The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Christian right’s version of history paid off on abortion and guns

How this version of American history shaped two key Supreme Court decisions

A celebration outside the Supreme Court on June 24, in Washington. The Supreme Court has ended constitutional protections for abortion that had been in place nearly 50 years. (Steve Helber/AP)

Two crucial Supreme Court rulings in June hinged on history — one on abortion and one on gun rights. The court’s conservative majority applied a nostalgic view of the past to make it harder to limit the right to carry a concealed firearm. Meanwhile, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. argued in the Dobbs v. Jackson Womens Health Organization ruling that any right not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution must be “rooted in our Nation’s history and tradition” and claimed that the right to an abortion did not meet this standard.

In both cases however, historians quickly pointed out that the court’s conservatives mangled the history. Justice Elena Kagan and other critics suggested that the conservative justices are playing the role of amateur historians, a job well outside the scope of their duties and training.

But the court’s conservatives did not invent this history — they merely borrowed it from the Christian right.

In the 1970s, White conservative Christians needed a strategy to reclaim the political and cultural power they believed was rightfully theirs. They abhorred the changes wrought by liberal activists in the previous decade that threatened the racial, religious and sexual hierarchies they believed to be ordained by God. They mourned the Supreme Court’s decisions to ban school-sponsored prayer and devotional Bible reading in public schools, legalize abortion and curtail government aid to religious institutions. They longed for the America of their childhoods.

A message coalesced: America needed to return to its old, righteous ways. The changes of the 1960s and early 1970s were not progress but decline. To save the nation, Americans needed to emulate the past.

To do that, however, White conservative Christians needed a narrative of the past that indicted the present and supported their vision for the future. So their leaders and intellectuals created one. In that Christian heritage story, the United States was founded by devout proto-evangelical Christians in a unique covenant with the Christian God. As the 1977 best-selling book “The Light and the Glory” put it: “In the virgin wilderness of America, God was making His most significant attempt since ancient Israel to create a New Israel of people living in obedience to the laws of God, through faith in Jesus Christ.”

This new Christian heritage story taught Americans to revere the founding era as the most morally authoritative moment in the American past, when Christian heroes and their God worked together to make a righteous new nation. In that story, life was uncomplicated by musings on power and privilege. White Christian men ruled the country, and White Christian women ruled the home. Liberal historians of the 1960s and 1970s had corrupted American history with their critiques of the Founders and their desire to tell the stories of women, people of color and other marginalized groups.

The Christian heritage narrative “saved” American history by denying any mistakes made by the Founders or the other White Christian heroes. From this perspective, Americans should emulate the past, not learn from its mistakes. Soon the Bible and American history blended into one continuous story of God’s plan for the world’s salvation — sometimes literally.

To celebrate the American bicentennial in 1976, the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s fundamentalist Christian ministry published a special edition of the King James Bible that included biographies of U.S. presidents, the texts of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, and essays on “America’s Christian Heritage” and “The Christian Foundations of Our Nation.”

Falwell continued to preach this message for the rest of the 1970s, including through his I Love America rallies. He founded Moral Majority in 1979, arguing that “despite the moral sickness which pervades our society God has not finished with us as a nation.”

Other leaders of the nascent Christian right made similar arguments. Beverly LaHaye founded Concerned Women for America in the late 1970s to “inform women in America of the erosion of our historical Judeo-Christian moral standards.” Equipped with that history, conservative Christian women could work to protect “the traditional family” through prayer and political action primarily aimed at thwarting feminist policy proposals. As new conservative Christian organizations formed through the 1980s and 1990s, the Christian heritage story united them into a cohesive movement to “restore the nation.”

Conservative Christian leaders found allies at other conservative organizations. The Heritage Foundation gave money, office space and advice to the founders of the Christian Voice, a lobbying organization “committed to returning America to traditional values.” Meanwhile, the Federalist Society preached a new gospel of judicial interpretation called “originalism.” According to law professor Ann Southworth, both the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society mediated between the Christian right and other factions of the conservative movement, uniting them around their shared goal of turning back the clock to an imagined point in the past.

This nostalgic reimagining of the past accomplished two strategic goals for the Christian right in the late 1970s and 1980s. First, by providing examples of past Christians who participated in worldly politics, it activated conservative Christians to vote and campaign at a grass-roots level. Their support proved crucial in the election and reelection of former president Ronald Reagan, and they became a key constituency of the Republican Party from that point forward.

Second, an important legal argument was embedded in this version of American history: the idea that Christianity and the American government were thoroughly entangled in the past, and that the courts had erred in attempting to fully separate church and state in the mid-20th century.

That legal argument, however, hinged on the notion that anyone could interpret the past, just as Protestants believed that anyone could interpret the Bible. Christian heritage proponents saw no need for specialized training or professional expertise, in part because they took the written records of the past at face value with little interrogation of context or the potential that narrators might be unreliable.

As the Christian legal movement emerged in the 1980s, its lawyers relied on this approach to history to gradually undo what they saw as the damage of the Supreme Court’s efforts to decenter Christianity in American law and policy. They tended to include long lists of quotes about Christianity from the Founders to support their arguments — typically failing to provide context for these quotes and ignoring the possibility that other contemporary Americans might have disagreed.

Over time, conservative Christian lawyers persuaded the court that if the Founders engaged in public displays of religion and directed government money to religious organizations, today’s government could do the same in any number of ways. States could display the Ten Commandments on state property, religious leaders could offer prayer at city council meetings, and government money could resurface a church playground or pay tuition to a private religious school. Who could argue against the precedent of history and traditions?

In Dobbs v. Jackson Womens Health Organization and New York State Pistol and Rifle Association v. Bruen, Alito and Justice Clarence Thomas, respectively, replicated the Christian heritage story, both in content and in method of inquiry. Like Christian heritage proponents, they located America’s moral standards in the past, primarily in the founding era. Any innovations since then are not progress but a sign of decline. And the simplistic past they described makes no room for contradictory sources, marginalized voices from that time period or errors that Americans should not want to replicate.

This past, the court tells us, sets the boundaries of our constitutional rights today. We all must live by this distorted view of history, even though some Americans will die because of it.

Under the guise of upholding America’s history and traditions, the court’s conservatives have finally established the Christian Right’s values as the law of the land — for the first time in American history..

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