PRINCETON, N.J. (BP)–Abortion, as well as the influence of theologian and author Francis Schaeffer, helped push evangelicals and others into the political process and establish them as an important part of the conservative coalition in the United States, Southern Baptist ethics specialist Richard Land said at a recent conference at Princeton University.
Speaking at a three-day conference on the history and future of the American conservative movement, Land said the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and the massive number of abortions that followed, combined with Schaeffer’s arguments for Christian participation in public life, provided the impetus that changed the political landscape.
“Abortion is the issue that was the driving force for the vast numbers of cultural conservatives coming into the political process and doing so mainly through the Republican Party,” Land told participants during a Dec. 3 panel discussion on religion, culture and conservatism. “Roe v. Wade changed everything.”
Schaeffer’s influence from 1973 to ’80 was “enormous,” said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Schaeffer was “a person of singular significance in helping to understand the rise of cultural conservatism,” Land said of the author of such books as “The God Who Is There” and “How Should We Then Live?”
Schaeffer, who died in 1984, taught Catholics and Protestants they “had an obligation to be salt and light,” Land said. “He helped us to jettison a deep strain of pietism which had led us to believe that we shouldn’t be involved with the world and with public policy.”
One of Schaeffer’s major criticisms of American evangelicalism was its detachment from politics after the 1925 Scopes trial, said Emory University history professor Patrick Allitt. The news reporting on that Dayton, Tenn., case involving the teaching of evolution reflected poorly on conservative Christians and helped drive many of them into isolation from public policy efforts.
Schaeffer “had an enormous impact on a whole generation of those of us who became leaders of the social conservative movement,” Land said, “and he was enormously responsible for shaping many of our seminary presidents and many of our seminary professors in Southern Baptist life and in evangelical life across the board.”
The great shift for Southern Baptists and other evangelicals took place between the 1976 and ’80 elections, Land said. Between those two elections, many Baptists abandoned Democratic President Jimmy Carter for Republican Ronald Reagan. Polls by Lou Harris found 66 percent of white Baptists voted for Carter in 1976, but 64 percent of white Baptists voted for Reagan four years later, Land told the audience.
By 1980, abortions had reached more than 1.5 million a year, Land pointed out. The shift by Baptists could be attributed, Land said, to “Jimmy Carter portraying himself as an evangelical and then being strongly pro-choice in his policies, and Ronald Reagan being strongly pro-life in his policies.”
Disagreeing with some conservatives, Land said the influx of evangelicals into the political process did not happen as a result of the Carter administration’s campaign against the tax-exempt status of Christian schools. He called it an “inside the [Washington] beltway legend.”
Panelist David Kirkpatrick, a reporter for The New York Times, acknowledged many evangelicals thought abortion was a “Catholic issue” in the 1960s and ’70s, but he questioned the emphasis by Land of the influence of the practice’s legalization.
Another panelist, talk radio host and former secretary of Education William Bennett, said it had to do “with scale,” the huge number of abortions that were performed in the post-Roe years.
Land agreed with Bennett.
The scale after Roe “just horrified and caused extreme angst among traditional Catholics and evangelicals,” Land said. Evangelicals’ idea that abortion was a Catholic issue changed “with the scale of Roe v. Wade.”
“What happened would not have happened without Roe v. Wade and 1.5 million abortions a year. There were a lot of other complicating factors, but without that, what happened wouldn’t have happened,” Land said in response to Kirkpatrick.
Had the Republican Party not welcomed pro-life evangelicals and Catholics in the 1970s, it may not have survived, Land said.
If there is a crisis in the United States “in which neither of the two parties will accommodate itself to a social movement that has reached critical mass, then the weaker of those two parties will die and it will be replaced by a new party,” Land said, then referred to the Republican Party’s birth amid the decline of the Whig Party in the mid-1800s. “And I firmly believe that if the Republican Party in the wake of Watergate, as vitiated as it was, had not accommodated itself to a pro-life movement that had reached critical mass in the period between 1976 and 1980 and had not put a pro-life plank in their platform, [it] would have died and it would have been replaced by a new party, a central part of which would have been its pro-life beliefs.”
White, evangelical Protestants made up 26 percent of all voters in the 2004 presidential election, and 78 of those evangelicals voted for Bush, Land said, citing a University of Akron poll.
There needs to be a discussion within the movement, however, “because there are some differences among social conservatives and other conservatives,” Land said. Conservatives agree about the “runaway” federal judiciary, but when it comes to government having a role in “empowering people” and on such issues as “individual freedom and responsibility,” those are “some of the areas where there is going to continue to be some disagreement,” he said.
Bennett said it “would be putting it mildly to say social conservatives are mad when it comes to government spending. They are very unhappy about immigration.” They will continue to support Bush, however, while he carries out the war in Iraq and as long as he supports human rights, Bennett said.
Panel moderator Robert George, a Princeton jurisprudence professor, asked if Democrats could win back religious conservatives or if support for abortion rights is a “deal-breaker” in such an effort.
Bennett said abortion “is a very big deal” but the “red states” that Bush carried “are about more things than abortion.” On his radio program, the discussion is about abortion five percent of the time, “gay marriage” five percent and foreign policy 75 percent, he said.
Land rejected the idea a party that supports abortion rights will gain the votes of most Southern Baptists. With 84 percent voting for Bush in 2004, Southern Baptists supported the president even more strongly than evangelicals in general, he pointed out. “I think that Southern Baptists are the most pro-life denomination at the rank-and-file level,” Land said.
“I think that there are things [Democrats] can do,” Land said. “If they allowed people to be pro-life who are Democrats, that would help. If they never met an abortion they couldn’t at least live with, that would help.”
Among other speakers or panelists at the event were former National Review publisher William Rusher, Free Congress Foundation head Paul Weyrich, and columnists Michael Barone, David Brooks and George Will.