The racist origins of the pro-life movement

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

As a child, I was weaned on the legend of the Religious Right. Of how a bunch of scrappy underdogs took on the demonic powers of big government and the secularism of the 1960’s and 70’s, and fought tirelessly to this day to reclaim the “Christian America” we once knew and loved.

In their book, “Let Them Eat Tweets,” authors Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson turn this myth on its head. Much of this passage is worth quoting at length.

Reading this history backward, it is easy to imagine that the Christian right emerged as a backlash against the secular and sexual revolutions of the sixties (in part because this is the story [Jerry] Falwell and other key figures told). Yet historians have thoroughly debunked this account. For most prominent evangelists in the mid-1970s, abortion was not a central concern. Their positions on the issue, when offered, tended to recognize the case for allowing abortion under limited circumstances. [Pat] Robertson, in 1975, called it ‘purely a theological matter.’ Falwell did not give a full sermon on abortion until 1978. The SBC [Southern Baptist Convention] reacted mildly to Roe v. Wade, rejected anti-abortion resolutions in 1976, and did not adopt a strong anti-abortion stance until 1980.

Race was far more central. The Southern Baptist Convention had been founded in 1845, separating from the northern Baptists over the question of whether missionaries could own slaves. A century later, fundamentalists and many evangelicals, including Jerry Falwell, had defended segregation [along with other conservative “icons,” including Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Barry Goldwater, my emphasis]. Bob Jones, Jr., the second president of the conservative Christian university that bore his father’s name, gave George Wallace an honorary degree.

But it wasn’t the sanctity of life in the womb the Religious Right wanted to protect, but the “right” of religious institutions to isolate their white pupils from their black and brown peers.

Race became a catalyst for political mobilization in 1978, five years after Roe. That year, the IRS issued a ruling that put the tax-exempt status of segregated Christian schools in jeopardy. The ‘Seg Academies’ — private and nearly or completely segregated — had proliferated as the desegregation of public education progressed. Many churches, including those associated with prominent figures such as Falwell and Tim LaHaye [co-author of the “Left Behind series], maintained such schools. The case that led to the IRS ruling concerned Bob Jones University, which had been entirely segregated. Falwell’s own Lynchburg Christian Academy counted just five African Americans among its 1,147 students.

This led to a backlash against the president more hated by the Right than Barack Obama, James Earl Carter, Jr, who even today, is seen as a “Christian” in name only. In fact, the first I recall ever hearing of President Carter was my grandmother telling me how he said he was a Christian.

For many evangelical churches, the IRS ruling represented a profound threat, and it pulled them into politics. [Paul] later acknowledged as much, while erroneously attributing it to ‘Jimmy Carter’s intervention’: ‘What 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 mind was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against Christian schools.’ In the 1960s, Falwell has chastised pastors such as Martin Luther King, Jr. for their civil rights leadership; as he put it, ‘preachers are not called to be politicians but to be soul winners.’ Now he declared that the ‘idea of “religion and politics don’t mix” was invented by the devil to keep Christians from running their own country.

When outright racism became less popular, less “politically correct,” and not accepted but the growing base of moderate and nonwhite voters, the Religious Right shifted gears from pro-segregation to the “pro-life” platform of today, with plenty of anti-government rhetoric tossed in for good measure.

Explicit appeals to race would no longer work. They alienated white moderates [who migrated from the Democratic to the Republican Party about this time] and foreclosed the possibility of modest but useful inroads among nonwhite voters. Hostility to the power of the federal government, by contrast, was a natural rallying cry. So was abortion, soon enough. Due in part to the teachings of the popular theologian Francis Schaeffer, abortion, once a ‘Catholic issue,’ was becoming a principal focus among evangelicals. Doctrinal squabbles had often prevented cooperation even among conservative Protestants, but Schaeffer argued that evangelicals should find common cause with ‘co-belligerents’ who shared their hostility to abortion. The ambition to build bridges to other denominations and faiths proved critical. It not only brought together Catholics and Protestants, but also — especially for many liberal Catholics — provided a compelling entryway into the broader world of conservative politics. By the early 1980s, abortion was a focal point of organizing on the Christian right.

As a Christian, I believe in the value of all life; human and not. No matter your race, creed, color, religion or national origin, all life is sacred in the eyes of God.

As a progressive, I believe that no life should be used as a political footfall to oppress, control or manipulate another. No matter how helpless, small or seemingly insignificant.



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Tiffany Elliott

Writer with 15 + years experience; journalist, editor, freelancer, and play write. Advocate for the arts and rights of expendables.