How the Christian Right Became Prolife on Abortion and Transformed the Culture Wars

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Andrew R. Lewis, assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Cincinnati, is an expert on evangelicals and politics, church-state relations, conservative legal activism, and rights politics. His new, important, and timely book, The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars (Cambridge University Press, 2018)—which documents the rise of rights politics within conservative Christian politics and the important role the pro-life movement played in that process—quickly sold through as a hardcover and is already available in paperback.

He was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about the argument of the book and its relevance for the history of conservative Christian political engagement.

Most readers will already know that most conservative Christians who care about politics care deeply about the issue of abortion. What many readers will not know is that this was not always the case. How did, say, the Southern Baptists think about abortion in the early 1970s?

The best description is that Southern Baptists had a moderate position on abortion for much of the 1970s, both in public opinion and also official denominational statements. They took a high view of life, even fetal life, and opposed abortion on demand, but supported legal abortion in several cases beyond protecting the life of the mother.

This moderate approach is probably best reflected in a 1971 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) resolution. Baptist Press was also supportive of the Roe v. Wade decision, covering it approvingly and publishing a lengthy interview with one of the Roe lawyers who was a Southern Baptist.

So what changed?

In the 1970s, the pro-life position was predominantly Catholic. Before Roe, there were some liberal Protestant elements to the pro-life movement, as Daniel Williams’s book shows, but the Catholic Church was the dominant force.

By the early-mid-1970s, there was a bit of growing concern within evangelicalism. Carl F. H. Henry took a strong pro-life stance in 1971, and the National Association of Evangelicals asserted its opposition to abortion in 1971 and 1973.

But on the mass level, evangelicals were slow to join the pro-life movement. Even as late as 1979, the Baptist Joint Committee argued before a federal court that the Hyde Amendment, which restricted federal funds from being used to pay for abortions, violated the Establishment Clause because it established the Catholic religion.

It really was not until the end of the 1970s and early 1980s that conservative Christians moved decidedly in the pro-life direction. More popular groups like Baptists for Life and Christians for Life were created in the mid- to late-1970s, for example. I draw attention to Francis Schaeffer’s books and documentary films, which were popular among churches, pastors, and lay leaders. Schaeffer’s works also influenced Jerry Falwell, who helped elevate abortion activism on the national political stage. In 1980, the SBC passed an unequivocally pro-life resolution.

At the rank-and-file level, however, we see the bigger trends come later. Evangelicals were always more pro-life than non-evangelicals, but those divisions are more stark in the 1990s and 2000s.

All of this is to say that that I would not point to one specific moment, but rather an evolutionary change within evangelicalism. You had

  • some elite and institutional leadership,
  • some grassroots advocacy,
  • a growing comfortability between evangelicals and Catholics,
  • an emphasis on how pastors and lay leaders were educated on the issue,
  • improved medical technology (such as ultrasounds), and
  • a re-framing of the debate to be focused on the rights of the unborn.

My guess is that most readers would associate contemporary Christian conservatives as those who care deeply about “religious liberty.” Is that a new development, too?

It is certainly a new development in modern 20th- and 21st-century religious politics, especially in its reach to the rank-and-file and its partisan intensity.

You have some intense partisan battles of religious liberty in the 19th century that might rise to these levels, though they are arguably more localized.

In the modern era, religious liberty has been a central tenet of many Protestants, Jews, and even certain Catholics.

But for most of the 20th century religious liberty was mostly discussed at elite levels, rarely gaining traction among the political masses. Elites would discuss how best to protect religious freedom, and there would be occasional Supreme Court cases yielding important decisions and legal doctrine. The public, however, was largely disengaged from this process. Occasionally issues like the Supreme Court declaring state-sponsored prayer or Bible reading in schools unconstitutional would raise arguments about religious freedom being curtailed. But these cultural issues never fully emphasized religious freedom, because those supporting the separation of church and state often argued that they too supported religious freedom, as long as it was voluntary. Rather, most arguments in favor of school prayer often emphasized maintaining cohesive, moral communities.

