The fight over a woman’s right to decide will determine the fate of religion in America, because it intersects with a raft of seemingly unrelated issues: slavery, race, immigration, separation of church and state, and guns.
Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization shares company with a broad front of decisions by a reactionary Supreme Court majority attempting by law to force a return to pre-New Deal jurisprudence. Today’s activist court shows no regard for precedent, or stare decisis in legal terminology. There’s no telling how far they will retreat into a mythical past. Decisions about religion lead this legalized reactionary revolution.
Dobbs v. Jackson might be the worst decision since Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), when the Supreme Court denied citizenship under Article III of the U. S. Constitution to enslaved or free African Americans who were descendants of American slaves. Just as Dred Scott stripped native born, free African Americans of citizenship, Dobbs strips American women of the right to decide what happens to their bodies. For the first time, the court has taken away a right, setting a precedent for revoking other rights, especially those the reactionary majority rejects.
The court’s decision diverges from public opinion. In a poll taken after the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, the Public Religion Research Institute found:
In a survey conducted June 24–26, 2022, after the Dobbs decision was announced, 65% of Americans say abortion should be legal in most or all cases, including 33% who say it should be legal in all cases and 32% who say it should be legal in most cases. One-third of Americans (33%) say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, including 25% who say it should be illegal in most cases and 8% who say it should be illegal in all cases.
On August 2, 2022, in a landslide margin of 59 percent to 41 percent, Kansas voters rejected a ballot referendum that would have removed the right to abortion from their State Constitution. How the disjunction between the court and public opinion will play out might create more turmoil than the court’s majority anticipates.
In their most recent term, the court took a hatchet to the separation of church and state in two rulings: Carson v. Makin, requiring Maine to subsidize parochial school tuition, and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, about whether a football coach could pray on the field after games. The majority clearly buys into the conservative religious myth that religion (read Christianity) is disrespected, and Christians are persecuted in contemporary society. The court majority attempts to restore not religion generally but Christianity specifically to what they regard as its proper place in American society. This is all somewhat ironic since 30 percent of Americans are non-religious, while only 20 percent are Catholic. Yet six out of nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic and not a single justice identifies as non-churched. Where’s the persecution of religion? Certainly not on the Supreme Court.
The reactionary majority of the Supreme Court clearly wants to reorder the role of religion in America. How the Dobbs v. Jackson decision will affect religion is the topic of this post.
After reaching an all-time high after World War II, church membership has steadily declined in the United States for the past twenty years. When Gallup first measured church membership in 1937, 73 percent of Americans belonged to an organized religious group. Until 2000, that percentage remained roughly the same but at the beginning of the new century, church membership plummeted. In 2020 only 47 percent claimed church membership, representing a minority of Americans for the first time since the Gallup Organization began tracking it. (See the Gallup Chart.)
According to Gallup’s most recent report:
Church membership is strongly correlated with age, as 66% of traditionalists—U.S. adults born before 1946—belong to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials. The limited data Gallup has on church membership among the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood are so far showing church membership rates similar to those for millennials.
Since patterns formed as young adults tend to persist into adulthood, these figures predict even steeper declines in church membership. American religious life is following the same trajectory that Christianity took in the increasingly secular and irreligious societies of Europe and then Canada. American religion will become grayer and more conservative, even reactionary. It may well look to the state to reinforce its shrinking role in society.
The view and place of religion in American society is clearly shifting. About 30 percent of Americans identify as spiritual but not religious. While Americans generally view religion positively, three-quarters think—accurately—that religion is in decline. Americans overwhelmingly think religion should stay out of politics. Republicans think religion should have more importance in political life, while Democrats don’t. Both the pedophilia scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church and now the sexual abuse scandal which is following the same course in the Southern Baptist Convention besmirch religion’s reputation against a residual background of good feeling about religion.
