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The June 20, 2019 edition of NPR’s “Throughline” podcast “examines how the issue of abortion became a defining political issue for evangelicals.”

In it, the hosts talk about evangelicals initially ignoring, or even welcoming, Roe v. Wade, noting Southern Baptist Convention resolutions in 1971, ’74, and ’76 that supported abortion in a variety of circumstances (beyond threatening the life of the mother) and opposed significant government regulation. The hosts state that “The experts we talked to said white evangelicals at that time saw abortion as largely a Catholic issue.”

This changed, according to the podcast, because of a segregationist named Paul Weyrich, who “understood that racism - and let's call it what it is - was unlikely to be a galvanizing issue among grassroots evangelicals,” and thus “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.

Religious historian Randall Balmer then says

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

Is this an accurate depiction of events? I have confirmed that the SBC did say such things in ’71, ’74, and ’76, but I don’t know how well they speak for “evangelicals,” and I have confirmed that Weyrich was a segregationist who did see abortion as this galvanizing issue where segregation wasn’t, but I don’t know how influential he really was and whether this really was the “throughline,” as the podcast’s title puts it.

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  • Did evangelicals really rally around segregation before, for this be to a shift? I think it wasn't true except for the Southern ones, so it's probably an incorrect initial condition for this line of reasoning. OTOH, I'd grant that [anti-]abortion would have had a broader-base appeal. So in that sense it was a "no brainer" to focus on that after Roe.
    – Fizz
    May 7 at 18:52
  • @Fizz That’s not the claim. The claim is that segregationists wanted to get evangelical support, but needed some other issue to do it because segregation wouldn’t work for them. Allegedly, abortion became that issue.
    – KRyan
    May 7 at 18:57
  • Oh, in that case the claim is plain false. There were plenty of segregationist evangelicals (in the south). Entire books have been written about that e.g. oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/… Honestly, the quotes you've selected don't really shed light on what the thesis actually is. So I have the impression we might be debunking a straw man.
    – Fizz
    May 7 at 19:02
  • @Fizz No one said they weren’t segregationist, just that this issue wasn’t going to generate the grassroots movement they wanted. I recommend actually listening to the podcast or reading the transcription.
    – KRyan
    May 7 at 22:11

2 Answers 2

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This changed, according to the podcast, because of a segregationist named Paul Weyrich, who “understood that racism -

I have confirmed that Weyrich was a segregationist who did see abortion as this galvanizing issue where segregation wasn’t

I have not found confirmation of this.

Weyrich set up the Heritage Foundation, which does not appear to be segregationist, nor does Weyrich.

The point I can derive is as follows:

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133/

For nearly two decades, Weyrich, by his own account, had been trying out different issues, hoping one might pique evangelical interest: pornography, prayer in schools, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, even abortion

Secondly, in 1976 Bob Jones University had its tax exemption rescinded, due to its segregationist policies.

Thirdly, in 1978 anti-abortion Senators won both Senate seats in Minnesota.

According to the Politico story following the 1978 victory, evangelicals begun campaigning against abortion, touring the country.

In earlier years, opposition to abortion had been a Catholic issue, and evangelicals were much less concerned, however with the huge rise in abortions following Roe v Wade

enter image description here

then things had changed, and abortion became a political issue.

The argument that Weyrich was concerned with segregation doesn't appear. What does appear, is that Bob Jones Jr, Jerry Falwell, et al, ran segregated Christian schools, and they were unhappy at the government moving against them, and this led them to try to seek political support for their segregated schools, so they became a Republican bloc, whereas at that point young white evangelicals were more likely to support the Democrats.

enter image description here

In 1982 Reagan planned to support Bob Jones University in its argument for segregation, however an outcry meant they did not do so.

So in summary from what I can see:

  • no, abortion was not primarily a substitute for segregation, in that it is clear that abortion became an issue because of campaigning by Christians who had nothing to do with segregation, such as Francis Schaeffer.
  • abortion was an issue in its own right, given the recent legalization and large rise in abortion
  • segregationist Christian pastors did seek to ally with the Republicans politically in order to continue segregating, and they got help from the Republicans on this matter
  • it appears that Weyrich did portrary Carter and the Democrats as anti-Christian, and sought to portray Carter as to blame for IRS moves against segregated Christian schools, and hence to mobilize evangelicals towards the Republicans
  • this further intensified when Carter refused to pass a constitutional amendment against abortion (https://amc.sas.upenn.edu/sites/default/files/Balmer%20-%20Historian%27s%20Pickaxe.pdf)

Therefore we essentially have two separate issues being used for political ends by a Republican strategist:

  1. abortion, which became a bigger issue after it was legal and common
  2. segregation, in that he said to the segregationist pastors - we will help you if you support us

It doesn't seem credible to argue that abortion was a substitute for segregation, because this starts from the initial assumption by the questioner, which is not sourced, that Weyrich was motivated by segregation/racism, as opposed to Weyrich being a political strategist motivated by political power.

