History as myth: moral values edition


History, as the cynic says, consists largely of the myths we tells ourselves. One myth resides at the heart of modern American political history: the origin story of the religious right. Here’s Randall Balmer in Politico:

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.

The prevalence of this myth has inspired an endless series of liberal hot-takes and hand-wringing over the Roe decision. Although much of the attention has been directed at its perhaps questionable jurisprudence, others have made the additional claim that Roe was a “political disaster” because it inspired the Religious Right.

(A small sample: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that, ““If the court had gone step-by-step as we did in the gender equality cases, the court and the public would have reacted in a more positive way than it did.” Ben Wittes argued in an interview in the Atlantic that Democrats should let Roe “die”: “By removing the issue from the policy arena, the Supreme Court has prevented abortion-rights supporters from winning a debate in which public opinion favors them.” And Michael Kinsley (who is more of a “liberal” than a liberal) wrote in the Washington Post, “Although I am pro-choice, I was taught in law school, and still believe, that Roe v. Wade is a muddle of bad reasoning and an authentic example of judicial overreaching. I also believe it was a political disaster for liberals. Roe is what first politicized religious conservatives while cutting off a political process that was legalizing abortion state by state anyway.”)

What actually happened, and why does Balmer call the Roe v Wade origin story a myth?

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.

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.

As Balmer persuasively argues, what inspired protestant Evangelical elites to political action was not Roe, but instead was a much less well-known judicial decision, Green v. Connally, which stipulated that “racially discriminatory private schools are not entitled to the Federal tax exemption provided for charitable, educational institutions, and persons making gifts to such schools are not entitled to the deductions provided in case of gifts to charitable, educational institutions”. In other words, at least initially, evangelical leaders mobilized to defend segregation, not the life of the unborn.

In the aftermath of the Bush re-election in 2004, history rhymed, even if it did not repeat. The new coinage was “moral values”, and new narratives were assembled around this phrase. As Mark Danner explained in his New York Review of Books essay, How Bush Really Won,

[A]n army of self-interested commentators, self-appointed spiritual leaders, and television pundits hot for a simple storyline had seized on the answers to a clumsily posed exit poll question—more than one respondent in five, offered seven choices, had selected “moral values” as their “most important issue”—and used those answers to transform the results of the 2004 election into a rousing statement of Americans’ disgust with abortion, promiscuity, R-rated movies, gay marriage, late-night television, and other “Hollywood-type” moral laxity.

On the left, there was a reprise of the post-Roe debate, this time concerning gay marriage: “Senator Dianne Feinstein, The California Democrat, said that the thousands of same-sex weddings at San Francisco City Hall “did energize a very conservative vote.” She added: “So I think that whole issue has been too much, too fast, too soon. And people aren’t ready for it.” Other Democrats are privately saying similar things.” And on the right, there was boasting about their newfound (or perhaps more accurately, newly observed) political power, and a not-so-subtle warning to the politicians they helped elect. One prominent evangelical, Reverend Bob Jones III, wrote to the president:

In your re-election, God has graciously granted America—though she doesn’t deserve it—a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate…. Don’t equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ….

Undoubtedly, you will have opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and limited government. You have four years—a brief time only—to leave an imprint for righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God….

Like the Paul Weyrich story I introduced at the beginning of this post, the idea that values voters carried Bush to victory in 2004 – or, at least, any more so than they did in 2000 – has the feel of a myth. Danner puts forth the alternative explanation that Bush won on national security and terrorism. Or, in other words, Bush was a strong man, Kerry was a weak one, and whom would you rather have as president when our country is in peril?

The attacks of September 11 restored to Republicans their traditional political advantage in matters of “national security” and “national defense”—an advantage the party had lost with the end of the cold war—and Republicans capitalized on that advantage, not only by running President Bush as “a war president,” as he repeatedly identified himself, but by presenting a vote for John Kerry—whom the Republicans succeeded in defining (with a good deal of help from the Swift Boat Veterans, and from Kerry himself) as indecisive, opportunistic, and untrustworthy—as a vote that was inherently, dangerously risky.

You’ll notice, I think, that what motivates the religious Right, or conservative Evangelicals, or values voters, or any of their other titles, is never as high-minded as they would like you to believe. The messaging is poetic and sanctimonious: “to leave an imprint for righteousness”, and to preserve the “sanctity of life”. The reality is more prosaic and base: these people are afraid of black kids joining their schools, and of the Muslim terrorist menace.

The election of Donald Trump, with 81% of the evangelical vote, and the circling of wagons around Roy Moore (at least among right-wing evangelicals), has brought this truth to the fore. Some people seem “astounded” by it, though:

Robert P. Jones, author of “The End of White Christian America,” observes, “One of the most astounding shifts in modern politics has been the utter transformation of white evangelical Protestants from being confident self-described ‘values voters,’ who measured candidates for office against a high bar of moral character, to anxious and unwavering Trump supporters who have largely dropped these standards for a candidate they believe will deliver policies that benefit them.” He explains that “white evangelicals have exchanged an ethic of principle that might hold a political leader accountable to consistent standards for a consequentialist ends-justify-the-means posture that simply stops interrogating character, the quality of leadership, or the morality of actions when it’s beneficial.”

Well, no shit. What’s astounding isn’t that evangelicals don’t actually have moral standards, it’s that political commentators and academics were credulous enough to believe that they did. Perhaps this is an outgrowth of history as myth. If you believe that the Confederacy was a noble organization defending a “heritage” and a “way of life”; if you believe that Southern Baptists truly cared about the sanctity of life instead of the purity of race; if you believe that Babs Montpetit in Lake Butler, Florida was driven to the polls by her unshakeable belief in the “biblical norm regarding the family” rather than her fear of the Muslim terrorists waiting to strike her tiny town of 2000 (and that’s not a joke; read the article) – if you believe all of those things, then you might also believe that Roy Moore’s base – the same people who voted in overwhelming numbers for a rapist and generally awful person for President – would betray him over his “character, quality of leadership, or morality of actions”.


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