According to the most recent data from Public Religion Research Institute, religiously white American society divides into four groups:
The Enlightenment set individual autonomy against the claims of the state and religion, which were aligned at the time. Individual rights opposed the divine right of kings and the supernatural claims of Christianity. Or in the phrase of the philosophe Denis Diderot, “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
Abortion feeds this conflict because under patriarchy, females are owned by males who want to control female fertility. Only in the 1950s did women for the first time in history acquire the technology to control their own fertility. The patriarchal assumption that males own females still underlies the anti-abortion position. By focusing on a fetus and ignoring the pregnant woman, Alito’s decision follows patriarchy’s logic, enslaving pregnant women, making them the state’s property and subject to its dictates.
The Christian churches have consistently resisted the Enlightenment. The Catholic Church struggled against and ultimately failed in its effort to condemn and banish the scientific discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo that won over the scientific world, relegating the Roman Church to antiscientific backwaters. Against empirical ways of knowing, the Church bet on revelation and power in defense of its commitment to patriarchy. The Church lost.
Protestant Christianity had its Galileo moment when it rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution. When Bishop Wilberforce challenged Thomas Huxley at Oxford (1860), he arrogantly assumed the day would be his. Mocking Darwin’s theory, he rhetorically asked whether it was through his grandfather or grandmother that Huxley claimed descent from a monkey. But Huxley made a monkey out of Wilberforce by retorting: “If then the question is put to me whether I would rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet employs these faculties and that influence for the purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.” The church has never recovered from this misstep.
The Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee (1925) became the American version of the Oxford debate, with the same result. Public perception identified religion with the forces of obscurantism, anti-science, and, increasingly, bigotry. The play Inherit the Wind (1955) and subsequent film (1960) staring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March crystalized this moment as the epitome of “old-time” religion, framing it as bigotry and opposed to science. Since evangelical Christianity emerged from the same stew that produced the Scopes Monkey Trial, anti-Darwinism, creationism, and anti-science form fundamental planks in its belief system.
When Pope John XXIII called for a Second Vatican Council (1962), he sought to open the windows to let in the light to modernize the church. How far that update would or should go was a matter of debate. When Paul VI intervened in the Council to reserve to himself the discussion on birth control and then priestly celibacy, that marked the moment the openness of John XXIII and the promise of the Second Vatican Council were betrayed, according to James Carroll in The Truth at the Heart of a Lie. Subsequent popes only deepened that betrayal. The Catholic Church doubled down on its twin patriarchal pillars: control of female sexuality and a celibate, male-only priesthood. Those pillars are not up for debate or reform. Those decisions set the course for the sexual abuse of a generation of children in the form of an ongoing pedophilia scandal.
How will the aftermath of Dobbs v. Jackson play out? The situation in Ireland might offer a prognosis for the US. It clearly indicates how an absolutist position runs counter to the complexities that arise in women’s modern health care.
Abortion was criminalized in Ireland in the 1860s. In a 1983 referendum, 67 percent voted for an Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which read: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” The major political parties of the center and right supported the amendment, as did the Catholic hierarchy. The parties on the left opposed the amendment. About 90 percent of Ireland’s population at the time was Catholic.
Ireland’s anti-abortion laws were among the most restrictive in the world. The state was empowered to defend and vindicate the right of the unborn to life. Publications about abortion were banned, including advertisements for abortion clinics in England. Travel to obtain an abortion was likewise banned, and young women travelling to England were frequently questioned about whether they were travelling for the purpose of obtaining an abortion. While exceptions were granted for the health of the mother, obtaining such a procedure was very difficult.
In 2018, thirty-five years after the initial referendum, another referendum repealed the Eighth Amendment with 66 percent of the vote. Why this shift?
In 1993 one hundred and fifty-five unmarked graves of women were discovered at a Magdalene laundry, a home run by Catholic nuns for unwed mothers. Further media investigations uncovered the secretive operations of these homes. In 2013, the Irish government offered an official apology and a £50 million compensation package for survivors. Between 2005–09, a number of governmental reports detailed the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of thousands of children by dozens of Catholic priests. These scandals, which rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland, accelerated the secularization of Irish society and the decline of the Catholic population, from 90 percent in the 1980s to 78 percent in 2016.
