'Roe v. Wade and the rise of the Christian Right' essay presented at TigerSprung - 1972
Fine Art Research Symposium, Laurie Grove Baths, Goldsmiths College
10th March 2017
Roe v. Wade and the rise of the Christian Right
‘You are in a vast room. It is familiar. Rows upon rows of bleachers form a curve towards you to welcome and fold you in. You are held in place by expectant geometries of grids and lines that coalesce around you, by the segments of chairs and rigging, the vertiginous steps and hand rails. The ceiling is studded with lights like the dome of the night sky. The room is filled with people, the stage is filled with people. Multiple screens multiply the faces. All the bodies know their place. They belong to each other, and belong to the room. This is your family, and the belonging is your inheritance. You thought you came here because you willed it, but now you know that it was meant to be. His eyes saw your unformed body; all the days ordained for you were written in His book before a single one of them began. Even the hairs on your head are all numbered.
The waiting bodies are now reaching out, faces upturned, eyes shut, arms straining, fingers splayed towards something high up and out of reach. At intervals, a body becomes a lightning rod for an unseen presence, the body writhes and jabbers or shakes and weeps. This presence in the room is materializing in desiring bodies. There is a laying on of hands. A healing work is taking place. A shout rises up in their mouths: ‘Thirsty! Thirsty! Thirsty! Hungry! Hungry! Hungry!’ Bodies fall in the spirit, crumpling under the saturating weight of His presence. The wave of falling bodies come closer up the stands. You can feel something drawing near in the prickling sensation in your skin, in the raised hairs and blood vessels dilating. Your heart beats quicken. You sweat, your pores producing glistening beads which reflect the auditorium from every angle, the screens and ceiling and banks of seating reflected in curved lines and pin pricks of light. Your head aches a little, you have become dehydrated. Your mouth is dry. You are thirsty. You feel a weight in your chest, you open your arms, you are ready. The anticipation has produced an excess of adrenaline, you move without thought, uninhibited, with the need to join in the writhing mass of bodies. Behind your eyelids you are tumbling through space.’
The perplexing aporia of embodiment within evangelicalism is both rooted within its’ traditions and timely. How the body is imbricated, oriented, enculturated and policed within Evangelical church communities is significant when considering that Evangelicals form almost 30 % of America’s population (1), and 81% of these voted for Trump (2), leading to a renewed attack on progressive policy concerning the body currently taking place under the influence of purportedly Christian morality. Evangelicalism, a trans-denominational movement within Protestantism, is characterized by salvation through faith, a literal interpretation of the Bible, the experience of being born again and the necessity of spreading the gospel message through Evangelism. From 1960 to 2000 Evangelicals grew globally at three times the growth rate of the world’s population and twice that of Islam (3), there are currently estimated to be at least 600 million Evangelicals worldwide and is continuing to spread (4). It is important to state that Evangelicalism is not synonymous with conservativism. The Christian right (formed of both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics) are in contradistinction to the abolitionist, civil rights, and feminist traditions of mainline Protestantism, and there are a small proportion of Evangelicals who are liberal, progressive and gravitate towards the Christian left. However, growing political pressure from the Evangelical right wing combined with republican soliciting of the evangelical vote from the 1970s onwards has part dissolved the traditional separation of church and state.
Just under three weeks ago, American Norma McCorvey, better known under the pseudonym ‘Jane Roe’ in the landmark Roe v. Wade case died at the age of 69. As a 21 year old, McCorvey, pregnant with her third child and unmarried, and wishing to terminate the pregnancy, began legal proceedings. The case, running from late 1971 and reargued in 1972, culminated in January 1973 in a historic 7-2 ruling by the US Supreme Court, establishing the constitutional right to abortion up to the third term of pregnancy. However, this relaxing of restrictions over abortion galvanized a conflict in social mores, activating grassroots movements on both sides, and highlighting a question over the role of religion and morality in the political sphere.
