In the 1980s, in order to solidify their shift from divorce to abortion, the Religious Right constructed an abortion myth, one accepted by most Americans as true. Simply put, the abortion myth is this: Leaders of the Religious Right would have us believe that their movement began in direct response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Politically conservative evangelical leaders were so morally outraged by the ruling that they instantly shed their apolitical stupor in order to mobilize politically in defense of the sanctity of life. Most of these leaders did so reluctantly and at great personal sacrifice, risking the obloquy of their congregants and the contempt of liberals and "secular humanists," who were trying their best to ruin America. But these selfless, courageous leaders of the Religious Right, inspired by the opponents of slavery in the nineteenth century, trudged dutifully into battle in order to defend those innocent unborn children, newly endangered by the Supreme Court's misguided Roe decision.
It's a compelling story, no question about it. Except for one thing: It isn't true.
Although various Roman Catholic groups denounced the ruling, and Christianity Today complained that the Roe decision "runs counter to the moral teachings of Christianity through the ages but also to the moral sense of the American people," the vast majority of evangelical leaders said virtually nothing about it; many of those who did comment actually applauded the decision. W. Barry Garrett of Baptist Press wrote, "Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision." Indeed, even before the Roe decision, the messengers (delegates) to the 1971 Southern Baptist Convention gathering in St. Louis, Missouri, adopted a resolution that stated, "we call upon 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." W.A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, expressed his satisfaction with the Roe v. Wade ruling. "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," the redoubtable fundamentalist declared, "and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed."
The Religious Right's self-portrayal as mobilizing in response to the Roe decision was so pervasive among evangelicals that few questioned it. But my attendance at an unusual gathering in Washington, D.C., finally alerted me to the abortion myth. In November
1990, for reasons that I still don't entirely understand, I was invited to attend a conference in Washington sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Religious Right organization (though I didn't realize it at the time). I soon found myself in a conference room with a couple of dozen people, including Ralph Reed, then head of the Christian Coalition; Carl F. H. Henry, an evangelical theologian; Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family; Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association; Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention; and Edward G. Dobson, pastor of an evangelical church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and formerly one of Jerry Falwell's acolytes at Moral Majority. Paul M. Weyrich, a longtime conservative activist, head of what is now called the Free Congress Foundation, and one of the architects of the Religious Right in the late 1970s, was also there.
In the course of one of the sessions, Weyrich tried to make a point to his Religious Right brethren (no women attended the conference, as I recall). Let's remember, he said animatedly, that the Religious Right did not come together in response to the Roe decision. No, Weyrich insisted, what got us 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.
Bob Jones University was one target of a broader attempt by the federal government to enforce the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Several agencies, including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, had sought to penalize schools for failure to abide by antisegregation provisions. A court case in 1972, Green v. Connally, produced a ruling that any institution that practiced segregation was not, by definition, a charitable institution and, therefore, no longer qualified for tax-exempt standing.
The IRS sought to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University in 1975 because the school's regulations forbade interracial dating; African Americans, in fact, had been denied admission altogether until 1971, and it took another four years before unmarried African Americans were allowed to enroll. The university filed suit to retain its tax-exempt status, although that suit would not reach the Supreme Court until 1983 (at which time, the Reagan administration argued in favor of Bob Jones University).
Initially, I found Weyrich's admission jarring. He declared, in effect, that the origins of the Religious Right lay in Green v. Connally rather than Roe v. Wade. I quickly concluded, however, that his story made a great deal of sense. When I was growing up within the evangelical subculture, there was an unmistakably defensive cast to evangelicalism. I recall many presidents of colleges or Bible institutes coming through our churches to recruit students and to raise money. One of their recurrent themes was,We don't accept federal money, so the government can't tell us how to run our shop—whom to hire or fire or what kind of rules to live by. The IRS attempt to deny tax-exempt status to segregated private schools, then, represented an assault on the evangelical subculture, something that raised an alarm among many evangelical leaders, who mobilized against it.
For his part, Weyrich saw the evangelical discontent over the Bob Jones case as the opening he was looking for to start a new conservative movement using evangelicals as foot soldiers. Although both the Green decision of 1972 and the IRS action against Bob Jones University in 1975 predated Jimmy Carter's presidency, Weyrich succeeded in blaming Carter for efforts to revoke the taxexempt status of segregated Christian schools. He recruited James Dobson and Jerry Falwell to the cause, the latter of whom complained, "In some states it's easier to open a massage parlor than to open a Christian school."
Weyrich, whose conservative activism dates at least as far back as the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964, had been trying for years to energize evangelical voters over school prayer, abortion, or the proposed equal rights amendment to the Constitution. "I was
trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed," he recalled in an interview in the early 1990s. "What changed their mind was Jimmy Carter's intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation."
During the meeting in Washington, D.C., Weyrich went on to characterize the leaders of the Religious Right as reluctant to take up the abortion cause even close to a decade after the Roe ruling. "I had discussions with all the leading lights of the movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s, post–Roe v. Wade," he said, "and they were all arguing that that decision was one more reason why Christians had to isolate themselves from the rest of the world."
"What caused the movement to surface," Weyrich reiterated,"was the federal government's moves against Christian schools." The IRS threat against segregated schools, he said, "enraged the Christian community." That, not abortion, according to Weyrich, was what galvanized politically conservative evangelicals into the Religious Right and goaded them into action. "It was not the other things," he said.
Ed Dobson, Falwell's erstwhile associate, corroborated Weyrich's account during the ensuing discussion. "The Religious New Right did not start because of a concern about abortion," Dobson said. "I sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority, and I frankly do not remember abortion ever being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something."
During the following break in the conference proceedings, I cornered Weyrich to make sure I had heard him correctly. He was adamant that, yes, the 1975 action by the IRS against Bob Jones University was responsible for the genesis of the Religious Right in
the late 1970s. What about abortion? After mobilizing to defend Bob Jones University and its racially discriminatory policies, Weyrich said, these evangelical leaders held a conference call to discuss strategy. He recalled that someone suggested that they had
the makings of a broader political movement—something that Weyrich had been pushing for all along—and asked what other issues they might address. Several callers made suggestions, and then, according to Weyrich, a voice on the end of one of the lines said, "How about abortion?" And that is how abortion was cobbled into the political agenda of the Religious Right.
The abortion myth serves as a convenient fiction because it suggests noble and altruistic motives behind the formation of the Religious Right. But it is highly disingenuous and renders absurd the argument of the leaders of Religious Right that, in defending the rights of the unborn, they are the "new abolitionists." The Religious Right arose as a political movement for the purpose, effectively, of defending racial discrimination at Bob Jones University and at other segregated schools. Whereas evangelical abolitionists of the nineteenth century sought freedom for African Americans, the Religious Right of the late twentieth century organized to perpetuate racial discrimination. Sadly, the Religious Right has no legitimate claim to the mantle of the abolitionist crusaders of the nineteenth century. White evangelicals were conspicuous by their absence in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Where were Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington or on Sunday, March 7, 1965, when Martin Luther King Jr. and religious leaders from other traditions linked arms on the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to stare down the ugly face of racism?
Falwell and others who eventually became leaders of the Religious Right, in fact, explicitly condemned the civil rights movement. "Believing the Bible as I do," Falwell proclaimed in 1965, "I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel
of Jesus Christ, and begin doing anything else—including fighting Communism, or participating in civil-rights reforms." This makes all the more outrageous the occasional attempts by leaders of the Religious Right to portray themselves as the "new abolitionists" in an effort to link their campaign against abortion to the nineteenth century crusade against slavery.
Excerpted from Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America Copyright © 2006 by Randall Balmer.