How the Evangelical Movement Embraced the Abortion Issue

Historians in the News
tags: Christianity, abortion, religious right, evangelicalism

NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Kristin Kobes Du Mez, professor of history and gender studies at Calvin University, about how evangelicals shaped the debate over abortion in the United States.

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.

Read entire article at NPR