Were Evangelicals Really Silent about Roe v. Wade?

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It has become commonplace for historians to say that evangelicals had a muted response to the Roe v. Wade decision, which struck down state laws against abortion in 1973. For critics, this silence makes the Christian Right’s focus on abortion more opportunistic, because (as the thinking goes) abortion was not obviously a moral problem to them when Roe came down.

Typical is a passage in an otherwise excellent textbook of American religious history, which says that when Roe v. Wade was decided, “the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church protested, but evangelicals offered nary a whimper” (bold mine).

The truth is that evangelicals’ initial responses to the pro-life movement were mixed. To be sure, you could find some evangelicals who supported abortion or who were silent on the issue. It took fundamentalist Baptist Jerry Falwell a few years to speak publicly against abortion. As Trevin Wax has noted here, Baptist Press, the newspaper of the Southern Baptist Convention, took an anti-Catholic tone in its favorable reporting on the decision:

The Roman Catholic hierarchy insists that the Supreme Court blundered by making an immoral, anti-religious and unjustified decision. It has vowed to continue the fight against relaxed abortion laws.

However, most other religious bodies and leaders, who have expressed themselves, approve the decision. Social, welfare and civil rights workers hailed the decision with enthusiasm.

The SBC in those days was hardly uniform in its evangelical commitment, but even more conservative SBC leaders such as W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, were supportive of abortion rights.

Other evangelicals, both white and black, registered grave concern about Roe and abortion-on-demand, however. Evidence of this fact is not hard to find. Flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today wrote that “the decision runs counter not merely to the moral teachings of Christianity through the ages but also to the moral sense of the American people.”

Likewise, the National Association of Evangelicals said, “We deplore, in the strongest possible terms, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court which has made it legal to terminate a pregnancy for no better reason than personal convenience or sociological considerations.”

African American civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was more blunt, saying in 1971 that “legal abortion is legal murder.” African American Protestants were among the most likely religious groups to be pro-life as of 1973, but observers often don’t count them as “evangelical,” a term that is typically coded explicitly or implicitly as “white.”

There can be no doubt that white evangelicals were not as unified in their opposition to Roe as were Catholic leaders in America. But the idea that evangelicals were silent about Roe is a myth. The myth becomes even less sustainable if you include traditional Protestant African Americans such as Hamer in the category of evangelicals (which we should).

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