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Before the Fall

Illustration by Vivienne Flesher

The day before the leak of Samuel Alito’s retrograde Supreme Court draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which appears to be on the verge of overturning long-standing abortion rights, I happened to be on an airplane, watching The Eyes of Tammy Faye—a recent biopic, based on a documentary of the same name, about the rise and fall of one of America’s premier evangelical Christian couples, Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker. At the height of their fame in the 1970s and 1980s, the Bakkers’ PTL—Praise the Lord—Television Network was pulling in tens of millions of dollars in donations, which funded their luxurious lifestyle and ultimately led to Jim Bakker’s fall from grace in the form of five years in prison for defrauding donors.

In a scene set in 1985, Jerry Falwell—the older, more established and politically astute televangelist—is being shown the site in Fort Mill, South Carolina, where Jim Bakker is building PTL’s Heritage USA Christian theme park (with its own Colosseum, not to persecute Christian martyrs, Bakker tells Falwell, but to give “the kids” a place for rock concerts). As they are bouncing along in a jeep, Falwell says to Bakker, “The coalition that we delivered to Reagan—Vice President Bush is counting on us doing the same thing for him in ’88…. Republicans can’t win without us. You need to understand how powerful we are in this fight for our nation’s soul.” Tammy Faye, sitting in the backseat, pipes up and says that they should “keep politics out of the church,” but Falwell is having none of it (or her). “Too much on the line,” he says, cutting her off. “Democrats are already trying to strip away our church’s tax-exempt status. This time we’ll keep the evangelicals in the tent.”

Falwell’s fight for the nation’s soul, as represented in the film, refers to homosexuality and AIDS: “This ‘gay cancer’ is affecting our country, our families,” he says. In reality, the fight began years earlier, in 1979, when Falwell was persuaded to use abortion to bring white evangelicals into the Republican party. At the time, evangelicals were largely apolitical and if they voted at all, they did not do so as an organized bloc. The religious scholar Randall Balmer has shown that even as late as 1976—three years after Roe—the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirmed a resolution, first passed in 1971, urging members “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.” But the Republican strategist Paul Weyrich understood that capturing evangelicals could win the presidency for Ronald Reagan and solidify the future of his party.

By the late 1970s, as I have written in these pages, Falwell was concerned that Democrats were about to rescind the tax-exempt status of the all-white academies—including his own in Lynchburg, Virginia—that evangelicals, among others, had established across the South in the 1960s and 1970s in response to federally mandated desegregation. As Balmer has argued, Weyrich knew that if his party was to join forces with Falwell and other white evangelicals, they would need to appeal to something more socially acceptable than racism. And so the ginned-up rhetoric around killing babies became a cynical ploy to lure voters and perpetuate racial discrimination. (It also gave Republicans an opening to join forces with the Catholic Church, which was firmly against abortion—and contraception and sex outside of marriage—and whose members had reliably voted for Democrats.)

Before this alliance, on the whole Republicans were not opposed to abortion. In 1967, as governor, Reagan had signed off on the California Therapeutic Abortion Act, then one of the country’s most liberal abortion laws. Five years later, a Gallup poll found that nearly seventy percent of Republicans said that only a woman and her doctor, not the government, should be involved in the decision to terminate a pregnancy. But once Weyrich brought evangelicals into the tent, Republican voters—along with prominent Republican politicians like Reagan and George H.W. Bush—became vocal antiabortion advocates. They traded women’s bodies for political power.

So here we are, nearly half a century after the Supreme Court codified a woman’s right to privacy and thus bodily integrity in Roe, and the tail is wagging the dog: evangelicals have annexed the Republican party, which has used its outrage machine to pass laws in many states that make it harder for voters, especially voters of color, to cast ballots. The result is a right-wing minority with more political power than the majority, which has meant a Supreme Court stacked with justices appointed to pursue a Christianist agenda. It’s dominoes, and anyone who believes that overturning Roe is where the game ends is not paying attention.

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This essay is part of a series in which writers respond to the leaked Supreme Court draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

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