By Carl Carter, APR
My article on how conservative Christians sold out to the far right got a lot of response, and it made me realize how few people remember that most evangelicals were fine with abortion until the late 1970s.
This is conveniently documented in historian Frances Fitzgerald’s outstanding new book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. I covered these issues as religion editor of The Birmingham News in the late 1970s and early 1980s, so I have a personal memory of much of this background, but I’m leaning heavily on this history.
I’ve argued elsewhere that if you wish to pinpoint the tipping point at which the conservative churches and the secular far right joined forces, it was 1979. This was especially the case with abortion, which became the driving issue in evangelical churches. The “Whatever Happened to the Human Race” film series featuring Francis Schaeffer and physician Everett Koop came out that year, just in time to rally the troops for the election of Ronald Reagan.
That was also the year in which the Southern Baptist Convention, after years of tolerant leadership, took a sharp turn to the right with the election of a fundamentalist as president. The leaders made it clear that they intended to stack the seminary and college boards with fundamentalists who would purge the schools of “liberal” professors, defined broadly as those who did not believe the entire Bible was literally, historically and scientifically true.
Until then, even very conservative Southern Baptists had steered a moderate course on most issues. In 1971, the Convention called on Baptists to work to relax abortion laws to allow legal abortions “in the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental and physical health of the mother.” Even fundamentalist former SBC president W.A. Criswell, according to Fitzgerald, said after the Roe v. Wade decision that “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person.”
But in 1979, the film series flooded the Baptist churches with the idea that life begins at conception, and any abortion is murder. This was declared true even in cases of rape or incest. (In an interview in 1980, I pressed Dr. Koop on this point of rape and incest, and his response was clear: “It’s not the baby’s fault.” He would allow no exceptions.)
That teaching flooded evangelical churches in 1979 and 1980 and made the churches the tools of far right political thinkers Paul Weyrich and Ed Fuelner of the Heritage Foundation, which had been founded by the ultra-right Coors family. It has always struck me as funny that the Baptists were so quick to cozy up to the ideas of a think tank started with beer money.
What strikes me as odd about this is that up until the late 1970s, evangelicals — including those who later became pro-life firebrands — were pretty much OK with abortion. In 1967, a major symposium of 25 prominent evangelical physicians and theologians “showed consensus … that abortion, while possibly sinful, was necessary and permissible when it served to safeguard ‘greater values sanctioned by the scriptures,’ such as individual health, family welfare and the social good.” (Fitzgerald, p. 254)
Goldwater supported abortion rights, and even Ronald Reagan had signed a 1967 law in California allowing abortion in cases of danger to the mother’s health.
The extreme position that emerged in 1979 and afterward made for some horrendously absurd situations over the years that followed. In my church (which had shown the film series on Sunday mornings), the pastor regularly called out the name of a mother-to-be who was refusing to abort a baby that doctors had said would be badly deformed. She became a local hero within the church. As it turned out, the doctors were right, and the baby was severely handicapped.
I ran into the father of that child a few years later and asked about the situation. It turns out that when it was time to enroll the child in school, the church-operated Christian school told them they weren’t equipped for special needs, and they dumped the child on the public school system.