“The real catalyst for the religious right was a court decision — but not, as commonly believed, Roe v. Wade,” Balmer told Teen Vogue. In the mid-1960s, in response to Brown, three whites-only private schools were founded in Holmes County, Mississippi. As Balmer detailed in an article for Politico, Black parents in the county sued the Treasury Department in an effort to prohibit the schools from securing full tax-exempt status.

They cited the schools’ discriminatory policies as proof that they were not “charitable” institutions. In January 1970, the court granted a preliminary injunction that declared the Black parents the winners in the case, until further review. Later that year, all segregated schools in the U.S. were denied tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and donations to these organizations were no longer tax-deductible, a decision cleared by President Richard Nixon. In June 1971, the parents’ case, Green v. Connally, concluded: “The court ruled that any institution that engages in racial discrimination is not — by definition — a charitable institution and therefore has no claims to tax-exempt status.” That caught the attention of evangelical leaders like Falwell, who had founded his own segregation academy, Lynchburg Christian School, in 1967, said Balmer.

During this time, the IRS began reaching out to “church-related ‘segregation academies’” to confirm whether or not they upheld discriminatory practices. As Balmer wrote for Guardian, Weyrich said he’d been trying to get evangelicals interested in politics since 1964, discussing topics including school prayer, pornography, women’s rights, and even abortion, but none had worked. The financial hit from the IRS’s refusal to provide tax exemption for segregated institutions is what finally got the group’s attention.

As Balmer wrote in the Politico article, “Elmer L. Rumminger, longtime administrator at Bob Jones University, told me in an interview [that] the IRS actions against his school ‘alerted the Christian school community about what could happen with government interference in the affairs of evangelical institutions. ‘That was really the major issue that got us all involved.’”

When did abortion take over as a key issue for the evangelical right?

“Evangelicals seized on the abortion issue for several reasons. First, it allowed them to divert attention from the real origins of their political movement. Second, I think there is some vague, visceral way they identify with the vulnerability of a fetus. I remember the head of the Iowa chapter of Concerned Women for America telling me in 1988, ‘The most dangerous place to be is inside a mother’s womb.’ I think in some way white evangelicals, with their sense of embattlement, identify with that,” said Balmer. “Finally, and I don’t say this dismissively because many anti-abortion people sincerely believe in the justice of their cause, but opposition to abortion is a fairly ‘low-cost’ position. A fetus doesn’t demand health care or an education. There are very few political obligations associated with defending a fetus.”

What hold does the evangelical right have on today’s Republican Party?

Back in 1973, five justices nominated by Republican presidents joined with the 7-2 majority to enshrine the right to an abortion. The majority opinion states: “This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or, as the District Court determined, in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent.” The opinion also says: “We do not agree that, by adopting one theory of life, Texas may override the rights of the pregnant woman that are at stake.”

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