The Organizational Base: Churches and Reproductive Politics
In contrast to the peace, environmental, and antinuclear movements, which also contain many religious activists and groups, the antiabortion movement, which encompasses not only Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants but also Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and Black Muslims, is narrowly religious and antisecular. As Judge Dooling commented in McRae v. Harris, "the right-to-life movement. . . does use religious language, invokes religious motivations, and enlists prayer as an aid."22 Nevertheless, its leadership is hostile to those it associates with "social" or "liberal" Christianity, such as the National Council of Churches or the left-wing Catholic clergy in Latin America. This is hardly a position of ecumenism. While various denominations participate, the unquestioned direction of the "right-to-life" movement—doctrinal, organizational, financial—has from the outset come from the Catholic church hierarchy.23
Roman Catholic clergy and laity are not alone in the prolife movement, but the evidence requires the conclusion that it is they who have vitalized the movement, given it organization and direction, and used ecclesiastical channels of communication in its support. The union of effort with representatives of other denominations is based on shared religious conviction.24
The "right-to-life" movement was originally a creation of the Family Life division of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), the directing body of the Catholic church in America. Immediately following the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, the NCCB Pro-Life Affairs Committee declared that it would not "accept the Court’s judgment" and called for a major legal and educational battle against abortion. Since then, in numerous documents the bishops have summoned Catholics, both lay and clergy, to enter the antiabortion struggle: to defeat liberal abortion laws and proabortion candidates and work for a constitutional amendment that would, in accordance with Roman Catholic doctrine, declare the fetus a full human person from the moment of fertilization and abortion thus a homicide.25 In 1975 the NCCB presented a detailed strategy for the church’s antiabortion crusade, its "Pastoral Plan for Pro – Life Activity." It called for the establishment of a network of "prolife committees," based in the parishes, that would (1) effect the passage of a "prolife" amendment, (2) elect "prolife" sympathizers to local party organizations, (3) monitor officials on their abortion stands, and (4) "work for qualified candidates who will vote for a constitutional amendment and other prolife issues."26 From the outset, the "right-to-life" movement was set up to be a political action machine to influence national and local elections, but working primarily through the churches and the financial and organizational leadership of the hierarchy.
Churches constitute the most important strategic base for carrying out the antiabortion crusade. Pastoral letters have been read from pulpits, urging parishioners to get involved in "prolife" political work of all kinds. Church services have become a regular source of financial support for the movement, with hundreds of thousands of dollars collected annually through Sunday mass collections and then channeled to local and national "right-to-life" committees.27 More important than financial assistance, local churches and parishes provide the "right-to-life" movement with the organizational and communicational system that allows it immediate access to material resources and recruits. Churches supply rooms for meetings, telephones, duplicating equipment, buses and bodies for rallies and demonstrations, and highly effective organizers in the person of priests. Clergy distribute "prolife affirmation cards" at mass and hold prayer meetings, masses, and diocesan rallies to coincide with electoral and lobbying efforts.
