Conservative evangelical politics can be a mystery to outsiders. Why, for instance, do evangelicals who claim to value human life also support the death penalty (especially when many pro-life Catholics do not)? Why do they oppose national health insurance while claiming to follow a Savior who healed the sick?
To many secular liberals, the explanation of such inconsistencies is obvious: Politically conservative evangelicals do not genuinely care about human rights, but only about protecting their own freedom and power.
But Andrew R. Lewis suggests a much more nuanced and politically insightful explanation. Perhaps the Christian Right’s policy positions can be understood as the product of valuing one particular right—the right of the unborn to live—above everything else, and seeing all political debates through the prism of this pro-life advocacy.
In The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics, Lewis examines five areas of political concern for the Christian Right—pornography and free speech issues, church-state relations, healthcare, capital punishment, and gay rights—and traces the way in which evangelicals’ increasing opposition to abortion reframed their understanding of these issues.
As Lewis points out, evangelicals were not always strong opponents of abortion. In the early 1970s, evangelicals lacked a cohesive theology of when human life began, so many evangelicals, especially Southern Baptists, balanced their concerns about abortion with the belief that pregnancy termination might be acceptable in exceptional cases, such as rape and incest or dangers to a woman’s health. They viewed the abortion issue not as an issue of human rights, but rather merely one of morality. If abortion was wrong, it was wrong because it prevented a potential life from developing or because it encouraged a frivolous attitude toward sex and pregnancy.
This lack of a rights-oriented perspective on abortion extended to other issues as well. Compared to the rest of the population, conservative evangelicals had a very limited view of free speech rights; they were leaders in the fight to restrict all forms of pornography, from X-rated movies to Playboy magazine. Rather than seeking to extend protections for human rights or civil liberties, conservative evangelicals instead engaged in a quest to preserve a Christian-based moral order—a quest in which the language of rights consciousness was rarely invoked.
Pro-life advocacy changed evangelicals’ view of human rights. The pro-life cause originated among Catholics as a liberal human rights campaign that rhetorically had much more in common with the politics of left-leaning social justice advocacy than with the conservative moral causes that concerned some evangelicals on the right. When evangelicals who had once evinced little interest in the pro-life cause adopted a human-rights-oriented understanding of abortion, they not only became passionately devoted to pro-life politics but they also began thinking about all other political issues in terms of their impact on human rights.
After decades of campaigning for restrictions on certain forms of speech in order to promote public morality, evangelical legal organizations in the early twenty-first century began allying with the American Civil Liberties Union in high-profile cases to defend unpopular speech, because they thought that a denial of one person’s right to speak might lead to an abrogation of free speech rights for everyone, including their own. They defended the right of a high school student to display a potentially blasphemous “Bong Hits for Jesus” sign on school property, along with the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest at the funerals of military veterans, because, even though they abhorred both actions, they thought that government policing of religious speech set a dangerous precedent that could jeopardize their rights, especially in the area of pro-life advocacy. They joined the National Right to Life Committee in campaigning against campaign finance reform on free speech grounds, because they believed that restrictions on campaign advertising would impose legal barriers to pro-life publicity efforts.
Lewis devotes a significant section of his book to demonstrating how Christian Right positions that one might think at first glance are opposed to rights claims are actually attempts to defend the value of life or the rights of minorities.
Conservative evangelicals’ refusal to support any policy that would possibly expand federal funding for abortion led them to oppose both President Bill Clinton’s healthcare plan and President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Lewis argues that evangelicals are likely to support federally funded healthcare in the abstract, but when presented with plans that include funding for abortifacients, they strongly oppose them.
Evangelicals’ opposition to gay rights is also not merely an opposition to a civil rights claim, as those on the left suggest; it is rather a defense of religious liberty. Without the freedom to act on religious convictions, religious liberty does not exist, they argue. Evangelical legal advocacy groups have therefore rallied to the defense of business people and public servants who have refused on the grounds of conscience to perform transactions that they believe would constitute an endorsement of same-sex marriage.
One particularly insightful section in this book is the chapter on the death penalty. Lewis argues that, in contrast to Catholics, evangelicals are motivated by their pro-life ideology to support capital punishment. They do so because they argue that the sacredness of human life compels them to defend the rights of murder victims by avenging the deaths of the innocent through government execution of the guilty. In other words, while “consistent life” advocates tend to focus on the lives of the perpetrators—arguing that no matter how heinous their crimes, they still have an inalienable right to life that should prevent the state from executing them—evangelicals focus on the right to life of the victims and say that defending this right necessitates executing those who violate it. But while this is the dominant view in evangelicalism, it is not the only view; a number of prominent evangelical leaders, including a few conservatives as well as those who are more liberal, have adopted the position of the American Catholic bishops in speaking out against both the death penalty and abortion.
