We don’t often think of our current-day allegiances existing within decades, even centuries, of struggle. Sometimes they do. With the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, President Donald Trump has pushed our nation to an existential point of decision about who we are and who we will be for at least the next two to three generations.
The culture war had one central strategy when the religious right raised its banner in the early 1980s: to tip the balance of the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of a politically conservative agenda.
The religious right sold its culture war to followers by claiming it had come together to fight abortion, but it didn’t. It coalesced in the fight to protect Bob Jones University from the gains of the civil rights movement in the Supreme Court case, Bob Jones University v. United States.
Until 1971 BJU barred black students from its campus. When they received a notice from the IRS that they were in violation of a new tax code based on Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits segregation and discrimination, they admitted one part-time black student who dropped out a few months later. The Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education laid the foundation for it all.
Bob Jones University tried to placate the IRS by admitting married black students but banning single ones from campus. The university finally admitted single black students, but barred them from interracial dating or marriage. Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, and others rallied to rescue the school from encroaching civil rights protections, but the school lost.
Church historian Randall Balmer explained in his book, Thy Kingdom Come, and again in an 2014 article for Politico, when the dust settled the newly formed religious right made a brilliant strategic decision: They would leverage the movement borne in the Bob Jones battle to strengthen ties between the political conservative movement and evangelicalism. Race couldn’t be the rally cry, but anti-abortion sentiment was gaining traction. The call to end abortion and protect religious freedom would become their banner as the culture war turned toward Roe v. Wade.
The culture war began as a fight against Brown v. Board of Education, not Roe v. Wade.
Truth is, the culture war’s strategy to shift the balance of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade won’t accomplish its stated goal — to end abortion in the U.S. Rather, that strategy would send the decision back to the states. But, states with the highest abortion rates are unlikely to outlaw abortion. As a result, the majority of abortions in the U.S. will continue.
We know what works: Decrease poverty and abortions will decrease. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2014 report on poverty and abortion found that abortion rates are falling nationally. In fact, the current abortion rate is at its lowest since Roe v. Wade. We are succeeding in reducing abortion with a balanced court. But the Catholic bishops found abortion rates are going up among poor women, because poverty is the key driver of abortion. If we’re going to decrease abortion, we must focus on poverty.
While the Supreme Court strategy won’t end abortion, it will put people of color in peril. Past is prologue. Majority conservative rulings have consistently hurt people of color. A majority conservative Supreme Court, with lifetime appointments, would have two to three generations to dismantle civil rights and protections by chipping away at Brown v. the Board of Education and weakening every legislative act that rests on that ruling. Restricted rights lead to increased poverty. Increased poverty leads to more abortions.
We must not stand idly by while a 35-year-old, ideologically driven strategy fails to save babies and puts the lives of our brothers and sisters in the pews right next to us at peril. Last week, Sojourners president and founder Jim Wallis and Executive Director Adam Taylor joined 35 top women and men evangelical leaders across the country in a national #CalltoPause the Culture Wars. This week, people in pews across the country can join the movement by making a #PledgetoPause the Culture Wars. We are fasting for discernment, listening to the pleas of people of color, and demanding the Senate only confirm a truly moderate, independent justice who will protect Brown v. Board of Education and all civil rights and voting rights legislation that rests on that ruling.