It is important to note the key role that many (though not all) priests and pastors have played in the building of the "right-to-life" movement. Recruited through the hierarchy, they have served as organizers, theoreticians, and militants. Above all, they have used their pastoral authority to engage in moral exhortation, in terms clearly evoking religious guilt and linking "prolife" activity with Christian duty and eternal salvation. The pulpits and parochial schools have become the central platforms from which antiabortion statements are delivered regularly; parishioners and students are directed to attend marches, rallies, clinic sit-ins, and other activist events.28 For Roman Catholics and fundamentalist Christians who believe in the metaphysical reality of the soul and the "innocence" of "fetal life," this appeal receives a powerful stimulus from the concern for one’s own salvation.29
The most politically crucial function of the churches has been their contribution to the "right-to-life" electoral strategy. "Prolife" Catholic and Protestant clergy have not hesitated to use the power of the pulpit to condemn political candidates targeted by antiabortion "hit lists/’ attempting to influence votes on the very eve of elections.30 More generally, the churches serve as recruiting grounds from which voters of both major parties are enlisted into "right-to-life" electoral politics. "Prolife" political action manuals give local organizers detailed instruction about how the electoral process works at every level and how to penetrate it.31 Because of the steadily declining voter turnout in the United States, most political candidates are elected or defeated by a very small margin. The antiabortion movement in the mid-1970s thus adopted a complicated electoral strategy whose nucleus was the ‘Voter identification survey":
The 1980 right-to-life strategy [was] to pack the state legislatures with antiabortion representatives as a means of getting as many of the requisite 38 states as possible to call for a Constitutional Convention. . . [or, failing that,] to use this leverage to force Congress to report the Human Life Amendment out of Committee. In either case, their electoral goals [were] on the state level, where they [felt] they [had] a better chance of having immediate impact. Toward this end, they. . . conducted voter identification surveys in 36 states. In New York State alone, they. . . canvassed over a quarter of a million primary voters to locate those people who [would] vote against proabortion candidates in 1980.32
The organized antiabortion movement, however, in its political and ideological roots is distinct from the New Right and should not be confused with it. Unlike the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) or the Catholic bishops, the individuals, organizations, publications, and political action committees that define themselves as the New Right are not ultimately concerned with fetal souls or moral purity but with achieving state power. Formed in 1974-75 in reaction to what they perceived as the liberal dominance of the Republican party, this cluster revolves around a small core of political strategists—"technicians," not themselves politicians—allied with a group of right-wing fundamentalist preachers who serve primarily as propagandists and fund raisers and a cohort of conservative politicians in Washington largely of their own promotion.33 Though strongly tied to the organizations of the old right—most New Right leaders have long affiliations with groups like the Young Americans for Freedom, the John Birch Society, or the World Anti-Communist League—the New Right is "new" in a number of ways. First, their aim is unlike that of the old right, for example the Birchers, who maintained an essentially reactive, defensive politics.34 The New Right is on the offensive to create a national political machine that cuts across the major political parties, wins elections, initiates legislation and policy, and eventually dominates the state. Second, the means through which they have pursued this aim have been innovative as well as effective (at least in 1976 and 1980). Targeting every conservative single-issue cause in the country— antiabortion, ‘Tight-to-work" committees (antiunion), gun owners, antibusing groups, school prayer advocates, "creationists/’ textbook censorship groups, anti-ERA and antipornography groups—they have attempted to fuse these causes into broad-based coalitions that can be mobilized politically in support of right-wing candidates and issues.35 In this process the fundamentalist churches and preachers recruited into the New Right’s organizational structure have provided an important institutional base. In addition, the use of computerized mailing lists, compiled from all these conservative groups, to do direct-mail fund raising among some 25 million Americans has transformed the nature of American political techniques.36
Finally, the New Right may be distinguished—and distinguishes itself—by its ideology. While faithful to traditional conservative themes such as the right to bear arms, high taxes, a balanced budget, and America’s failing military strength, it initially focused its energies on issues related to the family and sexuality, rather than "economic" issues. In other words, it defined itself primarily in reaction to feminism and identified abortion as its number-one target. At the 1980 Republican convention, it was through sexual/reproductive politics that New Right forces made their strength felt on the platform committee and among the delegates. Throughout the campaign, it was not an aggressive defense-spending and tax-cutting program (which Democrats supported as well) but opposition to abortion and the ERA that identified the New Right’s politics.
Of course, Reagan’s election in 1980 was not the doing of the New Right nor can it be read as a popular "mandate" for conservatism; the popular vote was a rejection of Carter and a complaint about economic conditions more than anything else.37 What the 1980 elections suggest is not so much the susceptibility of voters to antifeminism, but the determination of the right to construct a political phalanx around it. Building on the emotional response that abortion and invocations of "the family" and Scripture generate, the organized Moral Majority intends to move on to other, less obviously "moral" agenda items: "The alliance on family issues" will "look at the morality of other issues such as SALT and the unjust power that has been legislated for union bosses."38 Sexual and family politics, then, beginning with abortion, become for the New Right intrinsic elements in a larger program that encompasses more traditional right-wing aims: anticommunism; support for increased armaments and opposition to arms control; and resistance to affirmative action, unions, and government-sponsored social services. The strategic assumption is that a newly defined constituency called the "Christian right" can share a common political outlook; the same people who oppose abortion and homosexuality are also the parents of "private Christian" schoolchildren, the foes of unions, and the friends of the Panama Canal.
