According to the New York Times (“Conservatives Hone Script to Light a Fire Over Abortion,” July 25, 2014), Republican operatives are once again gearing up to make abortion a central issue in the next midterm elections. This did not happen by chance. The GOP’s shift from a normal political party to a crusading party driven by moralistic religion was a thought-out conspiracy. I know. I was there.
I am not a conspiracy nut. But in this case no other word than conspiracy will do. We did what we did covertly, telling supporters one thing, and telling leaders on the inside of the political establishment another thing.
There was one agenda in public, another one behind closed doors. And we changed America for the worse.
The 1970s evangelical antiabortion movement was largely first created out of thin air by my late evangelist father, Francis Schaeffer, and Dr. C Everett Koop, with a big practical assist from me. I wrote and directed their multi-part documentary and book series “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” which played across the evangelical world in the 1970s and first brought the antiabortion “case” to a huge, and at that time, largely pro-choice Protestant audience.
As Jonathan Dudley noted in a CNN blog (“When Evangelicals Were Pro-Choice” (October 30, 2012)
In 1968, Christianity Today published a special issue on contraception and abortion, encapsulating the consensus among evangelical thinkers at the time. In the leading article, professor Bruce Waltke, of the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, explained the Bible plainly teaches that life begins at birth:
“God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: ‘If a man kills any human life he will be put to death’ (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense… Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”
I built on the runaway success of the first film series I’d produced and directed for my father “How Should We Then Live?” That first series had made Dad a celebrity in the evangelical subculture. It had been on art and philosophy.
When we showed up with the anti-abortion message at first we failed. The evangelicals who had attended our seminars by tens of thousands when we were launching the first series just were not interested in the abortion issue. At first we were looking at empty seats in places like the Grand Ole Opry we’d filled a few years before.
It took a lot of hard work to change that apathy on the “issue.” And oddly what in the end gave the series credibility were the Republican political leaders who saw the chance to cash in on the issue. The fact they began to pay attention to Dad and me got evangelical leader’s juices flowing: They coveted our new access to power!
For instance Congressman Jack Kemp hosted a showing of our film in the Rayburn Building in Washington DC. Over 50 senators and congressmen attended. And the Washington Post did a story on our movie. Suddenly evangelicals — who suffer from an inferiority complex both hating the “secular liberal media” and craving its attention — were intrigued: Francis Schaeffer was getting the attention of leaders in Washington and the “secular media” was even taking note.
Where we’d had little success — at first — launching our second film series — suddenly the evangelicals wanted in! Jerry Falwell changed his mind, Pat Robertson jumped on the band wagon, James Dobson went on his first big political crusade… and as they say the rest is history.
As T. M. Luhrmann (the Watkins University Professor in the Stanford Anthropology Department and frequent New York Times essayist) wrote in Harpers Magazine (April 2013) in “BLINDED BY THE RIGHT? How hippie Christians begat evangelical conservatives:
In the mid-1970s, then, the argument still needed to be made, and specific individuals stepped forward to make it. The most important of these was Francis Schaeffer, whom many observers now credit with jump-starting the religious right. Nobody, argues the historian Preston Shires, was more “influential in bringing evangelicals to a pro-life position, the position that made political activism not only possible but potent.”…
In the early 1970s, he became part of the elite Washington circuit, and, as a friend of Jack Kemp, was more warmly received by Republicans than by Democrats. Still, he refused to align himself with any political party.
Then came Roe v. Wade. In Schaeffer’s view, the Christian faith mandated the protection of all life, even the smallest and therefore abortion was an un-Christian act. Three years after the Supreme Court’s decision, he published a book entitled How Should We Then Live?, which argued that the world had been undergoing a slow- motion ethical collapse since the Renaissance, when God had been displaced from his rightful place at the center of our lives. There were, Schaeffer wrote, two alternatives: a moral existence based on God’s revelation in the Bible, and an amoral, totalitarian existence. In that equation, liberal Christianity came out more or less in the same place as Nazism and Stalinism. Abortion was Schaeffer’s symbol for what was fundamentally wrong with the modern era.
How Should We Then Live? became a runaway bestseller and then the basis for a ten-part film series that led many Christians into politics. (Michele Bachmann has repeatedly noted that the films had a “profound influence” on her life.)
…With Roe, the choice became clear: Democrats would support abortion, so you couldn’t vote for them.
Dad, Koop and I were the people who helped seduce the Republican Party into becoming less a political party and more a wing of the then emerging religious right.
Today I am very sorry for the role I played. We harmed America. That harm deepened into the do-nothing obstructionist Congress of the Tea Party.
As I detail in my new book, WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace, I’ve long since changed my mind about the right-wing religious litmus tests we helped impose on future Republican candidates. In fact I see things very differnelty now some 30-plus years later. As I write in WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD (Chapter 13):
We have Jesus and his Enlightenment prophets to thank for the humanistic ideas on which America was founded. If you’re one of the people Jesus is said to have favored—a child, a woman, someone ill, a sex worker, someone regarded as untouchable, old, ugly, abandoned or “the other” in some other way—and you are being cared for by unbelievers, is Jesus’ example being followed? Or does Jesus only live in correct theology regardless of how little a Christian may care about your well-being?
