In less than a month, the Supreme Court will take up arguments on a Mississippi case that could conceivably spell the end of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion as a constitutional right. At the same time, the justices sent signals that they were perhaps dubious of a recent Texas law that sought to restrict abortion through civil liability measures.
For the first time in a while, it seems that abortion is at the forefront of conversation in the United States. And yet, some surveys suggest that abortion is not the motivating factor for evangelicals that it once was.
Those who disagree with me on abortion may feel it is good news that evangelicals are lessening their priority on the pro-life issue—thinking perhaps that a cooling down in the culture wars might lead to a less polarized America. But such people would be wrong. As a matter of fact, if this trend continues, it could be bad news for everybody.
Political scientist Ryan Burge collected polling data this summer from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and compared that with recent data gathered from the Association of Religion Data Archives. The poll asked respondents how they would rank their relative priority on various sociopolitical issues. Burge noted that, over time, the abortion issue has decreased in priority among white evangelicals and other issues, like immigration, have increased.
Most of this data was aggregated before critical race theory and COVID-19 dominated the public square. But many pollsters and activists say they see far more energy spent discussing race, masks, vaccines, and other topics. Abortion is low on the list.
Some argue that this has always been the case. For example, in his book Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right, religion scholar Randall Balmer arguesagainst the common assumption that Roe mobilized evangelicals into political action. He calls this idea a myth, contending instead that segregated academies threatened with losing their tax-exempt status were the real motivators—and that abortion was merely a convenient cover for the politics of white racial grievance.
That may well be true for some of the political strategy leaders at the time, but I remain skeptical of Balmer’s overall thesis. Even with the most cynical view possible of political-religious activist leadership (and I think I’ve earned the right to some cynicism here), there has to be a reason why such leaders would choose to emphasize abortion in grassroot movements. The question isn’t whether political strategists can manipulate the issue but rather what exactly is being manipulated. That is, one can only mobilize people around an issue they fundamentally care about.
The concerted effort to end abortion is much more diverse and holistic than it gets credit for.
A week or so ago, I was talking with a friend who disagrees with me on abortion. They asked me—with genuine curiosity—“Why do you all want to impose your religious views on everyone else by restricting abortion?”
This would be a fair critique, I responded, if evangelicals and other pro-lifers sought to enact “blue laws,” which banned Sunday commerce for everyone based on Levitical laws.
When it comes to abortion, however, the debate is not about whether society should protect the vulnerable, but about how many vulnerable people we should care about. In a pro-choice view of the matter, there is only one—the pregnant woman who must decide what to do with her body. For those of us who are pro-life, there are two vulnerable people here—the pregnant woman and the child within her womb—and we have a responsibility to consider both.
Former US Representative Barney Frank famously quipped that pro-lifers believe life begins at conception and ends at birth. This might well be true in some direct-mail fundraising operations, but it is not true for those at the grassroots level—those for whom this issue is a matter of action as well as conviction, those who work on the frontlines with pregnant women in crisis, or those who help children find families and safe homes.