The New Right could not help but be drawn to the winning ingredients of the "right-to-life" electoral strategy: a tightly controlled organization geared to recruiting and influencing voters across party lines, an alleged 11 million members and 3,000 chapters throughout the United States, and a sense of moral righteousness on behalf of conservative values and a cause. Through a vigorous use of these conservative religious organizations, the New Right—and indirectly the Reagan forces—sought to gain votes and funds, active recruits and foot soldiers, and ideological legitimacy—the elements of political power. By 1978, its spokesmen were claiming that the religious tie would give them potential access to 100 million voters, and they were confident of commanding sufficient votes in the elections to give them control over the Senate, the Republican party, and the presidency.39 Regardless of how one analyzes the deeper causes of right-wing electoral victories in 1980, it is undeniable that a key element in the right’s strategy was to use the "right-to-life" movement as an organizational model and base. Conservatives in the 1980 elections were direct beneficiaries of mass antiabortion organizing, which has helped create a constituency and a consciousness that is both responsive to the New Right’s "profamily" ideology and committed to participating in the electoral process. In a political climate in which many liberals and radicals are disaffected nonvoters, such political socialization undoubtedly contributed to the right’s margin of victory. The 1980 elections brought not only Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican and opponent of legal abortion and the ERA, to the presidency but also a shift in the balance of power in the Senate to a conservative Republican majority for the first time in twenty-six years, as well as the chairmanship of many key Senate committees by conservatives.40
By 1978 the New Right had begun to absorb the antiabortion movement within its network of "prolife" Political Action Committees (PACs), leadership conferences, and conservative Christian organizations, all under the rubric of the "profamily" movement. The strategy, adopted in 1977, was to consolidate "groups devoted to preservation of the traditional social roles of the family, the churches, and the schools" (i. e., groups that were antiabortion, antibusing, anti-ERA, and antigay rights) into a single coalition organized around four main planks: "prolife," "profamily," "promoral," and "pro-American," with "family" as the keystone.41 New Right organizers launched direct-mail campaigns aimed at politicizing the country’s fundamentalist preachers, and organized a series of leadership conferences and religious coalitions. In addition to the highly publicized Moral Majority, conferences and groups with names like Religious Roundtable, Christian Voice, and American Family Forum proliferated, with the same speakers and leaders appearing continually on their rosters: Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly, Richard Viguerie, and Howard Phillips; Senators Jesse Helms (R.-N. C.), Gordon Humphrey (R.-N. H.), Paul Laxalt
(R.-Nev.), Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah). Representatives Jake Garn (R.-Cal.), Henry Hyde (R.-I1L), and Larry McDonald (R.-Ga.); and the Reverend Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Moreover, New Right strategists set up a number of "prolife" organizations outside the framework of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), such as the American Life Lobby (ALL) and the National Pro-Family Coalition. Organizations such as these, used to appeal to sympathizers on behalf of a "moral" cause, may "function as fronts for direct-mail campaigns and primarily to make money for themselves." New Right-sponsored single-issue organizations became conduits both for campaign funds for right-wing candidates (including Reagan) and for building a well-financed political organization.42
The main constituency "profamily" leaders have sought to organize is the estimated 50 million "born-again" Christians in this country, reached through evangelical church pulpits and a vast broadcasting network (13,000 radio stations, 36 television shows) to which the evangelical churches have access. As in the "right-to-life" movement, the key to this strategy is the preachers, particularly the nationally known Bible – preaching broadcasters. For millions of evangelical Protestants, who are the most frequent listeners to religious broadcasts, radio and television have taken the place of the local church, reaching people in their cars and homes, not only on Sunday but every day all across America. Religious broadcasting for right-wing political purposes has long been a tool of right-wing preachers, but today the use of high-wave frequencies and satellite technology magnifies the potential impact of such broadcasting tremendously.43 What is of interest is not the high-powered technology of fundamentalist broadcasters but the financial backing that allows the application of that