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?

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  • Magic_Cracker

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

    Because they’re assholes. NEXT QUESTION?

  • Invisible Neutrino

    I suspect that the truth is more complex: they may dimly know or recall this, but they’ve been doing the same thing for so long they no longer really realize that at one point it was a matter of indifference for them.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    In the early 1970s, he points out, both mainstream Republicans like George H. W. Bush and Richard Nixon were pro-choice,

    Paul Ehrlich even noted GHWB favorably in his book “The Population Bomb”. Funny how things changed from the 1960s to the 1980s.

  • Andrew

     Prescott Bush campaigned for Planned Parenthood…

  • P J Evans

     My mother remembered that. It’s one reason why she changed her party affiliation from R to D in 1980: she saw that Bush had renounced that view so he could get on the ticket.

  • ASeriesOfWords

    My conservative evangelical husband is, I think, beginning to come around to this thinking also. At least, the issue of abortion no longer dominates his voting decisions as it once did.

  • Michael

    GHWB was nicknamed “Rubbers” while in the US Senate for his constant pushing to have condoms distributed in developing countries to decrease population rates.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Too bad nobody has bothered to dredge all that up to embarrass the right-wing neocons who like to pretend their viewpoints have been as rock-solid as Plymouth.

  • Michael

    Too bad indeed. Back in those days, it was all “we have to stop Third World people breeding so they won’t go over to Moscow.” Priorities change, so…

  • Marc Mielke

    Gen-Xers are really a little late to remember this. I really didn’t care one way or the other in 1976, for instance. In my defense, I was six. 

  • jedgeco

     Shame on you for your apathy!

  • Carstonio

    I am not suggesting that the good evangelical Christians standing on the picket line at the Planned Parenthood clinic are motivated by racial animus

    Many of them probably are, at least indirectly. They have long treated abortion as a proxy for their view of gender roles, and this is the flip side of their views about white privilege. Both are part of their larger myth that the US lost its way when it began to question the norm of white Christian men as society’s leaders. The school prayer issue was treated the same way.

  • Eamon Knight

    A contrary memory here: I was a Canadian evangelical in the early 1970s, and I recall being anti-abortion as one of the things that was taken for granted. Now, it wasn’t a *political* thing that was supposed to decide who you voted for.

  • victoria

    I can’t remember the context, but I do remember how surprised I was when i first learned about the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a group of pastors that counseled pregnant women and in some cases helped them get access to safe(r) abortions in the U.S. before abortion was legalized.  I was very aware of clergy who had engaged in civil disobedience when it came to opposing racial segregation or protesting war, but not of (mostly male) clergy who took such risks to support women.

  • Julian Elson

    Is is possible to see hope in this? That perhaps in 15 years, Evangelicals will “always have been” committed to dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and everyone will pretend that ’twas ever thus?

  • EllieMurasaki

    That would require a shift from the not-acknowledging-reality-while-negatively-affecting-reality position to the acknowledging-and-trying-to-positively-affect-reality position. On abortion, evangelicals did the reverse.

  • WalterC

    Is there any money in that? It sounds kind of expensive to me.

    What we might see, though, are future Pat Robertsons telling their grandchildren that they were on the side of equality for LBGT people, the way people like them are telling their kids today that they marched with King and fought for civil rights for blacks even though the historical record suggests otherwise.

    I predict that in 30 or so years, there will be a paradigm shift, and everyone will think that the only people fighting against LBGT rights were the Westboro Baptist Church, and virtually everyone else was on the opposite side of the drama and always had been, deep down.

  • Gotchaye

    I expect the internet to make that at least a little bit more difficult.  The 60s are way back in the mists of pre-internet history,  and it’s not trivial to get one’s hands on primary sources.  But now we have youtube video upon youtube video of anti-gay rhetoric.  We have hundreds of issues of major conservative/Christian magazines.  We’ve got poll after poll after poll.

    In 2040, it’s going to be hard to tell your kids you were for LBGT rights all along when they can click over to your old Facebook profile and dig up some hate speech.

  • Madhabmatics

    Ironically the figure that really spurred the anti-abortion tendency in evangelicism (Francis Schaeffer) was also a huge environmentalist who wrote about stuff like that a lot. He had a book that started with a eulogy to the sea (God Giveth, Man Taketh Away. Cursed Be The Name of Man.)

    Why that fell to the wayside when he anti-abortion advocacy became a big movement is an interesting question.

  • Farah Mendlesohn

    His son has written a bio in which he talks about how it was All My Fault and means it. He regards his decision to persuade his father to join the anti-abortion crusade as a major betrayal of his own faith.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Because environmentalism is a: a Librul cause, and thus has cooties, and b: inconvenient to the Big Money, if I had to guess.

