The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What everyone gets wrong about evangelicals and abortion

Evangelicals started speaking out against legal abortion long before the late 1970s

Abortion rights demonstrators confront an antiabortion protester on May 14 outside the Supreme Court. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
8 min

In the wake of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s leaked draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, a familiar narrative has emerged. The story goes like this: White evangelicals didn’t care much about abortion until the late 1970s. Around that time, two prominent leaders of the soon-to-be-named “Religious Right,” Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell, concluded that overtly racist politics would harm, not help, their quest for political power. They turned to abortion as a convenient wedge issue in the 1978 midterm elections to drive evangelicals to the polls and distract from the “real” motivations of the far right: stopping racial integration and preserving the tax-exempt status of segregationist Christian schools.

But this oversimplified narrative about abortion reduces the rise of the religious right to the cynical calculations of elite movement leaders — rather than to the actions of thousands of grass-roots activists, religious leaders and conservative thinkers who spent nearly two decades building the networks and ideas that brought about the religious right. It also disentangles abortion from a web of interconnected issues from the 1960s and ’70s, including opposition to the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution, school prayer, school integration, changing attitudes about gender and sexuality and the growing gay rights movement. Those issues were shaped directly and indirectly by racist ideas and attitudes and were part of a broader political realignment that moved White Southern evangelicals and Northern White Catholics from the Democratic Party to the GOP in this period.

Most importantly, this simplified history of abortion ignores the vast and decades-long, Catholic-led antiabortion movement and the coincident politicization of White evangelicals for nearly two decades before the 1978 midterm elections. Understanding this history is vital for making sense of the nearly 60-year interfaith movement that has led to this moment.

Catholic leaders had long opposed abortion, becoming especially vocal in the 1930s when the Great Depression led to an uptick in women seeking the procedure. By the early 1960s, some evangelicals were beginning to view abortion as murder and a source of growing social and political concern. Twelve years before the Roe decision, a young woman wrote to the leading U.S. evangelist, the Rev. Billy Graham, with the following question: “Through a young and foolish sin, I had an abortion. I now feel guilty of murder. How can I ever know forgiveness?” Graham, whose syndicated newspaper column “My Answer” reached millions of Americans, replied: “Abortion is as violent a sin against God, nature, and one’s self as one can commit.” Graham telegraphed evangelicals’ unease with abortion, which would become increasingly political in the coming years.

As state legislatures across the country contemplated legalizing abortion in the mid-1960s — buoyed by support from members of the medical and legal communities, as well as certain more liberal religious groups and, in particular, from the growing women’s liberation movement — evangelical antiabortion voices also emerged in the debate. At the time, there was growing awareness, but also a lot of confusion and ambivalence about abortion among these Christians. An article in a 1967 issue of the evangelical magazine Eternity captured this shifting terrain. It noted that the Bible was “strangely silent” on the question of whether the “unborn fetus” — not, tellingly, the “unborn child” — was a “living person with all the rights of life.” To combat that silence, a smattering of evangelical ministers began participating in Catholic-led “Right to Life Sundays.”

But a real turning point occurred when a statewide referendum on abortion took place in Michigan in 1972. Catholics there led the charge to oppose legalizing abortion. Crucially, they did so in a loose coalition with evangelical denominations, including Missouri Synod Lutherans, Dutch Reformed churches and Southern Baptist Convention churches. These groups managed to get 60 percent of voting Michiganders to oppose abortion law reform by emphasizing that abortion was murder. The campaign codified a visual iconography that is now rote, with mutilated fetuses and endangered White babies at its center. The victory also marked the beginning of an important political coalition in the making between evangelicals and Catholics who opposed abortion.

This type of religious cooperation was now possible because the meaning of abortion had changed for many evangelicals. Initially, most states proposed legalizing abortion only in “extreme cases”: to save the life of the expectant woman and in cases of rape, incest and fetal deformity. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 1971 calling on Southern Baptists to “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions.”

Yet, in the wake of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which (like the state of New York before it) allowed women to elect to have a legal abortion for any reason through the second trimester of pregnancy — before the point at which the fetus could viably live outside the mother’s body — evangelicals came to see abortion differently. A statement from the National Association of Evangelicals immediately responding to Roe lamented that the decision “made it legal to terminate a pregnancy for no other reason than personal convenience or sociological considerations.” That idea grew in evangelical circles as the number of legal abortions increased soon after. By 1975, 3.5 million women, or 1 in 14 women of reproductive age, had had an abortion.

That same year, a prominent group of Protestants, including J.A.O. Preus II, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; Harold Lindsell, the editor of Christianity Today; and Ruth Graham, wife of the Rev. Billy Graham, founded the Christian Action Council to remind “non-Roman Catholic Christians that virtually all Christians have been against abortion from the beginning and for the protection of human life.” Quickly, evangelical denominations and institutions adopted across-the-board opposition to abortion.

These high-profile evangelical thinkers dovetailed with a groundswell of antiabortion sentiments from grass-roots activists. Evangelical women entered the political arena by joining state-level campaigns against the Equal Rights Amendment. The anti-ERA movement was a theological and political melting pot, bringing together Catholic anti-feminist leaders like Phyllis Schlafly with evangelicals across the country to oppose a range of perceived feminist threats to the traditional nuclear family.

In 1977, this synergy was on display at the federally funded and feminist-led National Women’s Conference in Houston, as busloads of conservative evangelical and Catholic women showcased a highly refined political vocabulary to describe the ERA and abortion as intertwined threats to the divinely supported patriarchal familial order.

Given the deep history of animosity and tension between Catholics and evangelicals, this new political alliance was not always easy. To avoid alienating their congregants, evangelical antiabortion activists regularly made sure to remove Catholic imagery, such as the rosary and the Virgin Mary, from antiabortion literature. The Baptist Texas pastor Robert Holbrook, who founded Baptists for Life in 1973, ran antiabortion ads in Baptist newspapers that removed any references to the National Right to Life Committee, a largely Catholic organization that provided him with materials. Holbrook encouraged other evangelicals to develop materials that were published by their denominations, so as not to be perceived as Catholic. Still, despite these tensions, a viable new political alliance had been forged.

These developments set the stage for a large and coordinated Catholic and evangelical antiabortion effort in the 1978 midterm elections. Both the (Catholic) National Right to Life Committee and the (evangelical) Christian Action Council worked through their particular religious communities to mobilize voters against politicians who supported abortion rights. In places like Iowa, Minnesota and New Hampshire, a new crop of conservative, religious, antiabortion Republican candidates — who opposed more moderate candidates in their own party who supported legal abortion, as well as the Democratic Party’s increasing embrace of feminist proposals like the ERA and legal abortion — defeated Democrats who supported legal abortion. The results were so remarkable that political observers at the time commented on the emergence of a new band of “single-issue voters” who made their political decisions solely on the issue of abortion.

In other words, by the 1978 midterm elections, there was already a large and growing antiabortion movement that had energized evangelicals for almost two decades. Conservative leaders tapped into this movement, creating new, politically minded religious groups — notably Falwell’s Moral Majority in 1979, which mobilized voters behind Ronald Reagan’s winning presidential campaign in 1980.

This powerful political coalition was not a last-minute manipulation of gullible voters in the late 1970s. Instead, it reflected a decades-long coalescing of religious and social conservatives around a host of issues related to sexuality, gender and, certainly, race.