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

An interview with Andrew R. Lewis, author of The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars.

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


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) resolutionBaptist 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.

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