How Fringe Christian Nationalists Made Abortion a Central Political Issue
Katherine Stewart on the New Right
The most popular origin story of Christian nationalism today, shared by many critics and supporters alike, explains that the movement was born one day in 1973, when the Supreme Court unilaterally shredded Christian morality and made abortion “on demand” a constitutional right. At that instant, the story goes, the flock of believers arose in protest and threw their support to the party of “Life” now known as the Republican Party. The implication is that the movement, in its current form, finds its principal motivation in the desire to protect fetuses against the women who would refuse to carry them to term.
This story is worse than myth. It is false as history and incorrect as analysis. Christian nationalism drew its inspiration from a set of concerns that long predated the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade and had little to do with abortion. The movement settled on abortion as its litmus test sometime after that decision for reasons that had more to do with politics than embryos. It then set about changing the religion of many people in the country in order to serve its new political ambitions. From the beginning, the “abortion issue” has never been just about abortion. It has also been about dividing and uniting to mobilize votes for the sake of amassing political power.
On a crisp morning in January 2018, tens of thousands of marchers throng the National Mall in the annual March for Life. The crowd tilts female and young, and the overwhelming majority is white. A good number are clustered in church or campus youth groups and facing down the cold with parkas and Uggs or duck boots to protect their feet from the chill.
I spot a young woman I’ll call Megan in a placard-wielding group near the corner of Constitution and Fifteenth Street. Wearing a gray knitted pom-pom hat over light brown curls, she is marching with other members of a pro-life group at her college, where she majors in English. I first met her several years ago at a gathering of young antiabortion activists, where she was taking copious notes on a laptop plastered with stickers: “Cru,” “A Child Not a Choice.” Finding her here, though unanticipated, is not terribly surprising. With her cheery disposition and uncomplicated certainty of her views, Megan seems to embody the ideal that Phyllis Schlafly, a godmother of the antiabortion movement and founder of the conservative interest group the Eagle Forum, famously advertised in the title of one of her books: The Power of the Positive Woman.
That ideal lives on in the movement leaders today, including Penny Young Nance, president and CEO of Concerned Women for America, who made waves in recent years with her opposition to the Disney movie Frozen (it’s anti-male) and, more recently, the “weaponization” of the #MeToo movement. Glamorous and effusive, she is true to the title of her recent book, Feisty and Feminine: A Rallying Cry for Conservative Women. “We expect to devote considerable resources to this effort, and we expect to win,” said Nance, commenting on the appointment of prolife Supreme Court justices. “Our happy warrior/activist ladies relish the fight and shine in these historic moments.”
Like other young activists at the march today, Megan is being groomed for glory in the conservative movement. As a convivial high school student, she was inspired by a friend to join a local chapter of Students for Life of America. Over a summer Megan attended the Young America’s Foundation’s National Conservative Student Conference in Washington, D.C., where, along with some 1,000 other students, she learned from speakers like Dinesh D’Souza and Ben Shapiro about the importance of traditional values, free markets, and the left’s assault on free speech.
Megan, like other “student leaders” at the event, also received media coaching, including tips on crafting op-eds and appearing on camera. She hopes her networking will soon pay off in the form of a post-graduation internship at a right-wing policy organization. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, offers subsidized housing and free lunch—a sweet gig for an English major. “When I was younger, I never imagined I could be on TV,” Megan says with confidence. “Now I know I can.”
As I’m chatting with Megan, Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, takes the stage and the crowd erupts in a roar of joy. “Jeanne! Jeanne!” Megan’s voice joins the collective thunder. Mancini previously worked for the Family Research Council, and before that on behalf of the Catholic Church.
Speaker after speaker follow onstage to condemn abortion and offer messages of praise for “the most pro-life president in history!” With the exception of Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, whose mother is white and father is Mexican American, every speaker at the 2018 March for Life rally program appears to be white.
