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Kathy Sheridan: Evangelical hypocrisy behind US fight against abortion rights

At the time of the Roe v Wade ruling in 1973, influential evangelicals were more concerned with maintaining racial segregation

Stunning. Momentous. Consequential. Let’s hear it for the white American evangelicals who played the anti-choice long game. Over the coming months and years, prepare to be awe-struck by tales of how long, long ago in 1973 when the US Supreme Court handed down the landmark Roe v Wade decision, the Evangelical army rose up in a fury of Christian fervour and . . .

Only they didn’t. In fact two years beforehand, the Southern Baptist Convention had passed a resolution calling to legalise abortion. Influential evangelicals applauded the Roe ruling as marking an appropriate distinction between personal morality and public policy. Even James Dobson, an American Evangelical Christian author, acknowledged after the Roe decision that the Bible was silent on the matter and that it was plausible for an evangelical to hold that “a developing embryo or fetus was not regarded as a full human being”. For most of the 1970s, they saw abortion as a “Catholic issue”.

When Ronald Reagan addressed 20,000 cheering evangelicals in August 1980, he mentioned his support for creationism

So if there was little in evangelicalism’s history to suggest that abortion would become a point of interest, never mind facilitate access-all-areas passes to the Trump White House, what changed ?

That would be the Inland Revenue Service’s meddling with racial segregation. In short, what propelled abortion onto the religious right’s agenda and into a movement was IRS efforts to enforce the Brown v Board of Education decision of 1954 and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Ban on interracial dating

The tipping point came in 1976 when the IRS rescinded the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies, which included a ban on interracial dating lasting right up to the year 2000.

We know this because in 1990, Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, happened to be present at a closed-door meeting of the American religious right’s top guys. The Christian Coalition, the American Family Association, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Moral Majority were all represented plus a conservative direct-mail mogul called Richard Viguerie among others.

The first speaker, Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, was notably keen to remind his devout Christian brethren that the religious right hadn’t come together in response to the Roe decision; it was about the Bob Jones tax exemption. When an incredulous Balmer checked back with Weyrich, the latter was emphatic that abortion had nothing whatsoever to do with the genesis of the religious right.

The Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell, a Baptist minister who opened his own segregationist academy in 1967, would claim 14 years later that abortion was the catalyst for his political activism; in fact he didn’t preach his first anti-abortion sermon until February 1978, more than five years after Roe.

So how did evangelicals decide to make it about abortion? On a conference call to strategise the tax exemptions campaign, someone suggested they might have the makings of a political movement and wondered what other issues would work for them. “How about abortion?”, said a voice on the line.

Creationism

Even then, it took a while. When Ronald Reagan addressed 20,000 cheering evangelicals in August 1980, he mentioned his support for creationism and obligingly criticised the IRS for its supposed vendetta against evangelical schools. He said absolutely nothing about abortion. Only in the early 1980s did anti-abortion finally become an evangelical battle cry and Republican candidates learned what was good for them.

Despite the stunned reaction to the leaked draft, it comes as no huge surprise. The judgment was foretold by both sides

It peaked with the images of a White House-appointed televangelist laying hands on president Donald Trump, a twice-divorced cheat, liar, misogynist and sexual predator, notorious for his squalid efforts to cover up sex with a porn star while his third wife was pregnant with their child. His chosen televangelist was Paula White, a Florida pastor who preaches that God believes Christians should be rewarded with material wealth and in January 2020 called for “all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now”.

Their proud legacy is the conservative majority on the US Supreme Court and an effective abortion ban in many of the states, with – as always – a disproportionate impact on poorer women.

Despite the stunned reaction to the leaked draft, it comes as no huge surprise. The judgment was foretold by both sides. All across the US, even with Roe still in place, the religious right/Republican axis has been getting on with the job of tormenting, humiliating and controlling girls and women.

In Texas where abortion is effectively banned after six weeks, any private citizen can bring a lawsuit against any person who performs an abortion or “aids and abets” a procedure, for a bounty of $10,000 plus legal fees for successful suits. Last month, the Idaho Senate passed a Bill with a minimum reward of $20,000 for family members who sue, including “a sibling of the preborn child”. In Oklahoma, a Senate committee approved a Bill to ban any abortion starting 30 days after the “probable” start of a woman’s last period.

At least seven states have proposed bans on medical abortions. The pills – usually taken at home in the first nine weeks – rank first among the most “pressing priorities” by Americans United for Life for 2022 legislative sessions, which is revealing in itself.

On days like these, it is the gargantuan levels of cynicism, hypocrisy and vindictiveness that stick in the throat. And serve as reminders that we can never go back.