Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Was Falwell Motivated by Abortion?

It is becoming part of conventional wisdom that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision led to Jerry Falwell becoming politically active. As the New York Times wrote in its obituary this morning:
"... Mr. Falwell said the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion, Roe v. Wade, produced an enormous change in him. Soon he began preaching against the ruling and calling for Christians to become involved in political action".
Except that it is not true. At that time, as noted by Michelle Goldberg, opposition to abortion was seen as was "seen as the province of Catholics, a group then widely despised by fundamentalist Protestants." Falwell's denomination officially supported abortion throughout the 1970s. This is not a matter of left-wing revisionism. Take it from Richard John Neuhaus, who knows something about the subject:
"Among the religious institutions of national influence, the Catholic Church stood alone in protesting the immediate evil and long-term implications of Roe v. Wade. Although it is largely forgotten today, evangelical Protestantism was in support of Roe v. Wade. Years after the decision, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant association in the country, was passing resolutions in favor of a woman’s “right to choose.” ...Evangelicals viewed the protection of the unborn as a “Catholic issue,” and anti-Catholicism in evangelicalism was much stronger than it is today."
So what provoked Falwell's conversion? Race. Goldberg nails it:
"No, what really galvanized the religious right were Supreme Court rulings stripping whites-only Christian academies, like the one Falwell founded in 1966, of their tax-exempt status. Fervent opposition to abortion, which eventually cemented the alliance between conservative Protestant and Catholics, came later."
We need to recall how Falwell and his acolytes viewed the issue of race back then. Falwell was a big-time segregationist, and spoke in favor of racist positions (such as opposing Brown v. Board of Education) and was highly critical of Martin Luther King. Although he recanted on segregation later in life, he opposed sanctions on South Africa throughout he 1980s and called Bishop Tutu a phony. And of course, the whole "southern strategy" of Richard Nixon was underpinned by a subtle, if unspoken, racism.

So, as I've noted before, the logical conclusion is that Falwell and his fellow evangelicals embraced the pro-life cause because it became politically expedient for them to do. It was the Trojan horse for them to push forward with a social agenda that did not have the moral clarity of abortion. Racism became uncool, but by wrapping themselves in the pro-life mantle, a new cohort of southern politicians could actually claim the moral high ground, while barely changing their core beliefs. But there was far more...

Remember also what the original Moral Majority movement was all about: "pro-life, pro-traditional family, pro-moral and pro-American." Falwell successfully welded together a the pro-life position with a larger secular ideology, one based on free-market individualism and a vigorous pro-American nationalism. There is a direct line from this philosophy to religious conservatives embracing war and torture today, because it is the "pro-American" thing to do. It also explains why this movement is largely silent on issues of poverty, inequality, healthcare, and the environment.

In a nutshell, embracing the abortion movement had the benefit of deflecting attention from the obvious conflicts between a Christian organization and the many injustices ignored by the prevailing individualist and nationalist ideology. The evangelical right (who would become the backbone of the Republican party) used the abortion issue as a veil to garner Catholic support, and to hide their real agenda. In other words, they would play the seductive pro-life tune to seduce Catholics into becoming Calvinists. In that, Falwell was spectacularly successful. The big losers? Catholics.

1 comment:

Antonio Manetti said...

I suspect that George Weigel, Michael Novak, Paul Weyrich and the folks at First Things would be suprised to discover they'd been seduced into becoming Calvinists.

According to the Blumenthal article in The Nation (, the affair seemed to be the result of mutual attraction.