The Dark Origins of the Anti-Abortion Culture War

The Dark Origins of the Anti-Abortion Culture War January 3, 2018

We’ve been talking lately about the huge mismatch between stated goals and real goals in dysfunctional and toxic groups (what sociologists term overt and covert goals). Last time we covered the mismatch between those two types of goals in apologetics. But that’s not the biggest mismatch there is. That honor belongs to the Christian culture war against abortion. Over this next week, I’ll show you what the mismatch is, how Christians bought into one of the cruelest, most hypocritical, most patently-dishonest, and most callously-engineered causes imaginable, and how you can tell that their culture war has nothing to do with what they say it’s about. Today we’ll start with just how this culture war got started–and why.

The Republican Strategy Cave. (Andy Arthur, CC.)
The Republican Strategy Cave. (Andy Arthur, CC.)

A Political Monster.

[Richard Nixon] was the real thing — a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. . . the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.

Hunter S. Thompson, “He Was a Crook,” June 16, 1994

Wil Wheaton wrote a Tumblr post that got my attention earlier today about new evidence that Richard Nixon engineered the Vietnam War Conflict in order to win the 1968 Presidential election. Because he directed his aide H.R. Haldeman to “monkey wrench” the Vietnamese peace talks of 1968, Richard Nixon may well be directly responsible for murdering more than a million Vietnamese people, more than 30,000 American soldiers, and for also causing rifts in the national consciousness and geopolitical climate that we’re still trying to fix.

And if you think he cared about those human short-term and political long-term costs, you’re one sweet summer child.

The worst part? That’s not even the only completely-manufactured conflict that Nixon engaged in to win votes. What he did to sell the Vietnam Conflict to Americans was simply one of a long line of examples of a tactic he knew very well and for an end result he loved “more than sharks love blood.”

The man that Hunter S. Thompson described as “a flat-out, knee-crawling thug with morals of a weasel on speed” cared about one thing and one thing only: power. He was probably savvy enough to realize that, as a person and as a politician, he didn’t exactly scream trustworthycredible, or even likable to most Americans. He knew he needed an extra boost to win–and he found that boost in a couple of ways.

He is known to be the politician who created and then took advantage of the “Southern Strategy,” for example. It was simply a super-racist appeal to white people to draw them to the party and get them to vote against more progressive candidates. And his cynical appeal to Southern Americans’ racism worked beautifully, flipping the Republican Party–once famously the political home of Abraham Lincoln–into the lumbering, deeply-racist, bigoted, and sexist, regressive, power-mad, and religious-pandering beast we know and loathe today.

“The worst thing Richard Nixon ever did was tell racists they had a point and welcome them into the party of Lincoln,” wrote Richard Cohen.

I’m not sure we could really put a name to the absolute worst thing Nixon ever did, though. The competitors for that title are certainly numerous. I’d say that his appeal to misogynistic, power-hungry Christians was probably among his greatest successes. And the way that he used that appeal to draw both racists and misogynists to the Republican banner is quite a fascinating story.

A Culture War Younger Than the Happy Meal.

Until Richard Nixon, the Republican party was actually pro-choicejust as evangelicals were (as Fred famously wrote in Slacktivist, that’s a culture war that is “younger than the Happy Meal”). That happy progressiveness changed around 1980–and it changed for both groups, for the same reasons, and thanks to the same tactics.

The Nation sees Nixon as the author of today’s “crackup” of the Republican Party itself, and I’d wholeheartedly agree. But he was only taking advantage of trends that he’d shrewdly detected–or had had pointed out to him–regarding where the country was going socially and culturally.

We’ve talked before about how today’s grandstanding, chest-thumping, bellowing brand of fundagelicalism came straight from the Red Scare of the 1950s. Nixon was a product of those heady times–and even helped foment that manufactured crisis in his early political career going all the way back to the late 1940s. He was a veteran of manipulating people with lies and deceit. We cannot pretend that he didn’t know very well how to fondle fundagelicals’ affections in a way to get them voting in the directions he preferred by the 1960s and 1970s, or that he didn’t recognize the vast political benefits to be gained from doing so.

Nor was Nixon the only guy trying to crack that nut.

Their Wildest Dreams.

Paul Weyrich, a super-conservative political activist (and co-founder of the Heritage Foundation) was working on ways to politicize fundagelicals in the 1970s. He’s the one who declared at the time that for a culture-war topic to succeed, it had to be “defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition. . . If the moral majority acts, results could well exceed our wildest dreams.”

At the same time, Weyrich was finding out that all the causes he was trying to use to get fundagelicals into motion were failing. He tried anti-pornography campaigns, campaigns built around enforcing prayer in schools, even opposition to the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, and yes, abortion too.

But all of those attempts fizzled out, one by one.

