What Everyone Gets Wrong about the Evangelical-Abortion ConnectionRoundup
tags: conservatism, Christianity, abortion, evangelicals
Gillian Frank is a historian of religion and sexuality. He cohosts the "Sexing History" podcast. He is the author of A Sacred Choice: Liberal Religion and the Struggle for Reproductive Freedom Before Roe v. Wade (Forthcoming UNC Press).
Neil J. Young is working on a book about the history of LGBTQ Republicans, and co-host of the podcast Past Present.
In the wake of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s leaked draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, a familiar narrative has emerged. The story goes like this: White evangelicals didn’t care much about abortion until the late 1970s. Around that time, two prominent leaders of the soon-to-be-named “Religious Right,” Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell, concluded that overtly racist politics would harm, not help, their quest for political power. They turned to abortion as a convenient wedge issue in the 1978 midterm elections to drive evangelicals to the polls and distract from the “real” motivations of the far right: stopping racial integration and preserving the tax-exempt status of segregationist Christian schools.
But this oversimplified narrative about abortion reduces the rise of the religious right to the cynical calculations of elite movement leaders — rather than to the actions of thousands of grass-roots activists, religious leaders and conservative thinkers who spent nearly two decades building the networks and ideas that brought about the religious right. It also disentangles abortion from a web of interconnected issues from the 1960s and ’70s, including opposition to the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution, school prayer, school integration, changing attitudes about gender and sexuality and the growing gay rights movement. Those issues were shaped directly and indirectly by racist ideas and attitudes and were part of a broader political realignment that moved White Southern evangelicals and Northern White Catholics from the Democratic Party to the GOP in this period.
Most importantly, this simplified history of abortion ignores the vast and decades-long, Catholic-led antiabortion movement and the coincident politicization of White evangelicals for nearly two decades before the 1978 midterm elections. Understanding this history is vital for making sense of the nearly 60-year interfaith movement that has led to this moment.
Catholic leaders had long opposed abortion, becoming especially vocal in the 1930s when the Great Depression led to an uptick in women seeking the procedure. By the early 1960s, some evangelicals were beginning to view abortion as murder and a source of growing social and political concern. Twelve years before the Roe decision, a young woman wrote to the leading U.S. evangelist, the Rev. Billy Graham, with the following question: “Through a young and foolish sin, I had an abortion. I now feel guilty of murder. How can I ever know forgiveness?” Graham, whose syndicated newspaper column “My Answer” reached millions of Americans, replied: “Abortion is as violent a sin against God, nature, and one’s self as one can commit.” Graham telegraphed evangelicals’ unease with abortion, which would become increasingly political in the coming years.
As state legislatures across the country contemplated legalizing abortion in the mid-1960s — buoyed by support from members of the medical and legal communities, as well as certain more liberal religious groups and, in particular, from the growing women’s liberation movement — evangelical antiabortion voices also emerged in the debate. At the time, there was growing awareness, but also a lot of confusion and ambivalence about abortion among these Christians. An article in a 1967 issue of the evangelical magazine Eternity captured this shifting terrain. It noted that the Bible was “strangely silent” on the question of whether the “unborn fetus” — not, tellingly, the “unborn child” — was a “living person with all the rights of life.” To combat that silence, a smattering of evangelical ministers began participating in Catholic-led “Right to Life Sundays.”