technology on a massive scale and the political and ideological purposes for which the "electronic church" has been created. An important example is Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the "profamily" Moral Majority, which has a mailing list of 70,000 pastors. Falwell broadcasts daily over 300 television stations and 280 radio stations in 31 states. The message he communicates is not only the doctrinal one of the Bible’s "inerrant truth" as literally interpreted, "salvation by faith alone and the premillennial return of Christ." It is also the essence of "profamily" ideology: against homosexuality ("the bisexual and homosexual movements in America are antifamily, . . . the number one offender… in traditional man-woman relationships"), against feminism ("we believe in superior rights for women"), and against abortion and divorce.44
An alliance between Protestant fundamentalist preachers and the political right is not new. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the 1950s, where Anita Bryant was the football queen of the rival high school; where fundamentalists (Oral Roberts, Billy James Hargis) maintained their headquarters; where Athletes for Christ made regular rounds to the schools;
and where the connection of these groups with anticommunism and the John Birch Society was commonly known. That connection is documented in an article by David Danzig, who describes "extreme Protestant fundamentalism," linked to ultra-right organizations, as "a growing socio-religious force in America."45 In the early 1960s this force, regional (based mainly in the South/Southwest) and fiercely anti-Catholic, cut across various Protestant sects. Fundamentalist thinking contains "an anti-his – toricism which readily supports the conspiracy theory of social change," and an "apocalyptic conception of the world" that sees everything in terms of "the unending struggle between God and the devil." It may thus lend itself to a political ideology that is similarly absolutist and apocalyptic, projecting a vision of society as ridden by demons (communists, homosexuals, "liberated" women) from whom the innocent and God-fearing must be saved.
It is important not to exaggerate the association between Protestant fundamentalism, and certainly the much broader and more disparate array of evangelical Christian churches, and right-wing politics in America. In a sharp critique of Danzig’s study, Carol Virginia Pohli argues that he ignores the opportunistic uses of religious fringe groups by the right and the continued resistance of many fundamentalists to any sort of political change or involvement.46 In the contemporary mobilization of fundamentalist religiosity in the service of right-wing causes, it is crucial to understand that this is a political calculation, not a prophecy. Political and social conservatism are not necessarily spontaneous or organic outgrowths of Christian evangelicism, which has existed throughout this country’s history and has on occasion played an important role in progressive reform movements. The New Right looks to fundamentalist and evangelical churches as its principal organizing base mainly for three purposes: ideological coherence and legitimacy, constituents and organized networks, and money. For those churches are not only potentially sympathetic to conservatism but, on the whole, affluent.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the class base of Protestant fundamentalism in the South and Southwest had changed. It was no longer mainly the rural poor, but included wealthy beneficiaries of what later would be known as the "Sunbelt revival":
Many fundamentalist churches are modern and imposing, financed by wealthy oilmen from Texas and Oklahoma and prosperous farmers in the wheat and corn belts. Rich and influential lay leaders. . . now make their influence felt in the power structure of the community and state. The fundamentalists also operate a vast network of colleges, training schools, Bible institutions, Bible prophecy conferences, prayer meetings, and study groups. They have many large publishing houses which blanket small towns with conservative tracts and pamphlets.47
Since the 1960s, right-wing fundamentalists have developed a formidable base of financial support, stemming not only from publication and broadcasting revenues and the contributions of small donors but also from an array of business "fronts" and corporate backers.48 This support has in some cases been channeled into politics, defying the traditional fundamentalist inclination to shun worldly matters. The main purpose of "pro- family" organizing prior to the 1980 elections was to mobilize the growing social force of Christian fundamentalism into conservative political activity and weld it to the politicized and Catholic-dominated "right-to-life" movement. An alliance between conservative Catholics and Protestants would be historically unprecedented in the United States. New Right leaders believe that the politics of morality—that is, conservative family and sexual politics—is the key to forging such an alliance and uniting "100 million Americans" into right-wing political identity and votes.49
