How Evangelicals came to dominate the political and cultural debate on abortion policy since Roe v. Wade

Fetus dolls in a basket
Fetus dolls are seen in a basket at the pro-life Carolina Pregnancy Center.NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images
  • Conservative evangelicals have been at the heart of the abortion debate for 50 years.

  • Evangelicals are now bracing for one of the biggest anti-abortion wins in decades.

  • Experts told Insider how abortion became a uniting conservative framework.

For decades since the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, evangelicals have had an outsized impact on abortion policy from the White House to state legislative battles.

The ruling could now be overturned by the Supreme Court's conservative majority — most of which were appointed by former President Donald Trump, who has been a hero for evangelicals and opposed abortion during his time in office with exceptions for incest, rape, or if the mother's life is in danger.

In an interview in December 2019, evangelical preacher Franklin Graham said evangelicals at the time recognized Trump as "the most pro-life-friendly president in modern history."

"He has appointed conservative judges that will affect my children and grandchildren's lives, long after he's gone," Graham said.

trump on stage with religious leaders
Local religious leaders pray alongside President Donald Trump during an "Evangelicals for Trump" rally in Miami, FL on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020.Photo by Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Evangelicals are now bracing for one of the biggest anti-abortion wins in decades after a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion revealed that the court could likely reverse Roe v. Wade.

Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said if the draft opinion "remains unchanged and becomes law, we will celebrate that citizens will have greater opportunity to engage in creating policies that impact women and children."

Abortion becomes a uniting conservative framework

In the late 1960s, abortion was an issue primarily taken up by Catholic Democrats. Republican-leaning evangelical Protestants were not initially involved in the public debate, Joshua Wilson, a political scientist at the University of Denver, told Insider.

"White evangelicals, as a whole, needed to be educated to kind of care about abortion because the primary actors in the build-up to Roe, and the time immediately after Roe, were Catholics," Wilson said.

The shift to abortion becoming an evangelical issue slowly came in the late 1960s through to the 1970s. This was the result of many things, including a tumultuous political and social environment in the US at the time, experts told Insider.

"The change kind of runs through a bunch of different avenues, but the way that I tend to talk about the story is that it's coupled with a larger story of the creation of white Evangelicals as a political constituency," Wilson told Insider. "That also is a concurrent story with the rise of conservatism within the Republican party,"

That conservatism, Wilson explained, began to bubble under the surface decades before, during Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt's tenure. He said Republicans had been working for a while on a strategy to undo the New Deal coalition, which was a cross-section of minority and blue-collar voters along with rural white Southerners, that was formed under Roosevelt.

"If they wanted to have electoral power, they needed to start pulling away voters from the New Deal coalition," he said, referring to Republicans.

four women outside supreme court
four women outside supreme court

Lilo Blank, 23, of Philadelphia, left, who supports abortion rights, has a discussion about their opposing views on abortion rights with Lisa Verdonik, of Arlington, Va., center, who is anti-abortion, along with Jessica, of North Carolina, and Melanie, of New York, who described themselves as Evangelical Christians who were visiting to pass out gospel tracts, Friday, May 13, 2022, outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Andrew Lewis, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati who studies the intersection of religion and politics, said evangelicals slowly began joining the conversation on abortion in the 1970s and since then they were a larger demographic and easier to mobilize.

"Importantly, is the fact that it's political alignment. You end up with a group that's very concentrated in one political party, which gives greater, I would say, political weight -- the ability to mobilize politically," Lewis said.

Evangelicals had long "heavily valued pregnancy and families," Lewis explained, but prior to the mobilization in the 1970s "there was not clear teaching or understanding religiously about" core issues like abortion.

"There were some debates among theologians and differences among pastors and how they talked about those issues but increasingly you got people who were influential in that [evangelical] world, speaking out on the issue and saying, 'oh no, this is how we should view it' and tying it to some of their other religious views," Lewis said.

Yale Law professors Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel wrote in their 2011 article for the Yale Law Journal that Republicans campaigning for GOP President Richard Nixon "took new positions on abortion" to win the support of Catholic Democrats.

Historian Daniel K. Williams, in his 2011 article "The GOP's Abortion Strategy: Why Pro-Choice Republicans Became Pro-Life in the 1970s" noted that while Republicans thought it would a temporary political "ploy" to get Catholic Democrats on their side, it ended up becoming a "rallying cry for social conservatives" who used abortion to "build a religiously based coalition in the GOP."

As this was happening, evangelical Protestant leaders emerged to reshape religious and moral views on abortion.

By the 1980s, the evangelical fundamentalist groups like Focus on the Family, Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, and a network of churches and television stations owned by Pat Robertson, pushed the issue of abortion as a cornerstone for conservatives and the GOP, according to The Guardian.

A coinciding spread of the theological and moral perspective on abortion combined with the political effort to galvanize Evangelicals as a voter group helped transform the conversation in the US, Wilson said.

"I mean, opposition to abortion really worked well with opposition to the equal rights amendment and the women's rights movements and the sexual liberation movement that were all going on and conservative Protestants, conservative Catholics too were opposed to those. And so it all kind of worked, it worked together in the 1970s, and that in some sense, changed and broadened the anti-abortion movement," he said.

Evangelicals push to make abortion a state-level issue

people at a rally
"Evangelicals for Trump" rally in Miami, FL on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020.Photo by Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Evangelical groups say that overturning Roe v. Wade would put the issue of abortion at the state level where they say it belongs.

"We believe fully that if and when Roe v. Wade goes that it will return properly the issue of abortion and its regulation to the statehouses where the issue can be debated, discussed and relegated ultimately to representative government and the voting process," Sarah Parshall Perry, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told Insider.

Following the leaked draft opinion, other religious groups, including Jewish organizations, said the potential ban could be a violation of their First Amendment rights. Judaism permits abortion, and in some instances — for example, if the mother's life is endangered — requires it.

Perry told Insider that she doesn't think overturning Roe v. Wade would encroach on civil liberties because it's the states who would ultimately decide on the issue.

"All individuals who have a stake in the outcome here can deal with that outcome at the level closest to representative government," she said.

Reverend Jacqui Lewis says a prayer during ACT FOR ABORTION in front of the Supreme Court of the United States on January 22, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Reverend Jacqui Lewis says a prayer during ACT FOR ABORTION in front of the Supreme Court of the United States on January 22, 2022 in Washington, DC.Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Act For Abortion

Rev. Jacqui Lewis, a senior minister at New York-based Middle Church, told Insider that conservative religious groups should not be the only ones dictating a political stance on abortion.

Lewis described her congregation as "a diverse, welcoming, artistic, inclusive and bold community of worship, justice and the arts that believes that God is Love."

"I've learned over time in my Christian work that I don't get to tell other people how to believe in God. It's not my business to tell the world how to be a faithful person. That's an individual journey that you end up doing in the community," Lewis said. "So how dare any of the Christian sects think that it's our job to police this nation and to tell this pluralistic many faith nation, what we think it means to be 'good' 'just' 'moral' 'ethical.'

Lewis said she grew up in a household heavily influenced by the notion of "What does the Bible say?" But as an adult, she doesn't proselytize.

The evangelical sect of Christianity, she said, has "come to believe its job is to police the nation."

The issue of abortion was never really about religion, she added, but a way to unite conservatives and keep America "white, straight, Republican, and powerful."

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