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Column: Koop Helped Give Birth to Religious Right

It requires only modest exaggeration to say that C. Everett Koop, the distinguished Dartmouth alumnus who died on Monday, is responsible for the emergence of the Religious Right. As much as anyone else, Koop persuaded American evangelicals in the late 1970s that opposition to abortion was a matter worthy of their votes.

Although televangelists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell frequently asserted that it was the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 that galvanized politically conservative evangelicals into a voting bloc, that claim collapses in the face of historical scrutiny. The Southern Baptist Convention, hardly a redoubt of liberalism, called for the legalization of abortion at its gathering in St. Louis in 1971, a resolution the denomination reaffirmed in 1974 and again in 1976. The United Methodist Church, meeting in Atlanta in 1972, passed a similar resolution.

When the Roe decision was handed down on Jan. 22, 1973, several prominent evangelicals applauded the ruling for drawing an appropriate distinction between personal morality and public policy. “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,” W. A. Criswell, one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century, declared, “and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” Other evangelical leaders expressed similar sentiments.

A different court decision, Green v. Connally, prompted evangelical leaders to organize. That 1971 ruling by the District Court of the District of Columbia upheld the Internal Revenue Service in its opinion that any institution that retains racially discriminatory policies is not — by definition — a charitable organization and is not, therefore, entitled to tax-exempt status.

When the IRS rescinded the tax exemption of Bob Jones University on Jan. 19, 1976, evangelical leaders howled in protest. Ignoring the crucial fact that tax exemption amounts to public subsidy, they insisted that the federal government was meddling into the affairs of religious organizations. With the encouragement of conservative activists like Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie, these leaders of what became the Religious Right began to organize.

But the movement still needed an issue that would energize evangelicals at the grassroots. The 1978 elections persuaded Weyrich that abortion could be that issue. On the Sunday before the election, pro-lifers in Iowa and Minnesota leafleted church parking lots. Two days later, they defeated a popular incumbent Democratic senator in Iowa, and in Minnesota they captured three statewide offices: governor and both Senate seats (one of them for the remaining term of Hubert Humphrey).

What Weyrich still lacked was a way to alert grassroots evangelicals to the scourge of abortion, and here is where C. Everett Koop figures into the story. Koop, a distinguished pediatric surgeon, had long opposed abortion, but in 1978 he teamed up with Francis A. Schaeffer, a goateed, knicker-wearing evangelical philosopher, to produce a film series called Whatever Happened to the Human Race?

Schaeffer had long excoriated what he called “secular humanism” and warned that the legalization of abortion would soon lead to infanticide and euthanasia. Koop’s sterling reputation as a physician added credibility to the argument. As the film series toured American cities in 1979, the term “secular humanism” entered the political lexicon, and Falwell, Weyrich and other leaders of the Religious Right harvested popular anger over abortion. They adroitly mobilized politically conservative evangelicals into a potent voting bloc in time for the 1980 election.

The rest, as they say, is history. After flirting with John Connally, the former governor of Texas, the Religious Right settled on Ronald Reagan as their champion and standard-bearer — this despite the fact that Reagan as governor of California had signed into law the most liberal abortion bill in the nation. Even though Jimmy Carter had a longer and more consistent record of opposing abortion than Reagan, evangelical activism in 1980 denied Carter, an evangelical, a second term as president.

The Religious Right’s reward was the appointment of Koop as surgeon general of the United States. But Koop proved to be his own man. He called attention to the burgeoning AIDS crisis, even though others in the Reagan administration preferred to ignore it. His advocacy for sex education and the use of condoms pitted him against other leaders of the Religious Right, especially Phyllis Schlafly.

In the course of one famous exchange, Koop remarked that Schlafly’s notion of sex education was don’t let anyone touch you in a place covered by a bathing suit. Koop also quashed a specious, politically motivated report which asserted that women who had abortions suffered adverse psychological effects. And those of us who remember the bad old days of smoke-filled restaurants, bars and passenger airplanes can thank Koop for calling attention to the deleterious effects of both smoking and second-hand smoke.

All in all, a distinguished career: physician, public-health advocate and (wittingly or not) political organizer. Besides, not many surgeons general of the United States have a rock song written about them: Frank Zappa’s Promiscuous.

Randall Balmer is chair of the department of religion at Dartmouth College.