While patriarchy undergirds both Catholic and evangelical positions on abortion, each accents a different aspect of patriarchy. The Roman Catholic Church models itself on the Roman empire, hence the name. The Roman pontiff took up the imperial title Pontifex Maximus and the Catholic Church adopted the imperial organizational model. In the fifth and sixth centuries it even began to take over judicial duties from imperial officials. For centuries, the popes relied on a fake imperial decree in which the emperor Constantine turned authority over the empire to Pope Silvester in the west, referred to as the Donation of Constantine.
The evangelical model of patriarchy is based on the family and draws on the notion of a father as head of the household with the biblical motto: “Wives be subject to your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18). Evangelicals reacted to the 1960s feminist movement by elaborating their understanding of the role of women according to this model. Marabel Morgan developed her Total Woman Seminars to oppose feminist charges of male chauvinism, female inequality, and a lack of expressive outlets for female talents. For Morgan, society’s real problem was resistance to a husband’s God-ordained authority. In 1973 she published The Total Woman, a best seller, which sold more than five hundred thousand copies in the first year and was the best-selling nonfiction book of 1974, eventually selling more than ten million books. The publisher, Fleming Revell, is an evangelical press.
In the same vein the child psychologist Dr. James Dobson published Dare to Discipline with Tyndale House Publishers in 1970. His book was written against the success of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care (1946), which encouraged a caring and nurturing attitude, telling parents to trust their instincts and treat children with leniency. An evangelical view of the Bible determined Dobson’s view of child rearing and the role of women. Dobson rejected Dr. Spock’s nurturing approach as permissive and encouraged spanking. Reasserting parental discipline was the key, he wrote, to happy, well-adjusted children. Dobson grew his Focus on the Family media empire and became a major player in the evangelical world. Family values became a catch phrase in the American culture wars.
George Lakoff in Moral Politics (1996) argued that the way Americans raise their children leads to two fundamentally different forms of politics: strict father versus nurturing parents.
Evangelicalism is a broad coalition of “believers found in many churches, denominations and nations,” uniting under one umbrella a large swath of conservative Christians. According to their own statements they cohere around four “evangelical distinctives”: a born-again experience is central to Christian life, the Bible is the ultimate authority, the gospel demands reform of society, and finally the sacrifice of Christ on the cross makes possible humanity’s redemption (National Association of Evangelicals). These distinctives not only put a strong emphasis on the Bible but also on the individual. Theoretically a denomination plays second chair to an individual. The distinctives emphasize local church life on a family model and a church headed by a strong father/preacher.
A different picture comes into focus with a social description of evangelicalism. Since the evangelical homeland is the southern United States, most evangelicals are white, nationalistic, support gun rights, and are more likely to own guns than any other religious group. They favor preemptive war and support the death penalty. Their negative views of immigrants lead them to fear that white Americans are becoming a minority, while believing they already are experiencing significant religious persecution. In their understanding Islam promotes violence. Their Christian nationalism supports the notion that America is God’s chosen nation and from its inception was a Christian nation. They oppose gay rights and support aggressive use of law enforcement against Black Americans. Seventy-seven percent of evangelicals supported Trump in 2016 and 84 percent in 2020 (See Pew Research Center).
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, in her insightful book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, sums up this social profile:
White evangelicals have pieced together this patchwork of issues, and a nostalgic commitment to rugged, aggressive, militant white masculinity serves as the thread binding them together into a coherent whole. A father’s rule in the home is inextricably linked to heroic leadership on the national stage, and the fate of the nation hinges on both (p. 4).
Even though it would seem that Black American Protestants have much in common with the four evangelical distinctives, Black Christians have consistently resisted identifying as evangelical (Pew Research Center). They have understood the white racist underpinnings of evangelicalism (Mary Beth Matthews, Doctrine and Race and “The History of Black Evangelicals and American Politics”).
The initial evangelical response to Roe v. Wade ranged from positive, to lukewarm, to silent. In 1969 the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today sponsored a medical symposium that not only declined to condemn abortion as sinful but offered legitimate reasons for ending a pregnancy. Before Roe v. Wade, the Southern Baptist Convention in 1971 passed a resolution in support of legislation allowing abortion under certain circumstances. After the Supreme Court’s decision in 1974 and again in 1976, they passed resolutions reaffirming their 1971 position. W.A. Criswell, a well know Baptist preacher and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, wrote: “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed” (“The Real Origins of the Religious Right”). Another factor in the evangelical response was that historically they had not been politically active, even though various political operatives had tried to engage them.
As we saw in the previous blog post, Roman Catholics began organizing the opposition to abortion because they were alarmed by the growing number of states liberalizing their abortion laws. They established the National Right-to-Life Committee in 1967, well before Roe v. Wade in 1973. Their opposition was absolute, no exceptions allowed, with a strategy built around personalizing and humanizing the fetus, while ignoring a woman’s role and rights. Abortion was a “Catholic” issue, not an evangelical one.
Historically the relationship between Catholics and evangelicals has been fraught. A case in point: when the Supreme Court ruled against school prayer in 1962, some evangelicals cheered the decision because it stood in the way of Catholics’ continual pressing for government funding for their private schools. Evangelicals tended to be white, southern, and nationalist, while Roman Catholics were strongest in the northeast, of immigrant background, and their nationalism was suspect. An alliance between Catholics and evangelicals was not a natural fit. (Robert Jones, The End of White Christian America, pp. 61–69, and Jennifer Holland in Tiny You, pp. 95–118, both deal with the Catholic/evangelical alliance as the one great success of the ecumenical movement). What changed?
