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.
The beauty of the religious right’s embrace of abortion as a political issue is that it allowed leaders to camouflage the real origins of their movement: the defense of racial segregation in evangelical institutions.