McCain, abortion, Southern Baptists & the emergence of the Religious Right

As ABC News reports that John McCain is poised to flip on abortion, it’s worth remembering that social conservatives have done some flipping of their own.

UPI, June 1971:

The Southern Baptist Convention called today for the legalization of abortion in certain cases, including those where there was “carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental and physical health of the mother.”

I was pointed in the direction of that article by Randall Balmer, “an evangelical Christian whose understanding of the teachings of Jesus point him toward the left,” a visiting professor at Yale University Divinity School and Dartmouth College, and editor-at-large for Christianity Today. He’s also an Episcopal priest who has written a book, God in the White House.

In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross last January he had this to say about the emergence of abortion as an issue for the religious right to organize around:

According to one of the architects of the religious right, who told me this directly, after they had organized on the issue of Bob Jones University and more broadly the issue of government interference in these schools, as they understood it, there was a conference call among these various evangelical leaders and the political consultants who were trying to organize them into a political movement, and several people mentioned several issues. Finally the voice on the end of one of the lines said, `How about abortion?’ And that’s how abortion was cobbled into the agenda of the religious right, late in the 1970s in preparation for the 1980 presidential election. […] Ronald Reagan, of course, was a divorced and remarried man who, by the way, as governor of California in 1967, signed into law the most liberal abortion bill in the country. So he was an odd choice for evangelical activists, especially as we look back on their agenda these days.

And of the emergence of the Religious Right:

[W]hat I try to expose in the book and I think I document copiously is that the religious right did not–did not–coalesce as a political movement in direct response to the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention, which is hardly a bastion of liberalism, had passed a resolution calling for the legalization of abortion, and this was a resolution that was reaffirmed in 1974, again in 1976. It was not the abortion issue. What galvanized evangelicals as a political block, as a political movement, was instead the actions of the Internal Revenue Service to go after the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, because of its racially discriminatory policies, and that Carter was unfairly blamed for this by the architects of the religious right, and they used that against him and mobilized to defeat him four years later in 1980. […]

Bob Jones University did not allow African-Americans to be enrolled at the school until 1991 and did not allow unmarried African-Americans as students until 1995. The lower court ruling that really became the catalyst for the rise of the religious right was a ruling called Green v. Connelly, issued in 1971, by the district court of the District of Columbia; and it upheld the Internal Revenue Service in its ruling that any organization that engages in racial segregation or discrimination is not, by definition, a charitable organization and as such has no claim to tax-exempt status. And as the IRS began applying that ruling and enforcing it in various places, including Bob Jones University, that is what galvanized evangelical leaders into a political movement that we know today as the religious right.

Some unfortunate resonances there don’t you think?

  • runasim

    When mixed, religion and politcs produce bizarre results..

    I read an article by a religious person denouncing evangelicals who are active on environmental issues on the grounds that they call on the government to be involved.
    Since Jesus never spoke about governmental involvement, neither should they, so goes the argument.

    Jesus never said a single worrd about abortion. In this case, however, liberal interpretations of Jesus’s will are not only permissable, they form the basis of anti-abortion. activism.
    An invitaion to anti-torture activist, Dr. Steven Miles, to speak on the subject at a Catholic institution was revoked when it was discovered he was also pro-choice.
    Miles had submitted the text to his speech, so it was clear the subject of abortion would not be mentioned. Apparently, it’s better to silence an anti-torture voice than to taint the premises with the footprints of a pro-choice person.
    Go figure.

    Reasonable voices are beginning to be heard, however. . Even some evangelicals show intellectual integrity by putting the questionmarks of appropriate humility after their conclusions. .

  • CStanley

    Runasim, why is it illogical to interpret Jesus’ teachings as supportive of a legal construct against murder but not against environmental ‘sins’? If you use your way of thinking, then religious people would have to oppose all laws and embrace anarchy. I realize that reasonable people can disagree on whether or not abortion constitutes murder, but if one holds that view then it’s just not possible to compare a legal prohibition against it to a legal prohibition against polluting the environment.

  • runasim


    Although we certainly could, I’m not arguing about either the environment or abortion here.
    I’m pointing out that the logical bases for religious arguments change accoridng to what result is sought.

    It”s okay to interpret; it’s not okay to interpret.;, it’s okay to interpret, but only in a certain way……..

    As I’m not religious, I have no dog in the race of ‘best religion’. I can only watch in amaxement.

  • lwms

    Christians have been inconsistent, but recently it has gotten a lot worse. I believe Christians have gotten too entangled in theater. I see too many Christians acting like two-faced theater characters; one time with the image of Christianity and another with the deception of the devil. This inconsistency alienates people from Christianity because the two-faced behavior is more a characteristic of NAZI Germans, white segregation, and other elitist behavior. Remember Hitler had the best theater arts. It is like Christians got sold a new image and they wear these two faces like the Emperor’s New Clothes.

    As a result of this behavior when encountering a Christian I ask: Does this person who claims to be a Christian act with two-faced deception like a wolf in a sheep’s clothing or do they stand and act like Jesus when people wanted to stone Mary Magdalene?

    I believe if Christians would stop taking deceptive theater/political acts to the work place and streets and once again consistently act with the kindness of Jesus, society would change for the better. Christians would gain respect, there would be less civil unrest in America, there would be better communities, and probably even fewer abortions. Until then society continues to grow distrustful of all Christians.

    America needs a strong sign from Christians as a whole unit, a public recognition that their two-faced deceptive actions caused harm to many and that they are going to implement an awareness program to help prevent harm like that from happening again. Something like the Catholic Church did in response to the sexual abuse harm. The recent evangelical manifesto is a good first step.