“At a time when open racism was becoming unfashionable, these politicians needed a more high-minded issue, one that would not compel them to surrender their fundamental political orientation. And of course. the beauty of defending a fetus is that the fetus demands nothing in return — housing, health care, education — so it’s a fairly low-risk advocacy.” — religious historian Randall Balmer
One of the enduring myths of American politics is that evangelical Christians were spurred en masse to political action by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, which protects the legal right to abortion.
The truth is much uglier. Right-wing panic over legal abortion was sparked — and stoked — by panic over the advancement of civil rights and women’s rights. And the effort to roll back reproductive rights is part of a larger agenda to reverse the progress of the 20th century and re-establish white male dominance over our nation’s political and social institutions.
The late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who founded the right-wing Moral Majority, did not speak publicly against abortion until 1978, five years after Roe. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 1971 calling for the legalization of abortion, reaffirming it in 1974 and 1976. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson said in 1973 that the Bible is silent on abortion and that “a developing embryo or fetus is not regarded as a full human being.”
No, the Supreme Court decision that galvanized the religious right was not Roe v. Wade, but Green v. Connally, which had its own origins in Brown v. Board of Education — 68 years ago this week — which outlawed racial segregation in public schools.
Resistance to integration following Brown was so strong that whites-only private schools known as “segregation academies” sprung up throughout the south. Falwell, who famously referred to the civil rights movement as “civil wrongs” established his own segregation academy, Lynchburg Christian School, in 1967.
In 1971, the Court ruled in Green v. Connally — and affirmed later that year in Coit v. Green — that a private school that practiced racial discrimination could not be eligible for a tax exemption.
Bob Jones University, whose founder declared that integration was “contrary to the Word of God,” was especially energetic in fighting the ruling. The revocation of the Bob Jones tax exemption in 1976 “alerted the Christian school community about what could happen with government interference” Bob Jones administrator Elmer L. Rumminger, told Balmer. “That was really the major issue that got us all involved.”
Right-wing activists, particularly Falwell and Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich, saw an opportunity to harness the surging racial anxiety among conservative Christians into political action.
“But Falwell and Weyrich, having tapped into the ire of evangelical leaders, were also savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would be a challenge,” Balmer wrote. “It had worked to rally the leaders, but they needed a different issue if they wanted to mobilize evangelical voters on a large scale.”
Even in the late 1970s, organized opposition to legal abortion was mainly the domain of Roman Catholics. But the success of Republican candidates opposed to legal abortion in the 1978 Senate elections demonstrated to right-wing political activists the issue’s potential to motivate conservative evangelical voters.
In the 1980 presidential election, evangelical voters flocked to Republican Ronald Reagan, who as governor of California had signed the nation’s most liberal abortion law in 1967, over fellow evangelical Jimmy Carter, who publicly stated his personal opposition to abortion.
The movement to criminalize abortion has never extricated itself from its racist origins. “Whites who score high on measures of racial resentment and racial grievance are far more likely to support strict limits on abortion than whites who score low on these measures,” political scientist Alan Abramowitz told the New York Times. White supremacist groups are among the movement’s most passionate supporters. At this year’s March for Life rally in January, members of the white nationalist Patriot Front distributed cards reading, “America belongs to its fathers, and it is owed to its sons. The restoration of American sovereignty must follow the restoration of the American Family.”
In a letter, earlier this week urging members of the Senate to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, other Urban League leaders and I pointed out that overturning Roe would put Black women in particular danger.
“Black women are 2.5 times more likely to die as a result of childbirth than White women. Meanwhile, due to racialized income and wealth disparities, inequitable access to medical care, and the other insidious ways structural racism manifests, people of color are more likely to require abortion care and are less likely to be able to afford out-of-state travel to obtain care if it is made illegal in their state,” we wrote. “Therefore, it is not only a gender justice issue but a racial justice issue to codify the right to an abortion into federal law and ensure all pregnant persons have the ability to make personal health decisions.”
As House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn tweeted, “We have seen #SCOTUS gut voting rights. Other decisions like Brown v. Board [desegregation of schools], Loving v. Virginia [allowing interracial marriage], and Obergefell v. Hodges [upholding same-sex marriage] could hang in the balance.
“History teaches us that if a thing has happened before, it can happen again.”
“We must fight to reclaim rights that have been lost and defend rights that are in danger.”
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.