The supreme court’s refusal to block Texas’s restrictive new abortion law suggests that the end to country-wide legal abortion might be at hand. For white evangelicals, the rank and file of the anti-abortion movement who have worked tirelessly to overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade decision, this represents the culmination of efforts that date back to – well, about 1980.
Although leaders of the religious right would have us believe that the Roe decision was the catalyst for their political mobilization in the 1970s, that claim does not withstand historical scrutiny. What prompted evangelical interest in politics, in fact, was a defense of racial segregation.
Evangelicals considered abortion a “Catholic issue” through most of the 1970s, and there is little in the history of evangelicalism to suggest that abortion would become a point of interest. Even James Dobson, who later became an implacable foe of abortion, acknowledged after the Roe decision that the Bible was silent on the matter and that it was plausible for an evangelical to hold that “a developing embryo or fetus was not regarded as a full human being”.
I first began researching the origins of the religious right after a meeting at a Washington hotel conference room in November 1990. The gathering marked the ten-year anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency and, for reasons that are still not entirely clear to me, I was invited to this closed-door celebration. There I encountered a veritable who’s-who of the religious right, including (among others), Ralph Reed of Christian Coalition; Donald Wildmon from the American Family Association; Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; Ed Dobson, one of Jerry Falwell’s acolytes at Moral Majority; Richard Viguerie, the conservative direct-mail mogul; and Paul Weyrich, cofounder of the Heritage Foundation and architect of the religious right.
In the course of the first session, Weyrich tried to make a point to his religious right brethren (no women attended the conference, as I recall). Remember, he said animatedly, that the religious right did not come together in response to the Roe decision. No, Weyrich insisted, what got the movement going as a political movement was the attempt on the part of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies, including a ban on interracial dating that the university maintained until 2000.
During a break following that session, I approached Weyrich to ensure that I had heard him correctly. He was emphatic that abortion had nothing whatsoever to do with the genesis of the religious right. He added that he’d been trying since the Goldwater campaign in 1964 to interest evangelicals in politics. Nothing caught their attention, he insisted – school prayer, pornography, equal rights for women, abortion – until the IRS began to challenge the tax exemption of Bob Jones University and other whites-only segregation academies.
Indeed, in 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention had passed a resolution calling to legalize abortion. When the Roe decision was handed down, some evangelicals applauded the ruling as marking an appropriate distinction between personal morality and public policy. Although he later – 14 years later – claimed that opposition to abortion was the catalyst for his political activism, Jerry Falwell did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until February 1978, more than five years after Roe.
Falwell, who had founded his own segregation academy in 1967, was eager to join forces with Weyrich and others to mount a defense against the IRS and its attempts to enforce the Brown v Board of Education decision of 1954 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “In some states,” Falwell famously groused, “it’s easier to open a massage parlor than a Christian school.”
So how did evangelicals become interested in abortion? As nearly as I can tell from my conversation with Weyrich, during a conference call with Falwell and other evangelicals strategizing about how to retain their tax exemptions, someone suggested that they might have the makings of a political movement and wondered what other issues would work for them. Several suggestions followed, and then a voice on the line said, “How about abortion?”
Still, it took some time for opposition to abortion to take hold among evangelicals. According to Frank Schaeffer – who produced a series of anti-abortion films called Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, featuring his father, Francis Schaeffer, and C Everett Koop, who later became Ronald Reagan’s surgeon general – the evangelical response was at best tepid when the films appeared early in 1979.
And when Reagan addressed 20,000 cheering evangelicals in August 1980, he mentioned his support for creationism and criticized the IRS for its supposed vendetta against evangelical schools. He said nothing whatsoever about abortion. Only in the early 1980s did opposition to abortion finally become an evangelical battle cry.
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Paul Weyrich also said “”I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of the people. They never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
The reason abortion, or much of anything other than salvation was not an issue for Christians is because back then Christians realized that Jesus was never a politician and Christianity and politics do not mix.
It is very odd, to me, that the right wing claim to be the Christians yet my only response to them is “what Bible are you reading?” In great contrast, the left wing has thrown the Bible away and yet they act far more like Christians should act than do the right wingers.
How about the straight line between Planned Parenthood founder’s Margaret Sanger virulently racist eugenics and abortion?
I believe it was a mistake for Christians to mix together the gospel of Jesus with politics they’re separate their separate entities in my opinion. My wife and I were right in the middle of a situation in 1980 I know all the evangelical leaders I never agreed with them anyway, I never agreed that you can vote for some candidate that has a religious view or they might be a Christian and somehow they’re going to go up to Congress and change everything for your point of you I don’t think so. I know one thing Roe v. Wade is going to be gutted in a couple months if you go back to win the decision came down in 1973 women were worried about how are they going to get abortions before 1973 and you know helps people get abortions women liberal democratic religious leaders yeah that’s right go back and look at the main characters before 1973 they were democrat liberal progressive helping women get abortions there’s many places in the Bible that describe God forming you in the mothers womb before you were born I knew you the Bible also declares that those that shed innocent blood will be judged harshly Jesus himself sad that if you harm one of these little ones it’s better if they stone be around your neck and you’re thrown into the ocean so I don’t care what Frank Schaeffer thinks of Christians who don’t agree with him I’m gonna continue to fight for babies helping minorities get out of the poverty, how about fighting for basic healthcare for everybody how about lowering our taxes. And yes I do believe in paid child care for everyone how about tax breaks for single people who don’t have kids who don’t have a wife or a spouse. How about lower regulations for businesses that want to expand yet the government holds them back how about lowering taxes for small businesses Donald Trump did these things Donald Trump helped veterans when hospitals were full at veteran facilities he said will give you a universal card and go to any hospital you want So you might hate Donald Trump but he did more in four years and any Democrat anyways have a good day God bless you