Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism: IV -- By: Randall Balmer

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 38:0 (NA 2006)
Article: Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism: IV
Author: Randall Balmer

Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism: IV

The Rise of the Religious Right

Randall Balmer

By now, well into the twenty-first century, the story of the rise of the Religious Right, the loose coalition of politically conservative individuals, congregations, and organizations, is well known. On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Roe v. Wade decision that effectively struck down all laws banning abortion until “viability,” the point at which a fetus could survive outside the womb. The Roman Catholic Church had been arguing against legalized abortion for a very long time, but sheer outrage at the Roe decision had the effect of rallying evangelicals to the antiabortion cause.

For most of the twentieth century, evangelicals had been content to exist within the safety of their subculture, this network of institutions they had constructed in earnest following the Scopes trial of 1925. The subculture functioned as a kind of bulwark against the corruptions of the larger world, and evangelicals’ wholesale adoption of dispensational premillennialism late in the previous century effectively absolved them from concerns about social amelioration. Although many evangelicals, including Billy Graham, railed against “godless Communism” during the cold war, their fixation with the imminent return of Jesus rationalized their lack of interest in the present world. “Believing the Bible as I do,” Jerry Falwell declared in 1965, “I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and begin doing anything else—including fighting Communism, or participating in civil-rights reforms.”

Dealing with the victims of systemic discrimination and racist violence was one thing, however, but the defense of those poor, defenseless babies was another. The Roe decision of 1973 shook evangelical leaders out of their complacency; even though their own congregants did not want them involved in political matters, the urgency of the Roe ruling compelled them to action. They were willing to take on the risk of alienating their own constituencies because of the greater moral imperative of fighting the scourge of abortion.

These leaders of the Religious Right looked for ways to justify their sudden, albeit reluctant, plunge into politics, so they began to refer to themselves as the “new abolitionists,” an effort to align themselves with the nineteenth-century opponents of slavery. The political activism on the part of these evangelical leaders was initially viewed with suspicion by rank-and-file evangelicals, but they quickly were persuaded of the moral urgency of fighting abortion.

The scenario about the rise of the Religious Right I’ve just re...

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