Donald Trump at last appears on a giant television screen live via satellite from the White House Rose Garden. The crowd greets the supersize image with enthusiasm, and it is clear that many believe that God, acting through the pro-life movement, put Trump in the White House. The president declares that the marchers are “a truly remarkable group” and then runs through a list of his own amazing achievements in office. “On the National Day of Prayer, I signed an executive order to protect religious liberty,” he says. He is referring to a declaration that, as Rob Boston, senior advisor for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State aptly put it, amounts to “one more attempt . . . to redefine religious freedom to mean the freedom to discriminate against those who do not share our religious belief.” The crowd bursts into applause, and Trump nods his head, smiling. “Very proud of that.”
I watch Megan watching Trump. It’s as if I can see the lines of power traced in her eyes. But when I ask her what she makes of the fact that Protestants by and large did not oppose abortion rights fifty years ago, and neither did many Republicans, she gives me a blank look. “Christianity is pro-life,” she says with certainty. “Republicans are the party of life.”
The annual scene on the mall, though familiar enough by now to count as reaffirmation rather than protest, serves mainly to drive home the brute fact that, for Republican politicians, abortion demagoguery is the path to power in America. Donald Trump clearly grasped that fact. Most of the people here, like most of the people catching snippets of the event on the evening news, take for granted that it is the way things have always been.
Except that it isn’t.
In the late 1970s a curious combination of religious and political activists assembled to ponder the strategy of a new political movement, sometimes by letter or phone, and sometimes in conference rooms or at a hotel in Lynchburg, Virginia. Some of the more vocal members of the group included Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell; conservative activists Ed McAteer and Paul Weyrich; Nixon appointee Howard Phillips; attorney Alan P. Dye; and Robert J. Billings, an educator and organizer who would later serve as Ronald Reagan’s liaison to the Christian right.
This was an angry group of men. “We are radicals who want to change the existing power structure. We are not conservatives in the sense that conservative means accepting the status quo,” Paul Weyrich said. “We want change—we are the forces of change.” They were angry at liberals, who threatened to undermine national security with their unforgivable softness on communism; they were angry at the establishment conservatives, the Rockefeller Republicans, for siding with the liberals and taking down their hero, Barry Goldwater; they were angry about the rising tide of feminism, which they saw as a menace to the social order; and about the civil rights movement and the danger it posed to segregation, especially in education. One thing that they were not particularly angry about, at least at the start of their discussions, was the matter of abortion rights.From the beginning, the New Right sought radical change. They would establish themselves “first as the opposition, then the alternative, finally the government.”
Weyrich was “the man perhaps with the broadest vision,” according to his fellow conservative activist Richard Viguerie. “I can think of no one who better symbolizes or is more important to the conservative movement.” In matters of religion, Weyrich was personally conservative: he abandoned the Roman Catholic Church, which he believed had become too liberal, for the Melkite Greek Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. But his politics weren’t necessarily centered on religion. He formed his political creed as a twenty-something in the Barry Goldwater uprising of 1964, and it consisted of visceral anticommunism, economic libertarianism, and a distrust of the civil rights movement. Jimmy Carter’s famous religiosity did nothing to redeem him in Weyrich’s eyes. Indeed, in 1978 and 1979, Weyrich’s immediate priority was to make sure that Carter would be a one-term president.
Weyrich began to identify himself in the late 1970s with a movement whose name Richard Viguerie put on the title of his 1980 manifesto: The New Right: We’re Ready to Lead. Weyrich came to be known as the “evil genius” of the movement—or sometimes “the Lenin of social conservatism”—and Viguerie, who is considered the pioneer of political direct mail, came to be known as its “funding father.”
From the beginning, the New Right sought radical change. They would establish themselves “first as the opposition, then the alternative, finally the government,” according to Conservative Caucus chair Howard Phillips. “We will not try to reform the existing institutions. We only intend to weaken them and eventually destroy them,” said Weyrich protégé Eric Heubeck, writing for the Free Congress Foundation. “We will maintain a constant barrage of criticism against the Left. We will attack the very legitimacy of the Left. We will not give them a moment’s rest . . . We will use guerrilla tactics to undermine the legitimacy of the dominant regime.”
