Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Real Origins of the Religious Right

By Randall Balmer

One of the most durable myths in recent history is that the religious right, the coalition of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, emerged as a political movement in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. The tale goes something like this: Evangelicals, who had been politically quiescent for decades, were so morally outraged by Roe that they resolved to organize in order to overturn it.

This myth of origins is oft repeated by the movement’s leaders. In his 2005 book, Jerry Falwell, the firebrand fundamentalist preacher, recounts his distress upon reading about the ruling in the Jan. 23, 1973, edition of the Lynchburg News: “I sat there staring at the Roe v. Wade story,” Falwell writes, “growing more and more fearful of the consequences of the Supreme Court’s act and wondering why so few voices had been raised against it.” Evangelicals, he decided, needed to organize.

Some of these anti-Roe crusaders even went so far as to call themselves “new abolitionists,” invoking their antebellum predecessors who had fought to eradicate slavery.

But the abortion myth quickly collapses under historical scrutiny. In fact, it wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after Roe—that evangelical leaders, at the behest of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion not for moral reasons, but as a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term. Why? Because the anti-abortion crusade was more palatable than the religious right’s real motive: protecting segregated schools. So much for the new abolitionism.


Today, evangelicals make up the backbone of the pro-life movement, but it hasn’t always been so. Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.

When the Roe decision was handed down, W. A. Criswell, the Southern Baptist Convention’s former president and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas—also one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century—was pleased: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person,” he said, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”

Although a few evangelical voices, including Christianity Today magazine, mildly criticized the ruling, the overwhelming response was silence, even approval. Baptists, in particular, applauded the decision as an appropriate articulation of the division between church and state, between personal morality and state regulation of individual behavior. “Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision,” wrote W. Barry Garrett of Baptist Press.


So what then were the real origins of the religious right? It turns out that the movement can trace its political roots back to a court ruling, but not Roe v. Wade.

In May 1969, a group of African-American parents in Holmes County, Mississippi, sued the Treasury Department to prevent three new whites-only K-12 private academies from securing full tax-exempt status, arguing that their discriminatory policies prevented them from being considered “charitable” institutions. The schools had been founded in the mid-1960s in response to the desegregation of public schools set in motion by the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. In 1969, the first year of desegregation, the number of white students enrolled in public schools in Holmes County dropped from 771 to 28; the following year, that number fell to zero.

In Green v. Kennedy (David Kennedy was secretary of the treasury at the time), decided in January 1970, the plaintiffs won a preliminary injunction, which denied the “segregation academies” tax-exempt status until further review. In the meantime, the government was solidifying its position on such schools. Later that year, President Richard Nixon ordered the Internal Revenue Service to enact a new policy denying tax exemptions to all segregated schools in the United States. Under the provisions of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which forbade racial segregation and discrimination, discriminatory schools were not—by definition—“charitable” educational organizations, and therefore they had no claims to tax-exempt status; similarly, donations to such organizations would no longer qualify as tax-deductible contributions.

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  1. Evangelicals supported Carter in 1976 because he said he was one of them. The Religious Right (organizationally begun by Falwell with his Moral Majority in 1979) was more a Likudnik Christian Zionist project than anything else:

    …In 1979, Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, an evangelical lobbying group whose purpose was to promote the pursuit of conservative, Christian, and ‘family-oriented’ legislation in the U.S. congress. The issue of greatest importance to Falwell (a self-proclaimed ‘convert’ to Zionism after 1967), however, was the ‘destiny’ of the State of Israel, stating in 1984 that “the people of Israel have not only a theological but also a historical and legal right to the land.”[5] Falwell advocated restoration of Jewish control of ‘the land’ promised to Abraham in Genesis 15:18—which includes the area between the Nile and the Euphrates. Such a conception was welcomed warmly by the right-wing Likud government under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who developed a close personal and political friendship with Falwell. In forming this relationship, Begin and fellow Likud member Ariel Sharon were able to gain support for an ambitious settlement policy—one that would establish ‘facts on the ground’ in the occupied territories and thus secure expanded final boundaries for the State of Israel. At a time when the Likud party’s settlement policy faced considerable resistance from U.S. President Jimmy Carter (and, to a lesser degree, from Ronald Reagan), Begin could consistently rely on ideological support from Falwell and his evangelical Moral Majority.

    Of course, Falwell’s unrelenting support for Israel was not met without criticism from dissenting voices within the American Jewish community. After Begin awarded Falwell with the Jabotinsky Prize in 1980 (the first awarded to a non-Jew), Reform leader Rabbi Alexander Schindler criticized the emerging alliance between the Israeli Right and the American Christian Right: “Can someone really be good for Israel when everything else he says and does is destructive of America and undermines the Jewish community?”

  2. More detail:

    …Government support of settlement building accelerated dramatically in 1977 when Menachem Begin became Prime Minister. Begin’s ultranationalist notions had made him a figure on the fringe for the first three decades of Israel’s existence, but his Likud Party had finally come to power.

    Ironically, Begin won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, along with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, for signing the Camp David Accords. Thanks to skillfully managed negotiations on the part of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Begin agreed to return the Sinai desert to Egypt, but refused to discuss the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. And this is where our story begins – the same year that the Camp David Accords were signed.

    That year, 1978, Begin invited The Reverend Jerry Falwell for his first official visit to Israel, and the following year, 1979, his government gave Falwell a gift — a Lear Jet.

    Begin’s timing was perfect. He began working seriously with Christian Zionists at the precise moment that Christian fundamentalists in America were discovering their political voice.

    The same year that Falwell received his Lear Jet, 1979, he formed the Moral Majority, an organization that changed the political landscape in the United States. What was Falwell’s interest in Israel? He was a Dispensationalist. Dispensationalism is a system of theology that believes the Jews must return to Israel as part of God’s plan for Christ to return.

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