Christian Rights: Did Pro-Life Advocacy Turn Conservative Evangelicals into Human Rights Advocates?

Lewis presents a compelling case that the Christian Right’s campaign against abortion is a foundational commitment that shapes all its other political positions.

In The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics Lewis examines five areas of political concern for the Christian Right—pornography and free speech issues, church-state relations, healthcare, capital punishment, and gay rights—and traces the way in which evangelicals’ increasing opposition to abortion reframed their understanding of these issues.


A new book is an essential resource for anyone who wants to understand conservative evangelicals on their own terms. It traces the ways in which pro-life politics has made the Christian Right of 2017 a very different entity from the Religious Right of the 1970s.

Conservative evangelical politics can be a mystery to outsiders. Why, for instance, do evangelicals who claim to value human life also support the death penalty (especially when many pro-life Catholics do not)? Why do they oppose national health insurance while claiming to follow a Savior who healed the sick?

To many secular liberals, the explanation of such inconsistencies is obvious: Politically conservative evangelicals do not genuinely care about human rights, but only about protecting their own freedom and power.

But Andrew R. Lewis suggests a much more nuanced and politically insightful explanation. Perhaps the Christian Right’s policy positions can be understood as the product of valuing one particular right—the right of the unborn to live—above everything else, and seeing all political debates through the prism of this pro-life advocacy.

In The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics, Lewis examines five areas of political concern for the Christian Right—pornography and free speech issues, church-state relations, healthcare, capital punishment, and gay rights—and traces the way in which evangelicals’ increasing opposition to abortion reframed their understanding of these issues.

As Lewis points out, evangelicals were not always strong opponents of abortion. In the early 1970s, evangelicals lacked a cohesive theology of when human life began, so many evangelicals, especially Southern Baptists, balanced their concerns about abortion with the belief that pregnancy termination might be acceptable in exceptional cases, such as rape and incest or dangers to a woman’s health. They viewed the abortion issue not as an issue of human rights, but rather merely one of morality. If abortion was wrong, it was wrong because it prevented a potential life from developing or because it encouraged a frivolous attitude toward sex and pregnancy.

This lack of a rights-oriented perspective on abortion extended to other issues as well. Compared to the rest of the population, conservative evangelicals had a very limited view of free speech rights; they were leaders in the fight to restrict all forms of pornography, from X-rated movies to Playboy magazine. Rather than seeking to extend protections for human rights or civil liberties, conservative evangelicals instead engaged in a quest to preserve a Christian-based moral order—a quest in which the language of rights consciousness was rarely invoked.

Pro-life advocacy changed evangelicals’ view of human rights. The pro-life cause originated among Catholics as a liberal human rights campaign that rhetorically had much more in common with the politics of left-leaning social justice advocacy than with the conservative moral causes that concerned some evangelicals on the right. When evangelicals who had once evinced little interest in the pro-life cause adopted a human-rights-oriented understanding of abortion, they not only became passionately devoted to pro-life politics but they also began thinking about all other political issues in terms of their impact on human rights.

After decades of campaigning for restrictions on certain forms of speech in order to promote public morality, evangelical legal organizations in the early twenty-first century began allying with the American Civil Liberties Union in high-profile cases to defend unpopular speech, because they thought that a denial of one person’s right to speak might lead to an abrogation of free speech rights for everyone, including their own. They defended the right of a high school student to display a potentially blasphemous “Bong Hits for Jesus” sign on school property, along with the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest at the funerals of military veterans, because, even though they abhorred both actions, they thought that government policing of religious speech set a dangerous precedent that could jeopardize their rights, especially in the area of pro-life advocacy. They joined the National Right to Life Committee in campaigning against campaign finance reform on free speech grounds, because they believed that restrictions on campaign advertising would impose legal barriers to pro-life publicity efforts.

Lewis devotes a significant section of his book to demonstrating how Christian Right positions that one might think at first glance are opposed to rights claims are actually attempts to defend the value of life or the rights of minorities.

Conservative evangelicals’ refusal to support any policy that would possibly expand federal funding for abortion led them to oppose both President Bill Clinton’s healthcare plan and President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Lewis argues that evangelicals are likely to support federally funded healthcare in the abstract, but when presented with plans that include funding for abortifacients, they strongly oppose them.

Evangelicals’ opposition to gay rights is also not merely an opposition to a civil rights claim, as those on the left suggest; it is rather a defense of religious liberty. Without the freedom to act on religious convictions, religious liberty does not exist, they argue. Evangelical legal advocacy groups have therefore rallied to the defense of business people and public servants who have refused on the grounds of conscience to perform transactions that they believe would constitute an endorsement of same-sex marriage.

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