Weyrich went on to call for a constitutional convention in hopes of producing a form of government more congenial to conservatism. “I don’t want everybody to vote,” he said at a gathering in the fall of 1980. “As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” 14 Richard Viguerie emphatically endorsed Weyrich’s radicalism, which in turn led both men to adopt a kind of experimental pragmatism in pursuing their ends. “One of the major differences in this group of new conservatives was that we weren’t afraid to try even when there was only a 20 per cent chance of success,” Viguerie wrote. “We knew that if you expected to hit a lot of home runs, you had to expect to strike out a lot.”
At the core of the concerns of the New Right was the perception that American capitalism was under dire threat from mortal enemies—some of them internal, some external, most of them communist. “Liberal national defense policies have resulted in the United States, long the world’s strongest military power, falling behind Soviet Russia in every major area of conventional and strategic weaponry,” wrote Viguerie.
Activist Phyllis Schlafly shared Viguerie’s obsession with the communist menace. In the 1950s she wrote, “The plain facts are that Communism is advancing over the surface of the globe with such rapidity that if it continues at the same rate for the next thirteen years that it has been advancing during the past thirteen years, America will be Communist by 1970.” But Schlafly also gave voice to another motivating concern of the emerging right-wing consensus: the specter of feminism. Schlafly rose to prominence in her campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment. The feminist movement, she asserted, “is the most destructive element in our society.”
For Weyrich and his fellow political operatives, the rise of the civil rights movement presented a historic opportunity to advance their own agenda. From Reconstruction through the 1960s, southern whites had been a critical part of the Democratic Party coalition. Their support had been essential in realizing the New Deal, although it burdened the progressive legislation of the period with racist policies. When Democrats took the lead in civil rights, however, the southern white population was suddenly in play. Nixon famously committed the Republican Party to the “Southern Strategy”— that is, appealing to the southern, white, formerly Democratic popular vote through populism, racism, and nativism. This in turn created a tension with the Republican Party’s other base, the so-called Rockefeller Republicans, who consisted, on balance, of economic conservatives with largely moderate social views.
As the Lynchburg crowd commenced their conversations, Weyrich had already formulated a general idea for an electoral strategy that would take the New Right from opposition to power. He had studied the successes of the left in the 1960s and 1970s, and now he thought he knew what the left had that the right lacked: the right needed to get religion. The left had successfully appealed to religious feelings and organizations in forming the coalition that advanced civil rights, promoted Great Society programs, and opposed the Vietnam War. Just as reformers around the turn of the century had deployed the Social Gospel on behalf of progressive causes, Martin Luther King Jr. has used his pulpit to mobilize change. If the right could access the religious vote, Weyrich reasoned, power would be in its grasp. Together with Phillips, he devoted “countless hours cultivating electronic ministers like Jerry Falwell, Jim [James] Robison, and Pat Robertson, urging them to get involved in conservative politics,” according to Viguerie.
Weyrich eventually founded or played a critical role in a number of prominent groups on the right. They included the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Free Congress Foundation. Arguably the most consequential of the groups Weyrich played a role in founding was the Council for National Policy, a networking organization for social conservative activists that the New York Times once referred to as a “little-known group of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country.”
Weyrich did not act alone. Other cofounders and early members of the CNP included Tim LaHaye (then head of Moral Majority), billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell. A leaked 2014 membership directory of the CNP, posted on the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center, shines a spotlight on this powerful subsection of the reactionary right. The directory includes Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, and the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre; Christian right leaders such as Tony Perkins, Ralph Reed, and James Dobson; and antiabortion advocates Phyllis Schlafly, Penny Nance, and Kristan Hawkins. The group also brought into the fold leaders of right-wing economic policy groups and media conglomerates; masterminds of the right-wing legal movement including Alan Sears, Jay Sekulow, and Leonard Leo; and various members of the DeVos and Prince families, including Betsy DeVos’s brother Erik Prince and her husband, Richard, who served as president twice. “The Council for National Policy went on to assemble an impressive network of media and organizations that worked to advance their cause, with a special focus on mobilizing the fundamentalist vote in key districts,” says Anne Nelson, author of Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right.
From The Power Worshippers by Katherine Stewart. Used with the permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2020 by Katherine Stewart.