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Narratives, Evangelicals, Abortion, and Ourselves

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.


Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She earned her doctorate in history from Boston College, Her research explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence in subsequent years. Though she swore she'd move back to the Midwest after grad school, Allison still resides in the Boston metro area and now works in academic advising at Tufts University.


  • mstair says:

    “In modern America, rhetoric is what matters — what is said, and even more importantly, how it is said. This is called “spin.” Beginning in the twentieth century it now is the way twenty-first century governments, companies, organizations and institutions communicate.
    “Spin” is the deliberate selection of facts constructed to prove a specific point.
    Spin-doctors, those managing this flow of miscommunication, know this. Without comprehensive information, they know that spin is victorious because it is exceedingly easy to grasp and accept as a simple explanation. They know how to turn a simple phrase into a strategy. The catchy phrases they design convey encompassing understanding, but in reality, there is a multitude of ways to understand it.

    They purposely select or omit facts to construct, what is in effect, an appetizing lie. The purpose of this lie, in the majority of cases, is to cover-up, move the issue along, or divert focus.
    Even the most cynical observer would have to agree that this behavior is not (as in Matthew 5:8) “pure in heart.” Truth-telling and truth-living require sacrifice. Living pure in heart always comes at a cost.
    Adopting a personal value-system aligned with the teachings of Christ, and making the decision to live consistently in thought and deed, means loss: of promotion, increase in income,and inclusion in the progress of society.

  • Thank you! This helps me rethink and better understand some things. Now, back to my historical work on the origins of our Dutch colony …

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Great post and great dissertation topic! Good luck with it. I talk a bit about the RCA’s response to abortion in Loyalty and Loss. I was also surprised by the relative lack of indignation at the beginning.

    The story telling questions are very intriguing. Brene Brown in Rising Strong talks about how we construct stories about how people respond to us. We make all kinds of assumptions about why people are acting in certain ways (“she hates me”) when she actually had a very bad day. I found her discussion very helpful in my own work about how commentators and preachers tell Bible stories. It might be “spin” as noted above, but I think there is also something more nuanced about it. People tell stories to make sense of the world and to help themselves live with contradiction. For example, God’s action in turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt are problematic, but if the commentator can tell a story about how she was a very bad woman who loved jewelry and fine clothing and the social life of Sodom, she clearly deserved to be turned into a pillar of salt!

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    Thanks for this blog that helps us followers of Jesus called “evangelicals” to face more honestly the gut issues that really grab us. I grieve over our complicity in injustices to the weakest and most vulnerable. the more honest we can be in our repentance, the more hope there is that we will be graced to be more like Jesus in salting and lighting our society.

  • Harris says:

    Being of an age where I lived through this, I can think of several responses — you probably cover them in your research already. First, the Christian Right flows from multiple sources, so there’s not one easy narrative that works. I can identify three, perhaps four streams: the Southern strand Balmer knows, principally Baptist, the inheritors of the civil rights era; related, a more explicit S Presbyterian group that gave the Christian Right its cultural war ideology (this is the crowd around Marvin Olavsky, also the PCA, and to a certain extent early Pres. Bush) — southern, but more so; then there’s the S California crowd motivated more by anti-communism, a group tracked by Darren Dochuk in From Bible Belt to Sun Belt — these folk modeled the organizational models of the later Christian Right and were earlier supporters of Reagan. Then there are the conservative immigrant churches of the upper Midwest, with a robust tendency to vote Republican, but who did not necessarily buy the civil rights animus of the original southern warriors.

    In the 70s and into the 80s, the Upper Midwest church was definitively anti-abortion, both on left and right. There remains a pro-life contingent in many of the region’s Democratic parties, albeit a small contingent in this day.

    To all this, we might add the catalyst of Baby Boomers having families in a time of latch-key kids, women’s lib and disco. In a word: anxiety. This cultural anxiety made the evangelical church’s appeal on family convincing, and with it abortion. What is characteristic of the era (1984-94) is how effective this anxiety became weaponized; the anti-abortion narrative kept getting reinforced for the simple reason it worked. Moderate Dems were defeated, marginal Republicans were elected. For a decade or so, the endorsement of Right to Life made all the difference.

    And if you want one more reason to add to the consideration, the 70s and 80s were also the time of the industrial collapse of the Midwest (see Richard Longworth). The modest industrial towns of the Upper Midwest emptied southward, the union life ended.

    to sum: folk used the narrative of right-to-life to warrant a vote that was deeply impacted by the anxiety of family and economics. The narrative is less a principle in play than a sort of political accelerant, intensifying existing emotions, motivating to action.

  • Mark Bjelland says:

    I watched my home Swedish Lutheran church in Minneapolis (originally Augustana Synod then LCA) go (somewhat) political in the late 1970s. But school desegregation never came up, at least in my recollection, even though it was happening at that time. What was influential was the Luasanne Covenant Conference and Francis Schaeffer’s film series How Then Shall We Live? and his co-authored book against abortion and euthanasia Whatever Happened to the Human Race Another topic that pushed our church to deal with social issues was that Lutheran Social Services counselors were using pornographic films in their marriage counselling and our pastor opposed that.

  • Hanna says:

    Thank you so much for this Allison. I’m amazed by how misinformed or misguided I’ve been… Genuine change could only come when we humble ourselves and embrace the hard truth. I hope to read more on the subject as you complete your dissertation. Wishing you the best!

  • Bruce Garner says:

    As one who grew up in the segregated south during the sixties, it is not a surprise to me that the narrative of “evangelicals” would spin so closely around segregation. The neighborhood where my parents moved to when I was 16 was all white. Then white flight began (I often refer to that as dumbass white folks making stupid decisions, but hey that’s just me, an old white guy!). Within a few years, the area was mostly Black. What fascinated me was how the “mainline churches” responded to the change in their neighborhood. The Southern Baptist church left first, initially setting up a second congregation “further out” which meant in a white community. They held services at both locations for a while and then abandoned the original location entirely. It now houses a thriving Black Baptist church.

    Presbyterians pretty much abandoned their church for a while until the scales were lifted from their eyes. The United Methodists stayed but failed to serve the neighborhood where they were and recently the Methodist Conference renamed/re-launched a more inclusive congregation but left the historic original name on the sign in front in smaller letters at the bottom.

    The only two churches that didn’t leave were a Church of Christ congregation and an Episcopal Congregation. Both managed to serve the neighborhood where they existed and continue.

    I saw this same scenario all over Atlanta as historically white churches became the homes of Black congregations. White folks kept moving further and further out. At some point they will have to move to Alabama, Tennessee or South Carolina! Maybe racism will be dulled a bit by then… just can’t run from the diversity of God’s creation no matter how you try.

    Our fear of what and who we do not know will always be a stumbling block to our relationship with God’s children who are different from us. Ignorance allows fear to be a barrier. We seem to forget that Jesus’ ministry was almost always aimed at the outcast and marginalized of society….those who were feared because ignorance and religious bigotry.

    I doubt we will ever see this discussed in “mainstream” media…..It doesn’t “sell.” And it holds a mirror up into which most of us don’t really want to look.

    Keep up the Spirit-led work.

    Bruce Garner

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