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The Real Story of the Religious Right -- A Movement Born to Defend Racial Segregation

The movement initially emerged to defend racially segregated Christian schools from government intrusion.

The following is reprinted with permission from  Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletter  here.

As the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade passed, evangelical leaders marked the occasion with histories of how their community took up the anti-abortion cause. Mark Galli, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, (with whom I engaged in a discussion-via-blog-post this past fall) has suggested the movement formed out of grassroots reflection on “the terrible and inevitable consequences of legalized abortion.” Albert Mohler, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president, insisted it arose from moral outrage triggered by Roe v. Wade.

Both histories provide pristine portraits of the origins of the evangelical right, suggesting its founders based their advocacy on scholarly assessments and aspired to noble political ends. But a history can be told that is significantly less flattering.

The right-wing evangelical movement was not an immediate backlash to Roe v. Wade. The evangelical community, unlike Roman Catholicism, showed little interest in combating abortion until almost 1980. As Jerry Falwell lamented in 1979, “The Roman Catholic Church for many years has stood virtually alone against abortion. I think it’s an indictment against the rest of us that we’ve allowed them to stand alone.”

Although evangelicals were mostly silent on abortion after Roe v. Wade, they were not silent on other political issues. Paul Weyrich, one of the evangelical right’s most influential founders, recalls that the movement initially emerged to defend racially segregated Christian schools from government intrusion:

[W]hat galvanized the Christian community was not abortion, school prayer, or the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment]. I am living witness to that because I was trying to get those people interested in those issues and I utterly failed. What changed their minds 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.

In other words, as Randall Balmer has succinctly put it: “the religious right of the late twentieth century organized to perpetuate racial discrimination.”

Only after the movement was underway did it begin advocacy on abortion. It did so, in large part, based on highly dubious arguments advanced by the popular writer Francis Schaeffer.

Schaeffer held a master’s degree from Westminster Theological Seminary (though he went by “Dr. Schaeffer”) and argued, in 1979’s  Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (co-written with the surgeon C. Everrett Koop, and offered as both book and film series), that legalized abortion represented an abandonment of the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage. He is introduced in the film as “one of the world’s most respected thinkers”—a generous title given that Schaeffer plays loose with history, neglecting to mention that abortion was in fact legal when the nation was founded.

Schaeffer and Koop advance the argument that if evangelicals don’t mobilize to stop abortion, infanticide and involuntary euthanasia will soon become widespread.

They have to go back to Roman theologian Tertullian to reinforce their claim that the “orthodox position” is that life begins at conception, conveniently leaving out the fact that Church fathers Augustine and Aquinas—and most evangelicals up until the 1970s—are on the other side of the argument. As Aquinas put it (in a view that remained the official position of the Catholic Church from the medieval era to the mid-1800s), “The rational soul ought to be united to a body which may be a suitable organ of sensation... before the body has organs in any way whatever, it cannot be receptive of the soul.”

More sophisticated anti-abortion arguments were advanced once the movement was already underway, notably the 1982 publication of Michael Gorman’s Abortion and the Early Church or the 1984 publication of John Jefferson Davis’ Abortion and the Evangelical. But Schaeffer’s arugments are often cited by the founders of the evangelical right as what convinced them to take up the cause against abortion.

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