There’s been a lot of talk in the chattering classes lately about the political impact of the two major political parties’ exact positioning on abortion policy among Catholic voters. Michael Sean Winters argues in the New Republic, for example, that Kathleen Sebelius’ stormy relationship with her bishop on abortion issues makes her a less likely veep asset for Obama among Catholics than co-religionist Tim Kaine (I’ve published a contrarian take on Winters’ article at The Democratic Strategist).
But what about conservative evangelical Protestants? In June, conservative blogger Ross Douthat offered this startling assessment of Barack Obama’s potential to cut deeply into this deeply Republican constituency:
“If he [Obama] moved to the center on abortion, a knowledgeable religion journalist remarked to me last week, he could win half of evangelicals under 40.”
Douthat’s remark pointed to one of the most well-established but under-discussed religio-political facts of life in America: white evangelical Protestants (particularly younger ones) are consistently, and by sizable margins, more likely to favor abortion restrictions than Catholics.
There are variable measurements of this phenomenon, but no real doubt about the basics. A September 2007 Pew survey showed white evangelical Protestants agreeing that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases by a 65-31 magin; Catholics favored keeping abortion legal in all or most cases by a 51-44 margin (with no appreciable difference between Hispanic and non-Hispanic Catholics). On a related issue that helps measure the intensity of anti-abortion views, the same poll showed white evangelicals opposing embryonic stem cell research by 57-31, while white non-Hispanic Catholics favored it by 59-32.
Moreover, the evangelical-Catholic gap on abortion looks likely to increase in the future. An April 2004 Pew survey providing generational breakdowns showed that white evangelicals under 35 favored abortion restrictions by more than a two-to-one margin (71% among those under 25), while those over 65 actually (if narrowly) opposed more restrictions. The generational trend lines among white Catholics moved in exactly the opposite direction.
The political implications of this split depend, of course, on why as much as whether a given religious category of voters opposes abortion. And therein lies a great mystery.
Catholic anti-abortion views, after all, are undergirded by a long series of increasingly emphatic papal encyclicals; a natural law and bioethics tradition stretching back all the way to Aristotle; an overall theological position making church teachings on matters of faith and morals binding on believers; a relatively low level of tolerance for individual dissent; and a teaching and disciplinary system that can be (and in some parts of the country, is being) deployed to influence the views and behavior–personal and political–of the laity.
Not one of these is a significant factor for Sola Scriptura Protestants. And unlike other moral issues ranging from gay and lesbian rights to divorce to adultery, the belief in scriptural inerrancy common among evangelicals doesn’t really explain the vast gap between evangelicals and their mainline brethren on abortion. I’ve yet to read or hear a purely scriptural justification for banning abortions that doesn’t ultimately come down to circular reasoning based on the condemnations of homicide from the Decalogue onward.
Evangelical hard-line views on abortion are not a matter of an unbroken tradition. In 1971, before Roe v. Wade, when nearly all states maintained abortion bans, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for abortion laws that would recognize exceptions not only in cases of rape and incest, but where the “emotional, mental and physical health of the mother” might be endangered. Needless to say, that would be considered a radically liberal position among evangelicals today.
So whence cometh today’s white evangelical anti-abortion ferver? One theory is that these folk are radically alienated from contemporary American culture, and view legalized abortion (along with premarital sex, open gay/lesbian lifestyles, and TV/Hollywood “trash culture”) as a symbol of a depraved society. This is undoubtedly the view of some well-known evangelical leaders like James Dobson, who often indulges himself in Nazi analogies for the “Holocaust” of abortion. But objective measurements of evangelical cultural alienation are generally ambivalent, and they are famously enthusiastic about adopting contemporary culture in their own liturgical and missionary practices.
Another theory, for which I can offer little other than plausible conjecture, is that the “framing” of the abortion issue–particular its treament as fundamentally a matter of the reproductive rights of women, or of personal privacy–that underlies the pro-choice argument is simply uncompelling to many white evangelicals. Aside from the strongly anti-feminist bias of much of contemporary evangelical teaching, American evangelicals have become strongly averse to the libertarian traditions of church-state separation and protection of individual conscience that once was a central feature of their own belief system. And perhaps an inability to even hear the pro-choice case has reinforced the impact of such secular phenomena as widely available sonogram images of fetal development.
The bottom line is that I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone knows, if Barack Obama or any other pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-feminist politician or party can make significant inroads into the white evangelical vote by minor tweaks in abortion policies or how they are presented. Evangelicals, of course, care about other issues like the war in Iraq, the economy, the environment, and corruption in Washington, that could incline them towards a vote for a Democratic presidential or congresstional candidate. And that’s why (along with chronic disappointment with GOP promises to “deliver” on cultural issues like abortion) so many evangelical leaders like Rick Warren are expressing an openness to two-party competition.
But the assertion of Douthat’s “religion journalist” friend that “moving to the center” on abortion would open the floodgates of white evangelical votes for Obama strikes me as no more than a pious guess. I hope others here at Progressive Revival, or among its readers, can cast more light on this subject.