It is often assumed that the origins of the religious right’s political awakening (known back then as the so-called “moral majority”) was in response to the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs Wade decision. But in an article a friend recently pointed out to me from 2014, Randall Balmer locates it’s origins in another court case: Green vs Connally. It has interesting relevance for some of the issues we are hearing about today.
Balmer first points out that immediately before and after Roe vs Wade, evangelical leaders didn’t see a problem with abortion. He provides several quotes, including this one:
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.”
Meanwhile, Paul Weyrich was looking around for an issue that would galvanize evangelical support for Republicans. He found it in an edict from President Nixon’s Treasury Department that the the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act precluded a tax-exempt status for private schools that discriminated against African Americans. Schools like Bob Jones University and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University responded.
Although Bob Jones Jr., the school’s founder, argued that racial segregation was mandated by the Bible, Falwell and Weyrich quickly sought to shift the grounds of the debate, framing their opposition in terms of religious freedom rather than in defense of racial segregation.
In other words, “religious freedom” was used as the justification for discrimination. Sound familiar? That was the issue at stake in Green vs Connally.
It was on the heels of that argument that these religious leaders then turned to theologian Francis Schaeffer and surgeon C. Everett Koop (who later became Reagan’s Surgeon General) to stir up objections to abortion. They did that with the film Whatever Happened to the Human Race?
In the early months of 1979, Schaeffer and Koop, targeting an evangelical audience, toured the country with these films, which depicted the scourge of abortion in graphic terms—most memorably with a scene of plastic baby dolls strewn along the shores of the Dead Sea.
It is hard to avoid seeing a parallel with the doctored videos produced by The Center for Medical Progress that have raised evangelicals in opposition to Planned Parenthood.
All of that laid the groundwork for the involvement of the religious right in the 1980 presidential race between Carter and Reagan, although their positions on these issues were not as well-defined as we have been led to believe.
By 1980, even though Carter had sought, both as governor of Georgia and as president, to reduce the incidence of abortion, his refusal to seek a constitutional amendment outlawing it was viewed by politically conservative evangelicals as an unpardonable sin. Never mind the fact that his Republican opponent that year, Ronald Reagan, had signed into law, as governor of California in 1967, the most liberal abortion bill in the country. When Reagan addressed a rally of 10,000 evangelicals at Reunion Arena in Dallas in August 1980, he excoriated the “unconstitutional regulatory agenda” directed by the IRS “against independent schools,” but he made no mention of abortion. Nevertheless, leaders of the religious right hammered away at the issue, persuading many evangelicals to make support for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion a litmus test for their votes.
More than 35 years later, the religious right is still insisting that religious freedom is a justification for discrimination and using deceptive videos to ignite opposition to women’s reproductive health. As the saying goes…”everything old is new again.”