Dying from the neck up
Three sermons on the end of Roe in America
In 1970 Norma McCorvey walked into a federal courthouse on Ervay Street in Dallas, Texas, and argued, with help from her attorneys, that she ought to be allowed to have an abortion. Her case, which eventually overturned Texas’ abortion restrictions and established the constitutional right to legal abortion nationwide, was called Roe v. Wade.
A block north of the boxy courthouse on Ervay Street stood First Baptist Church in a venerable red brick and brownstone sanctuary. Its pastor, Wallie Amos Criswell, had been called to serve the church in 1944 and had grown the congregation into a proper modern megachurch. He had also established himself as a leading practitioner of expository preaching — straight from the scripture, that is, as exemplified by the time he preached through the entire Bible in Sunday sermons over the course of seventeen-and-a-half years.
Loath though he was to preach topical sermons, W.A. Criswell did manage to weigh in on the news of the day. He was, for example, an ardent opponent of federally enforced racial desegregation of schools. When Brown v. Board of Education had been decided in 1956, he had traveled as far as South Carolina to denounce supporters of integration as “a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.” When John F. Kennedy had run for president in 1960, Criswell had published an article opposing the election of a Catholic U.S. president.
By the time Roe was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1973, Criswell was a nationally renowned speaker, a pastor and mentor to the televangelist Billy Graham, and a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention as it grew to become the largest Protestant denomination in the country.
Here is what Criswell had to say about Roe in 1973:
I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.
Criswell’s position was in line with mainstream fundamentalist thought at the time. As Randall Balmer documented in his 2014 Politico piece “The Real Origins of the Religious Right,” the ascendance of the Moral Majority and the hard-right fundamentalist turn in mainstream U.S. politics throughout the 1980s began not as a response to Roe, but as a response to a different SCOTUS decision: Green v. Connally (1971), which ended federal tax exemptions for private schools that practiced racial segregation. Green was the Supreme Court case that galvanized South Carolina’s conservative intelligentsia in defense of the segregationist Bob Jones University. In Virginia, it was the case that got Jerry Falwell Sr.’s Lynchburg Christian School in hot water with the IRS.
Leaders including Falwell Sr. would eventually rationalize their movement as a response to Roe, which came to be seen as a more culturally palatable mission than enforcing racial segregation. Their congregations followed suit, with votes and tithes and earnest prayer.
Over the course of the intervening 49 years, forcing people to carry pregnancies to term became the raison d'être for an entire legal, political, and religious movement in the U.S. The fight for overt racial segregation faded into the background, for the time being, as a new political coalition sought to seed federal courts and the Supreme Court of the United States with far-right ideologues who would legitimize a broadly unpopular collection of state-level abortion bans. Those robed politicians are currently at work dismantling democratic elections, abolishing the agencies that protect workers and students and the environment, and jackhammering at the remnants of the wall between church and state.
On June 24, 2022, the fervent prayers of Criswell, Falwell, and millions of U.S. Christians were answered in the affirmative. With three new justices handpicked by a coalition of conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and capitalists under the aegis of the Federalist Society, the unelected Supreme Court of the United States ended the federal right to legal abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case out of Mississippi.
The decision came down on a Friday. Across the country, there rose a great shuffling of Bible commentaries and a clattering of keyboards as pastors reworked their Sunday sermons.
In the interest of understanding the currents of U.S. evangelical thought and agitprop, I watched three sermons from June 26, the first Sunday after Dobbs. This is not a scientific sample, but I chose prominent pastors whose homilies might yield insights into where their movement is headed next.
Pastor: Robert Jeffress
Church: First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas (estimated 13,000 congregants)
Robert Jeffress is an acolyte of his predecessor W.A. Criswell and a spiritual advisor to former U.S. President Donald J. Trump. In his first sermon after Dobbs, Jeffress said that members of his church had been praying inside the former federal courthouse on Ervay Street routinely for the past 8 years.
The courthouse has been renovated as an apartment building now, but the courtroom is still available as an event space. Congregants from First Baptist had been going into it and imploring the God of Abraham to “miraculously overturn Roe,” according to Jeffress. In January, the owners of the building informed the prayer warriors that they couldn’t meet in the building anymore, according to Jeffress. It turns out the answer to their prayers was already in motion.