That said, in order to understand why more than 40 years later abortion is still driving the Republican agenda, a little background is in order.
The conspiracy was hatched in the 1970s and 80s between religious leaders looking for access to power and political leaders looking for votes. Between us we created a huge new reliable voting bloc: the Protestant/evangelical Religious Right. So by the late 1980s the Republicans were laboring under the weight of a single-issue religious test: abortion.
Dad and I—as did many other evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell— regularly met one on one or in groups with key members of the Republican leadership to develop a “pro-life strategy” for rolling back Roe v. Wade. I was there—and/or Dad was—participating in various meetings with Congressman Jack Kemp, Presidents Ford, Reagan, and Bush 41, as the unholy marriage between the Republican Party and the evangelical “pro-life” community was gradually consummated. The late Senator Jesse Helms named Dad as his favorite author when asked by the “American Spectator” magazine to name his favorite books.
Our strategy was simple: Republican leaders would affirm their antiabortion commitment to evangelicals—no matter if they were true believers or not (e.g., Reagan was pro-choice until we “changed” his mind)—and in turn we’d vote for them by the tens of millions.
Once Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, “we” would reverse Roe, either through a constitutional amendment, through the appointment of antiabortion judges to the Supreme Court or, if need be, through civil disobedience, though this was only hinted at first. We never reversed Roe but many elections were won nevertheless by energizing voters on the issue.
When evangelical and Republican leaders sat together, we discussed “the issue,” but we would soon move on to the practical particulars, such as “Will blue-collar Catholic voters join us now?” (They did.) Soon evangelical leaders were helping political leaders send their message to the “pro-life community” that they—the Republican leaders—were on board.
And we helped fool voters into thinking that entirely pragmatic leaders were the real deal. For instance, I organized the 1984 publication of President Ronald Reagan’s antiabortion book with evangelical Bible publisher Thomas Nelson. Reagan’s book had first appeared as an essay in the “Human Life Review” (spring 1983). I was friends with the magazine’s founder and editor, the Roman Catholic antiabortion crusader Jim McFadden. He and I cooked up the phony presidential project over the phone.
The president’s book expressed his antiabortion “views,” as ghostwritten by McFadden, to cement the Reagan “deal” with the antiabortion movement. We called the book “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation.”
Once they were on board, Republican leaders like Helms and Congressmen Kemp and Henry Hyde (to name but four with whom I met sometimes in Jack’s case in his home, where I stayed as a guest) worked closely with my father and me, and along with a lot of other religious leaders, we began to deliver voters.
We even managed “our” voters for the Republican Party by incessantly reminding our followers of “the issue” through newsletters, TV, and radio broadcasts. For instance I appeared regularly on Pat Robertson’s then new “700 Club.”
I also worked closely with James Dobson in the early days of his “Focus on the Family” radio program. I was on his show several times. He offered my “pro-life” book “A Time for Anger” as a fund-raising fulfillment and distributed over 150,000 copies. The book eventually sold over half a million copies.
No one seemed to notice (or mind) that the Republicans like Reagan weren’t really doing anything about abortion other than talking about it to voters. And by the mid to late 1980s the cause shifted: We evangelicals paid lip-service to “stopping abortion,” but the real issue was keeping Republicans in power and keeping evangelical leaders in the ego-stroking loop of access to power.
Today most commentators don’t understand how abortion came to be used by the GOP. By now the Republican Party’s entire identity is linked to the moralistic litmus test issues, from abortion to trying to roll back gay rights. So even if it is political suicide to continue to be cast as the anti-woman (or anti-gay) party, the abortion issue will not go away. It is now not just a moral issue but a proud identity.
The issue of “life” itself has also become an industry. Its sole business is the “winding up” of conservative voters and religious fundamentalists. Fostering a sense of victimhood, anger and alienation is the stock in trade. And this makes money.
As the people discovered who profited from our original anti-abortion crusade—Rupert Murdoch, Fox News, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and others—selling perpetual anger, not to mention self-pity and a sense of outraged victimhood, led to fortune.
It also has led to an overall distrust of government itself: the once patriotic Right is now the anti-government Right.
To the post-Roe Right, hating the American government became the new patriotism. If the government says it—fill in the blank, from acknowledging climate change to the need for high-speed rail—it can’t be true!
Yes, other issues were involved besides abortion in goading evangelicals and other members of the Right into a defensive crouch, but those issues—racial integration, a ban on prayer in public schools, gay rights, immigration and so on—pale in comparison to the slam-dunk blanket legalization of abortion when it came to stoking the flames of alienation.
Those flames still burn. There is no sign that the abortion issue is going to stop being the gift that keeps on giving to some pretty cynical people.
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book —WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace