Before the fall | Sue Halpern

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Illustration by Vivienne Flesher

The day before Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court retrograde draft opinion leaked in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organizationwho looks set to overturn long-standing abortion rights, I happened to be on a plane, watching Tammy Faye’s eyes– a recent biopic, based on a documentary of the same name, about the rise and fall of one of America’s first evangelical Christian couples, Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker. At the height of their fame in the 1970s and 1980s, the Bakkers’ PTL—Praise the Lord—Praise the Lord television network garnered tens of millions of dollars in donations, which funded their luxurious lifestyle and ultimately led to the downfall of Jim Bakker. a five-year prison sentence for cheating donors.

In a scene set in 1985, Jerry Falwell, the oldest, most established and politically astute televangelist, is shown the site of Fort Mill, South Carolina, where Jim Bakker built the Heritage USA Christian theme park of PTL (with its own Coliseum, not to persecute Christian martyrs, Bakker tells Falwell, but to give “kids” a place for rock concerts). As they bounce into a jeep, Falwell tells Bakker, “The coalition we delivered to Reagan – Vice President Bush is counting on us to do the same for him in 1988…. Republicans can’t win without us. You must understand how powerful we are in this fight for the soul of our nation. Tammy Faye, sitting in the backseat, speaks out and says they should “keep politics out of the church”, but Falwell has none of it (nor does she). “Too much at stake,” he said, cutting her off. “Democrats are already trying to remove our church’s tax-exempt status. This time we will keep the evangelicals in the tent.

Falwell’s fight for the soul of the nation, as depicted in the film, references homosexuality and AIDS: “This ‘gay cancer’ is affecting our country, our families,” he says. In reality, the fight began years earlier, in 1979, when Falwell was persuaded to use abortion to get white evangelicals into the Republican Party. At the time, evangelicals were largely apolitical and if they voted, they did not do so as an organized bloc. Religious scholar Randall Balmer has shown that even in 1976, three years after deer-the Southern Baptist Convention reaffirmed a resolution, first passed in 1971, urging members “to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under conditions such as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal malformation and carefully verified evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental and physical health of the mother. But Republican strategist Paul Weyrich understood that capturing evangelicals could win Ronald Reagan the presidency and solidify his party’s future.

In the late 1970s, as I have written in these pages, Falwell feared that Democrats were about to revoke the tax-exempt status of all-white academies — including his own in Lynchburg, Va. — that evangelicals, among others, had established. across the South in the 1960s and 1970s in response to federally mandated desegregation. As Balmer argued, Weyrich knew that if his party were to join forces with Falwell and other white evangelicals, they would have to appeal to something more socially acceptable than racism. And so the rhetoric spun around the murder of babies has become a cynical ploy to attract voters and perpetuate racial discrimination. (It also gave Republicans an opening to partner with the Catholic Church, which was staunchly opposed to abortion — and contraception and sex outside marriage — and whose members had reliably voted for the Democrats.)

Prior to this alliance, on the whole, Republicans were not opposed to abortion. In 1967, as governor, Reagan had signed California’s Therapeutic Abortion Act, then one of the most liberal abortion laws in the country. Five years later, a Gallup poll found nearly seventy percent of Republicans said only a woman and her doctor, not the government, should be involved in the decision to terminate a pregnancy. But once Weyrich brought evangelicals into the tent, Republican voters — as well as prominent Republican politicians like Reagan and George HW Bush — became strong anti-abortion advocates. They traded women’s bodies for political power.

So here we are, nearly half a century after the Supreme Court codified a woman’s right to privacy and therefore to bodily integrity in deer, and the tail is wagging the dog: Evangelicals have annexed the Republican Party, which has used its scandal machine to pass laws in many states that make it harder for voters, especially voters of color, to vote. The result is a right-wing minority with more political power than the majority, which means a Supreme Court filled with justices appointed to pursue a Christian agenda. It’s dominoes, and whoever believes that knocking over deer is where the game ends don’t pay attention.


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