The current assault on women’s autonomy, led primarily by people espousing fundamentalist versions of Evangelical Christianity, has awakened many Americans to the considerable influence of religion on American law and culture. That influence is not new, although the extent of it has largely gone unrecognized. Indeed, through most of American history, people have vastly underestimated the profound and continuing influence of culturally-embedded attitudes that originated with religious ways of interpreting reality. Most of us today recognize the impact of purportedly religious beliefs on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and support for the death penalty, but what is far less obvious is the degree to which religiously-rooted worldviews continue to influence seemingly secular policy debates, including economic policies.
Many of the cultural perspectives that shape our policy preferences were originally religious, and those religious roots have influenced our adult worldviews—including the worldviews of people who reject theological doctrines and do not believe themselves to be religious. The much-ballyhooed “values” debate isn’t a conflict between people who are religious and people who are not, nor is it a struggle between people holding different religious beliefs. It’s a debate between people operating out of different and largely inconsistent worldviews, and whether they recognize it or not, many of those worldviews originally grew out of different and frequently inconsistent religious explanations of the world we inhabit. Those inconsistencies don’t just reflect differences between major religions—different theological approaches taken by Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.—but also between denominations within those religions, especially the numerous denominations within Christianity. Calvinist beliefs, for example, continue to exert a major influence on American economic policy.
As women have slowly moved into the mainstream of American life, the doctrinal and
structural differences of the major Abrahamic religions have shaped both their official
responses and the culture. That has especially been true of religions like Catholicism that
prohibit women from the priesthood and consider both abortion and artificial birth control
sinful. It wasn’t until 2020 that Pope Francis changed church law to allow a somewhat expanded role for women within the Catholic Church. The decree allows women to serve as readers, altar servers, and assistants to priests during service or in administering Holy Communion; however, the priesthood remains exclusively male.
As Frank Bruni has written “For all the remarkable service that the Catholic Church performs, it is one of the world’s dominant and most unshakable patriarchies, with tenets that don’t abet equality.”
For women to get a fair shake in the work force, they need at least some measure of reproductive freedom. But Catholic bishops in the United States lobbied strenuously against the Obamacare requirement that employers such as religiously affiliated schools and hospitals include contraception in workers’ health insurance.
The autocratic structure of Catholicism, which discourages dissent from approved messaging, and requires the exclusion of women from the pulpit, operates to reinforce the subordinate status of women. Recent revelations about an internal “faith group” within Catholicism underscore that message. People of Praise (which counts current Supreme Court Justice Amy Comey Barrett among its members) calls for complete obedience of women to their husbands, “emphasizes the importance of childbirth, pregnancy and the abandonment of autonomy and privacy it supposedly entails, as a core part of what it means to be a woman.” The Catholic Church remains adamantly anti-abortion, recognizing an exception only when it is clearly required in order to save the life of the mother.
The response of liberal Protestantism to cultural change has been very different. The largest Mainline Protestant denominations include the United Methodist Church (UMC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Presbyterian Church (PC-USA), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Church (ABC- USA, not to be confused with the Southern Baptists, considered below) the United Church of Christ (UCC), and Christian Church Disciples of Christ (DOC). Sometimes referred to as the “Seven Sisters,’ these denominations have seen significant growth in the ordination of women; as of 2010, approximately 10% of Protestant pastors were female. A survey conducted in 1987 suggested that women entering pastoral positions brought liberal commitments in religion, theological discussions, and cultural values to their congregations. Those commitments translate into their current supportive positions on abortion and birth control; a recent study by Pew categorizes them as supportive of abortion rights, albeit with some restrictions.
When it comes to religion and women’s rights, historians note that Quakers and Jews have been longstanding and prominent proponents of female equality. Quakers are among the least “top down” of Christian sects, and as far back as the early 1800s, Quaker women who were recognized as being “called” were allowed to travel to share their gifts of ministry, usually with a chaperone. The most famous was probably Lucretia Mott (1793-1880). The Quaker acceptance of women’s education and ministry set Quakers apart from the rest of organized Christianity, and may explain the disproportionate presence of Quaker women in the abolition movement. That activity led to gatherings of women who were also concerned about the need for greater rights for women. Of the four women who led the planning for the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848, three were Quakers.
Like Quakerism, Judaism has no single authority able to prescribe what is “kosher” in Jewish law and observance. Throughout the ages, Rabbis have argued about the proper meaning of biblical and Talmudic passages, and individual Jews have followed those that they found persuasive. Women’s status has varied, but the prevailing attitudes have usually been more progressive than those of surrounding cultures. In Judaism, descent is matrilinear—a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother. Jewish law requires women to obey the same negative commandments that men must follow (the “thou shalt nots”), but excuses females from ritual duties that are time-bound, presumably in recognition of women’s maternal obligations. As far back as Talmudic times, evidence suggests that at least some women were educated in the Bible and Jewish law. During and after the Middle Ages, because many Jewish women were the family breadwinners in order to allow the man of the house to study, the culture has been very accepting of women entering the workforce and later, the professions. With respect to worship, progress has been more recent: Reform Judaism ordained its first female rabbi in 1972, and Reconstructionist Judaism followed suit 1974. Today, there are more than a thousand women in the rabbinate, as well as a growing number of LGBTQ Rabbis, and congregants are accustomed to seeing women as Rabbis and Cantors within Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues.
