Abortion, Racism and the True Origins of the Religious Right
As the Supreme Court seems poised to overturn Roe v. Wade we look at the Religious Right and the role race played before opposition to abortion
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The following is adapted from my first book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.
It was all anyone could talk about on social media. A leaked document indicated that the Supreme Court would soon vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 court case that protected a woman’s right to an abortion.
According to a draft opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, “Roe was egregiously wrong from the start,” and “We hold that Roe and Casey must be overruled.”
The majority opinion argued that only states had the right to decide whether abortion should be legal.
“It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives,” Alito wrote.
The decades-long campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade has deep ties with the Religious Right, political and religious conservatives who often view abortion as murder and a sin.
Opposition to Abortion Did Not Unite the Religious Right, Racism Did
When most people think about the Religious Right, the matter of abortion comes to mind. Like no other issue, the rejection of legalized abortion has come to define the Religious Right.
Repealing Roe v. Wade stands as a perennial high-priority issue for conservative Christian voters, so much so that today it is hard to imagine a time when that was not the case.
But in the early 1970s, abortion was not the primary issue that catalyzed the Religious Right, as it would in later years. Initially, the Christian response to Roe v. Wade was mixed. Instead, conservative voters coalesced around the issue of racial integration in schools.
Abortion has not always been the defining issue for evangelicals. In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, passed a resolution on abortion that called upon Southern Baptists
“to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as 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.”1
W. A. Criswell, pastor of the largest SBC congregation, stated after the Roe v. Wade decision that “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother . . . that it became an individual person.”
He further explained, “It has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”2
A poll in 1970 discovered that 70 percent of Southern Baptist pastors “supported abortion to protect the mental or physical health of the mother, 64 percent supported abortion in cases of fetal deformity and 71 percent in cases of rape.”3
Like the Southern Baptists, many other conservative Christians were not uniformly against abortion in the early 1970s.
The Religious Right, Racial Integration, and Bob Jones University
Instead, the impetus that galvanized the Religious Right came from an unexpected source, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Historian Randall Balmer explains that conservative power brokers originally came together as a political force to combat what they perceived as an attack by the IRS and the federal government on Protestant Christian schools.4
It only took one school, Bob Jones University, to bring the threat of government-enforced integration to the attention of Christian conservatives and to politically mobilize them.
Bob Jones, Sr. started his school, located in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1927. Politically and in his preaching and teaching, Jones supported segregation as a biblical mandate and stood firm in his convictions all throughout the civil rights movement. Jones died, but his son, Bob Jones, Jr. took over and continued his father’s tradition of racial discrimination.
The university did finally admit its first black students in 1971, but they were only allowed if they were married. The ages-old bugaboo of interracial marriage and miscegenation made the idea of having single black men on campus as potential suit- ors for young white ladies an unconscionable prospect for the leaders at Bob Jones University.
In 1975, the school changed its policy and allowed unmarried black students to enroll, but as clearly outlined in the student handbook, the school prohibited interracial dating.
Bob Jones III, who served as president from 1971 to 2005, stated in an interview: “There are three basic races—Oriental, Caucasian and Negroid. At BJU, everybody dates within those basic three races.”5 Anyone involved in an interracial relationship or those who promoted such pairings would face expulsion.
The Civil Rights Act and the IRS’s newly adopted policies meant that Bob Jones University’s stance on interracial dating placed it in violation of racial discrimination laws.
The IRS revoked the school’s tax-exempt status in 1976, but these financial penalties did not deter university officials.
Bob Jones University officials sued the IRS and presented their case as an issue of religious freedom. “Even if this were discrimination, which it is not, though the government disagrees,” Jones III said, “it is a sincere religious belief founded on what we think the Bible teaches, no matter whether anyone else believes it or not.”6
Similar to what some proponents of slavery had argued in the Civil War era, segregationists in the twentieth century considered it a “right” to separate people based on race. It was a religious belief with which the government had no right to interfere.
The IRS’s guidelines about racial integration in 1978 sparked national outrage among many Christian conservatives. Department officials as well as members of Congress received tens of thousands of messages in protest. In an interview, conservative operative, Paul Weyrich explained,
“What galvanized the Christian community was not abortion, school prayer, or the [Equal Rights Amendment]. . . . What changed their minds was Jimmy Carter’s intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.”7
Resistance to racial integration and IRS sanctions provided an initial catalyst that mobilized the Religious Right as a political force. Opposition to abortion and the campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade was not as central to its origin story as many now believe.
Historian Randall Balmer literally wrote the book on this subject. Read Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right.
For a Black Christian (and male) perspective on the intersection of race, politics, and abortion, listen to the Pass The Mid episode “Abortion and the Black Community.”
“Resolution on Abortion,” St. Louis, MO, 1971, http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/13/resolution-on-abortion.
Steven P. Miller, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 54.
David Roach, “How Southern Baptists Became Pro-Life,” Baptist Press, January 16, 2015, http://www.bpnews.net/44055/how-southern-baptists-became-prolife.
Randall Balmer, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” Politico Magazine, May 27, 2014, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133.
Lelia C. Albrecht, “Should a Discriminatory School Be Tax-Free? Reagan Says Yes, Then No; Bob Jones Cries Foul,” People Magazine, February 15, 1982, https://people.com/archive/should-a-discriminatory-school-be-tax-free -reagan-says-yes-then-no-bob-jones-cries-foul-vol-17-no-6/.
Albrecht, “Should a Discriminatory School Be Tax-Free?”
Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 304.