The Christian Right’s version of history paid off on abortion and guns


Two landmark Supreme Court decisions in June hinged on history — one on abortion and the other on gun rights. The court’s conservative majority applied a nostalgic view of the past to make it harder to limit the right to carry a concealed firearm. Meanwhile, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. argued in the Dobbs vs. Jackson Womens Organization of health holding that any right not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution must be “rooted in the history and tradition of our nation” and claiming that the right to abortion did not meet this standard.

In both cases however, historians were quick to point out that court curators mutilated the story. Judge Elena Kagan and other critics have suggested that conservative judges play the role of amateur historians, a job well outside the scope of their duties and training.

But the court curators did not make this story up, they simply borrowed it from the Christian right.

In the 1970s, white conservative Christians needed a strategy to reclaim the political and cultural power they believed was rightfully theirs. They abhorred the changes wrought by liberal activists over the previous decade that threatened the racial, religious, and sexual hierarchies they believed to be ordained by God. They mourned Supreme Court decisions to ban school-sponsored prayer and devotional Bible reading in public schools, legalize abortion, and cut government assistance to religious institutions. They longed for the America of their childhood.

A message coalesced: America needed to return to its old righteous ways. The changes of the 1960s and early 1970s were not progress but decline. To save the nation, Americans had to emulate the past.

To do this, however, white conservative Christians needed a narrative of the past that indicted the present and supported their vision of the future. So their leaders and intellectuals created one. In this story of Christian heritage, the United States was founded by devout proto-evangelical Christians in a unique covenant with the Christian God. As the 1977 bestseller “Light and Glory” puts it: “In the pristine desert of America, God was making his greatest attempt since ancient Israel to create a new Israel of people living in obedience. to the laws of God. , through faith in Jesus Christ.

This new story of Christian heritage has taught Americans to revere the Founding Age as the most morally authoritative time in America’s past, when Christian heroes and their God worked together to create a righteous new nation. In this story, life was not complicated by thoughts of power and privilege. White Christian men ran the country and white Christian women ran the house. Liberal historians of the 1960s and 1970s had corrupted American history with their critiques of the Founders and their desire to tell the stories of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups.

The Christian heritage narrative “saved” American history by denying any mistakes made by the founders or other white Christian heroes. From this perspective, Americans should emulate the past, not learn from its mistakes. Soon the Bible and American history merged into one continuous story of God’s plan for the salvation of the world—sometimes literally.

To celebrate the American Bicentennial in 1976, the Fundamentalist Christian Ministry of the Reverend Jerry Falwell published a special edition of the King James Bible which included biographies of American presidents, the texts of the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, and essays on “America’s Christian Heritage”. and “The Christian Foundations of Our Nation.”

Falwell continued to preach this message throughout the rest of the 1970s, most notably through his I Love America rallies. He founded Moral Majority in 1979, arguing that “despite the moral sickness that pervades our society, God is not done with us as a nation”.

Other leaders of the nascent Christian right made similar arguments. Beverly LaHaye founded Concerned Women for America in the late 1970s to “inform American women about the erosion of our historic Judeo-Christian moral standards.” Armed with this history, conservative Christian women could work to protect “the traditional family” through prayer and political action aimed primarily at countering feminist political proposals. As new conservative Christian organizations formed in the 1980s and 1990s, the history of Christian heritage brought them together in a cohesive movement to “restore the nation”.

Conservative Christian leaders found allies in other conservative organizations. The Heritage Foundation gave money, offices and advice to the founders of Christian Voice, a lobbying organization “committed to bringing America back to traditional values”. Meanwhile, the Federalist Society was preaching a new gospel of judicial interpretation called “originalism.” According to law professor Ann Southworth, the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society acted as an intermediary between the Christian right and other factions of the conservative movement, uniting them around their common goal of going back to an imaginary point in the past. .

This nostalgic reimagining of the past served two strategic purposes for the Christian right in the late 1970s and 1980s. First, by providing examples of former Christians who participated in world politics, it prompted Christians Conservatives to vote and campaign locally. Their support proved crucial during the election and re-election of former President Ronald Reagan, and they became a key Republican Party constituency from that point on.

Second, an important legal argument was embedded in this version of American history: the idea that Christianity and the American government were deeply entangled in the past, and that the courts had erred in attempting to completely separate the Church. and the state in the middle of the 20th century. .

This legal argument, however, was based on the notion that anyone could interpret the past, just as Protestants believed that anyone could interpret the Bible. Proponents of Christian heritage saw no need for specialized training or professional expertise, in part because they took the written records of the past at face value with little questioning of context or potential narrators might not be reliable.

When the Christian legal movement emerged in the 1980s, its lawyers relied on this approach to history to gradually undo what they saw as the damage caused by the Supreme Court’s efforts to decenter Christianity in the law. and American politics. They tended to include long lists of quotes about the Founders’ Christianity to back up their arguments—usually failing to provide context for those quotes and ignoring the possibility that other contemporary Americans might have disagreed.

Over time, conservative Christian lawyers persuaded the court that if the founders engaged in public displays of religion and directed government money to religious organizations, the current government could do the same in a number of ways. States could post the Ten Commandments on state property, religious leaders could offer prayer at city council meetings, and government money could resurface a church playground or pay school fees. in a private religious school. Who could oppose the precedent of history and traditions?

In Dobbs vs. Jackson Womens Organization of health and New York State Guns and Rifles Association vs. Bruen, Alito, and Judge Clarence Thomas, respectively, have replicated the story of Christian heritage, both in content and method of inquiry. Like proponents of the Christian heritage, they located America’s moral standards in the past, primarily in the founding era. Any innovation since then is not progress but a sign of decline. And the simplistic past they described leaves no room for conflicting sources, marginalized voices of that time, or mistakes that Americans shouldn’t. want to to replicate.

This past, the court tells us, sets the limits of our constitutional rights today. We must all live by this distorted view of history, even if some Americans will die from it.

Under the guise of defending America’s history and traditions, court conservatives eventually established conservative Christian values ​​as the law of the land.