The Orthodox movement within Judaism has been considerably slower to accept women’s full participation; in Orthodox synagogues, men and women still sit apart, and until very recently there have been no female Rabbis. Feminists within Orthodoxy have been actively advocating for reforms, and in 2013, a first group of female rabbinical students graduated from a New York seminary, but there is still considerable resistance within Orthodoxy to giving them pulpits, and similar resistance to many of the changes that Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements have made.
With respect to abortion, Jewish law affirms that protecting existing life is
paramount at all stages of pregnancy; however, Judaism does not consider a fetus a person until the head emerges from the womb. In Jewish law, the interests of the pregnant individual always come before that of the fetus. Jewish sources explicitly state that abortion is not onl permitted but is required should the pregnancy endanger the life or health of the pregnant individual, and “health” includes psychological as well as physical health.
American Muslims have only recently been numerous enough to affect social attitudes about women. Worldwide, Islamic practices vary widely. The Koran does require the education of women, and gives women certain rights if divorced by their husbands. According to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, in the United States, Muslims are more likely than white Evangelicals and Protestants to have favorable views of feminists. The Institute has found that “American Muslim women denounce gender discrimination inside and outside of their community.”
Evangelicals and the Status of Women
Evangelicals, like the rest of America’s religious landscape, are diverse; however, the more fundamentalist White Evangelical Christian denominations are currently united in their opposition to women’s reproductive autonomy. That contemporary reality has tended to obscure the history of American Evangelicalism, which was far from monolithic in its approach to gender, and considerably less political than today. In some Evangelical denominations, women were allowed to be ordained and otherwise vested with spiritual authority; in many others, women were—and still are—forbidden from holding leadership roles.
A major tenet of Evangelical Christianity is the doctrine of complementarianism—the belief that while men and women are equal in creation, they are distinct in function. “Biblical womanhood” reflects this belief in “separate spheres.” Men are to be the leaders of the church and the home, and women are meant to support and submit to them. This doctrine has a long history in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), one of the largest and most influential of the Evangelical churches. As one religious historian wrote,
Southern Baptist leader John Broadus answered the question “should women speak in mixed public assemblies?” with a definitive “no” in 1889. The year before, when Southern Baptist women formed the Woman’s Missionary Union, they assured male leaders that they only desired to be supportive, not independent as women in some other denominations were.
As the writer noted, that thinking—advanced by the world’s largest organization for Protestant women– “shaped the views of generations of Southern Baptist women and in turn, those of their Evangelical neighbors and friends.” This approach to the roles of men and women persisted; in 1974, the wife of one influential Southern Baptist pastor wrote to a widely-approving audience that the man should lead and the woman should be submissive.
As the broader American culture changed, some Southern Baptist women pushed the denomination to rethink that submission. The SBC held a consultation on women’s roles in 1978, and a later organization, Baptist Women in Ministry, argued for an expanded role for women within the denomination. Within the broader Evangelical movement, there were also challenges to complementarianism and the traditional understanding of women’s roles. In 1988, Christians for Biblical Equality sought to empower women in Evangelical churches. About the same time, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was formed to revisit the accepted definition of biblically-appropriate gender roles.
These efforts largely failed. In 2000, despite the emergence of Evangelical women arguing for more equal status within the faith, the SBC reaffirmed its adherence to complementarianism, publishing a proclamation that wives should submit to their husbands and pastors should be male.
Evangelical theology doesn’t simply elevate men over women; it considers homosexuality and gender-fluid identities to be sinful and unnatural, and rejects efforts to secure equal legal rights for LGBTQ Americans. As Evangelicals have become more and more political, and as the Republican Party has become more and more dependent upon the Evangelical vote, those beliefs have powered what has come to be called the Culture War, and the transformation of Evangelical theology into a political movement. As a result, any effort to examine Evangelical theology today must contend with the fact that, in today’s America, Evangelical is no longer a religious descriptor. It has become a political label.
Numerous studies have confirmed that a significant percentage of contemporary Americans who claim an Evangelical identity rarely attend religious services. In 2008, 16% of all self-identified Evangelicals reported “never or seldom’ when asked about their church attendance. By 2020, that number was 27%. In 2008, a third of self-identified Evangelicals who never attended church claimed to be politically conservative. By 2019, that number approached 50 percent. In addition, growing numbers of Catholics and Muslims now call themselves Evangelical. Apparently, many Americans think that being very religiously engaged and very politically conservative makes one an Evangelical.
Even more troubling, a growing body of research confirms that American Evangelicalism hasn’t simply become a political rather than religious identity; to a very significant extent, the American Evangelicals who dominate today’s Republican Party are more properly identified as White Christian Nationalists, and they are focused not upon faith but upon the defense of White male Christian privilege.
