Dartmouth Professor Randall Balmer argues convincingly that the origin of the religious right as a political force stemmed from opposition to school desegregation rather than opposition to the Roe v. Wade decision. I don’t think it is well known that evangelicals were largely silent about the Roe ruling at the time it was issued, nor that some of the most influential evangelical leaders at the time were supportive of the ruling.
Today, evangelicals make up the backbone of the pro-life movement, but it hasn’t always been so. Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.
When the Roe decision was handed down, W. A. Criswell, the Southern Baptist Convention’s former president and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas—also one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century—was pleased: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” he said, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
Although a few evangelical voices, including Christianity Today magazine, mildly criticized the ruling, the overwhelming response was silence, even approval. Baptists, in particular, applauded the decision as an appropriate articulation of the division between church and state, between personal morality and state regulation of individual behavior. “Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision,” wrote W. Barry Garrett of Baptist Press.
It was actually a ruling by the DC District Court upholding the Internal Revenue Service’s decision to revoke Bob Jones University’s tax exemption that convinced evangelical leaders Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich to rally the religious right against President Jimmy Carter’s reelection. They could hardly make Bob Jones’ anti-miscegenation their rallying call, however, so the modern-day Republican Party was founded on an evangelical “awakening” on what had formerly been considered an issue only for “papists.”
Today, the party of Dwight Eisenhower and Everett Dirksen is the party of Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich. The party of Lincoln is now the party of voter ID laws.