Abortion and the Rise of the Religious Right

Allison Vander Broek picks at one of the puzzles of the Christian Right, viz. it’s relation to the anti-abortion movement. Did the Christian Right really arise as a reaction to Roe v. Wade, as the common internal narrative would have it? Or should we follow along after Randall Balmer, and think of the Christian Right as emerging out of the reaction to the civil rights movement, and particularly the emergence of the white Christian schools? Vander Broek notes the absence of evangelical engagement on the question of abortion (something Balmer does as well) and proceeds to ask a couple of questions,

Why did evangelical leaders create and perpetuate the narrative that abortion is what spurred them to political activism? … Why might American evangelicals craft an origin story that’s so off base from reality?… Could it be that it’s a much more heroic tale that evangelicals got into politics to defend babies rather than to oppose desegregation?

Vander Broek decides that the racism narrative is the dominant one, the secret sin of evangelicals. This may be a case of reading our history through lens of the present: the Christian Right drew from several streams.

What Balmer omits is the role of Orange County, where the children of the Okies took on Northern California elites, waging war over several cultural issues, while holding to a virulent anti-communist ethos. This was a movement grounded in the sociology of the sunbelt suburbia, whose issues were not schools but the cultivation of American values. In their emergent mega churches they shaped a politicized faith that elected Ronald Reagan to the governors mansion. Their rise and impact is nicely document in Darren Dochuk’s From the Bible Belt to the Sun Belt (Norton: 2010); the flavor of the movement can be caught in None Dare Call It Treason.

A second stream that plays an important role in the evangelical church and in national politics are those immigrant churches of the Upper Midwest. These were organically Republican communities that also incorporated a high degree of religious motivation to their politics. Social issues were important, but often with a slightly more communitarian shape; and while there was a caution about racial issues particularly in urban areas, nonetheless the community maintained an openness to civil rights. These were the churches that self-defined as evangelical and not fundamentalist, a community that maintained numerous academic institutions: Bethel, Calvin, Trinity Evangelical, Wheaton, and others.

And then there are is the southern revivalist stream that Vander Broek and Balmer identify, whose life was shaped by the reaction to the civil rights movement. Even this has a deep root. The southern revivalistic church was a populist phenomena, with the weight of that racial narrative; it shared the rejection of the post Civil War centralized state. This is the seedbed of Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones, and the nascent Moral Majority.

The genius of the Paul Weyrich was to find the issue that took these three regional movements and organized them to a common political purpose. As Balmer relates

“The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition,” Weyrich wrote in the mid-1970s. “When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.” Weyrich believed that the political possibilities of such a coalition were unlimited. “The leadership, moral philosophy, and workable vehicle are at hand just waiting to be blended and activated,” he wrote. “If the moral majority acts, results could well exceed our wildest dreams.”

This new movement would indeed become powerful, but not all at once. It’s politics grew not only from political strategy but for a host of cultural reasons. It was the long march of a generation, a topic for the next time.

 

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