Yet the assumption of a direct line between popular religious conservatism and popular social and political conservatism on all issues is unfounded. Take the abortion question. The relationship between the conservative politicians and political promoters who call themselves the New Right and the "right-to-life" movement is a complicated one, involving close ties and deep divisions. From its origins in the early 1970s, the "right-to-life" movement has found itself lured into a symbiosis in which New Right organizers lend to "prolife" groups their expertise in direct mailings, targeting candidates, and managing PACs in return for securing a mass base of voters and local organizers. Rhonda Copelon, attorney for the plaintiffs in Harris v. McRae, speculates that New Right politicos see the "right-to-life" movement as genuinely broad-based and thus a vehicle through which conservative forces can make inroads into the (majority) liberal-democratic electorate.50 At the same time, the New Right’s political aims go well beyond the abortion issue. The goal of their electoral strategy is to get rid of legislators considered liberal on any of the right’s favorite issues, including environmental regulation, welfare, defense spending, and civil rights. This connection of abortion to a larger and more traditional set of rightist political ends has sown seeds of difference between hard-core "right-to-lifers" and their New Right and fundamentalist patrons. Even prior to the 1980 elections, some antiabortion leaders expressed suspicion of the New Right’s motives and were reluctant to let their single-issue focus become absorbed in the larger "profamily"/ "pro-America" agenda.51 Indeed, much of the rhetoric and organizing of the NRLC has attempted to appeal to liberal and "humanist" religious people who identify with the poor and the oppressed, to connect the "rights of the unborn" to other human rights issues. (There is even a "Prolife Feminists" caucus, as well as a small but growing left wing of the movement that opposes population control and nuclear power and favors welfare benefits.52)
On a practical level, a too-close association with the New Right could be damaging to the "right-to-life" movement’s support among liberal Catholics and others who identify with humanist and pacifist traditions, who strongly favor many of the services and institutions (day care, labor unions, environmental protection laws) that the New Right condemns. An editorial in the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal gave prophetic warning to the Church hierarchy about the fellows it was bedding down with in the antiabortion campaign:
The anti-abortion amendment is a right-wing issue, and the bishops will quickly become the tools of conservative so-called "pro-life" (and perhaps anti-busing, anti-"welfare chislers," pro-arms race, pro-CIA) candidates in the 1976 elections. The effort will fizzle and the church will have been had.53
As if responding to this warning and the concerns of its liberal laity, the hierarchy has more recently taken a series of outspoken stands in direct opposition to the policies of the Reagan administration and the New Right: opposing U. S. intervention in El Salvador, nuclear weapons, and cutbacks in social welfare budgets.54 Moreover, the hierarchy is challenged from within on the abortion question. The 1,800-member National Coalition of American Nuns announced its opposition to a Human Life Amendment and its view that the abortion decision ought to be the choice of "those who are directly and personally involved."55 Also, recent statements from among the broad and disparate assortment of Christian evangelists—some of whose churches have opposed the Ku Klux Klan, joined with the black freedom movement, or staunchly maintained an indifference to politics—distinguish themselves from right-wing fundamentalists and Falwell’s reactionary Moral Majority 56 The group of self-defined leftist, pacifist, and "feminist" Christians who also define themselves as "prolife" (a disturbing phenomenon for feminists in the reproductive freedom movement) have emphatically dissociated themselves from the New Right and its politics. Thus the leftist Christian Sojourners Magazine, in proclaiming its conversion to "prolife" doctrine, writes:
The political strategy of these Christian groups is being formulated by long-time Washington veterans of the extreme right wing who have not been known for their religious devotion. Their motivations have always had more to do with military and economic goals than with abortion. Their pro-military and pro-business agenda is decidedly anti-poor, anti-black, and anti-feminist. . . . The unholy alliance between the anti-abortion movement and the right wing must be directly challenged by those who seriously and consistently espouse a pro-life commitment.57
Divisions within evangelical Christianity and the New Right belie its pretensions of being a "moral majority" or a unified political monolith.
