Our History

Anti-Choice Religious Bloc Began With Tax Battle

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The religious right's righteous condemnation of abortion began with anti-integration, anti-taxation efforts in the 1970s, says Carol Roye. Along the way it turned into the current assault on the needs of women and children.

(WOMENSENEWS)--The torrent of moral rhetoric that accompanies the current spate of anti-abortion bills would make you think that conservative Christians have never looked on abortion as anything short of evil.

Think again.

In 1971 (two years before the Supreme Court constitutionally protected a woman's right to abortion in Roe v. Wade) the Southern Baptist Convention--which wound up becoming synonymous with the religious right and its anti-choice movement--issued a resolution that might surprise you.

It called for legalizing abortion in cases of "rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother."

The group was responding to grim statistics. Every year several hundred women (many of them already mothers) died from botched abortions and thousands more were seriously injured attempting to end their unwanted pregnancies. The Southern Baptists were taking a moral stand in order to protect women and their families.

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Abortion wasn't a concern for the Christian right until the mid-1970s.

Jerry Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, did not preach a sermon on abortion until 1978.

The bedrock issue for evangelical Christians had always been simple--preserving the separation between church and state. Since colonial days, Baptists in America had insisted on this, believing that the Kingdom of God and the world of government each function better when kept apart. That's a far cry from today, when religious activists are doing all they can to control public health policy.

To understand how outlawing abortion became such a central cause, a brief history of the period can be cribbed from the book "With God On Our Side" by William Martin.

First Mobilized in the 1970s

The Christian right first mobilized in the 1970s in response to a tax issue tied to white Southern Christian groups' antipathy to school desegregation.

After school integration became federal law, white Christian academies were formed in the South, in part to circumvent the law, enabling white parents to send their children to all-white religious schools.

During the Carter administration the IRS said these academies should be denied tax-exempt status because they did not conform to the law on school integration.

To fight back, some fundamentalist and evangelical groups came together.

This represented a joining of quite different sects. Fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the literal, true word of God. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have shades of gray in their belief system, allowing for a more nuanced approach to some scientific issues, such as climate change and evolution.

But in fighting for tax-exempt status for their all-white religious schools, important factions of the groups united to form the religious right.

They became very adept at raising money to advocate for their cause, and they became powerful. The IRS ultimately relented and allowed them to keep their tax exemption.

With that battle behind it, the religious right was ready for more.

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A really important lesson in the importance of history!

Thanks for this enlightening history. We should all know it by heart. Things don’t just happen -- they come from somewhere.

Carol Royes’ information meshes well with the history given by Max Blumenthal in his book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party. Blumenthal says that a little-known theologian, R.J. Rushdoony, kicked it off by advocating substituting theocracy for the Constitution back in the 1960s, influencing Falwell. Blumenthal articulated this in a radio interview on DemocracyNow on September, 4, 2009. Quotes are from the interview transcript, available online:


“Under Rushdoony’s plan, disobedient children, witches, blasphemers, adulterers, abortion doctors would all be executed, according to, you know, Leviticus case law. As extreme as it sounds, it had an enormous impact on the right-wing evangelical movement as it moved from the pews into the political realm.”

Blumenthal adds that,

“Francis Schaeffer is the guy who really gave them the tactics to make this happen. During the ’70s, people like Jerry Falwell were still preoccupied with segregation. They were still upset that their Christian schools had to accept African American children. And Francis Schaeffer told them, ‘No, we have to campaign on abortion. Abortion is the issue.’ ...[Schaeffer] eventually helped create the moral majority with Jerry Falwell. He helped convince Jack Kemp and Gerald Ford that abortion was an important issue.”

Blumenthal interviewed many of these extremely misogynist leaders.

“The tragic part is that Francis Schaeffer despised so many of the evangelical, you know, Southern Baptists who had converged around him. He thought Pat Robertson was a pathological lunatic after Pat Robertson told him at dinner, as I write in my book, that he burned a Modigliani painting in his fireplace. He thought Jerry Falwell was a charlatan. He thought James Dobson, who was studying him very closely, was power mad. But at the same time, Francis Schaeffer was giving—creating tactics and urging evangelicals to get out in the streets and fight even a violent war to stop abortion....

“And his son [Frank Schaeffer] says, you know, ‘My father would have been so upset to see what the Christian right and the Republican Party has become today. He despised the homophobia of the movement.’

“And what Frank Schaeffer told me, which is most interesting, is that ‘This movement, we were like oncologists. We needed a crisis to keep occurring in American society in order for us to stay in business.’ And that’s what we’re seeing with the healthcare debate, too. I mean, we’re seeing a movement that’s terrified that the government will start to be able to solve people’s crises, because they [extremists] survive and thrive on manipulating people’s personal crises.”

This would have been a stronger and more persuasive piece if the author had included information about the reaction of religious authorities to Roe v. Wade. The tax battle is interesting, but shouldn't be considered in isolation. What was the public reaction of the Southern Baptists and other religious groups to the Court's decision?