Revisionist memory: White evangelicals have always been at war with abortion

John Fea recommends Linda Kerber’s essay on “The 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade” as an opportunity for students and teachers of history. Kerber writes:

Our students — undergraduate and graduate — can make a real difference by their research. Working with advisers and archivists, they can frame questions, and they can seek to reconstruct a history that is in grave danger of being lost. The answers they find can contribute to the accumulation of necessary knowledge … their research, and our own, is indispensable.

Activists in the 1960s — on both sides of the debate — are now in their 70s and 80s; activists of the 1950s are in their 90s. The time available to us is short.

Memory is required and history is required. But memory has already been wiped and history has already been rewritten.

White American evangelicals are “pro-life.” This is the single most important political aspect of American evangelicalism. It is the single most important theological aspect of American evangelicalism. And it is the paramount factor in evangelical identity for evangelicals themselves.

It’s also a very recent development. Thirty years ago, this was not the case. Fifty years ago, it was unimaginable.

Only remember what you’re supposed to remember. Or else.

People like Lewis Smedes and Carl F.H. Henry remain revered figures in evangelical history, but if they were saying publicly today what they said publicly about abortion in their lifetimes, they would be excommunicated and shunned as heretics.

The speed and totality of evangelicals’ sea-change on abortion is remarkable. But what’s really astonishing is that such a huge theological, political and cultural change occurred within evangelical Protestantism and no one talks about it. No one acknowledges that this huge change was, in fact, a huge change.

The convention among American evangelicals, in fact, is to pretend that no such change ever occurred — that white evangelical Protestants have always been as preoccupied with abortion and zealous in their opposition to it as they are today.

It really is Orwellian. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

It’s unsettling. Rewriting history from earlier generations is one thing, but this is a change that occurred within my lifetime. This is history that can only be rewritten with the consent and participation of people who ought to be able to remember the truth.

Have white evangelicals in their 50s and 60s really completely forgotten the 1970s already? I don’t think so. But they are willing to pretend they have — en masse. Not for religious reasons, and not for ethical reasons. For political reasons.

It’s more than a little bit creepy. (And it’s even creepier to see the same pattern repeating itself with evangelicals and contraception.)

I was encouraged to read a couple of recent essays in which the reality is remembered, rather than papered over. Neither Alan Bean nor Randall Balmer is saying anything here that any white American evangelical their age or older doesn’t remember and know to be true. But these memories betray the officially rewritten narrative, so I fear both of these guys may face a level of backlash and retaliation for remembering That Which Must Never Be Said.

Here’s a snippet from Alan Bean on “Abortion and white evangelicals“:

[Gary] Younge argues that enterprising Republicans were also keen to use the abortion issue to strip Roman Catholic voters from the Democratic Party. In the early 1970s, he points out, both mainstream Republicans like George H. W. Bush and Richard Nixon were pro-choice, and abortion was a non-issue with everyone but Catholic Bishops. The staunchest defender of the unborn in the US Senate was Edward Kennedy. Citing a 2011 article in the New Yorker, Younge explains how the Republican Party altered this social landscape.

Patrick Buchanan wrote a memo to Nixon advocating using the abortion issue to woo the Catholic vote. “If the president should publicly take his stand against abortion as offensive to his own moral principles … then we can force [Ed] Muskie [a failed Democratic presidential candidate in 1972] to make the choice between his tens of millions of Catholic supporters and his liberal friends.” The next week Nixon spoke of his “personal belief in the sanctity of human life — including the life of the yet unborn.”

… Here’s the interesting thing, the pro-life strategy never took root with U.S. Catholics, but thanks to sharp-eyed Republican strategists like Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie, the “sanctity of life” coals were soon smoldering among the very people who embraced the race-baiting Southern strategy with an unholy passion – southern evangelicals.

When Jerry Falwell founded the pro-life Moral Majority in 1979, Paul Brown, the founder of the American Life League, scoffed, “Jerry Falwell couldn’t spell ‘abortion’ five years ago.” But Falwell knew an opportunity when he saw one.

… I am not suggesting that the good evangelical Christians standing on the picket line at the Planned Parenthood clinic are motivated by racial animus. They aren’t. They have been told that life begins at conception. If this is true, abortion is murder and we really are confronting a moral horror show.

Few evangelical pastors believed that life begins at conception in 1970. That was a Catholic dogma, and Catholics were the enemy. …

And here is Randall Balmer with “A Pastor’s Son Notes When Politics Came to the Pulpit“:

When I lived in Iowa in the 1970s, my father was pastor of one of the largest evangelical congregations in the state. Although he remained a Republican to his death, my father was resolutely apolitical in the pulpit. Things began to change for Iowa evangelicals — and for politically conservative evangelicals elsewhere — in the late 1970s.

Iowa, in fact, served as the proving ground for abortion as a political issue. Until 1978, evangelicals in Iowa were overwhelmingly indifferent about abortion as a political matter. Even after the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, most evangelicals considered abortion a “Catholic issue.” The Iowa race for U.S. Senate in 1978 pitted Dick Clark, the incumbent Democrat, against a Republican challenger, Roger Jepsen. All of the polling and the pundits viewed the election an easy win for Clark, who had walked across the state six years earlier in his successful effort to unseat Republican Jack Miller. In the final weekend of the 1978 campaign, however, pro-lifers (predominantly Catholic) leafleted church parking lots all over the state. Two days later, in an election with a very low turnout, Jepsen narrowly defeated Clark, thereby persuading Paul Weyrich and other architects of the Religious Right that abortion would work for them as a political issue.

This isn’t history, this is memory. If you’re a Gen-Xer or a Baby Boomer, you lived through this.

Why are so many white evangelicals pretending they didn’t?

  • Kagi Soracia

    Serendipity. I was trying to put something just like this into words in a conversation, earlier, and then I found this. Excellent comment, and your post, too. I think you are exactly right. Some people are driven by the need for certainty to the point that they will cling to a system with demonstrable fault lines and insist that it can never be shaken. And when the shaking starts, they will ignore that, too. Never happened, because it can’t. They can’t deal with the possibility of never being able to know that you are right, that something is settled.


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