Hmm… what to do, what to do…

He knew, just as well as Nixon himself did, that fundagelicals in the South were setting up “seg academies” (schools that allowed racial segregation, only accepting white students) and that the law was cracking down hard on those. The court case that had gotten them so furious was Green v. Kennedy (later renamed Green v. Connally; initially the plaintiff was David Kennedy, the then-Secretary of the Treasury, but by the time the suit was finishing up, John Connally had replaced him), which removed tax-exempt status from these seg academies even if they piously declared that they were totally actually charitable institutions. In 1971, that case was finally decided–and not in the racists’ favor. And that’s two years before Roe v. Wade got decided.

Well, see, Jerry Falwell ran one of these seg academies–Lynchburg Christian School. Bob Jones University was another segregated school–and it had had to tell the IRS that yes, it did not allow African-American students to enroll or attend there.

Now, suddenly, segregation became a very serious issue indeed for fundagelical leaders.

Now, suddenly, fundagelicals’ racism was hitting them where it’s always hurt most and deepest for them: in their wallets. Falwell began whining that “it’s easier to open a massage parlor than a Christian school.” And that, indeed, is a tactic they’ve loved as a group ever since, too. Even today it’s not uncommon to see a fundagelical sanctimoniously claiming that they’re being persecuted for jus’ bein’ Christian

These religious leaders and others besides tried to reframe the issue as one of religious freedom–another tactic that’s stood them in good stead in the decades since–but it didn’t work.

Finally, suddenly, Weyrich had a way to mobilize fundagelicals. He finally had a marker belief that his tribe could take out into the world to push and hold.

And whoa buddy, did it ever work.

The whole Religious Right, make no mistake, owes its creation to fundagelicals’ outrage over desegregation measures and laws–not over shared opposition over abortion. As one man who’d been an administrator with Bob Jones University said later, support of segregation “was really the major issue that got us [fundagelicals] all involved” in politics.

All they needed was a champion.

Moving In On the Prey.

The funny thing is, Richard Nixon had initially been the one to start moving the IRS against segregated schools–really! He even supported the earlier Supreme Court decisionBrown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which had initially struck down “separate but equal” schools in 1954.

But he quickly saw the potential in this new culture war.

Knowing the potential of pissed-off fundagelicals, Nixon threw his support behind tax subsidies for racist-run segregated schools–a measure which failed, while simultaneously winning him the eternal loyalty of racist white people in the South. Those Christians were enraged at desegregation and fearful of what that move meant for their own easy, effortless domination of their communities.

And Nixon owned their votes.

Luckily, we didn’t get a chance to find out if Nixon could make the Southern Strategy work for him again–he was forced out of office eventually. But he was now superfluous. Nixon’s brand of race-baiting worked absolutely beautifully on Southerners. It sure got him elected, at least. Problem was, there were limits on its power to unite Americans into a vast voting bloc.

Republicans needed a cause that would draw in the racist Southerners who already loved Republicans for supporting segregation and thought Republicans were the Jesus Party, but which also would draw in other voters to form for them an unstoppable majority. They needed a way to build on Nixon’s vast successes.

Moving the Needle.

I’ll bet the board members of Gordon College, Wheaton College and Christianity Today have no idea about the real reasons behind a bad set of choices they were duped into making in order to serve a purely political agenda masquerading as a “religious liberty” issue. They’ve been had.

Frank Schaeffer, “An Open Letter to the Evangelical Establishment.”

The story of how fundagelicals moved the needle of their culture war from segregation to abortion is a long and unpleasant one.

As Randall Balmer writes for Politico, the narrative that fundagelicals tell–that gosh, Roe v. Wade outraged them so much in 1973 that they just had to start mobilizing to fight it–is not only wrong but self-serving (like a lot of things fundagelicals do–heyyyo!). But it’s a narrative put forth by no less than one of the architects of the anti-abortion culture war, Jerry Falwell, who tearfully recounts that exact narrative in a book of his from 2005.

In reality, racism-embracing fundagelical leaders like Falwell were casting about for a new cause that all American fundagelicals could support. They were noticing that Catholic groups were succeeding grandly in mobilizing anti-abortion adherents to get out and vote in the years following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, sometimes denying pro-choice candidates victories that should have been easy ones to capture. The 1978 Senate races held across the country, in particular, spoke to growing Christian rumbling about abortion rights. Amanda Marcotte also makes a persuasive case for Phyllis Schlafly being a major reason why fundagelicals decided that feminism generally was a huge threat to the public–which tied in well with anti-abortion sentiment.

So Weyrich began to think that maybe, just maybe, he might need to take a second look at abortion as the issue that would get fundagelicals into voting booths to elect the right people. And maybe they could even do the unthinkable and climb into bed with those Catholics!

These malicious power-grubbers even got a most unexpected ally in the fundagelical leader Francis A. Schaeffer (père), who signed on one-hundred-and-crazy-percent with the burgeoning culture war. He decided right around that time that abortion was totes evil and began writing a lot about it. His son later outlined exactly how he and his father deliberately goaded fundagelicals toward greater and greater extremism.