Pohli points to two factors: ”biblical arrogance"—a belief in the assuredness of their own salvation and righteousness that renders them aloof from the concerns of society—and a long tradition of "Protestant individualism" and separatism of denominations and congregations that tend to undermine the New Right’s unity and its potential political effectiveness. The Moral Majority "is comprised of people whose loyalties to their local church are far stronger than their political ambitions." As a result, "political solidarity among Evangelicals" is a harder thing to achieve than rhetorical fervor.58
This inherent tendency toward divisiveness surfaced in failed attempts by New Right leaders and antiabortionists to unify around an antiabortion legislative strategy in 1981-82. After the 1980 elections, it seemed that as the Reagan forces had used the New Right to develop a popular electoral base, so the New Right had used the antiabortion movement. By 1981, the initiative for legislative actions to stop abortions had clearly passed from the National Right to Life Committee and the Catholic church hierarchy to New Right politicians in Congress, who showed themselves more interested in winning votes and trading favors than in purity of doctrine. In 1982 serious conflicts, not only between New Right politicos and "right-to-life" forces, but within both groupings, emerged around various proposals in the Senate for an antiabortion amendment or statute. The paramount goal of the "right-to-life" movement had been a constitutional amendment that would not merely recriminalize abortion but expressly declare the fetus a "human person" from the moment of conception, enjoying all human rights including the right to life. Congressional committee hearings in 1981 on a statute sponsored by right-wing Senator Jesse Helms, containing such language, had proven so problematic and politically disastrous for the right that by the next year some New Right leaders in the Senate had decided to defer the "human life amendment" or statute in favor of various compromise proposals which would make it possible for individual states to pass "human life" statutes. Nevertheless, hard-liners in the "right-to-life" movement denounced the "compromises" and warned that they would consider their endorsement "a pro – abortion vote." The open warfare that developed involved a split between the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the president of the NRLC, on one side, and a large segment of the NRLC board, on the other.59 This division reflected a deepening conflict in the antiabortion movement between the practical political need to win a victory and the ideological need to hold on to the "human life amendment" as a vision, a goal, that gives their movement coherence and popular momentum.60
One compromise proposal finally made it to the Senate floor: an amendment to a bill on the national debt ceiling that would have made a declatory (nonbinding) statement about fetal "personhood," imposed a permanent ban on federal funding of abortion services, and encouraged the Supreme Court to reverse its decision in Roe v. Wade (S. 2148). After a vigorous filibuster, the proposal was defeated by one vote.61 Antiabortion forces blamed the Reagan administration for lack of full support, and Reagan blamed the antiabortion forces for lack of unity; on all sides, however, there was an understanding that for the present, the constitutional amendment strategy had met its demise.
The immediate reason for the failure of the New Right/"right-to – life" legislative campaign in the early 1980s was not only the divisions within the "prolife" camp. In addition, a determined coalition of liberal "prochoice" groups, their congressional friends, and feminists organized effectively to defeat the campaign. Through lobbying, letter writing, and militant demonstrations—national television cameras showed feminists bearing placards and shouting inside the committee hearing rooms, "A woman’s life is a human life!"—the pressure politicians felt to pass some antiabortion legislation was defused and deflected.62 This victory for liberal and feminist groups must be read as only one round of a much more complicated struggle; the victory itself grows out of an ambiguous political context that is perhaps more foreboding than a "human life amendment." I would argue that such an amendment never had much chance of passing, for we live in a dominant political and moral culture that is overwhelmingly secular and for which, in most people’s understanding, "abortion morality" has always signified sexual and gender issues more deeply than it has "fetal rights." By 1981, and certainly after the hearings on the human life statute, the dominant public discourse in the abortion debate had shifted ground, away from the abstract question of "fetal personhood" toward more social questions about the family and teenage sexuality. This shift was largely the product of the political and cultural struggle between the New Right’s "profamily" ideology and feminism.