The Catholic conservative political activist Phyllis Schlafly began an initial rapprochement when she appealed to many evangelical women with her defense of traditional roles for husbands and wives in her attack on the ERA (1972) as anti-woman. Her position on the issue resembled Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman.
The real impetus for the alliance between Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism over abortion came from another direction. Following Brown v. Board of Education (1954), many evangelical churches established Christian academies to avoid integration. Title IV of the Civil Rights Act (1968) forbade racial segregation and discrimination, threatening the tax-exempt status of these schools as charitable institutions. In 1970 President Richard Nixon ordered the Internal Revenue Service to deny tax-exempt status to segregated private schools and the courts upheld the IRS rulings.
Evangelicals had long bragged that they accepted no government funding, but the loss of their tax-exempt status as charitable institutions threatened their financial viability. Yet campaigning in favor of segregation was not popular, so another focus was needed. Conservative Republican political activist Paul Weyrich realized that opposition to abortion polled well among grass roots evangelicals. He and Jerry Falwell, the Baptist evangelical pastor and founder of Liberty University, suddenly saw a way to advance the conservative agenda, one aspect of which was to attack IRS regulations. Thus was born the evangelical alliance with Roman Catholics. Conservative political strategists saw this alliance as a way to activate a new group of voters, evangelicals, for conservative causes, peeling away Catholic votes from Democrats.
When running for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan ranted about the “unconstitutional regulatory agenda” of the IRS against Christian schools in an address to a large group of evangelicals in Dallas but made no mention of abortion. He didn’t have to. He had made the connection that counted. Deregulation and right to life became fundamentals in the Republican platform.
Evangelicals had no principled, thought-out position on abortion. Since abortion had been a Catholic issue, Catholics provided a well-developed position and strategy. Evangelicals adopted the Catholic position, but without the tradition and history. They pushed to stop abortion by aggressively picketing abortion clinics, pressing for laws defining the fetus as a human being with full rights, and electing politicians who opposed Roe v. Wade, who would then appoint judges with the same opposition. According to the Pew Research Center, the only religious group that overwhelmingly opposes abortion is white evangelicals, 74 percent of whom say abortion should be illegal, far surpassing the Catholic percentage (48 percent).
Joining the right-to-life campaign as a response to segregation offered white southern evangelicals another way to think about race and whiteness and more importantly to steal the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. Holland in Tiny You, summarizes this process well:
Pro-life activists developed a discourse that envisioned abortion as evidence of the perversion of modern science, a genocide akin to the Holocaust, and a product of racist or otherwise hierarchical thinking that privileged some lives over others. In other words, they made the fetus into the victim of modern society and their campaign into a social justice movement by claiming that only through the protection of the fetus could Americans successfully protect the right of all oppressed people (p.4).
By co-opting the language of the civil rights movement and feminists for the right-to-life movement, they successfully redefined whiteness as a defense of all life. Pro-life did the bidding of the segregationists. In Holland’s telling phrasing, “Those politics invited white people to think of themselves as abolitionists and the nation’s saviors” (p. 2).
The moral logic of identifying a fetus as a human person from inception requires that abortion is murder. That was already the Catholic logic. If it is murder, there is no compromise. When evangelicals joined the fray, it became a moral crusade against a holocaust. The moral stakes became even higher.
While anti-abortion is the driving impetus, it is not an isolated issue. Pro-life is a subterfuge for a nexus of other issues. For Roman Catholics it hides their need to control female sexuality. For evangelicals it absolves the sin of race, white supremacy, and slavery, America’s original sin. In this regard the anti-abortion campaign also radically reinforces patriarchy and all its associated issues: anti-Black Lives Matter, anti-gay, strong gender role differentiation, pro-gun, pro death penalty, a strong militarism, and nationalism.
Under the umbrella of right to life and patriarchy, conservatives have advanced a host of other items on their agenda that are unpopular—small government, low taxes for corporations, and attacks on popular government social welfare programs such as social security and government health care—Medicare and Medicaid, childcare, etc.
Patriarchy implies predictable outcomes, as recent scandals demonstrate. The Roman Catholic Church has been rocked with pedophilia scandals in almost every diocese worldwide. The Roman Church has yet to adequately come to terms with this scandal. Now a similar sexual abuse scandal is rolling through the Southern Baptist Convention. That Convention is following the same trajectory as the Catholic Church: denial, coverup, blaming the victims, and protecting the offenders. Patriarchy, of course, inevitably leads the superior to see the other as inferior, less human, with inevitable consequences.
What has the anti-abortion program done to American religion? This crusade has happened while church membership declines across all denominational lines and while religion’s presence in American life loses its grip. The anti-abortion fight has reinforced patriarchy in both evangelicalism and Catholicism, making both groups more conservative, reactionary, anti-science, anti-democratic, and autocratic. Simultaneously the public image of religion has shifted towards the illiberal and intolerant. The Trump presidency galvanized these tendencies. The future of American religion will continue moving in a reactionary and revanchist direction. If this be its direction, it endangers the Enlightenment values enshrined in our Constitution and many of the biblical values it claims to support, the topic of my upcoming final blog in this series.
Subscribe to our email list and receive updates, news, and more.