“Last Friday, God did a miracle and he took this evil, abominable decision and he cast it into the dustbin of history. Roe is no more!” Jeffress proclaimed on Sunday morning to thunderous cheers and a standing, flag-waving ovation
He went on:
Those on the left were infuriated by it, those on the right were elated by it, and yet they both agreed on one fact … The primary reason that Roe was overturned on Friday was because in 2016, evangelical Christians joined together with conservative Catholics and they elected a president who kept his promise to appoint 3 conservative pro-life justices to the Supreme Court. Thank God for President Donald J. Trump!
Coincidentally, June 26 was also First Baptist’s annual “Freedom Sunday” service, a syncretic ceremony celebrating both the love of Jesus and the imperial might of the United States of America. This year’s service featured a guest worship music performance by Lee Greenwood, writer of the reactionary war hymn “Proud to Be an American.”
After Jeffress gave his short homily on the virtues of forced birth, he introduced guest preacher Kelvin J. Cochran, a former fire department chief from Atlanta whom Jeffress described as “a true hero of the faith and defender of Christian liberty.”
Cochran is a conservative celebrity because he lost his job after self-publishing a men’s Bible study guide called “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” (a reference to Genesis 3:11) and distributing it to subordinates in the Atlanta fire department. The book claims that same-sex intercourse and sex outside of marriage are “vulgar and inappropriate,” defile the “body-temple,” and “dishonor God.” After losing his job in 2015, Cochran sued for wrongful termination and got a $1.2 million settlement from the city in 2018.
Preaching ostensibly from the text of Psalm 66:8-12, Cochran recounted how he had been persecuted for his faith. He claimed (incorrectly) that he had won his case against the city of Atlanta. Cochran’s message included some illuminating asides, like when he claimed that God allowed the trans-Atlantic slave trade to happen because Africans were converting to Islam. 1
It seems obvious that Cochran had prepared his message well in advance of Dobbs. His only mention of the abortion decision was tacked onto the end. He was more reserved in his celebration than Jeffress had been, imploring congregants not to rest on their laurels:
Our passive display of faith holds little value and little worth and has proven to be politically impotent on issues of biblical value such as marriage, family, and the sanctity of life. Praise God for our victory at the Supreme Court, but the fight is just beginning. We’ve got to have states that pass laws that codify what has just taken place at the Supreme Court level …
If we begin to put all of our Christian resources together as a unified body, we have more than enough resources to fight and win these cultural battles for the glory of God and the next generation of Americans who will come after us. If we remain divided, passive, and silent, I’m concerned that our freedoms will continue to diminish.
Pastor: Jonathan Falwell
Church: Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia (estimated 9,000 congregants)
Sermon Title: “The Letters of John: Make a Change!” (video)
Jonathan Falwell, son of Jerry Sr., serves as senior pastor of his father’s church. He is also the campus pastor at one of the largest Christian universities on earth, nearby Liberty University, which was also founded by his father.
While Jonathan is not as much of a fixture in right-wing media as his brother Jerry Jr., he wields tremendous influence. Following Jerry Jr.’s sex scandal and ouster as the chancellor of Liberty, Jonathan is in consideration to become the new chancellor.
“There are some Sundays that are just sweeter than others,” Falwell said Sunday morning by way of introduction. “We’ve had a big week that shows we have a big God. It’s not very often that you get to see a 49-year prayer request answered. Folks, we have a big God.” Cheers went up from the auditorium.
Striking a similar note to Cochran’s message in Dallas the same morning, Falwell urged his congregation not to “gloat” and not to be complacent. He asked his congregation to practice forgiveness toward people who had received abortions. He prayed:
Now Father, I know that there are people in this nation who disagree with this move and disagree with this decision. I know there are people today who are protesting in the streets, and God I understand that. God, we pray that you would give us the opportunity, Lord, to show your love to them. God, help us not to retaliate or respond in anger or respond in any way that would besmirch the name of Christ and the church.
