The Supreme Court is hearing two cases on marriage equality this week, 40 years after it granted women access to legal and safe abortions in the landmark case Roe v. Wade. The timing of these cases—and the fact that both issues have spurred fierce and decisive culture wars—has prompted some legal experts and pundits to worry that a Court decision to legalize marriage for same-sex couples will trigger a public backlash for decades to come.
This is supposedly what happened with abortion following Roe. According to the pundits and experts, the 1973 decision to legalize abortion outraged millions of Americans and mobilized them into a powerful movement to defend the rights of the unborn. They created the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, and Concerned Women for America. The Court’s decision in Roe triggered the birth of the religious right—or so the argument goes.
But this tale turns out to be a myth. Religious conservatives mobilized not because of outrage over legalized abortion but because they were furious over threats from the Internal Revenue Service, or the IRS, to revoke the tax-exempt status of a Christian college for practicing racial discrimination.
Randall Balmer tells the true version of this story in his book, Thy Kingdom Come. Balmer starts out by debunking the myth that conservative Christians spoke out against abortion in response to the ruling, as noted above. In fact, the Baptist Press applauded the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, saying that, “Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.” What’s more, two years before the Court’s decision, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution calling on fellow Southern Baptists to work to make abortion legal under certain conditions—namely, “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.”
According to Balmer, Paul Weyrich, a conservative political activist and strategist, had tried for years to mobilize evangelicals into a conservative movement over school prayer, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, and abortion—all to no avail. But when government agencies started challenging the segregationist practices of the private Christian schools that evangelicals had built and their children were attending, evangelicals snapped to attention.
Especially jarring to many in this group was the fact that their schools took no government money, leading them to believe they had the right to act according to their beliefs and make independent decisions. But the IRS, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and other federal agencies were “intruding” anyway. In 1971 the Supreme Court had ruled that institutions practicing segregation—whether or not they got public financial support—were not charitable institutions and therefore were not tax exempt. The result: Evangelicals owed the government lots of money in back taxes. And equally bad: In their mind, this ruling meant the federal government could barge into their schools and tell them what to do.
When the IRS threatened in 1975 to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because it didn’t allow interracial dating among its students, evangelicals were furious—and Weyrich saw his opening. According to Balmer, Weyrich contacted James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Jerry Falwell of Moral Majority, and other religious leaders to form a new movement.
The group held a meeting in Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s. An attendee named Ed Dobson, an associate of Falwell, told Balmer, “The Religious New Right did not start because of a concern about abortion. I sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority, and I frankly do not remember abortion ever being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something.”
So how, then, did abortion get added to the agenda?
Balmer writes about a conference call among leaders to discuss strategies regarding Bob Jones University. Someone on the call pointed out their potential to be a broader political force if they added other issues to their agenda. Callers came up with a number of ideas, and then finally one caller said, “how about abortion?” No one voiced an objection, and abortion got added to the religious right’s agenda.
Over the years abortion has moved from the bottom to the top of the list. Evangelicals joined forces with pro-life Catholics and became a powerful voting bloc. They claimed the moral high ground, held politicians accountable, and stigmatized their opponents. Though it didn’t start out that way, opposing abortion became a top priority for the religious right.
As the Supreme Court hears cases on marriage equality this week, it’s important to remember the myth of how the religious right first mobilized. Beyond that, it’s important to realize that the freedom to marry is a basic human right—not one that should be decided on a state-by-state basis or limited by fears of a mythical backlash from the past.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.