Abortion and white evangelicals

By Alan Bean

An article in the Guardian, a British paper, discusses the challenges the rising tide of Latino voters in the United States poses for the Republican Party.  Gary Younge argues that the ill-famed “Southern Strategy” made sense when white Americans comprised 85% of the electorate, but has become problematic in an age when the majority of babies born in the United States are non-white.  These babies are almost two decades from voting age, however, so 74% of voters are still white.  According to today’s Washington Post poll, Mitt Romney holds a commanding twenty-three-point lead among white voters.

This is the major dilemma for the Republican Party: racially loaded messages may appeal to many white voters, but they lose you minority votes.   You can win white votes by railing against the entitlement-addicted 47% and the crime-prone “illegals” who cross the border in search of welfare, but not without giving Latinos and African-Americans a bad name.  White racial resentment remains the greatest single force in American politics.  The economy tops everyone’s list as an election season concern, but these issues are viewed through a racial lens.  Black voters cannot be persuaded that Obama wrecked the American economy; white voters can.

Three-quarters of white evangelicals vote Republican.  If you ask them why, they certainly won’t tell you they feel more comfortable voting for a white man.  They may say that Obama is a free-spending socialist and we need a president who believes in American capitalism.  But most, I suspect, will say it’s all about abortion.  Republicans want to stop the Holocaust and Democrats don’t–simple as that.

This is where Gary Younge’s article gets interesting.  He gives us the standard description of the Southern Strategy:

Republicans realised (sic) that if they could shed their reputation as the party of Lincoln they could peel off a whites in both the south and northern suburbs with a subtle appeal to racial animus. It worked. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won all the former confederate states bar Virginia. By 2000, Al Gore won none, even though he and his father had represented one of them (Tennessee) as senators.

Richard Nixon explained the plan to his chief-of-staff, Bob Haldeman, who wrote it in his diary. “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks,” Nixon told him. “The key is to devise a system that recognises that while not appearing to.”

But Younge argues that enterprising Republicans were also keen to use the abortion issue to strip Roman Catholic voters from the Democratic Party.  In the early 1970s, he points out, both mainstream Republicans like George H. W. Bush and Richard Nixon were pro-choice, and abortion was a non-issue with everyone but Catholic Bishops.  The staunchest defender of the unborn in the US Senate was Edward Kennedy.  Citing a 2011 article in the New Yorker, Younge explains how the Republican Party altered this social landscape.

Patrick Buchanan wrote a memo to Nixon advocating using the abortion issue to woo the Catholic vote. “If the president should publicly take his stand against abortion as offensive to his own moral principles … then we can force [Ed] Muskie [a failed Democratic presidential candidate in 1972] to make the choice between his tens of millions of Catholic supporters and his liberal friends.” The next week Nixon spoke of his “personal belief in the sanctity of human life – including the life of the yet unborn”.

The origins of pro-life politics is just beginning to receive much-needed attention.  The New Yorker article Gary Younge quotes is based on a Yale Law Journal article by Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel.  This may not be new ground, but its new to me.

Here’s the interesting thing, the pro-life strategy never took root with U.S. Catholics, but thanks to sharp-eyed Republican strategists like Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie, the “sanctity of life” coals were soon smoldering among the very people who embraced the race-baiting Southern strategy with an unholy passion–southern evangelicals.

When Jerry Falwell founded the pro-life Moral Majority in 1979, Paul Brown, the founder of the American Life League, scoffed, “Jerry Falwell couldn’t spell ‘abortion’ five years ago.”  But Falwell knew an opportunity when he saw one.

Abortion is an important moral issue for voters on both sides of the left-right fault line.  Roman Catholics are overwhelmingly pro-life, but they split their votes more or less equally between Republicans and Democrats.  Roman Catholic Bishops care just as much about government’s obligations to the poor as they care about abortion–and they care about abortion a lot.  Latino Catholics are staunchly pro-life, but 70% of them will cast a vote for Barack Obama this year because they refuse to take ethical instruction from white men in suits who demagogue the immigration issue.

The real divide within the Latino community is between Cubans, who generally vote Republican, and the balance of the Latino community, which has trended blue ever since Republicans started banging the anti-immigration drum.  The 40% support they gave George W. Bush (an immigration moderate) suggests the Red Party could improve their standing among Latinos with a little effort.  But the targets of divisive political strategies know when a bulls-eye is being painted on their backs.  Similarly, 40% of Black Democrats are pro-life, as opposed to 29% of white Democrats.  The pro-life position is important to these voters, but it is one consideration among many. This isn’t about immigration, abortion, or welfare: this is about winning elections by pandering to white racial resentment.

I am not suggesting that the good evangelical Christians standing on the picket line at the Planned Parenthood clinic are motivated by racial animus.  They aren’t.  They have been told that life begins at conception.  If this is true, abortion is murder and we really are confronting a moral horror show.

