Jesse Helms Is Dead: His Amendment Lives On

Here we are again, another dreaded anniversary — the Helms Amendment.

If you are a contemporary of that legislation’s author, Sen. Jesse Helms, you might also remember the title character from Sinclair Lewis’ powerful 1927 novel Elmer Gantry or the Academy Award-winning portrayal of Gantry by Burt Lancaster in the 1960 film. Rev. Gantry was a evangelical preacher who used religion to destroy the lives of women. So did Sen. Helms.

2016 video frame: Global Justice Law Center

A year ago my fellow Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona blogger Rachel Port reminded us that on December 17, 1973, Congress passed the Helms Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act — today marks its 45th anniversary. In a nutshell, this legislation prohibits using U.S. foreign assistance funds to “pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”

Other journalists and bloggers have joined Rachel in documenting the severe impacts of this legislation and its companion “Mexico City policy,” aka the “global gag rule,” denying women abortion care, particularly in poor and war-torn corners of the globe. (For a taste of its horror, remember the example of the women and girls forced to bear the children of their Boko Haram rapists.)

Rather than repeat the inventory of the amendment’s inhumane results or making the case to overturn it (yes, do!), let’s turn our attention to Jesse Helms, this legislation’s author, who has faded from public memory since his death in 2008 — or was never even known to younger readers who did not live during his time in power.

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Apologies in advance. There is a danger bordering on unfairness in arguing against a piece of legislation based upon who authored or sponsored it, rather than on the merits of the legislation itself. Humor me. Many columnists and evangelical Christian supporters of Sen. Helms’ views have written to highlight his fine traits (for example, “The Authentic Jesse Helms (The One I Knew and Loved)”). I’ll leave them to it. As for me …

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.”

Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare

Sen. Helms grounded his life in religion and a conviction that America was founded on Christian values. (So far, so good; live and let live; anyone is free to believe whatever they want.) Where he went off the rails was in advocating that there was no room for culture or laws that diverged from his Christian-fundamentalist religion’s core teachings and dogma.

“His racial politics are deeply held convictions, not simply politics of convenience,” says Christopher Scott of the North Carolina AFL-CIO in 1995. “He has a view of a fundamentalist Christian society in which everyone is not welcome. If you could pick up the South Africa of 20 years ago and transplant it to America, that’s what he would do.”

Yet, the senator took an oath of allegiance to the Constitution, not his personal beliefs. (A friend of mine, while lobbying a male Georgia state legislator about abortion care, was asked, “You wouldn’t want me to vote against my beliefs, would you?” fully expecting her to back down. Instead, she snapped back, “Yes, I would, when your personal beliefs violate my rights.”) In Helms’ case, many of his beliefs and statements did damage to many efforts in our country’s march toward a more perfect union.

  • Racism and Civil Rights
    • “White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham [the opponent] favors mingling of the races.” Helms authored this campaign message and described UNC — the University of North Carolina — as “the University of Negroes and Communists.” (1950)
    • “The Negro cannot count forever on the kind of restraint that’s thus far left him free to clog the streets, disrupt traffic, and interfere with other men’s rights.” (1963)
    • He fought busing to desegregate schools and called the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers “Communists and sex perverts.”
    • He denounced the 1964 Civil Rights Act (that outlawed discrimination against blacks) as “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced.”
    • Die-hard segregationists George Wallace and Strom Thurmond had already begun courting black voters, but Helms continued to kindle white fears by opposing a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. (1983)
    • Running for his fourth term for the Senate against a black opponent, Helms ran an ad that showed a white man destroying an unsuccessful job application because, the voice-over said, “You were the best person for that job, but they gave it to a minority.” (1990)
    • “Watch me make her cry. I’m going to make her cry. I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ until she cries,” Helms said to Sen. Orrin Hatch in an elevator with Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the first female African-American senator. (1993)
  • Sexism and Feminism (2000 Congressional Record)
    • “I do not intend to be pushed around by discourteous, demanding women no matter how loud they shout or how much they are willing to violate every trace of civility.”
    • “Today is International Women’s Day. The radical feminists are at it again. They have chosen once again to press their case for Senate ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women … They even called for the abolishment of Mother’s Day … Another thing, mandating women in combat. Boy, they are hot to trot on that.”
  • Homosexuality and Gay Rights
    • AIDS prevention literature is “so obscene, so revolting, I may throw up.” (1987)
    • “The Bible is unmistakably instructive on the sin of sodomy, I confess I regard it as an abomination.” (1994)
    • “The government should spend less money on people with AIDS because they got sick as a result of deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct.” (1995)
  • Censorship and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)
    • Helms called Robert Mapplethorpe, an artist who died of AIDS in 1989, a “jerk responsible for producing garbage” and described other modern art as “blasphemous and degenerate,” justification for killing funding for the NEA.
  • Education
    • As a senator, Helms was a longtime campaigner for voluntary prayer in public schools.
    • Included in fundraising letter sent by the Helms campaign in 1996: “Your tax dollars are being used to pay for grade school classes that teach our children that CANNIBALISM, WIFE-SWAPPING, and the MURDER of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior.”
    • Helms voted for $75 million for abstinence education. (1995)

So, within that context, and central to the subject of the Helms Amendment, consider the senator’s actions to criminalize abortion, which he credited to his evangelical Christian religion. Some notable facts about his voting record:

  • Supported a Constitutional amendment to define life as beginning at conception, which would have given a fetus constitutional rights and thus made abortion illegal.
  • Voted yes on maintaining the ban on military base abortions and disallowing overseas military abortions.
  • Voted for the “partial birth abortion” bill banning the “intact dilation and extraction procedure,” the medically accurate terminology for a common procedure used to perform a late abortion.

The religious underpinnings of the Helms Amendment followed from the political rise of the author himself, as the founder of the modern conservative movement that dragged social issues into and gradually overtook the Republican Party. Jesse Helms was the Elmer Gantry of the last half century, foisting minority religious views — evangelical Christian views are espoused by only a quarter of the U.S. population — upon the rest of us and dragging a Bible-thumping electorate in his wake.

I am reminded of the final paragraph in Elmer Gantry, a speech by that holier-than-thou-art practitioner:

“Let me count this day, Lord, as the beginning of … a complete morality and the domination of the Christian church through all the land. Dear Lord, thy work is but begun! We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!”

And Jesse Helms:

“Christianity is not only true, it’s much higher than religion. It is the meaning of America as far as I’m concerned.”

Preacher Elmer Gantry on book cover; Sen. Jesse Helms, 1921-2008, Photo: Associated Press