At its core, the abortion debate is between those who regard the fetus as a person and those who regard abortion as a rightful option for pregnant women.
While there are religious and non-religious people on both sides of the argument, the loudest voices are often those of religious traditionalists on one side and contemporary secularists on the other.
The discussion also entails biology, medical technology, policy questions and constitutional issues such as state’s rights and a personal right to privacy. As the decades have passed, the discussion has also become saturated with partisan politics as the mix of opinion in the major parties has shifted dramatically.
But through it all, there is no denying the centrality of religion. It is not so much a matter of identification with one faith or church, but of the degree of intensity of an individual’s involvement.
In a report issued Friday, Gallup senior scientist Frank Newport wrote:
“The pattern among Protestants and Catholics reflects the general pattern in the U.S. — the more religious the individual, the more likely that individual is to say that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances.”
Newport noted that such an outright ban was favored by “only 9-10% of all Americans who seldom or never attend religious services,” but that jumps to 19-23% among those who attend once a month or almost every week, and to 40% of those who attend church once a week.”
To be sure, surveys also find differences in attitude that reflect gender, age, education, party preference and geographic residence. But all of these reflect the relative religiosity of individuals within these groups. The belief that abortion is morally wrong is embraced by 75% of those who attend services weekly, but less than half of those who seldom or never attend.
“In short the relative religiosity of Americans (that is how religious they are) is more predictive of their abortion attitudes than their broad religious identity,” according to Newport.
Going all the way back to the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, which invalidated the anti-abortion statutes in effect in 46 states, the objections heard have come first and foremost from religious organizations and activists.
There have been secular institutions that criticized Roe as well, including some academic and legal organizations. The biggest, ultimately, has been the Republican Party, which had been neutral on abortion in the 1970s but has since aligned in opposition. But that has reflected the rising role of religion in that party, particularly the role of evangelical and Catholic traditionalists.
Many Americans, particularly those born since Roe, may find all this rather mystifying. The question arises: Since when did so much of our politics have to do with religion? And the answer is, since the beginning – and even before.
Religion was a driving and determinative force in politics on this continent even before the “United States” had been formed. And it has been brought to bear in widely disparate causes. Religion has been invoked to condemn slavery and segregation, to ban alcohol and the teaching of evolutionary science and to bolster anti-war movements.
Persecution of religious minorities in the British isles and Europe drove many of the original white settlers of the American continent across the Atlantic in the 1600s. In New England colonies, one could find the origins of both tolerance and intolerance. Rhode Island had religious freedom for all, including Jews. But in Massachusetts there were witch trials and an emphasis on religious conformity.
The split tradition was in evidence at the founding of the Republic, with a mix of attitudes mainly devoted to minimizing religious rivalries and antagonism. The Constitution banned any religious test for office and the First Amendment barred the establishing of an official church.
In the early 1800s, there were waves of religious feeling and new formats emerged, from the transcendentalist movement in New England to the rise of the Latter-day Saints led by Joseph Smith, who eventually found a home in Utah.
But the main thrust of religion in the period was the challenge that the abolitionist movement, often led by preachers, made to the institution of slavery. The movement often adopted the language of liberation from the Bible and cast the “peculiar institution” of the South as not just wrong but sinful. Note the religious language in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which speaks of Christ’s death as the model for the Union’s mission in the Civil War. (“As He died to make men holy / Let us die to make men free / His truth is marching on / Glory, glory hallelujah!”)
Appropriating biblical images was also a habit for the populist hero William Jennings Bryan, who came out of Nebraska to lead a national movement against the gold standard used to establish value at the time. His “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention led to his first nomination for president at the age of 36. (“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.”)
He was nominated — and lost — three times. But he later served as secretary of state and became a champion of those religious traditionalists opposed to the teaching of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in public schools. He appeared as both an attorney and a witness in the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925, arguing for a literal reading of the Bible’s six-day story of creation.
Bryan was also influential in the temperance movement, largely a project of Protestant activists. Supported largely by church leaders, the movement found enough support in a still-largely rural America to ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. Backed generally by rural representatives from both parties, Prohibition was achieved in 1920 by constitutional amendment (the 18th) and ended by another (the 21st) in 1933.