Two prominent cases appeared in the media that swayed public opinion.
A fourteen-year-old girl was raped by a friend of her father. The girl was expressing suicidal thoughts and, according to a psychologist, was in danger of killing herself. The attorney general filed an injunction in 1991 to prohibit her from traveling to England for an abortion, because the law compelled the state to protect the life of the fetus. Ultimately, the Irish Supreme Court decided to allow the girl to get an abortion because there was a real threat of suicide. Because of the publicity this case generated, a referendum in 1992 allowed Irish citizens to travel abroad for a legal abortion.
Beginning in 2005, Irish women could get information and safe medications for an abortion from Women on Web, a nonprofit group that offers consultations and provides medications to anyone in the world seeking an abortion who cannot get one legally or safely.
Finally, in 2012 another case shocked the public. A thirty-one-year-old dentist, Savita Halappanavar, started to have a miscarriage but was denied an abortion because the doctors detected a fetal heartbeat. Despite her pleas for treatment over the course of several days, she developed sepsis, experienced multiple organ failure, and died of cardiac arrest.
As a result of these various shifts, in 2015 Irish voters approved a referendum that legalized same-sex marriage. In 2018 another referendum set aside the Eighth Amendment to Constitution and legalized abortion rights.
While the situations in Ireland and the United States differ in significant ways, more and more stories will appear in the media of the horrendous sacrifice of women’s bodies and lives as states increase abortion restrictions. As in Ireland, the majority of Americans who supported Roe v. Wade will have to choose their political course, potentially destroying American religion’s hold on society. The Catholic hierarchy and evangelicals have lined up solidly behind Dobbs v. Jackson, but they might have a hard time negotiating laws at the state level. Their positions are absolutist, while the majority of voters favor exceptions.
In the abortion debate, religious conservatives have claimed the moral high ground. They have proclaimed themselves to be the real Christians and argued the public religious case against abortion and a woman’s right to decide, championing imagined rights of a fetus over the certain and established rights of women. Their case is morally and ethically weak, even on traditional religious grounds. Much stronger is the case for a woman’s right to decide.
The Dobbs decision could hand liberal religion an opportunity to re-engage both religiously and morally with the American public and make a case for a progressive Christianity and against a regressive Christianity. Will religious moderates and liberals reclaim the public space and build a strong case for women?
The United States is an outlier to a global trend. “The past fifty years have been characterized by an unmistakable trend toward the liberalization of abortion laws, particularly in the industrialized world,” according to a report entitled “Abortion Law: Global Comparisons" from the Council on Foreign Affairs. Why did the US retreat and Ireland vote for a woman’s right to decide? The answer goes back to America’s original sin: race.
According to same report from the Council on Foreign Affairs:
The global trend in abortion law has been toward liberalization. Since 2000, thirty-eight countries have changed their abortion laws, and all but one—Nicaragua—expanded the legal grounds on which women can access abortion services. Since 2020, Argentina and Thailand legalized abortions, with certain gestational limits; Mexico decriminalized abortion, as did South Korea; and New Zealand eased its abortion restrictions. Most recently, Colombia made abortion legal on demand up to twenty-four weeks of pregnancy, the latest sign of a growing “green wave” in Latin America.
One could add the Irish referendum in 2018 to this list.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954) changed the US legal landscape. The Supreme Court unanimously overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 ruling that furnished the legal basis for segregation by declaring the constitutionality of “separate but equal.” Brown v. Board of Education reversed that ruling, based on extensive research, arguing that separate is never equal.
The segregated southern states of the old Confederacy reacted furiously and immediately. Senator James Eastland of Mississippi declared that “the South will not abide by nor obey this legislative decision by a political body.” Virginia’s Senator Harry Byrd, who described the opinion as “the most serious blow that has yet been struck against the rights of the states in a matter vitally affecting their authority and welfare,” in 1956 organized a coalition of nearly one hundred southern politicians to sign on to his “Southern Manifesto,” an agreement to resist the implementation of Brown.