  • SisterCoyote

    Last week, our school newspaper had an office clean-up, and a couple of us tackled the job of organizing the old papers, which had been kept haphazardly in a filing cabinet, in more-or-less correct order – they go back to 1975.

    In… I want to say 1982 – at any rate, one of the stories in the ’80s – there was a major headline on the battle in Connecticut for abortion rights. We all sort of looked at it, and sighed. Because, y’ know, we won! And now, it’s like we took two steps forward and three steps back. The debate’s not even framed in terms of ‘rights’ anymore. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

  • Lori

    Have white evangelicals in their 50s and 60s really completely forgotten the 1970s already?  

    I’m not that old and I can remember when abortion was not a hot button topic. People at church had opinions about it, but they didn’t talk about it much at all and there certainly wasn’t one obviously correct opinion that was considered definitional for Christians. Baptism (form and necessity of), communion (frequency of and number of cups used*), music (a cappella vs instrumental, choir–yes or no?). Those things were all considered definitional by some segment of folks, but abortion definitely was not. Just try bringing that up now though and man will you be sorry. It really is creepy in an Orwellian way.

    *Is this too “inside baseball”? Do I need to explain it?

  • MatherZ

    Monty Python’s Protestant couple endorsed “French Ticklers” and mocked the anti-contraception set with “Every Sperm Is Sacred”….

    Now it seems they’re taking the lines “If a sperm is wasted / God gets quite irate” as the basis for national legislation.

  • Münchner Kindl

    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.

    Fred, you really need to read up on research into how human  memory works; and what Goebbels said about propaganda.

    Short version: Human memory is not like a video tape you can recall with always the same content; rather it’s a fuzzy cloud which changes with retellings. Memorys can be planted; and the importance of storage depends on the emotions associated with it. So e.g. the memory of loosing a parent in a shopping mall as a kid is so traumatic that people can remember it even when it never happened like that. And the emotions you have when you retell the story – ashamed of being on the wrong side, or proud of being right – influence and shape and distort the story for the next time after that.

    The South Park episode where Jimmy invents a joke and Cartman’s memory distorts with each re-telling is a good example for that which happens to be fairly accurate from a neurological/ psychological point of view.

    And Goebbels said that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it. Because we are social animals, most people are programmed to be truthful (better for society) and for getting along with the rest. There’s a famous experiment where a group has been instructed to give wrong answers except for one not-informed test subject. The teacher then shows them simple, obvious questions  (Which of these two lines is shorter? With the difference 1 inch or more, so clearly visible) and everybody except the test subject gives the wrong answer. The majority of subjects will start to give wrong answers after several tries because being the lone voice of dissent in the group is too unnerving for them. Some report that they start having eye trouble because obvious reality not agreeing with the group is so unnerving.

    Additionally, people don’t like to admit they were on the wrong side. So if a wrong narrative (we’ve always been against abortion) is told in the evangelical circles, it’s easy to remember this as the correct version over one’s own fuzzy memory in all honesty.

  • FearlessSon
  • LMM22

    Fred, you really need to read up on research into how human  memory works; and what Goebbels said about propaganda.Short version: Human memory is not like a video tape you can recall with always the same content; rather it’s a fuzzy cloud which changes with retellings.

    And you’re referencing a article?

    Memory may not be solid, but the insistence that evangelicals have always been against abortion actually goes *against* the overarching narrative of Christianity.

    Declaring — for whatever reason — that your church has always taken a certain ideological position on an issue that’s currently under debate actually *removes* one of the greatest rhetorical techniques available to Christians: that of the conversion experience. And Christianity is *all* about conversions. “I was like you once, but then –” is the starting narrative for a lot of things.

    It’s quite possible that, in fifteen years, every single evangelical church will insist that (of course!) they supported LGBT equality. But right now, when the issue is still a matter of debate? More liberal media outlets are *filled* with narratives about such conversion experiences: the preacher who discovers his son is gay; the priest who meets a man dying of AIDS. They’re awesome stories — heartwarming and inspiring. They teach us that people will come around, and they set an example to other people.

    So why, then, don’t we see similar conversion narratives on abortion? We see it all *over* when it comes to (I wish they were) fringe beliefs, such as opposition to abortion for survivors of rape or incest. But we don’t see it for abortion itself, not nearly as much as one might expect.

  • Hecubus Cat

     Goebbels never said that.  it was part of an allied disinformation campaign.  Like Hitler having one testicle. A lie repeated until it became the truth. But it still proves your point.

  • chris the cynic

    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?

