The Religious Right and the Abortion Myth

The historical record is clear. In 1968, Christianity today, the flagship evangelical magazine, hosted a conference with the Christian Medical Society to discuss the morality of abortion. The gathering drew 26 evangelical heavyweight theologians, who debated the issue for several days and then issued a statement acknowledging the ambiguities surrounding the issue, which they said allowed for many different approaches.

“We disagree on whether the practice of induced abortion is a sin,” the statement read, “but on its necessity and admissibility in certain circumstances, we agree “.

Two successive editors of Christianity today taken equivocal positions on abortion. Carl FH Henry, the magazine’s founder, asserted that “a woman’s body is not the domain and property of others”, and her successor, Harold Lindsell, admitted that “if there are compelling psychiatric reasons from a Christian point of view, mercy and prudence can favor a therapeutic abortion.

Meeting in St. Louis in 1971, the messengers (delegates) of the Southern Baptist Convention, hardly a redoubt of liberalism, passed a resolution calling for the legalization of abortion, a position they reaffirmed in 1974 – a year later deer – and again in 1976.

When the Roe decision was released, WA Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, released a statement praising the decision. “I always thought it was only after a child was born and lived apart from its mother that it became an individual person,” Criswell said, “and so it always seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.

When Francis Schaeffer, the intellectual godfather of the religious right, tried to enlist Billy Graham in his anti-abortion crusade in the late 1970s, Graham, the most famous evangelical of the 20th century, turned him down. Even James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family who later became an implacable enemy of abortion, admitted in 1973 that the Bible was silent on the matter and therefore it was plausible for an evangelical to believe that “an embryo or a developing fetus was not considered a full human being.

Despite this history, the abortion myth persists, repeatedly fanned by leaders of the religious right. If abortion wasn’t the catalyst for this white evangelical political movement, what was?

According to Paul Weyrich, a conservative activist and architect of the religious right, the movement began in the 1970s in response to attempts by the Internal Revenue Service to rescind the tax-exempt status of segregation academies reserved for Whites (many of them church sponsored) and Bob Jones University because of its segregationist policies. Among those affected was Jerry Falwell, who called the civil rights movement “civil misdeeds” and who opened his own segregation academy in 1967. The IRS’ actions against racially segregated institutions, not the Abortion, are what mobilized evangelical activists in the 1970s, and they directed their anger against another evangelical, Jimmy Carter, in the run-up to the 1980 presidential election.

Weyrich’s genius, however, lay in his understanding that racism – the advocacy of racial segregation – was unlikely to energize grassroots evangelical voters. So he, Falwell and others cleverly flipped the script. Instead of the religious right mobilizing to defend segregation, evangelical leaders in the late 1970s denounced government intrusion into their affairs as an attack on religious freedom, writing a page in the Party’s playbook. modern republican, shamelessly used in the hobby hall and the Masterpiece pastry case.

Weyrich’s savvy sleight of hand conveniently failed to recognize that the tax exemption is a form of public subsidy and that, in accordance with the Brown decision of 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Green vs. Connally decision of 1971, the government has every right to stipulate that tax-exempt public establishments do not engage in racial exclusion.

In any case, “religious freedom” did not turn out to be the stimulating issue that the leaders of the movement had hoped for, and so abortion became part of the agenda of the religious right.

Because evangelicals had viewed abortion as a Catholic issue until the late 1970s, they expressed little interest in the issue; Falwell, by his own admission, did not preach his first anti-abortion sermon until February 26, 1978, more than five years after Roe. In the 1978 midterm elections, however, anti-abortion activists—Roman Catholics—distributed leaflets in church parking lots in four Senate races during the campaign’s final weekend: New Hampshire, Iowa and two races in Minnesota, one for the unexpired term of Walter Mondale, Carter’s Vice President. Two days later, in a very low turnout election, anti-abortion Republicans defeated favored Democratic candidates.

I remember reading Weyrich’s articles at the University of Wyoming at Laramie, and when I came across his correspondence after the 1978 midterm elections, the newspapers almost began to crackle with excitement. He called the result “a real cause for celebration”. Weyrich had finally landed on an issue – abortion – that could mobilize grassroots evangelicals. Now Falwell and other religious right leaders had a “respectable” issue, opposition to abortion, one that would energize white evangelicals — and, not incidentally, distract from the true origins of their movement. .

Even so, as late as August 22, 1980, when Ronald Reagan addressed more than ten thousand jubilant evangelicals at the Reunion Arena in Dallas, he spoke about creationism, he said if he was stuck on a desert island, he would like the Bible, and he lambasted “Jimmy Carter’s Internal Revenue Service” for challenging the tax exemption of racially segregated evangelical institutions. On this occasion, however, Reagan said nothing at all about abortion.

Abortion only gained traction among evangelicals on the eve of the 1980 presidential election, the result of diligent promotion by Weyrich, Falwell and other religious right leaders after the midterm elections. from 1978. Also, although poorly received when it toured the country in early 1979, Frank Schaeffer’s series of anti-abortion films What happened to the human race?which starred her father, Francis A. Schaeffer, and C. Everett Koop, finally began to take hold among evangelicals.

Opposition to abortion has therefore been a boon for leaders of the religious right because it has allowed them to divert attention from the true genesis of their movement: the defense of racial segregation in evangelical institutions. Through a cunning diversion, they were able to conjure up a righteous fury against legalized abortion and thus lend a veneer of respectability to their political activism.

Alito’s draft makes no mention of this sordid story.


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