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Evangelicals didn't always play such a big role in the fight to limit abortion access


As the current Supreme Court session is winding down, the country is still waiting for the final decision on a case that could result in overturning Roe v. Wade. When Justice Samuel Alito's draft opinion was leaked last month, many anti-abortion advocates gathered near the Supreme Court to celebrate the draft, which would overturn Roe v. Wade.

For years, evangelical Christian political groups have helped lead the charge around limiting access to abortion, but that was not always the case. Evangelicals were not always so involved in this fight. NPR's podcast Throughline traced that history, and we're going to return to that story now. Throughline host Rund Abdelfatah says opposition to abortion has become so associated with evangelical Christians that it seems like that's the way it's been all along. But...

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: The Southern Baptist Convention - they actually passed resolutions in 1971, 1974 and 1976, after Roe v. Wade, affirming the idea that women should have access to abortion for a variety of reasons and that the government should play a limited role in that matter, which surprised us. The experts we talked to said white evangelicals at that time saw abortion as largely a Catholic issue.

CHANG: So why the shift? Well, in short, she says desegregation. In 1971, two years before Roe v. Wade, there was a Supreme Court case that began to pull white evangelicals into politics. Rund and her co-host Ramtin Arablouei dove into the story of that case, known as Green v. Connally, and how it ties to the efforts to overturn Roe.

ABDELFATAH: Segregation in public schools had been outlawed since 1954, but changes on the ground were really slow...


DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Southern states have instituted public school plans...

ABDELFATAH: ...And complicated.


EISENHOWER: ...For gradual progress in the enrollment and attendance of school children of all races.

LISA HARPER: White supremacy is threatened at the deepest level. It's an existential threat.

ABDELFATAH: This is Lisa Harper. She's written several books on Christianity, including "Left Right & Christ: Evangelical Faith In Politics."

RANDALL BALMER: In Holmes County, Mississippi, the first year of desegregation, the number of white students in the public schools decreased from 700 some to 28.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: This is religious historian Randall Balmer.

BALMER: The second year of desegregation, the number of white students in the public schools in Holmes County decreased to zero.

ABDELFATAH: So where were these white students going? Well, they enrolled in private so-called segregation academies run by evangelical leaders as tax-exempt religious schools.

BALMER: And a group of parents in Holmes County, Mississippi, said, this isn't right.

ABDELFATAH: And they won.

BALMER: And the gist of the decision was that any organization that engages in racial discrimination or racial segregation is not, by definition, a charitable institution. Therefore, it has no claims on tax-exempt status.

ARABLOUEI: Many white evangelical leaders relied on those tax exemptions to operate their private, segregated schools in places like Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Virginia. And they felt entitled to those tax exemptions on religious grounds.

BALMER: The alarm begins to grow among various evangelical leaders, including Jerry Falwell, who, of course, had his own segregation academy in Lynchburg, Va.

ABDELFATAH: The name Jerry Falwell might sound familiar because he'd go on to become a leading figure of the religious right and one of the architects of the Moral Majority, a Republican political action group that would come to play an important role in American politics.

ARABLOUEI: Randall Balmer says the Green v. Connally loss mobilized a lot of evangelical leaders like Falwell.

HARPER: They lost the bid to protect white space once again.

ARABLOUEI: Around this time, a conservative political activist named Paul Weyrich was trying really hard to grow the Republican Party base.


PAUL WEYRICH: So many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome - good government. They want everybody to vote. I don't want everybody to vote.

BALMER: And he's the person who understood the electoral potential of white evangelicals. And he set out to mobilize them.

ARABLOUEI: The question was, how?

BALMER: Weyrich understood that racism - and let's just call it what it is - was unlikely to be a galvanizing issue among grassroots evangelicals.

ABDELFATAH: So he needed to find another issue. At the time, evangelicals were concerned about all sorts of things - government overreach, for one, and also social changes around roles of women, gay rights and free speech. Then in 1976, something unexpected happened.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Good evening. Shortly before dawn, Jimmy Carter reached the end of his...

ARABLOUEI: Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist evangelical and Sunday school teacher, was elected president of the United States. Yet even as Carter became the face of evangelicals, he quickly began to lose support among them.

BALMER: This is the great paradox surrounding Jimmy Carter in his career, is that he's the person who begins to mobilize evangelical voters, or at least to awaken them about the political process. And then, of course, through the machinations of Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell and others, this same group of people turn radically against Jimmy Carter four years later.

ABDELFATAH: Carter didn't share a lot of their conservative views. So during Carter's presidency, Randall Balmer says that Weyrich continued searching for that holy grail of issues, the thing that had the potential to really unite evangelicals around the Republican Party. And in 1978, five years after Roe v. Wade, it finally hit him.

BALMER: I was reading through Weyrich's papers, midterm election, 1978, and it's almost like the papers begin to sizzle because Weyrich's - I found it. This is the issue that's going to work for us in order to mobilize grassroots evangelical voters.


ARABLOUEI: Because while many evangelicals weren't initially all that bothered by Roe v. Wade, a few years on, the number of abortions had begun to climb, which made some evangelicals kind of uneasy. Weyrich saw that uneasiness as an opportunity.

ABDELFATAH: He teamed up with some prominent anti-abortion activists and helped amplify resistance to abortion among evangelicals. It worked. In 1979, the Moral Majority was formed. They threw their support behind Republican candidate Ronald Reagan, and Reagan won. This began the close relationship between the Republican Party and white evangelicals.

CHANG: Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei are the hosts of NPR's Peabody-winning history podcast Throughline. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.