In the wake of Roe v. Wade, the foundation of several nonprofit political and issue-oriented Evangelical organizations including the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, aiming to influence policy with conservative moral reform, challenged the separatism of American Christian culture. At the same time, a focus on Evangelicalism in the media, with Newsweek declaring 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical”, was precipitated by the presidency of Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter. The increased attention on and activity of Evangelicalism contributed to the establishment of the first Mega Churches within buildings large enough to accommodate congregations of tens of thousands.
The Moral Majority was founded in 1979 after a series of “I Love America” rallies by Baptist minister Jerry Falwell as a direct response to what he considered to be a decay in the nation’s morality. The organization consisted of conservative Christian political action committees to campaign over certain issues, including the promotion of traditional family life, opposition to acceptance of homosexuality, and the prohibition of abortion, even in cases involving incest, rape or in pregnancies where the life of the mother is at stake. At its height, it claimed more than four million members and over two million donors.
Politicians, most notably Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, sought out the Christian Right as a significant voting bloc, running for their presidencies on platforms of social conservatism, gaining 78% (5) and 79% (6) of the Evangelical vote respectively. Debate within both the media and academia focused on the Religious Right as a powerful political and social force. Donald Trump’s running partner, the fundamentalist evangelical and staunch anti-abortionist Mike Pence, along with the appointment of an Evangelical Executive Advisory Board consisting of 25 right wing Christian leaders, garnered the support of Evangelical voters, aiding Trump’s presidential victory.
On Donald Trump’s first full day as president, he reinstated the 1984 executive order by Reagan, and later Bush, known as the ‘global gag rule’, to halt funding of any international NGO that provides, advises on or is any way associated with abortion, despite numerous studies providing evidence that to remove legal abortion fails to eliminate the practice, instead driving up the number of women engaging in potentially life threatening methods. According to the World Health Authority, the funding policy had previously spared an estimated 289,000 women from pregnancy and childbirth related deaths.
When McCorvey died of kidney failure in Texas earlier this month, shortly after the global gag rule was put back in place, it was after several decades dedicated to attempting to reverse the decision made in her name. McCorvey gave birth in 1972 whilst Roe Vs. Wade was in progress and the child was subsequently adopted, but McCorvey converted to evangelicalism in the 90s, becoming a vocal activist against abortion rights. Shortly before her death she exhorted Janet Morana, director of pro-life organization Priests for Life, to encourage fellow activists to continue the fight.
Comparative to other forms of Protestantism, Evangelicalism has successfully created a worldview which subsumes all doubt into a smooth and reassuring totality, through the in-folding of the believer into an all-consuming message and culture, one that has been honed to appear as an unassailable certainty. This in-folding particularly occurs in the appearance of a vast and affective homogeneity in the form of the Mega Church.
Mega Church worship services are visually spectacular, amassing thousands of worshippers on banks of bleachers within stadium sized venues. Theatrical lighting and vast projection screens multiply the presence and forcefulness of charismatic preachers, cultivating faith through a message of certainty. This perception of both a visual and narrative totality is experienced as a bodily orientation.
This is produced, firstly, through a visual and spatial orientation within the embodied, collective, screen, and architectural space of the Mega Church, and secondly, through believers’ narration of their own lives within the meta narrative of evangelicalism. The orientation of faith, not just the message of certainty, but the sense that one’s life has now been arranged into a coherent story, one of God’s ongoing intervention and guiding direction, creates an embodied stability: both a firm footing and a safety net in disorienting times. This form of storytelling within a larger narrative structure calls out to an embodied need for grounding, and continues to exert a seemingly universal appeal, regardless of age, gender, level of education or historical context.
The relief of finding a means to navigate the world, comingled with a sense of belonging to something collective and far-reaching, also produces an affective excess during moments of worship, which may be felt in the body as an immanent oneness. The orientation of evangelicalism may allow a structured type of falling during these moments of spirit filled excess, where disorientation is a positive productive energy, analogous to the energy of the shamanic ritual or the rave. The paradox at the heart of evangelicalism is found these free falling moments of collective worship, materialized in ecstatic bodily experiences, at odds with the normative, boundaried and restrictive culture in which bodily excess, outside of the confines of a narrowly determined morality, is viewed as a threat.
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