When public schools were forced to integrate, school boards shut down public schools, often giving the tax money to parents. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, the school board closed the public schools rather than integrate, and they remained closed for five years. Whites boycotted public schools and set up private, white Christian academies, often with public tax money funneled to parents. Slowly but surely the courts shut down these funding methods, revoked their tax-exempt status, and eventually ruled that such segregated academies violated the civil rights acts.
When Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act he is reported to have quipped, “There goes the South for a generation.” Richard Nixon was ready to follow up on Johnson’s remark. He developed a southern strategy that would strip the southern states away from the Democratic column. Historically, he reversed the allegiance of the two main political parties in the US. The party of Lincoln became the party of segregation. When Nixon ran for president in 1968, he let it be known that he would appoint judges who would oppose anti-segregation court rulings. He developed his southern strategy based on racial dog whistles. Law and order became code for racism. Nixon acknowledged as much in his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination: “To those who say that law and order is the code word for racism, there and here is a reply. Our goal is justice for every American.” Yet his crime bills overwhelming targeted blacks.
Although campaigning on white supremacy played well in the South, the rest of the country rejected it. With the tax-exempt status under threat for their segregationist schools, evangelicals needed a new strategy. The anti-abortion, right to life campaign came to the rescue. Right to life politicians would stymie civil rights legislation. Overturning Roe v. Wade was a way to guarantee judges who would cut away at voting rights and civil rights. It became a subterfuge for racism, white supremacy, gun rights, and the death penalty. Without the race card, it is unlikely that an alliance between Catholics and evangelicals would have been possible.
The anti-abortion, anti-woman, pro-life campaign launched with a clear strategy: to humanize, personalize, and sentimentalize the fetus, while ignoring women’s rights to decide. This strategy allowed the pro-life, anti-abortion campaign to claim the moral high ground by co-opting the language and themes of the civil rights campaign.
While lacking support in religious and ethical tradition, the pro-life strategy has presented no clear, ethical way to make its case and hides its deep embeddedness in patriarchy. The pro-life campaign relies on the innocence of unborn life for an emotional argument, the effectiveness of which should not be underestimated. But in fifty years it has offered no reasoned argument why fetal life is a human person from conception or why it is innocent. Their doctrine of original sin would surely indicate otherwise.
On the other hand, religious people who want to support a woman’s right to choose can make a strong case on religious grounds. This case needs to be made clearly in the public space and claimed by religious people. What follows is a religious case for a woman’s right to choose, not a philosophical or legal one. Others can and have made that case. Simply because the religious right has dressed up its case in piety and church pronouncements does not mean it is a legitimate religious case. In fact, I will argue that the pro-life argument is an immoral case.
The dependence of the anti-abortion position on patriarchy is underappreciated. Male ownership of female bodies so outrages common decency that patriarchy must cloak its strategies in some disguise. Defending rights for the unborn looks virtuous, but female claims to independence are so foreign to the Supreme Court’s majority opinion that it does not acknowledge or reflect on their dismissal.
The Roman Catholic Church originated the anti-abortion, pro-life strategy. My previous posts have shown that the protection of male privilege is its most fundamental commitment. Control of female fertility through the prohibition of artificial birth control and the maintenance of a male celibate priesthood are the twin pillars of its patriarchy. It has resisted every effort to critique or change this patriarchal system, even in the light of horrendous pedophilia scandals.
American evangelical Christianity has built its religious life around the John Wayne myth. It has doubled down on its own version of patriarchy, and its hyper-masculine version of patriarchy has enabled evangelicals to buy into the Catholic anti-abortion, pro-life strategy.
An honest critical reading of the Bible will not resolve the issue of patriarchy. The Bible both supports and critiques patriarchy.
