Midwest. The former is an analysis of a fundamentalist congregation’s departure from inner-city Detroit, while the latter observes a more liberal Protestant church in Chicago. Dochuk, “‘Praying for a Wicked City;’” Mark T. Mulder, Shades of White Flight.

56This is a relationship that is elaborated in Daniel K. Williams’ award-winning article on Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, which argues that evangelicals became “full-fledged converts to the GOP not only on ‘moral’ issues but also on matters of economics and national defense.” This was thanks to the influence of the neoliberal culture of Sunbelt boosterism that had brought unprecedented wealth to the city of Lynchburg during the 1970s. Daniel K. Williams, “Jerry Falwell's Sunbelt Politics: The Regional Origins of the Moral Majority,” The Journal of Policy History 22, no., 2 (2010): 127.

57“Great Churches of America: IV. Bellevue Baptist, Memphis,” The Christian Century, April 19, 1950, 490, Buildings– Sanctuary (1952) folder, History–Articles folder, Dianne Mills Central File, Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, TN.

58As a report by sociologists Christian Smith and Robert Faris shows, Southern Baptists have over the last four decades become wealthier and more educated. Christian Smith and Robert Faris, “Socioeconomic Inequality in the American Religious System: An Update and Assessment,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44, no., 1 (2005): 98.

59Quoted in Balmer, “Churchgoing,” 487.

60Balmer, 487.

61Janice Ediston, telephone interview with the author, December 5, 2014. Rogers’ strategy of attracting a younger, more middle-class constituency reflected trends that were taking place in megachurches across the country. Karnes et al.’s survey of megachurch growth patterns shows that most large congregations resided in wealthier neighborhoods and attracted a younger, more middle-class audience than the average American churchgoer. Kimberly Karnes, Wayne McIntosh, Irwin L. Morris, and Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz, “Mighty Fortresses: Explaining the Spatial Distribution of American Megachurches,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 6, no. 2 (2007): 262–268.

62Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith. See also the recent follow-up to Emerson and Smith’s study, J. Russel Hawkins and Phillip Luke Sinitiere, eds., Christians and the Color Line: Race and Religion After Divided by Faith(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). Efforts to overcome racial divisions in American Christianity have progressed slowly, with movements such as Evangelical Racial Change only gaining momentum around the 1990s. See Nancy D. Wadsworth, Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014).

63Adrian Rogers, quoted in Michael Clark, “Bellevue Baptist Unveils Huge Project,” The Commercial Appeal, September 14, 1982, 12.

64Adrian Rogers, quoted in “Bellevue’s Move to Memphis’s Suburbs,” Baptist and Reflector, November 9, 1983, 1.

65Adrian Rogers, quoted in Tom Baily Jr., “Midtown Farewell Finds Bellevue Favoring Work with Free the Children,” Commercial Appeal, [unknown date], B2.

66By His Grace and For His Glory: Celebrating a Centenary with Bellevue Baptist Church (Memphis: Bellevue Baptist Church, 2003).

67“Claiming Our Canaan: A Special Message from Our Pastor,” Bellevue Baptist Church Messenger, [unknown date], BBT– Canaan Move Brochures/Messengers–Special folder, Dianne Mills Central Files, Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, TN.

68David Coombs, telephone interview with the author, August 11, 2015.

69See Dochuk, “‘Praying for a Wicked City;’” and Mulder, Shades of White Flight.

70In an interview with the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Dr. Mark Matheny, who was senior pastor at Madison Heights Methodist Church and president of the liberal Memphis Ministers Association, argued Bellevue’s move was going to force churches that remain in the shadow of Memphis’s poverty to reassess how they stand on social ministry. “The major issue,” he suggested, “is does the church exist primarily for itself and its members or those of its persuasion, or for the whole community?” quoted in Baily Jr., “Midtown Farewell,” B2.

71In response to this, Bellevue built a senior home adjacent to the new church and ran a bus route for those who remained once the move was completed. Coombs, interview.

72The successful funding ministry to pay for the new campus was given the same moniker. The ministry raised over $53 million from church members between 1983 and 2001.

