Jamelle Bouie had a great piece at Slate last week explaining the long strange journey of Protestant Evangelicals from pressing for the expansion of abortion rights to vehement opposition to nearly every aspect of women’s reproductive choices. Bouie correctly identifies the trend, but he misses an important pivot point that calls the rest of his analysis into question.
Bouie correctly points out that political conservatives and Protestant evangelicals were relatively warm toward pro-choice causes until the ‘70’s. The nation’s most liberal abortion rights legislation prior to Roe v. Wade was signed into law by California Governor Ronald Reagan. Barry Goldwater was staunchly pro-choice across his entire career.
In 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention endorsed abortion rights for women in a remarkably bold statement for the time. The Baptists responded to Roe v Wade in 1974 by re-affirming their previous statement in favor of abortion rights.
The Protestant theological mainstream was described in a quote from Bouie’s main reference, a recent book by Jonathan Dudley:
“God does not regard the fetus as a soul no matter how far gestation has progressed,” wrote professor Bruce Waltke of Dallas Theological Seminary in a 1968 issue of Christianity Today on contraception and abortion, edited by Harold Lindsell, a then-famous champion of biblical “inerrancy.” His argument rested on the Hebrew Bible, “[A]ccording to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense. … Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”
Bouie goes wrong in identifying Roe v. Wade as the galvanizing factor that brought Protestant Evangelicals into politics in opposition to abortion and to broader reproductive rights. Anti-abortion politics was almost exclusively the realm of Northern Catholics, mostly Democrats, into the 80’s. Why would a Supreme Court decision in favor of something they generally supported change Protestants’ views on the matter? The answer is that it wouldn’t and it didn’t.
This shift in Protestant politics was a by-product of new alliances inspired by a different controversy. It was not Roe, but an earlier Court decision that created the Religious Right.
In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in Coit v. Green that the Federal government could revoke the tax-exempt status of private religious schools that engaged in racially discriminatory admissions. This sparked a decade-long legal fight led by Bob Jones University that resulted in defeat after defeat.
That case was the catalyst that would eventually bring a Southern Baptist TV preacher named Jerry Falwell together with a Northern Catholic political operative, Paul Weyrich, to found the Moral Majority. For years Weyrich had been working to bring religious fundamentalists into politics. His efforts were slow to gain momentum and were unaffected by Roe. The Religious Right remained an inchoate force, disorganized, derided, and unpopular in both parties until the Carter Administration gave them the fuel they needed to ignite a populist firestorm.
In the wake of Coit and the long series of Bob Jones decisions the Justice Department had the authority, but not necessarily the will, to take the campaign against school segregation into the private school market. Desegregation had brought a stampede out of public schools. In the North, Catholic parochial schools were the main beneficiary. In the South, Evangelical churches launched into this industry, providing middle and upper income families a place to hide their white kids.
In 1978 the IRS under Carter announced new rules. White private schools that had begun or rapidly expanded under segregation would have to affirmatively prove non-discrimination in order to retain their tax exempt status.
Weyrich’s own description of how the Moral Majority found its feet makes no reference whatsoever to abortion:
“I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed. 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.”
It is no accident that 1980 is the first year that the religious right shows up as a force in Presidential politics. It is also no accident that one of the Reagan Administration’s earliest major policy moves was the cancellation of this IRS policy.
Abortion politics, like positions on school prayer, porn, divorce law, and other religious issues followed in the wake of segregation, not the other way around. The Southern Baptists declined to take an unequivocal stand against abortion rights for almost a decade after Roe v. Wade. The culture war got its impetus from desegregation, not from abortion.
By the late ’70’s, overt race-baiting was no longer tolerated on the public stage. The forces threatened by the Carter Administration’s decision were in no position to campaign openly in favor of segregation. They needed a proxy. In time, abortion and school prayer became convenient, race-neutral rhetorical banners beneath which Southern Protestant Evangelicals and Northern Catholics could march together, however uneasily. The tensions that once divided them have not faded away entirely, but have come to matter less and less as the “culture” issues they share in common take center stage.
That awkward marriage has in time produced a unique offspring, best symbolized by Sen. Rand Paul. The modern Neo-Confederate movement has now managed to synthesize an alliance between the conservative Northern Catholics who once supported George Wallace and Southern Dixiecrats on the basis of a shared interest in religious fundamentalism and a resentment of government efforts to strip religious groups of their policy influence.
Bouie is right to point out that evangelical abortion politics has changed dramatically over a single generation, but it was school segregation, not Roe, that provided the catalyst.