Like many large evangelical churches, Thomas Road Baptist supports crisis pregnancy centers, which do not provide healthcare but do conduct ultrasounds and try to persuade people not to terminate their pregnancies. In many states including Virginia and Texas, crisis pregnancy centers have been caught providing medical misinformation to people seeking abortions.
Falwell mentioned on Sunday that the local Blue Ridge Pregnancy Center in Lynchburg had been vandalized the day before.
According to local news reports, security cameras at the center showed masked people breaking windows and spray-painting graffiti messages including “IF ABORTION AIN’T SAFE YOU AIN’T SAFE,” “Vote blue lol,” and “JANE’S REVENGE” with an anarchist circled A.
In response, Falwell took up a special offering on Sunday, kicking off a fundraiser that aims to provide $100,000 to Blue Ridge Pregnancy Center, Bedford Pregnancy Center, and the Liberty Godparent Home.
“God just laid this number on my heart, that this is what we as a church should do,” Falwell said.
Pastor: Mark Burns
Church: Harvest Praise & Worship Center, Easley, SC (congregation size unknown)
Sermon Title: “Five Steps Out of Depression” (Facebook stream)
The lines of what constitutes a “pastor” and a “church” are fuzzier than ever in the United States. I don’t know exactly what the mission of Pastor Mark Burns’ ministry is, how many congregants he has, or what he believes about the Bible. I include him in this list only because of his influence: He was considered a spiritual advisor to President Trump, and he holds some sway in right-wing media.
Pastor Burns also recently received more than 11,000 votes in a Republican primary for South Carolina’s 4th Congressional District after ranting about LGBTQ “indoctrination,” demanding the reinstatement of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and calling for the execution of people who commit “treason” by his own confusing definition of the term (he placed second in the primary behind incumbent William Timmons’ 25,000 votes).
The Harvest Praise & Worship Center met Sunday morning on what appeared to be a patch of grass beside a moderately busy road. Three women spent half an hour hyping up Pastor Mark’s sermon on “defeating depression,” a message they all said they needed to hear, before handing the service over to their pastor.
He spoke for half an hour, primarily litigating some arguments he had gotten into during the week on Breitbart News, Facebook, and TikTok. He also talked about abortion.
“Most women – real women – they are made to birth children, and that is one of the most sacred things that a woman can do, and one of her most proud moments in life, and real women know this,” Pastor Burns said in a seemingly improvised message that was live-streamed on his Facebook page to his 35,000 followers. He also told a confusing story about his mother receiving a life-saving abortion, which he seemed to condone while also saying that the decision made her depressed.
Substantively, what Pastor Burns said was similar to what Pastor Jeffress, Pastor Falwell, and thousands of other conservative clergy said on Sunday morning. He praised Trump for placing conservatives on the court. He claimed that legalized abortion was a plot by the eugenicist Margaret Sanger to reduce Black birth rates. He called on the South Carolina legislature to make it “illegal or closely near impossible to have abortions,” which the legislature is currently preparing to do in a special called session.
He connected the anti-abortion crusade to his pet project: the criminalization of LGBTQ people.
“I said this on Facebook,” Burns said via Facebook live stream. “If you are going to remove prayer out of public schools, then remove Pride out of public schools. If you are going to remove God out of public schools, then remove gay out of public schools. That’s what I’m telling you.”
Pastor Burns spoke for half an hour without ever opening a Bible or revealing the five steps out of depression. The faithful were fed, and the pastor took his rest.
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Here is the full quote from Cochran’s message. Make of it what you will: “Slavery in America did not catch God by surprise. God had not fallen asleep. In his sovereignty, God allowed Africans to be brought to America as slaves. Africa was on the eve of social, spiritual, and economic famine. Islamic religion was widespread and on the radical increase during the slave movement. Allah and Mohammed were being exalted more than the most high God and Jesus Christ among Africans. Many Africans were being killed for not converting to Islam and the Islamic movement. Christianity was being suppressed and oppressed during the period of the slave trade. God was about to pronounce great judgment on West Africa, so he brought approximately 6 million Africans across the middle passage to America in the bitter bondage of slavery. Just as it was God’s divine plan to enslave the nation of Israel, his very own people, in his sovereignty, brothers and sisters, he allowed Africans to be brought to America in bondage.”