    In a fit of needless self promotion (note well: it’s a Slacktiverse post, if you don’t like the Slacktiverse you probably don’t want to click the link) I think that it’s because a desire to know rather than believe drives fundamentalism, at least somewhat.
    The appeal is that you’re dealing with things you know, things that can be known and are known.  Things that are certain.  But in the real world such things don’t exist.  Any theory, no matter how well supported, can be overturned if the right conflicting evidence shows up and can be verified.  Absolute certainly is an illusion.

    I think that illusion of certainty is one of the selling points for those within the bubble.  The bubble keeps out, at least in theory, all those things that might challenge that certainty.  Doubt is kept out.

    Part of the illusion of certainty withing the evangelical bubble is that they’re dealing with something from 2000 years ago and told that in that time it has not changed.  (It has, but bear with me.)  The idea that something could stand the test of time so well adds to the illusion of certainty.  We can all see how much science has changed in living memory and this thing has (supposedly) stayed true and unchanging for two millennia?  Clearly knowledge and certainty is on the side of “I don’t believe; I know,” religion and not those dirty scientists.

    To admit that their own religious views had changed within their own lifetime would shake everything to the foundation.  The illusion of certainty would be shattered.  They have to pretend that this didn’t happen because if it did then doubt can seep in, “If I was wrong then, could I be wrong now?  What if I was right then and wrong to change?” and that destroys the part that’s so appealing in the first place.  The idea that you know.  The idea that you can be certain.

  • LCforevah

     Well, that explains the Romney campaign.

  • Frank from Canada

    “Even after the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, most evangelicals considered abortion a “Catholic issue.””

    So can we safely say that, now, evangelicals are becoming more catholic than the catholics! I look forward to the day they argue “for” the infallibility of the pope. After all, they are ready and willing to vote for a mormon, a religion they considered a dangerous sect for years.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     Speaking of Orwellian history-revisal, I fully expect that if (pleasepleaseplease) Romney loses, the Evangelicals will VERY quickly forget they ever tolerated the Mormons.

  • Jay H

    I suspect most of them still do consider Mormonism a suspect sect. But given the choice between a Democrat (an evil that is well-defined, having been shoved into their eyeballs for decades) and a Republican Mormon (which is probably bad, but they don’t really know a lot about Mormonism, so it’s hard to pin down why), they’ll go with the Mormon.

    For those of them who believe Obama is a “secret Muslim,” it’s an even easier choice: the dangerous sect vs the dangerous non-Christian religion that is out to kill them.

  • Angelia Sparrow

    I am solid Gen X (born 1967). I did not become aware of abortion until the early 80s, when I was about 13.  Boomers remember. Most of us are a tad too young.

    But there is the need to be right that drives so many people. So no one will admit to the change.

  • rizzo

    Fred, I respect your belief in your religion, but organized religion in general is an Orwellian concept and things like this happen all the time within that framework.

  • Lori

    “Things like this” happen all the time in other areas too. Look at the word you used to describe it.

    Think about it for a minute, it’ll come to you.

    Now stop acting like That Atheist. You make the rest of us look bad.

  • reynard61

    “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?”

    Certainly all of the reasons given by the various commenters are valid, and I’ll add an obvious one: It’s *convenient* to their purpose to shove it down the Evangelical memory hole. Otherwise, they’d be forced to acknowledge that, once upon a time, Abortion *wasn’t* a be-all-and-end-all of what it means to belong to The Tribe. I’m pretty sure that if you had asked an Evangelical Christian in the pre-Anita Bryant era whether denying same sex marriage rights to QUILTBAG couples was The Most Important Thing In Our Time, he or she might have laughed and said that, no, fighting Communism was more important because *that* represented a clear and present danger to the world — because, at that particular time, *that* was how one was expected to maintain one’s identity with The Tribe.

    I think that when the Evangelicals realized that they were going to lose one means to maintain their tribal identity (Anti-communism); they found that they needed another, and chose Abortion (and, as a later means to reinforce it, Gay rights and same sex marriage) as their shibboleth. But first, history had to be dealt with…

  • banancat

    Memory is such a weird thing.  I recently had a memory of texting on my smartphone during a college party.  I didn’t get a smartphone until 2 years after I graduated college.  Sometimes when you are enthusiastic enough about something, it can seem like it’s always been that way.  Memory is strange in many other ways too.

    The difference is that I realized my memory is fallible and realized I was wrong, which is something Evangelicals are unwilling to do.  It really bothers me that the Duggars have become so mainstream around the same time that rich greedy insurance companies didn’t want to pay for birth control.  These groups have the same goal and I think they’ll have no problem hopping into bed together.  I am worried that in a decade or less, using birth control will be as taboo and controversial as abortion is now.  Will we have some kind of Hyde Amendment so that the government can never be tainted with such a thing?

