Reviews | The long road to overthrowing Roe began in Virginia

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The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe vs. Wade is the culmination of a long and dedicated political engagement by religious conservatives who mobilized within the Republican Party beginning in the 1970s and later formed effective alliances with other GOP factions. Little is known about the Virginian origins of this powerful political movement that transformed the GOP and ultimately overthrew a constitutional right.

Prior to the creation of the Moral Majority, which played a huge role in the 1980 national elections, its leader, Reverend Jerry Falwell of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., was involved in two political campaigns in Virginia. who gave him confidence that he and other conservative religious leaders could become a powerful national political force.

In 1978, Falwell successfully organized a campaign to oppose a state referendum to legalize pari-mutuel betting. He and other prominent conservative religious figures in the state had mounted an expensive television and print ad campaign.

The referendum narrowly failed, and many attributed that result to Falwell’s leadership of the conservative religious coalition. Although Falwell had previously preached separation from the political world, by the late 1970s he had changed his mind and decided to use his skills to work for political change.

After the defeat of the referendum in 1978, Falwell said that this effort to build a coalition of religious leaders in political action was a harbinger of “future efforts together”. On that day, he could not have known how much these future endeavors would change the face of American politics.

Dennis Pederson, the executive director of the anti-referendum group, later said the campaign gave the state’s conservative religious leaders “a taste of what they could do in politics – how much they could be. influential”.

He said Falwell brought together a wide range of religious leaders who “had never sat around a breakfast table before to discuss how they could organize themselves to pursue a common goal.”

That same year, there was a close election for the United States Senate, pitting Republican John W. Warner against a Democratic candidate, Andrew Miller, who was widely expected to win. Warner had previously lost the GOP nomination to a strongly conservative nominee, Richard D. Obenshain, who later died in a plane crash, resulting in Warner being called upon to be the party’s nominee.

The conservative wing of the GOP, especially religious conservatives, did not trust Warner. So he openly sought a sign of endorsement from Falwell to establish his credentials with GOP members who had previously opposed his candidacy.

On the Sunday before the election, the two main party candidates attended a service at Thomas Road Baptist Church at Falwell’s request. Both were present and eagerly awaiting a nod of approval from Falwell.

It was a measure of how much influence the candidates believed Falwell could have on a bloc of voters in the state. After introducing the candidates by their political credentials, Falwell, in his reference to Warner, added “and my friend”.

Never again would a Democratic candidate for statewide office in Virginia seek Falwell’s endorsement. Warner won the election by just 4,721 votes, and more than a few observers have suggested that Falwell’s nod to the GOP nominee was important to that outcome.

Successfully entering state politics that year gave Falwell the confidence that he could be an agent of change in government and public policy by mobilizing religious conservatives.

New Right secular leaders approached Falwell that year and offered their support if he could use his skills to lead a national political organization that would connect conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists to the Republican Party. Falwell agreed and formed his moral majority, relying primarily on his relationships with other pastors in the Baptist Bible Fellowship denomination.

Falwell and Moral Majority quickly became the face of the Christian right movement in the United States. For the 1980 national elections, when he and his new organization burst onto the political scene, he claimed to have mobilized up to 4 million previously apolitical religious conservatives.

Some observers disputed that number, but whatever the exact figure, Falwell had certainly been the key figure in initially mobilizing a large body of activists who, over time, transformed the GOP and American politics more generally.

When the Moral Majority disbanded in the late 1980s, in its place came the Christian Coalition, also based in Virginia. In the mid-1990s, political analysts and scholars in the religious conservative movement were writing about the movement’s eventual takeover of the Republican Party in various states. Many other conservative religious organizations, many statewide and regional, now carry the work of the organizations that formed in Virginia and helped fuel a transformative political movement.

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