The Enlightenment made the case against patriarchy by espousing the freedom, equality, and autonomy of all individuals. Individual freedom argues against enslaving any individual, which is precisely what patriarchy does to those it deems less than human. Freedom should be an ultimate value not only of the Enlightenment, but also of religion. Within Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus can and must be understood to support individual freedom. The continued existence of patriarchy poses very serious ethical problems, involving as it does the demeaning and devaluing of more than half of the population. The anti-abortion position’s dependence on patriarchy undermines its claim to hold a moral position.
Historically, the traditional rule-based morality or deontology has taken a variety of positions in regard to abortion, all based on patriarchy and male control of female bodies. Because of the invisibility of women in the ancient world and the danger abortion posed to a female’s life, abortion is seldom mentioned in Greek and Roman writings and never in the Bible. A more common form of population control was exposure of infants, especially female infants. There is no word in Hebrew, Greek, or Latin for abortion that distinguishes it from a miscarriage.
Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, traditional Jewish, and Muslim scholars all agree that the unformed fetus is not a human being and causing it harm, that is, abortion, was not murder. Nor do they argue that it is human life from conception. The position of the modern Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christianity is at odds with this long-stranding religious tradition in the West. In terms of traditional deontological thought, there is no reason to concede this point. Modern Catholics and evangelicals are innovating without admitting or justifying why they are innovating. Those who support a woman’s right to decide can certainly claim the religious tradition regarding the status of the unformed fetus and should push back against the claim of Roman Catholics and evangelicals to be traditional. The anti-abortion position is in no way traditional and its claim to stand on the tradition is bogus.
Since today pregnancy and childbirth are more dangerous than getting an abortion, the traditional deontological argument against aborting a formed fetus no longer stands. For a rule to be legitimate, it cannot require sacrifice or heroic behavior. Otherwise, it would not be enforceable. Carrying a fetus to term clearly requires sacrifice. When the pregnancy poses danger to the health of the mother, carrying a fetus to term would require heroic behavior and sacrifice on her part. Both these arguments favor allowing abortion on deontological grounds. Those arguing an anti-abortion position on deontological grounds, that is, Roman Catholics and evangelicals, need to show that their position does not violate the very deontological grounds on which they claim to stand. They cannot and have not made such a case. They have ignored the deontological argument favoring a woman’s choice because their exclusive focus on the fetus ignores the woman.
Based on a traditional religious argument the following points are clear:
A woman’s right to decide is based on the Enlightenment insight about the moral autonomy of a human being. A female is a fully autonomous human being. To assert otherwise is to enslave and dehumanize her. While simple and straightforward, that is the fundamental moral and religious argument for a woman’s right to decide.
On the other hand, the fetus is not an autonomous human being. Why its preservation should take precedence over a pregnant woman is not obvious.
While Christianity has consistently failed in its confrontation with Enlightenment ideas, the battle over women’s bodies offers Christianity one last chance to reform itself. Enlightenment values do not have to be anti-religious. They can be profoundly religious. Paul in Galatians 3:28 lays the foundation for a Christian argument.
You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer “male and female.” Instead, you all have the same status in the service of God’s Anointed, Jesus.
This baptismal formula lays out the fundamental insight of the Enlightenment. That the Enlightenment philosophes and Christians were antagonistic to each other indicates how deeply the values of patriarchy had distorted Paul’s radical claim to freedom and equality.
Rooting out patriarchy from Christianity will require a radical reformation, one much more radical than the sixteenth-century Reformation. Feminists have challenged the place of patriarchy in religion and both Jewish and Christian scholars have produced a large body of exciting work in this vein. The liberation of women from their historical enslavement is the fundamental issue at stake in the abortion debate. Roman Catholics and evangelicals have already decided where they stand on this issue. Liberal and progressive Christianity has a chance to seize the moral high ground and radically redefine Christianity as a religion of freedom and finally proclaim Paul’s bold claim, “no longer ‘male and female.’” This debate will determine whether Christianity has any future other than as a reactionary force.
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