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How abortion became a mobilizing issue among the religious right

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If the Supreme Court does end up overturning Roe v. Wade, as last week's leaked draft opinion would suggest it is about to do, it would be considered a huge victory for religious conservatives, who've been pushing for such an outcome for decades, and also for political conservatives, who have relied on the religious right as the fuel for their broader movement. That suggests that opposition to abortion rights is the overwhelming priority for religious conservatives and that it's always been that way. But we wondered if that's really true, and if so, why?

And that led us to Kristin Kobes Du Mez. She's been thinking about, researching and writing about these issues for years in her work as a professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Mich. She also identifies as an evangelical Christian. She says that it wasn't until the late 1970s that abortion became a mobilizing force for the religious right. Before that, she told us there was actually a diversity of opinion about abortion in evangelical spaces.

KRISTIN KOBES DU MEZ: In the late 1960s, we have this remarkable issue of Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of American evangelicalism, discussing this question of abortion. And the conclusion is that it's a very complicated moral issue. So there are theologians discussing precisely when ensoulment happens - when does the fetus become an actual life? - and weighing the complicated issues not just in terms of rape and incest, but also the health and well-being of the mother and the family. And, yes, the Southern Baptist Convention comes out in favor of opening up access to abortion in many cases in 1971, and then they reaffirmed that in 1974 and in 1976, so after Roe v. Wade.

But what happens in the 1970s is, first of all, with the passing of Roe v. Wade, you see a spike in the number of abortions. And that causes many Americans, not just evangelicals, to kind of rethink is this what we wanted? But I think more importantly, you have the rise of second-wave feminism and, in conservative, white, evangelical spaces, a real backlash against feminism. And over the course of that decade, abortion becomes linked to feminism. And so you see the sentiment start to shift so that in 1979, when political activist Paul Weyrich identifies abortion as a potential to really mobilize conservative evangelicals politically, to help build the Moral Majority, then it is a very effective mechanism for doing so. And from 1979 on, that's when you see a real kind of shrinking of space within conservative evangelicalism to have any view on abortion that isn't strictly and staunchly pro-life, life begins at conception.

MARTIN: I'm still so interested in why - why this over other issues? In this country, the lack of access to routine health care, particularly compared to that of peer nations - that's been a fact of life for years, and that has resulted in some terrible outcomes. I don't think that's a secret. I mean, there have been prominent evangelical leaders, like - I'm thinking about the Reverend Harry Jackson Jr., for example, who wrote about being nearly bankrupted by his battle with cancer or people whose lack of access to prenatal care has led to shocking maternal mortality rates in this country, particularly among Black and brown women and Indigenous women. And I was just wondering why these issues have never surfaced to the same degree. I mean, one would think that if you adopt a perspective that values and reveres the sanctity of life, that it would be across the life spectrum. And that's not even addressing issues like the death penalty. I mean, that's a separate issue. But just the question of keeping women alive during and after childbirth - that would seem to be something that would have equal weight, but it doesn't. And I was just wondering if you have a theory about why that is.

DU MEZ: You're right. It does not. Now, there is a minority of evangelicals, of white evangelicals who do embrace this holistic life commitment, including the death penalty and pro-gun legislation and pro-health care, universal health care. But that is a definite minority. Among many white evangelicals, their moral system is one that really embraces an individualistic ethos or ethic, really. And so we are all to kind of fend for ourselves. And it is one that pushes back against systemic issues or a systemic way of understanding inequality, understanding things like racism or, you know, access to health care.

And so abortion is an issue that fits well with this individualistic framework in the way that they approach it. And so they will say this is - you know, this is a life of a human being, and it's just a clear-cut case, and it is an innocent life. And so in cases like the death penalty or even in - sometimes this is extended to discussions of health care. Well, if you had been more responsible, if you had a higher income, if you - you know, there are things you could have done here, whereas abortion, it seems very simple or even simplistic.

But I should also add that abortion - we need to understand how abortion is also situated in terms of evangelical gender ideals. And for evangelicals, conservative evangelicals, gender difference is really foundational to their understanding of the social order. And they believe that God created men and women to be very different, even opposites. And the women's primary calling is that of wife and mother. And so abortion also really severs that kind of biological or social relationship or threatens to do so. And for that reason, also, abortion is such a priority for evangelicals because it kind of strikes at the heart of their understanding of women and men and their understanding of how God has ordered society.

MARTIN: So that leads to my next question about - I think many people remain puzzled by evangelical support for former President Trump. I mean, many people saw it as extremely odd that conservative Christians would align with a candidate who would seem to have violated their principles and values in so many ways. Many people say that it all comes down to the Supreme Court picks and overturning Roe, that it was basically transactional, that he promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe, and so that was the basis of that. Do you buy that?

DU MEZ: Well, I think that that thesis really ignores the grassroots support for Trump among white evangelicals early in the primary season. As early as August of 2015, we can see the support for Donald Trump emerging among the white evangelical base. And so Trump would not have secured the nomination had it not been for this support among white evangelicals. But also, if we look at the election of Trump and then early into his presidency and really throughout his presidency, we don't see a lot of evidence that suggests that white evangelicals were really holding their noses to vote for Trump, despite the fact that he didn't really appear to model this morality that they had long championed, the Moral Majority. And he certainly wasn't the poster boy for family values, but he did promise to fight for them. He promised to advance their cause, and that's why many voted for him. And they certainly were very happy when they saw the Supreme Court choices.

Now, you could suggest that any Republican candidate would have - potential candidate - would have also appointed similar justices to the court. But what I did see in the wake of the leak of this preliminary document is I saw a lot of not just celebration across the evangelical world on this potential decision, but I also saw a lot of these pro-Trump evangelicals really kind of sticking it to the never-Trump evangelicals, saying, see - not just we were right, but really shaming anybody who didn't vote for Trump out of these concerns about his morality or his authoritarian tendencies and saying, see? We were right. The ends justifies the means.

MARTIN: That was Kristin Kobes Du Mez, professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University. Her latest book is called "Jesus And John Wayne." Professor Du Mez, thank you so much for being with us and sharing this expertise with us.

DU MEZ: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

MARTIN: And if you'd like to hear more of my conversation with Kristin Kobes Du Mez, you can download NPR's Consider This podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.