Few evangelical pastors believed that life begins at conception in 1970.  That was a Catholic dogma, and Catholics were the enemy.  A portion of the Catholic community, Anglo and Latino, votes pro-life, but the Roman Catholic community has never seen issues like abortion and homosexuality as more important than the death penalty and policies affecting the poor.  Jill LePore’s article in the New Yorker reminds us that “ninety-four per cent of women who died in New York City from illegal abortions were either black or Puerto Rican.”  They died because, unlike wealthy and middle class white women, they had no access to doctors willing to perform clandestine abortions.

Abortion is a real moral issue; but the moral arguments cut both ways; there are no easy answers.  Men who have never wrestled with the intense emotional and practical dilemmas of life are in no position to dictate to women on this issue.

In his recent book, Broken Words, evangelical author Jonathan Dudley, sympathizes with pro-life advocates: 

If you believe, as most evangelicals do, that abortion is killing babies at any stage of the pregnancy, there’s little room for compromise.  In this light, most of the popular pro-choice arguments fail.  We may live in a pluralistic society.  It may be incumbent on society to respect women’s privacy.  And it may be practically impossible to enforce a prohibition on abortion.  But none of that really matters if abortion entails killing innocent human beings.

But Dudley doesn’t believe that life begins at conception, and, until relatively recent times, most Christian theologians, biblical scholars and ethicists agreed with him.  Jews have always believed that life begins at birth and “the dominant view in Christian tradition has been that moral life begins when the body acquires a human form, rudimentary organs, and/or substantial brain activity.”  Early church fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa and Jerome, and later authorities like Anselm and Thomas Aquinas concurred.  Aquinas, the father of Roman Catholic theology, believed that life began at forty days but only because he mistakenly believed that’s when the unborn fetus was capable of intellectual life.  “Today, we know that the rudimentary organs are not developed until around ten weeks after conception,” Dudley writes, “and that the brain is not sufficiently developed to support sentient intellectual life until around six months after conception.”

This doesn’t mean that abortion only becomes a moral issue at six months.  Women who suffer a miscarriage at any stage often suffer the grief of loss; but that grief is generally much stronger when a pregnancy is lost at six months as opposed to twenty days.  This is appropriate, and the law should reflect the difference.

Again, I have no quarrel with sincere Christians who have been taught that life begins at conception; not do I condemn the preachers who introduced this idea.  In the inner sanctums of the evangelical world you cannot depart from the accepted orthodoxy on conception, birth and abortion without losing your job.  No one is free to think clearly or independently on these matters.  There is one accepted opinion and the alternative is excommunication.

It was not always thus.  It is important to remember that pro-life politics is the invention of cynical preachers and opportunistic political hacks.  This explains why a strong pro-life position doesn’t automatically translate into a vote for a particular political party . . . unless you are a white evangelical.

5 thoughts on “Abortion and white evangelicals

  1. thank you, Min. Bean, an important article. Most appreciate the overview of how vital issues were not so vital in previous eras. Progressives often cite Eisenhower’s anti-military-industrial-complex stand or Goldwater’s stand on abortion, etc. and so forth. But as this article explains it does not help to cite such positions in the static, out of context of the period in which they were said or held. Thank you for this history.

  2. Well, Canadians are pretty much mystified by how much of an issue this is in the election. Of course evangelical Christians, and Roman Catholics have the same theological points of view, but the proportion of both active evangelical Christians and immigrant Catholics are both much lower in Canada than in the US, and abortion is easy to obtain and included in universal health care, like other medical procedures. Prescription contraceptives are also inexpensive or free, depending on income and additional insurance, etc. with physician visits at no co-pay. Premiums are about $100 per month for a couple. Abortion rates are lower than in the US.

    We recently had a controversy in Parliament, when a member of the ruling Conservative Party introduced a Bill to discuss, essentially, when a human life begins in the uterus. This is, in Canada, essentially a matter of medical ethics and between a woman and her doctor without the government getting involved. There was a great hue and cry, since essentially, nothing goes on in the Conservative Party caucus without the Prime Minister in charge–Party discipline in this evangelical Christian, free market culture being known to be tight. The bill received few votes, and not much support outside anti-abortion circles, although of course many Canadians believe that human life begins at conception.


  3. It is unfortunate that abortion has been nationalized in The United States. It was formerly under control of respective States and I hope it can be again. I believe in the Federalist system where our national government only has responsibility and authority over functions specified in the Constitution. When bad ideas are instituted nationally, they are bad and unnecessarily devisive every where. When bad ideas are instituted in one state, the harm is contained and is more easily corrected. All fifty states are laboratories to develope ideas and solutions that can be copied on merit.

    Here is just one of many examples of bad ideas adopted nationally with disasterous results. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were created to promote home ownership through the purchase of home mortgages from originators of mortgages. Over time, politicians manipulated the market by encouraging relaxation of credit standards to obtain home financing so that ability to pay and credit history were ignored. The result was a flood of toxic mortgages that were sold by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to financial firms that used them as collateral for bonds that were marketed globally. When the house of cards collapsed, serious harm was inflicted on billions of people world wide.

    Some politicians blame Wall Street for the financial morass we are in, but they are to blame themselves.

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