Now, however, religious freedom has become a major cultural touchpoint, especially with the so-called “clash of rights”—the right to religious freedom versus the right not to be discriminated against. This has followed the legalization of same-sex marriage, various state and local nondiscrimination provisions covering sexual orientation, and state and national efforts to provide protections for religious citizens who may object to providing certain cervices. We have seen these debates consume state and local politics in Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, and elsewhere, and they were an important part of the national presidential election in 2016. Any day now the Supreme Court will rule on Masterpiece Cakeshop out of Colorado, providing at least some narrow guidance for how some of these conflicts must be handled in states without a religious freedom statute.

You argue in the book that religious conservatism has gone

  • from biblical conservatism to utilitarian individualism,
  • from communitarianism to pluralism,
  • from morality to liberty.

Can you explain what you mean?

The grand cultural theme that I present in my book is that Christian conservatives have dramatically altered their approach to public politics over the past three or four decades.

If we think back to the rise of the Christian Right, it was called the “Moral Majority,” and even before that you had Nixon’s “Silent Majority.” Inherent in this approach to politics was that conservative Christians are the dominant cultural force and who want to exert their political will so that politics will be more like the majority of the population. The emphasis on morality and the family put the conservative Christians much more in the “communitarianism” camp of political philosophy, especially in contrast to “liberalism” camp that would emphasize individual rights. In the classic book Habits of the Heart, sociologist and cultural theorist Robert Bellah and his colleagues differentiated some different strands of American culture. Religious conservatives were classified as biblical conservatives (often framing their support for issues in terms of religious morality), while liberals were either utilitarian individualists or expressive individualists.

So what has happened? Well over the past three decades the cultural influence of conservative Christianity has declined. In the process, conservative Christian politics has adapted its approach to public life. The Moral Majority is no longer. Instead, conservative Christians are a minority, and they often speak the language of pluralistic politics. This includes the language or rights and liberties with a heavy emphasis on the rights to free speech and the rights to religious freedom. In the process, the emphasis on biblical public reason has largely disappeared, replaced by a large measure of liberal, individual rights, pluralistic reasoning. Effectively, this has now shifted conservative Christians into Bellah’s utilitarian individualist category. Or, to think of it another way, it has re-fashioned our “culture wars” (to draw upon James Davison Hunter) from “traditional morality” vs. “liberty” to conflicting types of liberties.

I give a lot of credit to the pro-life movement for teaching conservative Christianity the value of this rights-based public rhetoric. The pro-life movement adopted the right-to-life rhetoric quite early, naming their central organization the National Right to Life Committee in 1968. The Catholics were the first to adopt this rights-based framework in their opposition to abortion. Schaeffer, Falwell, and other evangelical leaders emphasized morality more heavily in their anti-abortion rhetoric, but by the late 1980s most of the pro-life movement had shifted to a rights-based framework to publicly oppose abortion. In many ways, I argue (and show through some public opinion work) that this counter-rights argument has helped abortion attitudes remain stable, especially among young people.

How significant is it that religious conservatives seem more likely to adopt the nomenclature of being a “persecuted minority” than they are to claim the mantle of the “moral majority”?

This is a really important question, which I think gets at the heart of the future of conservative Christian politics. If conservative Christians have truly shifted to being a minority, then this may mean that they are giving up certain things (such as certain types of morals legislation) in order to lay claim to rights protection. They might be sacrificing certain political things they ideally prefer now, in order to gain long-term protection.

I think some see it this way, but others want to push for both majoritarian laws and minority protections. I think the political world is going to see this as unfair. This language of persecuted minority becomes especially problematic in states where conservative Christians have a lot of political power and are not a minority.

I also think that the future of minority politics means that conservative Christians need to be supportive of the rights of other minorities. This should start with their free speech and religious freedom rights. As they have learned about their own rights, there has been some willingness of conservative Christians to extend these rights to others, even to those they may not like. This has been especially clear in the area of free speech, as I have written about. There needs to be a greater commitment in the area of religious freedom, though.

I do more research in the area of evangelical historiography than in political science per se, but one of my frustrations is that history is often written from the top down, focusing primarily on the perspective of the intellectuals, the power brokers, the elites. But life “on the ground” often looks quite different. As a political scientist, tell us how you approach a study like this from the standpoint of methodology. How do you determine what “religious conservatives” really believe? Does your book break some new ground in this regard? 

