How Evangelicalism’s Twin Seeds of Biblical Literalism and Constitutional Originalism Spelled the End of Roe

The 45th President presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who unveiled the Department of Justice’s new “Jurisprudence of Original Intention.” (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

According to a leaked draft opinion published by Politico, the Supreme Court’s five constitutional originalists have joined Justice Alito in overturning Roe v. Wade. Many evangelicals are unsurprisingly elated. 

Legal scholars have found that belief that the Bible is literally true helps predict adherence to originalism—the politicized philosophy that maintains that the Constitution should be interpreted according to its original meaning. While the present connection may be unsurprising, the long history of this ideological pairing is too often ignored.

Fundamentalist theologian J. Gresham Machen was no fan of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal. In the pages of Christianity Today (the fundamentalist namesake of today’s popular evangelical magazine), Machen likened explaining the Constitution to President Roosevelt to explaining color to a blind man. But his concerns went beyond the President. 

When the Supreme Court upheld New Deal assistance to debtors in 1934 in Home Building & Loan Ass’n v. Blaisdell, Machen was despondent. “Chief Justice Hughes and his four associates have declared that the whole Constitution is little more than a scrap of paper,” he wrote to Katherine Balch, a member of the conservative Sentinels of the Republic. Nevertheless, Machen held out hope. “So long as the Constitution remains even on paper,” he continued, “we have a banner and an ideal to lift up before the people of this country.”

Machen rejected the notion that the Constitution outlined a set of malleable principles that could be adapted to the needs of American modernity. Rather, he claimed, the courts should follow the text of the Constitution according to the intent of the Founders. Constitutional fidelity promised a return to an imagined American past defined by liberty—a past that Machen ironically identified with his grandfather’s Georgia plantation on which dozens of slaves had toiled. Invoking the original intent of the Constitution, Machen opposed Black suffrage, women’s suffrage, military conscription, the creation of new National Parks, a federal Child Labor Amendment, New Deal agencies, and, above all, the proposed Federal Department of Education.

However, Machen, a Princeton Seminary Professor and later founder of Westminster Seminary, was better remembered for championing his conservative interpretation of another text: the Bible. In the early 1920s, as the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy wracked the Presbyterian Church, Machen joined with fundamentalists like William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Macartney to defend the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. 

Modernists who relied on new developments in biology, anthropology, and literary criticism sought to separate the Bible’s ethical core from its ancient cultural context. But Machen and his allies claimed that the Bible contained a perfect factual guide—not merely a moral framework. “In the intellectual battle of the present day,” Machen predicted in his seminal 1923 book Christianity and Liberalism, “there can be no ‘peace without victory’; one side or the other must win.”

Machen’s two battles often blended together in a joint grievance against modernity. “[W]hen I turn for refuge to the Church of Christ,” he lamented to his mother, “I find there exactly the same evils that are rampant in the world.” The solution was “the authority of a by-gone age.” The inerrant Bible and the originalist Constitution provided that authority. This rallying cry rooted in lost textual wisdom and a desire to “Make America Great Again” echoed in revival tents, the Reagan Revolution, Tea Party rallies, and the red hats worn by supporters of the 45th president.

Machen passed his textualist ideology on to several students who became enormous influences on American evangelicalism in their own right. Carl McIntire, the so-called “Fighting Fundamentalist,” made the airwaves his pulpit and became a pioneer in right-wing radio. He wielded the Bible and the Constitution as a cudgel against communism and a cover for unfettered American capitalism. Harold Ockenga, dubbed “Mr. Evangelical,” joined with his friend Billy Graham to found the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the neo-evangelical movement. He preached many of the same theological and political refrains, only in a more respectable and popular register than McIntire. 

However, no one did as much to carry forward Machen’s intellectual project as Francis Schaeffer. Schaeffer, the lederhosen-clad leader of the L’Abri Christian commune in Switzerland, became an intellectual icon for many young evangelicals. In books, speeches, and documentary series, he ranged over the course of Western history, dealing with philosophy, art, and theology. In style, Schaeffer appeared a counter-cultural alternative to the stuffy anti-intellectualism of other evangelical leaders. But in substance, Schaeffer offered the fundamentalist biblicism of his theological mentor.

Western civilization, Schaeffer proclaimed, was in decline after it abandoned the notion of absolute truth. Schaeffer identified Christianity’s opposition as “secular humanism,” a feared ideology that followed from liberal Protestantism and paved the way for collectivism. The only way to improve society, Schaeffer promised, was a return to the “biblical worldview.” 

Within evangelicalism in the 1970s, a so-called “Battle for the Bible” was raging. Schaeffer joined with other conservatives to insist that the Bible was inerrant in all matters, including history and science. He helped to organize the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a document aimed at bringing together those who still called themselves fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals and at purging moderates willing to compromise on the all-important doctrine.

But, like his mentor Machen, Schaeffer had two texts to save. The American Constitution, he argued, had been rooted in the “biblical worldview.” It recognized that humans were made in God’s image, that humanity was fallen, and that a scheme of limited government offered greater opportunity for freedom and flourishing than the utopian designs of atheistic communism abroad and liberal humanism in the United States. 

Schaeffer worried about an expanding federal bureaucracy, indoctrination through secular state education, and a Supreme Court that was making law rather than interpreting the literal text of the Constitution, particularly as evidenced by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Modern constitutional law, he wrote in A Christian Manifesto, “is totally reversed from the original intent.” 

Suspect history did not deter Schaeffer who responded angrily to evangelical historians Mark Noll and George Marsden when they disputed his simplistic account of America’s Christian founding. Nor was Schaeffer prepared to accept America’s descent toward dystopia. He partnered with Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority to help elect Ronald Reagan in 1980 as the Evangelical Right became a political juggernaut. Schaeffer considered the Reagan administration a window in which to roll back the changes of the previous fifty years.

Attorney General Edwin Meese III, a biblical inerrantist himself, had long been a key liaison between Ronald Reagan and the Christian Right. In 1985, he unveiled the Department of Justice’s new philosophy of the Constitution, “a Jurisprudence of Original Intention.” In a speech to the American Bar Association, Meese championed both the rhetoric and substance conservative evangelicals had long favored, invoking the intention of the Founders to limit the power of the federal government and increase the scope of religious freedom, particularly with respect to governmental interference with religious education. 

The joint ideological ascendancy of biblical literalism and constitutional originalism remains with us to the present. Evangelicalism still predominantly relies on a theology of biblical inerrancy, and constitutional originalism remains political orthodoxy for the Republican Party. Donald Trump was elected to the presidency with overwhelming evangelical support behind a promise to appoint originalist Justices, a promise he kept three times to the rapturous delight of his evangelical base. 

Already, the conservative Supreme Court has, on originalist grounds, declined to address racialized voter suppression, limited the federal welfare state, and is now overturning Roe. Evangelicalism’s twin seeds of biblical inerrancy and constitutional originalism planted over a century ago are bearing fruit today. And by their fruits, we shall know them.