When the Supreme Court ruled
on Roe v. Wade in 1973, a giant
anti-choice movement did not spring, fully-armed, from the aching head of Jerry
Falwell. Rather it took the better part of a decade to channel already-existing
anger and zealotry in the direction of women’s right to choose, a direction that
proved fruitful in dividing the country and ultimately, provoking violence.
Abortion wasn’t always a culture-war issue. Writes The Nation‘s Max Blumenthal in a piece about
Falwell, "While abortion clinics sprung up across the United States
during the early 1970s, evangelicals did little. No pastors invoked the Dred
Scott decision to undermine the legal justification for abortion. There were no
clinic blockades, no passionate cries to liberate the ‘pre-born.’" In
fact, the issue didn’t have the rigid party divide that it does today–there
were plenty of Republicans, particularly on the local level, who approved of
Catholic hierarchy opposed abortion and Roe
from the get-go (although Catholic doctrine on abortion had earlier accepted
abortion prior to "quickening"), but as Blumenthal notes, many Southern
evangelicals did not pick its legalization up as a problem initially. In fact,
many Southern Baptists had held pre-Roe
that abortion should be legalized in
a variety of cases, from fetal abnormality, to rape and incest, to extreme
mental or physical threats to the mother. W.A. Criswell, president of the
Southern Baptist Convention, said, "I have always felt that 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 for the future should be allowed." Other
evangelical leaders called the decision a "victory" while many were
So it was, and so it might have remained. But in 1972, the Supreme Court upheld
a lower court ruling that institutions segregating based on race were not
charitable, and therefore should not receive tax-free status. The case was Green v.
Connally, and several of
the affected institutions were evangelical. In 1975, in particular the IRS
tried to revoke that special status from Bob Jones University, which imposed a
notorious ban on interracial dating among other discriminatory practices.
And it was only when the government actually began to regulate these segregated
religious institutions that the anti-choice Religious Right as we really know
it took hold. In his book "Thy
Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament," Randall Balmer describes
going to a Religious Right conference and realizing the truth about the origins
of the movement. These origins were revealed quite openly and unapologetically
in a speech by Moral Majority and Heritage Foundation pillar Paul Weyrich
(recently deceased). Balmer was so flabbergasted that he had to hear it a
I cornered Weyrich to make
sure I had heard him correctly. He was adamant that, yes, the 1975 action by
the IRS against Bob Jones University was responsible for the genesis of the
Religious Right in the late 1970s. What about abortion? After mobilizing to
defend Bob Jones University and its racially discriminatory policies, Weyrich
said, these evangelical leaders held a conference call to discuss strategy. He
recalled that someone suggested that they had the makings of a broader
political movement – something that Weyrich had been pushing for all along –
and asked what other issues they might address. Several callers made
suggestions, and then, according to Weyrich, a voice on the end of one of the
lines said, "How about abortion?" And that is how abortion was
cobbled into the political agenda of the Religious Right.
Blumenthal writes that the Christian Right, many of whose members had staunchly
opposed civil rights, "gradually transmuted its racial resentment into
sexual politics." The movement’s leaders seemed to be able to
capitalize on residual anger and resentment from the number one issue (besides
the war in Vietnam, one assumes) that had divided the country and in fact
splintered the Democratic Party: desegregation and race relations. Just as
civil rights for African-Americans were going to undermine the so-called moral
foundations of American society, so were upstart feminists, loose women and
gays in the post sexual revolution-era. Indeed, that "us vs. them"
mentality, the idea that the rights of the dominant majority were being usurped
by a minority, flowed quite well into the sexual panic about abortion and
homosexuality that marked the new culture wars–not that there isn’t a healthy
dose of racism still lingering, as the recent flap over Sotomayor demonstrates.
(Indeed, former "segregation forever" governor George Wallace saw
this early on, and
sought out the Catholic anti-abortion vote in his 1976 primary run.
Although this was after Wallace had softened his stance on segregation, his
tenacious grasp of "wedge issues" was scarily prescient).
As blogger Digby
notes in typically succinct and cutting terms:
It should always be
remembered that abortion only became the cause de jour on the right once legal
segregation lost its organizing clout. It’s all part of the same mosaic of
civil rights, which has animated certain people on the right side of the
spectrum from the beginning. And it’s served them very, very well….Racial
discrimination flowed directly into the anti-abortion movement.
Pointing out the link is not to condemn all abortion opponents–or even
religiously orthodox abortion opponents–as racists, but rather to illustrate
the way one hatred neatly replaced the other in our cultural fabric, and the
way escalating rhetoric leading to violence and intimidation
have been markers of the extreme factions of both movements. It puts Scott Roeder
on a continuum with assassins like James Earl Ray and even John Wilkes Booth,
which I personally believe is appropriate.
Another former evangelical, Frank Schaeffer, wrote a memoir describing the
founding of the Moral Majority, and said that he believes the movement’s
leaders were fully cognizant of the way their language could be used to incite
violence–or at the very least, incite inflamed clashes with the other
side. On the Rachel Maddow Show (transcript), Schaeffer claimed
that leaders were used a twofold approach towards their goals: influencing
politics, but also stirring up localized anger.
I know that this is the case because of the fact that I was
part of the movement, but also understood very well what we were doing back
then was to attack the political issue when we talked to people like Ronald
Reagan and the Bush family … But on a private side, we also were egging
people on to first pick at abortion clinics, then chain themselves to fences,
then go to jail.
We knew full well that in a country that had seen the
assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, two Kennedy brothers and others, that
what we were also doing was opening a gate here. And I think there‘s no
way to duck this. We live in a country in which guns are all over the
place. We have plenty of people with a screw loose, plenty of people on
the edge. It only takes one.
Schaeffer has also made
the connection between anti-choice violence and the kind of threats that
have been leveled at Barack Obama since the heated days of the campaign, and
he’s absolutely correct. It’s no coincidence that fringe right-wingers are
calling Obama a "Muslim" and other racist slurs in the same breath as
"abortionist" and "baby-killer."
The founders of the Moral Majority were on the wrong side of the segregation
issue in the 1960s, as Randal Balmer notes,
and to let them get away with the lie that their movement sprung up from pure
altruistic pity for fetuses–as the media largely has–is unconscionable. We
are in fact facing the same anti-progress, anti-rights fringe that has plagued
every movement for social justice in this nation’s history and they hate all of
us "renders of the moral fabric" with equal fervor.