Falwell and Abortion

FALWELL AND ABORTION….Via Brad Plumer, Michelle Goldberg writes in the Guardian that abortion wasn’t originally a big issue for the Christian Right:

The religious right’s creation myth holds that Roe v Wade so outraged the faithful that they could no longer sit passively on their pews. As the Columbia University historian Randall Balmer has shown, this is nonsense. The Southern Baptist Convention, Falwell’s denomination, was officially pro-choice throughout the 1970s; anti-abortion activism was seen as the province of Catholics, a group then widely despised by fundamentalist Protestants. No, what really galvanized the religious right were Supreme Court rulings stripping whites-only Christian academies, like the one Falwell founded in 1966, of their tax-exempt status. Fervent opposition to abortion, which eventually cemented the alliance between conservative Protestant and Catholics, came later.

There’s no question that early evangelical leaders were originally drawn to politics by the loss of tax-exempt status for their segregated schools, which happened via a series of court rulings before Roe v. Wade was even a twinkle in Harry Blackmun’s eyes. Still, while the SBC may have been “officially” pro-choice during the 70s, it was pro-choice only “reluctantly,” and Falwell himself was always virulently anti-abortion and anti-gay. What’s more, it was only after abortion and gay bashing were added to the evangelical mix that the Christian Right became a genuine, broad-based “movement.”

In 1978, for example, the Washington Post reported that Falwell was “against abortion, poronography and homosexuality, and created a stir in the 1976 presidential campaign in Virginia when he attacked Jimmy Carter for being interviewed by Playboy magazine.” In 1979, after Falwell founded the Moral Majority, the Post reported that his goals “include tax breaks for church-run schools, diplomatic recognition of the new government of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and the frustration of the abortion and gay rights movement.” Later that year U.S. News & World Report reported that “Falwell’s aims include sharp restrictions on abortion, an end to pornography, defeat of the proposed SALT treaty and rejection of the equal-rights amendment.”

Money and segregation were certainly issues for Falwell and others, but it was abortion and gay bashing that powered them to fame and fortune, and they know it. There’s a good reason that the old guard evangelicals feel badly threatened by Richard Cizik.

UPDATE: Don Byrd, who writes the BJC blog, emails to add some historical context:

The mistake in Michelle’s piece is in saying the Southern Baptist Convention is “Falwell’s denomination.” That’s a bit misleading in a paragraph about SBC views in the 70s. Falwell was an “independent Baptist,” in large part because of the positions the SBC took with which he disagreed: church-state separation, against prayer in schools, and abortion allowance in cases of rape, incest and health of the mother among them. Once the SBC had transformed itself into a GOP, social conservative machine, partly due to being inspired by Falwell’s Moral Majority, then sure, he said he could be one with the SBC. But that was much much later — 1996, to be exact. For some 10 years before that the relationship between Falwell and the SBC was limited to that of a “mutual admiration society.” And before that you’d have to say he would not have wanted to be affiliated with them in any way.