The idea that there was some sort of 'abortion as a proxy for segregation' implies a sort of political process that doesn't really exist. Conservativism reacts to contemporary issues, and in a culture war may seek to talk about them constantly, and can use them to gain political power (talking about LGBT, etc.), but for example Weyrich's Heritage Foundation was setup with a standard conservative goal of 'lower taxation'. The idea of the pro-life movement being a giant conspiracy on behalf of segregation is not credible, even if this movement did involve many people who had initially coalesced in support of segregation - the fact that there was at that point already a political coalition of Southern segregationist pastors because of IRS action against their schools meant that they were easier to mobilize against subsequent issues. It strikes me that there is an intended ad hominem here that 'they didn't really care about abortion and just wanted to be racist'.

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  • This is a pretty great answer—and I agree, there does seem to be an ad hominem argument being made here, but I’m not the one making it, so much at reacting to what Throughline seems to imply. As for Weyrich, I did see other reporting that mentioned his support for segregation (or at least the rights of religious schools to segregate) and his making common cause with Falwell et al. and pointing them at abortion—but it’s possibly that reporting was itself based on the Throughline piece.
    – KRyan
    May 8 at 14:04
  • I think there is a difference between 'Weyrich supporting the rights of schools to segregate' and 'Weyrich being a segregationist'. The latter implies this was some deeply held principle of his, which I don't think is the case.
    – thelawnet
    May 8 at 14:08
  • 1
    Joe Biden has repeatedly stated that he was close with segregationists, to 'get things done' nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/… nypost.com/2022/05/07/… That doesn't mean it's accurate to describe Joe Biden as a segregationist
    – thelawnet
    May 8 at 14:26
  • 1
    The Johntson Archive isn't reliable for number of abortions in the 1960s and prior. For example, Johnston estimates only 390 abortions in 1963, whereas "Vital and Health Statistics" estimates there were about 5000 legal abortions in 1963. google.com/books/edition/Vital_and_Health_Statistics/…
    – DavePhD
    May 8 at 14:32
  • 5
    "The huge rise of abortions after RvW" is almost certainly (but less-provably) incorrect, as prior to Roe, accurate records were not being kept of abortions.
    – jdunlop
    May 9 at 17:36
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A 1966 article The Law of Therapeutic Abortion: A Social Commentary on Proposed Reform in the Journal of Public Law (published by Emory law school) attempted to describe the positions of various Protestant denominations as well as those of other religions:

A Baptist spokesman, however, states that therapeutic abortion is a medical problem and is to be resolved between the patient and the physician , within the bounds of the law [39]. A Lutheran theologian gives the most strict attitude of the Protestant denominations; he contends that abortion involves a balancing of the soul of the fetus against the life of the mother and that doubt should be resolved in favor of the fetus [40]. A Methodist minister says his church believes that an abortion should be performed only to save the life of the mother [41]. A Presbyterian official says only that therapeutic abortion is not opposed in principle [42]. The Episcopal Church has been credited with favoring therapeutic abortion [43].

...

Orthodox Jews permit abortion only to save the mother's life. The Reform and Conservative Jews, however, tend toward a more liberal treatment of therapeutic abortion, although that trend is not yet an official one. [45]

The 1952 Lutheran Quarterly says:

Abortion can be justified only when competent medical opinion finds the life of the mother at stake or possibilities for life for the unborn child absent.

So prior to the Roe v Wade decision, Lutheran and Methodist denominations were the Protestants most opposed to abortion, while Baptist, Presbyterian and Episcopal were less opposed.

Two months after the Roe v Wade decision, Baptist minister and Black community activist Jesse Jackson voiced strong opposition to abortion saying, as published in the 22 January 1973 Jet Magazine at page 15:

Abortion is genocide...If people use preventive measures to stop the life process from originating, I can buy that. If they use pills, contraceptives, rhythm to stop it from being, I can buy that, too. But if they get carried enough away to set the baby in process, they must get carried enough away to accept the responsibility of the baby. And I don't want to hear this bit about babies not really living until the baby has a face and the doctor smacks it and it cries.

Anything growing is living. ... If you got the thrill to set the baby in motion and you don't have the will to protect it, you're dishonest. ... For who knows the cure for cancer won't come out of some mind of some Black child?

Then, according to the 26 July 1973 Jet Magazine article Black Churchmen Oppose Abortion As Genocide:

A resolution was adopted recently by the Progressive National Baptist Convention deploring abortions as a form of genocide being attempted by legislatures and calling for its use only in cases where the life of the mother is at stake. "We as a Black group recognize (abortion) as a method of control," said Rev. James O. Rich, president of the 3,000-delegate Black convention.

So within Baptists, Black Baptists were the first to officially call for limiting abortions to only cases where the life of the mother is at stake.

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  • It is unfair to argue that the views expressed by religious thinkers in the second half of the 20th century are typical of previous religious attitudes. Many religious and judicial opinions in the 18th century and earlier were much less absolute, for example many were fairly tolerant of early-term abortions and only made a big issue of it after the point of "quickening" where the baby could be detected moving.
    – matt_black
    Jun 9 at 12:10

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