Lewis’s book is undoubtedly an important work in the field, presenting an argument that is highly original and thought-provoking. And Lewis is an impressive researcher; his book cites all of the relevant historical scholarship, which he also supplements with a detailed analysis of social science survey data, including some of his own experiments and surveys. If Lewis’s argument is right, it will likely change the way that we understand both the pro-life movement and conservative evangelical politics.
Instead of seeing pro-life politics as a mere smokescreen for the Christian Right’s real agenda (as historian Randall Balmer has argued), Lewis presents a compelling case that the Christian Right’s campaign against abortion is a foundational commitment that shapes all its other political positions. And instead of seeing pro-life politics as anti-feminist or merely an incidental part of a larger conservative program (as most scholars in the field have), Lewis argues that pro-life politics is inherently rights-based, an ideological commitment that liberals should appreciate.
Lewis’s view is at odds with nearly all of the historical scholarship on the Christian Right, but is it correct? To a large degree, I think that it is. It is strange that some scholars have dismissed the possibility that abortion is the driving social concern for conservative evangelicals when evangelicals themselves have been insisting for more than thirty years that it is. Regardless of which particular issues might have mobilized the Christian Right in the 1970s—and Lewis himself concedes that evangelicals in that era were largely indifferent or even hostile to the pro-life cause—there is no good reason to doubt the sincerity of evangelicals’ conversion to the pro-life position. For the last thirty-five years, evangelicals have been more likely even than Catholics to express strong opposition to abortion. In Lewis’s view, the nation’s largest anti-abortion denomination is no longer the Catholic Church, but the Southern Baptist Convention. Thus, when analyzing contemporary evangelical political attitudes, any study that does not focus first and foremost on abortion will likely get it wrong. Lewis, to his credit, gets it right by correctly recognizing the centrality of the abortion issue in contemporary evangelical politics.
And Lewis is also right in noting that pro-life advocacy is based on a human rights claim and is therefore very different from the older Christian Right concerns of a generation ago, such as regulation of sex and pornography. The pro-life cause originated not among conservatives, but among liberals—Catholic liberal Democrats who supported the New Deal social welfare state, to be precise. Lewis is therefore right to wonder how an infusion of human-rights-based ideology into the traditional Christian Right political agenda might have changed that agenda in some way. He presents an intriguing claim that the entire Christian Right agenda became rights-oriented in a way that it never was before.
But Lewis’s claim that pro-life politics is the central reason why evangelicals embraced the cause of religious liberty and minority rights needs to be nuanced, I think. Here I speak as a friend: I have had the utmost respect for Andy Lewis’s scholarship since our days as colleagues in the James Madison Program at Princeton University more than five years ago, and I value his friendship. I also believe that he has done an enormous service to the profession in writing this book. But I think that he likely overstates the degree to which evangelicals’ interest in human rights is a product of their pro-life advocacy.
I am more persuaded by the argument that Justin Watson’s study of the Christian Coalition advanced twenty years ago: that conservative evangelicals’ newfound interest in religious liberty and minority rights is largely due to their self-perceived status as a religious minority that is becoming increasingly vulnerable to discrimination. When evangelicals believed that they could marshal a majority of voters to reclaim the United States for a Christian-based morality—a dream that was the raison d’être for Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, founded in 1979—they did not pay much attention to minority rights claims. But as they began to realize over the course of the last two decades of the twentieth century that they were actually a political minority at odds with prevailing cultural trends, their emphasis changed from fighting to change the political culture to campaigning primarily to preserve their minority rights. I would prefer to imagine that conservative evangelical politics has been motivated primarily by a concern for the rights of others, as Lewis’s book suggests, but I fear that much of it can be explained as the self-interested politics of a group that is fighting to preserve its own liberties in the face of a perceived loss of power.
Yet regardless of this caveat, Lewis is undoubtedly correct in arguing that the politics of abortion has transformed the Christian Right and brought conservative evangelicals closer to a conservative Catholic position on almost all issues, with the possible exception of capital punishment. For anyone who wants to understand conservative evangelicals on their own terms and trace the ways in which pro-life politics has made the Christian Right of 2017 a very different entity from the Religious Right of the 1970s, Lewis’s book offers an excellent guide.
Daniel K. Williams is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia. He is the author of God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right and Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade.