Exposing the Real Origins of the Religious Right
I, and most Christians I know, believe God calls us to protect the lives of the unborn. Though Christians who share my position hold sincere differences of opinion on how to end abortion, we agree that destroying an unborn human life is a grave and tremendous evil (Ps. 139:13-16; Jer. 1:4-5; Job 31:15; Lk. 1:41). The murder of 60 million unborn humans in the United States since the passage of Roe v. Wade should make everyone ask serious ethical questions.
Overturning Roe v. Wade will not, contrary to shrill arguments on both sides, end abortions in America. Scholars estimate that between 20–25 percent of pregnancies ended with an abortion in the years leading up to its legalization. Today, abortion rates are actually lower than before Roe, hovering around 18 percent. A permanent reduction in abortion will inevitably require ethical education, support of single mothers, affordable access to healthcare, the de-stigmatization of young pregnancy, robust adoption support, and much more besides.
But I’m not here for a tactical conversation. I’m here to ask a question:
Was abortion the thing that catalyzed the rise of the religious right and the Moral Majority in the late 1970s?
You might assume the answer is yes, but you’d be wrong.
Debunking the Abortion Myth
The Moral Majority was formed in 1979, after a decade of work by a little-known figure, Paul Weyrich. Without him, there would have been no “Moral Majority,” or religious right.
As a teenager, Weyrich visited Catholic family members and was shocked to learn that they shared many of the same values that he, a Protestant, held. At the time, Catholics and Protestants were as polarized as the modern left and right. But Weyrich saw, in their shared values, a tremendous opportunity.
“[What if we could] get these people who really have the same morals, who have the same ideals, but who came at it from different traditions to work together? I thought to myself, ‘Why are these people going in different directions politically? This doesn’t make any sense. The country is falling apart and they are going in opposite directions. They out to be working together because they agree on essential things.’”
Bringing together a group of divided, skeptical strangers was no easy task. So he set to work, looking for an issue to motivate and unify religious leaders.
But it wasn’t abortion. It was something else.
Weyrich later said, “What galvanized the Christian community was not abortion . . . I am living witness to that because I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed.”
Ed Dobson, who was present alongside Weyrich and Jerry Falwell for the formation of the Moral Majority in 1979, said, “I sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority, and I frankly do not remember abortion being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something.”
Conservative activist Grover Norquest concurs: “The religious right did not get started in 1962 with prayer in school. And it didn’t get started in ’73 with Roe v. Wade. It started in ’77 or ’78 with the Carter administration’s attack on Christian schools and radio stations. That’s where all of the organization flowed out of.”
The people in the room where it happened all agree: abortion wasn’t the thing.
Evangelicals on Abortion Before 1980
It might shock modern evangelicals to learn that during the ‘60s and ‘70s, most of our forebears were ambivalent about abortion. Most Protestants viewed it as a “Catholic issue.”
For example, three years after Roe, evangelicalism’s flagship publication, Christianity Today, ran an editorial titled: “Is Abortion a Catholic Issue?” As the title suggests, more evangelicals were coming around to the pro-life position, but a significant group was skeptical because of its Catholic roots.
So what were evangelicals saying (or not saying) about abortion?
- In 1968, Christianity Today brought together 26 theologians to answer the question, “What circumstances justify an abortion?” They differed but wrote that “individual health, family welfare and social responsibility” were all possible justifications. They did not call abortion a sin, nor reflect on when life begins.
- In 1971, two years before Roe, the Southern Baptist Convention publicly supported limited access to abortion: “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.” This statement was reaffirmed in 1974 and 1976, after Roe.
- In 1971, Carl F. H. Henry, a leading evangelical thinker and editor of Christianity Today, said, “A woman’s body is not the domain and property of others.”
- In 1973, W. Barry Garrett reported in the Baptist Press that Roe “advanced the cause of religious liberty, human equality and justice.”
- In 1973, James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, said that the Bible was silent on the matter of abortion and that it was plausible for an evangelical to believe that “a developing embryo or fetus was not regarded as a full human being.”
- In 1973, Harold Lindsell, a leader in the Southern Baptist conservative resurgence and staunch defender of Biblical inerrancy, said, “If there are compelling psychiatric reasons from a Christian point of view, mercy and prudence may favor a therapeutic abortion.”
- In 1978, Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, spoke about abortion for the first time from the pulpit. He said nothing about the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, despite having a long, sordid history of weighing in on Supreme Court decisions, like Brown v. Board of Education.
I am not cherry-picking outliers. These quotes illustrate prevailing evangelical sentiment around abortion before and after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade.
It was not until a knickers-wearing Christian intellectual named Francis Schaeffer came along that evangelicals changed their minds about abortion. His movie series “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” changed the thinking of people like Jerry Falwell. But by the time abortion became a salient issue for evangelicals, the religious right was already born.
What Actually Catalyzed the Religious Right?
I don’t share these stories to persuade people away from the pro-life position. Nor am I contending that modern evangelicals are unserious about abortion (although recent and disheartening research out of Notre Dame suggests that self-identified evangelicals are becoming less interested in defending the lives of the unborn).
Christians should be robustly pro-life, but we should also not whitewash our history. The catalyst for the merger between evangelicalism and the right was not abortion.
So what was it? Tragically, it was the defense of Christian segregation academies like Bob Jones University, whose discriminatory admissions policies caused the IRS to revoke their tax-exempt status.
Again, Paul Weyrich spoke candidly: “What galvanized the Christian community 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.”
Does this mean that evangelicals are insincere about abortion today? Does it mean that they still support the right of Christian schools to segregate? Of course not. But these stories are within living memory, and evangelicals would do well to reflect upon and mourn their past failures. It should make us circumspect about our own ethical capacities. How were so many evangelicals ambivalent about abortion? It should also make us introspective about our motivations and prejudices. Why were our forebears mobilized more by racism than unborn life?
To learn more on the topic of segregation academies, I highly recommend listening to the second part of our podcast series on the rise of the religious right.
Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.Twitter