And let’s just remember that 1978, when Weyrich, Falwell, Schaeffer, and all their pals were writing back and forth in giddy glee over the potential of an anti-abortion culture war, was five years after Roe v. Wade.

All In.

The next year, in 1979, fundagelicals bombarded America with anti-abortion movies, leaflets, and more. Abortion was painted in gruesome, inhuman terms; women who chose abortion care were vilified; abortion providers were painted as murderers. Pro-choice sentiments were painted as “secular humanism” to make Christians even more horrified about it. Christians were taught to believe that voting against abortion rights was the only properly Christian way to vote, and that anyone who did not vote this way was not being a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. (I even heard preachers tell Christians in the 1980s that anyone who even felt sympathy toward abortion rights was totally going to Hell.)

The current President in 1979, Jimmy Carter, was criticized and demonized for refusing to pursue a Constitutional amendment barring abortion–as were other politicians who held similar views.

This deluge of propaganda was all very cynically done to create the most outrage possible–and the greatest degrees of support.

And it worked.

Christians reversed the Republican Party’s position about abortion and convinced American Christians that this shift was Jesus-approved. And once the tactic proved successful, politicians began feverishly campaigning against abortion. Nothing’s changed since then As Women’s Health Issues points out, as Americans have grown warmer toward abortion rights, the American Republican Party has grown ever harsher in its opposition toward those same rights. This opposition is used as a cattle prod to force Christians to vote for candidates they find repugnant even today.

A Legacy of Control-Lust.

As Nina Totenberg of NPR points out, other politicians noted Nixon’s cynical vote-grabbing pandering–and its success.

Ronald Reagan ran very much on an anti-abortion platform, promising he’d appoint Supreme Court Justices who he was sure would reverse the earlier Roe v. Wade decision. (His first nominee was Sandra Day O’Connor, so I guess the joke’s on him; she tended to vote against anti-abortion measures. We saw a similar turnabout when United States District Judge John Edward Jones III, a Christian who was also a Dubya appointee, decided for reality in the Creationism landmark case Kitzmiller v. Dover–and later ruled that Pennsylvania’s straights-only marriage law was unconstitutional.) And Reagan did all that alongside continuing Nixon’s successful Southern Strategy, as The Nation reveals–opening his presidential campaign in 1980 with racist dogwhistles that he knew white Southerners would understand and embrace.

Republicans since then haven’t even bothered to change the words to those tunes. They still use openly racist terms, policies that openly penalize African-Americans and suppress their votes, and rig the system against them in every single way possible–and then criticize them for not succeeding despite those obstacles. The GOP has never forgotten the Southern Strategy.

At the same time, Republican policies pander to fundagelicals to create a dystopian nightmare for women–one that offers American Christians a world where they can totally, once and for all, suppress women’s rights, control women’s sexuality, and bring back fundagelical dominance in a theocratic nightmare, all done with their voters mistakenly believing that they are totally trying to “save unborn babies.”

The culture war against abortion began as dirty as it could ever get–as a cynical grab for votes at the expense of under-informed voters who can still be reliably counted upon to vote however their leaders tell them to. They are people who have proven themselves to be particularly susceptible to talking-points, groupthink, bumper-sticker theology, and feelz over realz.

So let’s just get this into the open:

Every single person who buys into the rhetoric of the anti-abortion culture war is a dupe of the propaganda war fundagelicals waged to engineer outrage and disgust in order to gain themselves a kind of power that Richard Nixon didn’t–couldn’t–even dream of holding.

It’s even more pathetic to consider the case of atheists who buy into that nonsense, enriching their ideological enemies without even realizing it.

A Nine-Sided Villain.

Nixon had a Shakespearean villain’s understanding of how to push people into supporting a cause: ignite their hatred, stoke their tribalism, engage their rage.

Roy Moore? Gang, he is a goddamned poseur. He is a political infant. He is a pablum-snorting toddler smearing the contents of his diapers on walls compared to Richard Nixon. He isn’t fit to lick the flown spittle off of Nixon’s shoes, and he never will be. We are goddamned lucky that Moore didn’t have Nixon’s cornered-honey-badger savagery or his trapped-rat-of-NIMH cunning, and we would do well to remember that point next time another wannabe comes sauntering down the church lecture circuit wearing a folksy lopsided gee-shucks-whillikers grin and a ten-gallon cowboy hat seeking to grab power for himself at the expense of Americans’ rights and liberties.

Because there will be another one. 

He may already be here

It just all makes me laugh helplessly to tears when I hear Christians like Mark Galli sanctimoniously declare that fundagelicals’ support for Roy Moore has “severely tarnished” their credibility, or that nobody “will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation.”

I just wanna tell him: Dude, that ship sailed almost exactly fifty years ago. You’ve only just now lost enough power to notice, is all–and you’ve got a bit of a history about only conceding the obvious long after it’s become obvious to everyone else.

Next time, we’ll dive into a living example of a fake “crisis pregnancy clinic”–and we’ll examine its stated goals and how well their actions live up to those goals. We’ll see you then. 


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