by Allison Vander Broek
A few months ago I presented a paper at a fascinating conference. The conference was a reconsideration of “The Year of the Evangelicals,” a story on American evangelicals published forty years ago in Newsweek magazine that’s now seen as a major milestone in the history of American evangelicalism and a precursor to their ascendancy as part of the Religious Right. Many of the papers presented focused on various aspects of evangelical culture and evangelical political engagement since the 1970s, as well as current trends in American evangelicalism.
Historian Randall Balmer gave the first keynote address at the conference. His basic argument was that the narrative that evangelical leaders tell about the rise of the Religious Right is incorrect.
According to Balmer, many of them love to tell the story of how Roe v. Wade and the horrors of abortion pushed them into political activism and a close alignment with the Republican Party.
Balmer was unable to find any evidence to corroborate their story. He wrote an excellent article a few years ago that sums up his thesis. His conclusion: it wasn’t opposition to abortion but fighting against school desegregation that actually pushed evangelicals into the political sphere.
In the months since the conference and as I’ve been working through my own research on the right-to-life movement and religion, I’ve been mulling over Balmer’s argument. It’s been especially relevant this last month as I’m currently writing a dissertation chapter that deals specifically with Roe v. Wade and reactions to it.
My own work has essentially confirmed Balmer’s thesis. Evangelicals were conspicuously absent in the right-to-life movement following Roe, despite a concerted and determined effort from the existing right-to-life movement to reach out to them and get them on board. Right-to-lifers desperately wanted evangelicals to join them and figured evangelicals would be their natural allies in the fight against abortion, but that support never really materialized in the immediate aftermath of Roe.
There are a million things I could say about this and about abortion and religion in America. But the thing I have kept coming back to the last few months is the role of narratives in shaping our lives and our identities. Why did evangelical leaders create and perpetuate the narrative that abortion is what spurred them to political activism? I’m a historian so it’s natural and easy for me to think about what this means for my own research or in the classroom. But I think there are implications here for each of us in our personal lives and in our own communities. And though I don’t call myself an evangelical anymore, it’s the community I was raised in so maybe this is why I’ve now spent months and one dissertation chapter focused on this one narrative about evangelicals and abortion.
I can’t stop thinking about why the abortion origin story is so compelling for evangelicals, why it has persisted, and why it is so central to their religious identity. Why might American evangelicals craft an origin story that’s so off base from reality?
I think part of the reason is because of the very, very human tendency to always paint ourselves in the role of the good guy/the hero. Could it be that it’s a much more heroic tale that evangelicals got into politics to defend babies rather than to oppose desegregation? Forget about evangelical complicity in perpetuating segregation and racism—turn the focus instead to what they see as the absolute moral high ground. You can see how that would be the easy and comforting story to tell yourself.
I don’t mean to single out evangelicals here. We all do this to a certain degree. I know I certainly do. No one wants to be the villain of the story—except that’s not how real life works.
And if we are white, privileged Americans, there’s no question that there are times when we are the bad guy of the story. For too long, our national narratives have skimmed over the harsh truths of racism and injustice that permeate our history.
Narratives have power. To bring us together and build community or to tear us apart. They can absolve us of guilt and excuse bad behavior. The narratives we tell about current events, about history, and about ourselves shape our perception of the world around us and they shape how we treat people. Too often these narratives go unquestioned.
We would all do better to start thinking critically and carefully about the narratives we have inherited. I’ve tried to start with the basics. What are the narratives I tell myself as a white person? As a Christian? And as an American? Where do they come from and why do we tell them that way? Are they even right? Are any of them dangerous or damaging? We should be willing to interrogate our own narratives and think about and acknowledge the times we are the bad guys of the story—both in our personal lives as well as within systems of injustice in our society.
Allison Vander Broek is a PhD candidate at Boston College studying American religious history. She is currently working on a dissertation tentatively titled “Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Antiabortion Movement Before Roe” in which she explores the grassroots organizing that built the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and 1970s.