  • Invisible Neutrino

    I know what you mean. I can’t remember a time when I needed to consult print material for anything, but intellectually I know that once upon a time I needed to actually open encyclopedias which may or may not have been terribly up to date in order to get information about things.

    Today that seems so horrendously inefficient it’s unbelievable.

  • jedgeco

    Fred, something to consider for a future post:  In the past, you’ve articulated that just because theological views changed (even recently) doesn’t mean that the former view was right.

    With that in mind, why were evangelicals suddenly receptive to abortion as a theological  issue (and, ergo, a political issue) when they’d shrugged it off in the past?  I believe you’ve written in the past that mainstream acceptance of the civil rights movement in the mid-70s left a vacuum for abortion to fill, but I’m having trouble seeing where the pieces fit. 

    Why did hucksters like Paul Weyrich  and Jerry Falwell see a political opportunity with white evangelicals over abortion politics if it had been a theologically neutral issue?  How and why did they change their minds?

  • Invisible Neutrino

    You would have to look to the economic and social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s for a possible cause.

    We should recall that the landmark civil rights laws originated by LBJ and pushed through Congress over the objections of Southern Democrats meant the beginning of a sharp shift to the right which was compatible with the increasing tendency of the Republican party to favor social, as well as economic conservatism.

    Then to this we add the stagflation of the 1970s, the perception that Jimmy Carter was “soft” on communism, and the ongoing unease by white Americans that they felt that the country was changing in ways they didn’t want.

    So abortion became the linchpin of an explicitly religious right-wing push into politics, as part and parcel of a rally against “Godless Communism”, and the insistence that a return to Christian virtues and conservative economic policy would ‘renew America’.

  • Lori


    Then to this we add the stagflation of the 1970s, the perception that
    Jimmy Carter was “soft” on communism, and the ongoing unease by white
    Americans that they felt that the country was changing in ways they
    didn’t want. 

    Soft on communism was the least of it. Nightline did some good reporting over the years (I haven’t seen it in quite some time so I have no idea how the post-Koppel quality is), but it started out bordering on a 30 Minute Hate for Carter. “It’s day XXX of the hostage crisis and Carter is still terrible and ineffectual and barely a man and ain’t it awful.”   

  • Invisible Neutrino

    That certainly didn’t help (-_-)

  • SocraticGadfly

    Jimmy Carter, before Slick Willy and Dear Leader, was teh first neolib Dem president. Airline dereg. Plays for suburban white voters, sometimes with mild dogwhistles. Partial cold shoulder to organized labor. “Evangelical.” Etc.

  • crash2parties

    What was the name given that group of Washington interns during Nixon’s time?  You know, the ones that eventually integrated the new conservative, evangelical movement into their parties politics as a way to manipulate the message ?  It included Cheney and friends, and was around long before the Tea Party…

  • Rocki

    Maybe back then they still remember how many women lost their lives when seeking backyard or self induced abortions. The whole idea was to make something that women had always done, and would continue to do, safe.

  • Osocrates

    Magic_Cracker: “Why are so many white evangelicals pretending they didn’t? Because they’re assholes. NEXT QUESTION?” Wow. Did you punch tickets at Dachau? First of all, the vast majority are ignorant of positions held by the leadership thirty years ago. Second of all, abortion was sold to everyone as a human rights issue: back alley operations with a hanger and all that. Third of all, Christians are often wrong (slavery!) but that doesn’t mean when they change their minds they’re “assholes.” In Christian circles, we call that “repentance”: changing one’s mind and previous path. Fourth, the fact that they were wrong then does not make them wrong now. If you are pro-abortion, what’s your excuse? Are you still an “asshole”? Lastly, what’s the point of this conversation except to distract from the murder of living babies in Pennsylvania abortion clinics? When liberal positions are found to have disastrous consequences, there is never any acceptance of responsibility. The response is either an ad hominem (“You’re an asshole!”) or a red herring (They believed it THIRTY years ago too!”). There never seems to be a thoughtful response asking “Is there something wrong here?”

  • Hawker40

    Godwin, you lose.
    Where were you six months ago when this article was first posted? Where were you two years ago, when the Pensylvania avortion clinic (singular, just the one) hit the news and all the pro-choicers were pointing out how horrid this was?
    But the marching orders have gone out (two years later) with the trial started, and the conservative owned media has decided that it should be an issue.

  • Tony

    How typically Protestant: change your core doctrines along with the shifting winds of societal evolution… Thank GOD I’m a Catholic (and yes, pro-life)!!