The 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion as a fundamental right for women wasn’t all that controversial at the time.
The Catholic Church didn’t like it, but other major religions were not opposed to women terminating an early pregnancy for economic or social reasons. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 1971 calling for the legalization of abortion, which it affirmed in 1974 and again in 1976. Ronald Reagan as governor of California had signed the most progressive abortion law in the country in 1967, signaling broad acceptance of the procedure.
When SCOTUS handed down its 7-to-2 decision in Roe v. Wade, evangelicals saw it as “a Catholic issue” while maintaining their focus on preserving school segregation and tax breaks for schools defying integration like Bob Jones University, which only began enrolling African Americans in 1971 and banned interracial dating until 2000.
As many white Christian leaders grew uncomfortable rallying voters around segregation, prominent conservatives, principally the late Paul Weyrich, founder of The Heritage Foundation and co-founder of the Moral Majority, seized on anti-abortion activism as a morally acceptable way to win recruits for the Right.
“I describe abortion for the Religious Right as a godsend,” says Randall Balmer, professor in religion at Dartmouth College, “because it allowed them to distract from the real origins of their activism, which was the defense of racial segregation.”
It wasn’t until 1979, a full six years after Roe, that Weyrich, a devout Catholic, made common cause with Southern Baptist pastor and televangelist Jerry Falwell, Sr, establishing the Moral Majority as a launch pad for what became the pro-life movement. “Paul Weyrich, he’s the evil genius,” says Balmer. Falwell did not preach against abortion until a sermon in February of 1978 when Jimmy Carter was in the White House on the strength of the evangelical vote, and Republicans wanted that vote and the White House back in GOP hands.
Weyrich was candid about what mobilized the evangelicals, just how candid Balmer found out when he attended a closed-door conference in November 1990 with all the major religious right figures—a group of men including Richard Land, Ralph Reed and Richard Viguerie along with Weyrich who in the course of their strategizing stated that abortion had nothing to do with the genesis of their movement.
By then, it was accepted wisdom that Roe had sparked a religious and moral backlash to abortion. “I call all this one of the most durable myths in American history,” says Balmer. “It’s the fiction that the religious right galvanized in a political movement in response to Roe v. Wade.”
Balmer followed up with Weyrich, who said he had been trying various issues since 1964 and the candidacy of Barry Goldwater to find an issue that would energize evangelical voters. He tried abortion, pornography, school prayer, opposition to women’s rights. Nothing worked until the IRS started snooping around schools, and the specter of schools losing their tax-exempt status for refusing to integrate was the issue that stuck.
“The burden of my argument is to say the Religious Right movement had its roots in the defense of racial segregation,” said Balmer, the author of Bad Faith: Roe and the Rise of the Religious Right.
The examples of early evangelical indifference to Roe abound. Pastor W.A. Criswell, one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century and a two-term president of the Southern Baptist Convention, applauded the passage of Roe from his perch as senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. “I have always felt it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always therefore seemed to me that what is best for the mother and the future should be allowed.”
Only after Roe was politicized did evangelical leaders adopt the Catholic position that life begins at conception. Until then, as Criswell articulated, many believed that personhood began at birth. Even James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family who became an implacable foe of abortion, said in 1973 that the Bible is silent on the matter and that “a developing embryo or fetus is not regarded as a full human being.”
Carter had run for president as a born-again Christian, an identity that in the 1970s was not widely adopted outside of the South. “Carter tried very hard as governor and president to limit abortion, but he felt constrained by the Roe decision,” says Balmer. By the fall of 1980, 41 percent of evangelicals supported a legal ban on abortion. A majority had not yet formed. When Reagan addressed thousands of exuberant evangelicals in Dallas that August, he talked about creationism and castigated the IRS for going after schools. He did not mention abortion. The next month, his campaign issued a clarion call to church groups about the “unconstitutional regulatory vendetta launched by Jimmy Carter’s Internal Revenue Service against independent schools.”
Actually, Bob Jones University lost its tax exempt status on Jan. 19, 1976, when Gerald Ford was president, though Carter got blamed for it. The case went to the Supreme Court and when the Reagan administration announced it would defend Bob Jones, there was a backlash that crossed party lines and the administration abandoned its defense. The 1983 ruling was 8 to 1 in favor of the government’s right to deny tax exempt status to the university because of its racially discriminatory policies. Reagan would later elevate the sole dissenter, William Rehnquist, to Chief Justice.
Driven more by politics than moral concerns, the two political parties moved toward their current stand-off on abortion. In 1976, the GOP platform was ambivalent, calling abortion “undoubtedly a moral and personal issue” which party members disagreed on. Four years later, seeking to regain the White House, the GOP called for a constitutional amendment protecting “the right to life for unborn children.” By 1992, the GOP demanded its standard-bearer appoint judges who oppose abortion, a call that Donald Trump heeded, and here we are.
A half century after Roe, with the rights it conferred about to be overturned or severely restricted, we can only guess at what will unfold. “Mayhem,” says Balmer. “The backlash will be huge, but whether it will be enough to energize the Democrats, we don’t know.” Republicans have had a long run exploiting an issue that is deeply personal.
Soon it will be the Democrats’ turn to see if they can find political benefit in the actions of a Court far more out of touch with public sentiment than the one that handed down Roe.