Though the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is not yet final, the pro-life movement has already begun to celebrate the outcome as a victory for religious advocacy. But morality of abortion aside, overturning Roe comes with heavy costs for the religious right. To put it in theological terms, the relationship between the religious right and abortion is stained by original sin.
There’s a widespread but mistaken belief that the battle over abortion rights in America is fundamentally a conflict between religious conservative values and progressive ideals of gender equality. This misconception is bolstered by a persistent myth that the religious right was born out of Roe. As the story goes, citizens of faith who shared a commitment to the value of human life and dignity could no longer stand on the political sidelines, and came together in coalition, sparking a movement.
As Jerry Falwell, one of the movement’s early leaders, recounted, “I sat there staring at the Roe v. Wade story growing more and more fearful of the consequences of the Supreme Court’s act and wondering why so few voices had been raised against it.” Powerhouse evangelical organizations like the Moral Majority were then supposedly catalyzed by the American moral descent epitomized in Roe, and thus emerged the religious right as we know it today.
In this light, the leaked Supreme Court draft decision is the culmination of 50 years of passionate religious organizing in defense of life. A compelling narrative, if only it were true.
[Read: A Former Pro-Life Activist Has Regrets]
Historians like Randall Balmer have meticulously detailed a more complicated reality. Of course, religious opposition to abortion is real but it was also cultivated. Moreover, it was cultivated for purposes most religious Americans today would find morally abhorrent. As a movement, members of the religious right have been exploited by its architects—subjected to manipulation and propaganda that turned their most sacred values into a political tool.
When Roe was decided in 1973, sizable majorities of both Protestants and Catholics supported legalizing abortion. Indeed, the movement to legalize abortion included religious conservatives. In 1968, 26 theologians, physicians, and sociologists convened for a Protestant symposium on the control of human reproduction, organized by the Christian Medical Association and Christianity Today. The consensus they settled on read, “Whether or not the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord.”
A few years later, in 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution “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.” (It reaffirmed that position in 1974 and again 1976.) Just nine days after the Supreme Court issued its decision in Roe, an analysis of the outcome published in the Baptist Press hailed Roe as not merely permissible, but as a positive advancement of religious liberty:
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7–2 decision that overturned a Texas law which denied a woman the right of abortion except to save her life, has advanced the cause of religious liberty, human equality and justice. …
Religious bodies and religious persons can continue to teach their own particular views to their constituents with all the vigor they desire. People whose conscience forbids abortion are not compelled by law to have abortions. They are free to practice their religion according to the tenets of their personal or corporate faith.
The reverse is also now true since the Supreme Court decision. Those whose conscience or religious convictions are not violated by abortion may not now be forbidden by a religious law to obtain an abortion it they so choose. In short, if the state laws are now made to conform to the Supreme Court ruling, the decision to obtain an abortion or to bring pregnancy to full term can now be a matter of conscience and deliberate choice rather than one compelled by law.
This view is echoed still in some religious circles today—and for good reason. For many, deciding whether, when, and with whom to create a family is a decision of sacred importance, deeply tied to their faith and spiritual relationships. So too are beliefs about when a child’s life begins, and when the end of a mother’s life may be permissibly risked.
Widespread resistance to the legalization of abortion from the religious right did not emerge until years after Roe. Republican resistance, too. While Democrats largely supported legalizing abortion, support was actually higher among Republicans, 68 percent of whom thought the decision should be between a woman and her medical provider, compared with 59 percent of Democrats.
The movement’s early leaders were indeed motivated by a desire to dismantle an emerging legal landscape, but it was the progeny of Brown v. Board of Education that spurred them to collective action—not Roe. Two decades earlier, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
Change on the ground, however, was painfully slow. Immediate desegregation would not be required by the court until 1969, and even then private schools continued to discriminate. Many had been founded with the express purpose of evading integration post-Brown. Falwell himself founded just such a school in 1967 in direct response to local public school integration. But in the 1970s, the Internal Revenue Service took steps to revoke the tax-exempt status of private segregated schools, nearly all of which were religiously affiliated.
In 1975, the IRS moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University—a flagship evangelical institution—on precisely these grounds. As the ensuing legal battle unfolded, those who would become the leaders of the religious right grew increasingly anxious; from their point of view, racial integration was unacceptable, and the revocation of segregated Christian schools’ tax-exempt status was an infringement on religious liberty.
This, not Roe, was the catalyst to political action.
In the immediate wake of Roe, those who were pro-life “were all arguing that that decision was one more reason why Christians had to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.” But, as Katherine Stewart put it, “building a new movement around the burning issue of defending the tax advantages of racist schools wasn’t going to be a viable strategy on the national stage.” Defending unborn life was a more palatable rallying call for a change in administration. And so, in 1979, evangelical leaders put abortion on their agenda.
This move marked a decisive shift in Republican politics. In an analysis of congressional voting, data scientist Greg Adams found that until 1979 abortion wasn’t a particularly partisan issue—but a polarizing split emerged soon after. In the 1980 presidential election, conservatives’ traditional libertarian agenda played second fiddle to the new right’s anti-abortion focus.
Through manipulation and propaganda, abortion transformed from a complicated question of individual liberty, conscience, and public health—with a diversity of answers from conservatives of faith—into a religious litmus test with the express purpose of building a powerful voting bloc.
The strategy worked. Today, 30 percent of pro-life Americans are single-issue voters, compared with only 19 percent of pro-choice Americans.
Those who have hoped and prayed for the end of Roe, regardless of their politics’ limited efficacy in protecting life, may be tempted still to consider this moment a victory, however it came about. But consider this bit of history from America’s tradition of religious liberty: In 1785, the Virginia General Assembly considered a proposed tax, the proceeds of which would be used to support “teachers of the Christian religion.” James Madison, who later drafted the First Amendment, advocated in vigorous opposition. For Madison, separation of church and state is an inextricable element of religious liberty. Not only does it protect equality, but it protects religion itself from political degradation and manipulation:
During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. …
What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people.
Madison’s warning of what might be wrought by the government entangling itself with religion applies with equal force to religious institutions that seek to entangle themselves in the government. Ordinary members of the religious right are no doubt sincere in their convictions to end Roe, but the movement itself was born out of temptation to power. And victory by way of such corruption carries a poison pill. Manipulation of this sort is antithetical to both religious integrity and religious freedom. It’s not a coincidence Madison also warned that requiring others to live by our values can do more to harm religion’s reach than to encourage others to uphold it. And indeed, consistent with Madison’s predictions, the binding of the religious right to the Republican Party has already driven Americans away from organized faith.