Bishops Rile Up the Religious Right, Then and Now

There’s been a lot of discussion lately of the ideological roots of the Christian Right. Sarah Posner dissected Nebraska Senate candidate Ben Sasse’s dissertation here on RD, noting that according to Sasse, the “roots of the modern religious right lie in the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions striking down mandatory public school prayer and Bible reading.” According to Sasse, those decisions “touched a nerve” among the grassroots, which led to the subsequent rise of the right as a “spontaneous” response to “judicial tyranny.”

In Politico, historian Randall Balmer takes another view, deconstructing the right’s creation myth, which centers on Roe v. Wade as the catalyst for the Moral Majority. He reiterates that it was anger over the removal of federal tax exempt status from segregationist Christian academies in the South, which had been created as an end-run around the desegregation of public schools, that politically activated the right.

Sensing that “he had the beginnings of a conservative political movement,” political strategist Paul Weyrich and “other leaders of the nascent religious right blamed” President Jimmy Carter “for the IRS actions against segregated schools—even though the policy was mandated by Nixon.”

But, “having tapped into the ire of evangelical leaders,” says Balmer, Weyrich was “savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots evangelicals to defend racial discrimination would be a challenge.” So he turned to a more palatable issue—abortion.

Balmer points to the 1978 Iowa Senate race, in which the Democratic incumbent, Dick Clark, unexpectedly lost to a pro-life candidate after local anti-abortion activists leafleted church parking lots, as alerting Weyrich that “abortion might motivate conservatives.”

Weyrich’s pivot from segregation to abortion was a stroke of political genius. As I note in Good Catholics:

Weyrich realized that abortion could be used to unite otherwise disparate political constituencies into a powerful electoral coalition…The abortion issue neatly exploited the resentments of traditionalist Americans who felt alienated by the progressive values of the 1960s and ’70s. It encapsulated their fears of the feminist movement and the spread of sexual permissiveness, which threatened patriarchal values, and a distrust of the federal government imposing liberal values on their families and communities.

But not as well recognized is the role of the 1976 presidential election in apprising Weyrich of the potency of abortion as a wedge issue. The year before the election, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had released their Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, which sought to create a grassroots Catholic lobby to advocate for passage of a Human Life Amendment. The attempt was instantly controversial; even some liberal bishops called it an inappropriate intrusion by the church into politics. The National Catholic Reporter said, “If the bishops have created a Catholic party…they have unleashed a fearsome thing.”

The bishops’ move politicized the issue during an election cycle in which the Catholic vote was increasingly courted. Nixon had pandered to Catholics on abortion to help him become the first Republican to win the Catholic vote in 1972. Gerald Ford needed to hold on to that vote to offset his weakness in the South. Jimmy Carter was thought to have a “Catholic problem” as born-again Southern Baptist. Both, as I noted, ended up shamelessly courting the Catholic bishops:

Americans were treated to the spectacle of both presidential candidates—neither of them Catholic—genuflecting before the bishops for their benediction. It was a lost cause for Carter given the Democratic Party’s official pro-Roe stance…but he nevertheless sought a meeting with the NCCB executive committee and tried to mollify them by noting his personal opposition to abortion….The bishops told the assembled press waiting breathlessly for the outcome of the meeting that they were “disappointed” with Carter’s position on abortion.

Ford…embraced the Republican Party’s call for a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe. After a meeting with the bishops in which he confirmed his support of an anti-abortion amendment that would return the issue to the states, he received what was widely perceived as the tacit backing of the bishops.

Catholics swung toward Carter anyway. But the emerging Christian Right glommed on to the newly politicized issue of abortion and didn’t let go. They used it to bring Ronald Reagan to power, resulting in cuts to anti-poverty and environmental programs and a newly militaristic nation—values diametrically opposed to Catholicism.

The bishops have accomplished much the same thing today by radicalizing the Tea Party to the issue of “religious freedom.” According to the Public Religion Research Institute, Catholics continue to be lukewarm on the issue. A majority back mandated contraceptive coverage—one of the bishops’ central “religious freedom” issues—for most employers and just over half (55%) see religious liberty as broadly threatened.

On the other hand, a whopping 83% of white evangelical Protestants now believe religious liberty is under attack. The idea of imperiled religious freedom permeates Tea Party discourse and is used to justify everything from opposing ObamaCare to more sinister aspersions about the legitimacy of the government that block meaningful action on issues from climate change to immigration, again raising questions about whose side the bishops are on.

Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. Her work on the intersection of sex, religion, and politics has appeared in The Nation, Ms., and Huffington Post. She was the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor-in-chief of the National Journal’s health care briefings.