When it comes to women’s rights and the current effort to ban abortions, it is manifestly dishonest to argue that opposition to reproductive choice is grounded in Christian theology. Pastors to whom we have spoken—both those who describe themselves as “pro-life” and those who are “pro-choice”—agree that the bible is silent on the issue. Religious historians have documented that the roots of the anti-abortion movement lie elsewhere. It wasn’t until 1979—a full six years after the Court decided Roe v, Wade—that Evangelical leaders, goaded by Paul Weyrich, seized on abortion as “a rallying-cry to deny President Jimmy Carter a second term.” As noted religion scholar Randall Balmer has written, these political figures felt that objecting to abortion would be seen as “more palatable” than what was actually motivating them, which was protection of the segregated schools they had established following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
According to Balmer,
Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.
It was rightwing anger about civil rights laws that originally motivated the “Right to life” movement. Political actors were savvy enough to recognize that organizing grassroots Evangelicals to defend racial discrimination wouldn’t cut it—that they would need a different issue if they wanted to mobilize Evangelical voters on a large scale. Distasteful as that reality is, evidence clearly shows that the Christian Right’s political activism, including but not limited to its opposition to abortion, was largely motivated by a defense of racial segregation, not by religious doctrine.
A lengthy 2022 article from the Guardian reported on the extensive relationships between White supremacist and anti-choice organizations.
Explicit white nationalism, and an emphasis on conscripting white women into reproduction, is not a fringe element of the anti-choice movement. Associations between white supremacist groups and anti-abortion forces are robust and longstanding. In addition to Patriot Front, groups like the white nationalist Aryan Nations and the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker party have also lent support to the anti-abortion movement. These groups see stopping abortion as part of a broader project to ensure white hegemony in addition to women’s subordination. Tim Bishop, of the Aryan Nations, noted that “Lots of our people join [anti-choice organizations] … It’s part of our Holy War for the pure Aryan race.” That the growing white nationalist movement would be focused on attacking women’s rights is maybe to be expected: research has long established that recruitment to the alt-right happens largely among men with grievances against feminism, and that misogyny is usually the first form of rightwing radicalization.
In his decision in Boggs v. Jackson, Justice Alito claimed that reversal of Roe “restores the US to an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment [that] persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.” This assertion is deeply dishonest and easily disproven. As historians have exhaustively documented, early American common law (as in Britain) generally permitted abortions until “quickening”, or perceptible fetal movement, usually between 16 to 20 weeks into a pregnancy. Connecticut was the first state to ban abortion after quickening, in 1821, which is roughly two centuries after the earliest days of American common law. It wasn’t until the 1880s that every US state had some laws restricting abortion, and not until the 1910s that it was criminalized in every state. In the wake of Dobbs, social media was awash with examples from 18th- and 19th-century newspapers that clearly refuted Alito’s false assertion, sharing examples of midwives and doctors legally advertising abortifacients, Benjamin Franklin’s at-home abortion remedies, and accounts of 19th-century doctors performing “therapeutic” (medically necessary) abortions.
As the Guardian reported, anti-abortion fervor has not been motivated by the moral or religious beliefs generally cited by anti-choice activists. In fact, the first wave of anti-abortion laws was entangled in arguments about nativism, eugenics and white supremacism, as they dovetailed with a cultural panic that swept the US in the late 19th and early 20th century as a result of the vast changes in American society wrought by the conflict. This panic was referred to at the time in shorthand as “race suicide.”
The increasing traction today of the far-right “great replacement theory”, which contends that there is a global conspiracy to replace white people with people of color, and has explicitly motivated white supremacist massacres in the US, is often said to have originated with a French novel called The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail. Published in 1973, the same year that Roe v Wade enshrined American women’s rights to reproductive autonomy, it is a dystopian account of “swarthy hordes” of immigrants sweeping in and destroying western civilization. But there were many earlier panics over “white extinction”, and in the US, debates around abortion have been entangled with race panic from the start.
A post on the website of FiveThirtyEight.com put it succinctly,” the anti-abortion movement, at its core, has always been about upholding white supremacy.” Women’s rights were collateral damage.
Of course, religious beliefs– whether seen or unseen, “up front” or latent, rooted in religious belief or racism– are not the only powerful influences shaping American worldviews. American culture also reflects popular understandings of the country’s constituent documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—documents that are widely venerated (although apparently much less widely read and/or understood). Religion scholars credit the First Amendment’s religion clauses, which mandate the separation of church and state, for America’s religiosity—a religiosity that flourished here at the same time that Europe was becoming far more secular. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from privileging the beliefs and practices of certain religions, while the Free Exercise Clause protects individual beliefs. As a result of the operation of those two clauses (for which the phrase “separation of church and state” is shorthand) the United States has nurtured a wide diversity of religions, including numerous denominations within the country’s dominant Christianity. As the foregoing description illustrates, there is no uniformity among them on the status of women, or the extent of female agency, or on the permissibility of birth control or abortion. What we do know about religion’s influence on the status of women (globally as well as within the United States) is simple: the lower the level of religious affiliation and fervor, the higher the level of gender equality.
Tomorrow: The Legal Context