I am interested in the intersection of evangelical elite and rank-and-file, so I approach this from both the top-down and the bottom-up. From the top-down, I investigated evangelical advocacy organizations, institutions, denominations, leaders, magazines, and newspapers from the mid-20th century to the present. I was especially interested in their Supreme Court activity and their interviews and comments related to the topics of the book. Various databases and secondary sources helped me pinpoint some of the right sources.

From the bottom-up, I analyzed a host of survey data. I was really interested in long-term trends, so my main data set was the General Social Survey, which conducts nationally representative, in-person interviews about every two years from the mid-1970s to the present. Most of the questions stayed about the same over time, and I categorized respondents as evangelical based on their affiliation with particular denominations. I used this survey to understand abortion health care, free speech, capital punishment, gay rights, and other attitudes over time. I supplemented the General Social Survey with a couple other data sets, surveys of Southern Baptist pastors from 1980 to 2008, an additional nationally representative survey, and at least three national surveys I created and conducted that embedded survey experiments which compared the effect of question framing on people’s responses.

I’m not certain that anything is “groundbreaking,” but I think what the book does well is present rigorous historical and quantitative data in a readable, accessible package with a compelling narrative. Crafting it together in this way is something I am proud of.

One of the arguments in your book is that the right to life argument for abortion has frame how the Christian Right thinks about everything else, and you work through several concerns:

  1. pornography and free speech issues
  2. church-state relations
  3. health care
  4. capital punishment, and
  5. gay rights. 

Is it possible to summarize how conservative evangelicals have shifted their approach on these issues?

Without taking too long or giving it all away, I’ll say that the pro-life movement has contributed to evangelicals becoming:

  1. more supportive of free speech;
  2. more supportive of religious freedom instead of the strict separation of church and state;
  3. more opposed to national health care;
  4. more nuanced in their capital punishment views, though many have failed to realize that the right-to-life has been used as a defense for capital punishment;
  5. more attuned to the rights defense (i.e., religious freedom) in the gay rights debate.

Those who did not vote for Donald Trump find it perplexing that many conservative evangelicals supported a man who does not live in personal accord with many of the religious values they hold near and dear to their heart. Did your research help you understand why they would vote the way that they did?

I submitted the full draft of my manuscript in August 2016, and after November 2016 I felt that it was critical that I address the election, even though I didn’t think it changed the analysis.

In many ways, I think the 2016 election illuminates many of the processes I identify in my book. Within conservative Christianity, there is an understanding of cultural decline, and the question is what should be the response. Should conservatives adapt to a new pluralistic reality, protecting their rights? Or should they try to reclaim the majoritarian politics of the past? For those who wanted to reclaim a Christian America, the rhetoric of Donald Trump likely resonated. And for those who wanted to protect their rights or the rights of the unborn, by November 2016 most (though not all) thought this was the best option.

From my research, the trajectory of conservative Christian politics is toward rights and pluralism, but this will certainly be a process, and it will be evolutionary. Conservative Christians have learned a lot about rights over the past several decades, and I think it is important to zoom out and take the long view.

At the same time, however, leaders matter. They can either enhance or degrade this learning. I am concerned that ground is being lost.

At the end of the day, what do you hope readers will learn and take away from this book that they didn’t know before?

I hope readers will take away that while conservative Christians remain an important part of our politics, their politics are quite different today than they were a generation or two ago. And those differences can have quite big effects. For example, today’s conservative Christians are much more attuned to their own rights and liberties. This changes how they make arguments, the institutions they target (e.g., courts), and it seems to have made them more tolerant of others’ political rights. In the big picture, this is all important.

I also hope that readers will see that abortion is central to evangelical politics, and that it produces some perhaps unexpected outcomes, such as increased support for political rights.

What are you working on next?  

I am at the early stages of a large project on the politics of religious liberty in the United States. The idea is that rights and liberties require political, not just legal support. I want to investigate how support for religious liberty can be enhanced and also eroded in American politics. I’ll look at contemporary politics, as well as the last half of the 20th century.


Many thanks to Lewis for this carefully researched and compelling work, which would profitably be read in conjunction with Daniel K. Williams’s Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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