73Michael Kelley, The Commercial Appeal, November 20, 1989, 1, BBT–Claiming Our Canaan folder, Dianne Mills Central Files, Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, TN.

74Dochuk, “‘Praying for a Wicked City,’” 185.

75Balmer, “Churchgoing,” 486.

76In this respect, there is potential for this case study to support some of the claims made by the recent wave of revisionist scholarship, which emphasizes the nationwide origins of the post-civil rights conservative ascendency and seeks to debunk what it sees as the “myth of southern exceptionalism.” Matthew D. Lassiter and Jospeh Crespino, eds., The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism(New York: Oxford University Press). Kevin M. Kruse’s chapter in this collection could be of particular interest to readers of this essay: “Beyond the Southern Cross: The National Origins of the Religious Right” 286–307.

77Stan Hastey, “Rogers Joins Crusade to Bar Courts from Interfering in School Prayers,” Baptist and Reflector, January 30, 1980, 3, Serials in Archives, Serials, SBHLA, Nashville, TN. Rogers’ stance in the church-state debate was the same as his fellow SBC conservatives, namely that he believed the state should adopt a “friendlier” approach toward Christianity. He recognized the separation of church and state while insisting that God and spirituality should have a larger role in government and other public endeavors. “I am strongly opposed to any state-supported religion, but I do not believe in the separation of God and government and neither did our Founding Fathers,” he argued. Adrian Rogers, quoted in Hastey, “Rogers Joins Crusade,” 5. Rogers’ views on church-state separation are well outlined in Barry Hankins, Uneasy in Babylon: Southern Baptist Conservatives and American Culture (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press), 68. Meanwhile, when asked in an interview in 1993 what he thought was the “most important religio-political or church-state issue of our time,” Rogers stated it was abortion. Barry Hankins, “Oral Memoirs of Adrian Rogers,” Baylor University Institute for Oral History, August 18, 1997, 7.

78Rogers, “The Great Debate Between Church and State.”

79“Rogers Urges Women to Reject Humanism,” Baptist New Mexican, May 24, 1980, 3.

80Williams, Gods Own Party, 172–173. Echoing Rogers’ reluctance to appear overtly political, the Lynchburg, Virginia-based pastor even went as far as proclaiming in 1978, “I don’t talk politics.” Moreover, Daniel K. Williams continues, Falwell “did not want to sacrifice his ministerial career for a political cause.” Williams, 172–173. Meanwhile, Rogers insisted, “My involvement [in school prayer issues] is as Adrian P. Rogers. Period. It’s not as president of the Southern Baptist Convention or as pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church.” Adrian Rogers, quoted in in Hastey, “Rogers Joins Crusade,” 3.

81Coombs, interview. Moreover, despite Republican lip service to evangelical moral issues, and an effective wooing campaign by Reagan, the legislative success of the Christian Right was extremely limited. This further supports the notion that the Christian Right’s central strategies—top-down mobilization and closer connections with the GOP—could not have been the sole cause of evangelicals’ Republicanization, especially considering the longevity of the evangelical-Republican alliance. For a historical account that questions the tangible legislative effects of the New Right’s ascendency, see David T. Courtwright, No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in Liberal America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).

82“Celebrate America!” church pamphlet, Celebrate America folder, Dianne Mills Central Files, Bellevue Baptist Church, Cordova, TN.

83Balmer, “Churchgoing,” 487.

84Balmer, 487.

85Balmer, 487.

86Greer, “Bellevue Baptist Church,” 15. Bellevue’s apparent disillusionment with the political realm sometime in the mid-1990s indeed corresponds to the second “phase” of the Christian Right, otherwise referred to as the “age of realism,” when in the wake of the 1988 presidential election the movement began to suffer from a prolonged post-Reagan period of disappointment. This suggests Bellevue was on this level mirroring the political trends of the Christian Right at a broader level. Robert Booth Fowler, Allen D. Hertzke, Laura R. Olson, and Kevin R. den Dulk,Religion and Politics in America: Faith, Culture, and Strategic Choice, 5th ed.(Boulder: Westview Press, 2013), 141.

87Fowler et al., 16.