Civil rights and anti-war movements
After the repeal of Prohibition, many religious white people in the U.S. turned away from politics. While distressed at many trends in the culture, they did not see a clear path to addressing them in the public sphere.
But something quite different was happening in the churches of African Americans, especially in the South. Much as the symbols of Exodus had been used a century earlier, they reappeared in the civil rights movement in the post-war American South. Songs with words such as “Tell old Pharaoh let my people go” were sung with new meaning, their words incorporated in sermons by preachers in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by the Rev. Martin Luther King.
Also borrowing from the Bible were some exponents of anti-war sentiment in both the Protestant and Catholic traditions who opposed the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.
While there had been “conscientious objectors” in the two world wars who cited Christ’s non-violent teachings to resist military service, their numbers were few and had little impact. That changed with Vietnam, and priests and preachers were often involved in encouraging such objections.
But after Vietnam, active engagement on major public issues more often came from the more conservative elements of the religious community. Some were mobilized by the Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling that prayer in public schools violated the Constitution’s establishment clause. Others were disturbed when courts began ruling against religious displays in official places, such as monuments to the Ten Commandments in courthouses.
As the 20th century came to a close, much of the traditional religious community shifted its focus to the rising gay rights movement and “the homosexual agenda.” This activism had support in both parties, and President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, his reelection year. He later said that had been a mistake.
In the early years of the new century, resistance to gay rights and gender identity issues focused on same-sex marriage. In the 2004 presidential election year, Republican activists were able to include bans on such unions as ballot measures in a number of swing states – notably the bellwether state of Ohio.
Robust turnout among religious conservatives in those states that year contributed to narrow wins for Republican President George W. Bush, who would the following year nominate two conservative Catholics (Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito) to the Supreme Court.
That was not enough to prevent the court from reaching a historic decision in the 2015 case of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. With both Roberts and Alito dissenting, along with two other Catholic members appointed by earlier Republican presidents, the high court on that occasion overturned all state laws blocking same sex marriage.
But the reasoning found in Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson is regarded by some as applicable to Obergefell as well, raising the possibility of another precedent being overturned. Some legal scholars think the same could be said of the 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws against interracial marriage. Alito wrote in his draft opinion that overturning Roe would not imperil other precedents.
An apparent contradiction in trends
It may seem surprising, or contrary to expectations, that contentious religious issues are gaining importance in the Republican Party at this point in U.S. history. The rising influence of religious conservatives in the GOP coincides with a steady decline in the percentage of Americans identifying with either Catholic or Protestant churches. That decline in percentage terms had begun in the latter half of the 20th century but it has accelerated since, according to periodic surveys by the Pew Research Center.
Pew also found the percentage of Americans who claimed no particular religious connection (including self-described agnostics or atheists) has risen from 17% to 26% since 2009.
Despite all this, or perhaps in part because of it, political activism has risen among those who do prioritize a religious connection. And that activism, including a heightened propensity to vote, has had substantial and sustained political impact over the last 40 years — owing in part to the issue of abortion and the force of Roe v. Wade.
Roe vote remains the big test
When Roe was decided, four of the seven justices who voted for it had been appointed by Republican presidents (three by Richard Nixon). Only one Republican appointee dissented.
But since then, and particularly since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the GOP has courted religious conservatives and promised them judges attuned to their causes — particularly opposition to Roe.
The five current Supreme Court justices prepared to overturn Roe (according to the leaked version of the draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson) were all appointed by Republican presidents, three by Donald Trump alone. Trump had been more explicit than any of his predecessors in promising to appoint justices committed to ending Roe.
Most of the voters for Republican presidents have not been Catholic but Protestant, especially white evangelical Protestants. The Catholic vote, which was overwhelmingly Democratic for nearly two centuries, is now split about evenly nationally in presidential elections. But Trump got about three-fifths of the white Catholic vote each time he was nominated.
Republicans who get to the Oval Office have found the most likely nominees to please social conservatives with their eventual votes on the bench are the Catholic nominees. Non-Catholics named by Republicans since Reagan took office have not been as likely to oppose Roe. Of the seven justices they named who were Catholic, five are still on the court and four of them were named as supporting the draft of the Alito ruling overturning Roe.