How the 'religious left' can save abortion rights from Republican hypocrisy

How the 'religious left' can save abortion rights from Republican hypocrisy
President Donald J. Trump walks from the White House Monday evening, June 1, 2020, to St. John’s Episcopal Church, known as the church of Presidents’s, that was damaged by fire during demonstrations in nearby LaFayette Square Sunday evening. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Donald Trump's upside-down Bible photo-op at St. John's Church has led to unprecedented blowback from retired military generals, culminating in a mea culpa from Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But the religious pushback was similarly sharp, starting with the Rev. Gini Gerbasi, an Episcopal priest who was among those "literally DRIVEN OFF of the St. John's, Lafayette Square patio with tear gas and concussion grenades," as she described on Facebook — an extraordinary use of state power to crush religious liberty. A bevy of leaders from the Episcopal Church spoke out forcefully, soon joined by CatholicsLutherans and others, including some evangelicals.


But as McKay Coppins writes at The Atlantic, "most white conservative Christians don't want piety from this president; they want power." In particular, they want the power of his judicial appointments, with the goal of overturning Roe v. Wade, writing their minority views into law for generations to come, even as their share of the population (though not the electorate) plummets. As noted in a forthcoming report from Political Research Associates, support for legal abortion is at a 25-year high:

At the same time, the main voting bloc opposed to legal abortion — white evangelical Protestants — is shrinking as a share of the population, even as it holds steady as a share of the electorate:There could not be a more clear-cut example of anti-democratic minority rule than the multi-decade process of eroding abortion access, with ultimate goal of overturning Roe v. Wade.

But it's not just a majority of Americans whose views are being overridden. It's a majority of America's religious believers, too. Hence the title of the report: "The Prochoice Religious Community May Be the Future of Reproductive Rights, Access, and Justice," by PRA senior research analyst Frederick Clarkson, who wrote an essay and led a online colloquium based on his findings in mid-May. As the title of one section argues, "The Power is Not in the Polls; It's in the Organizing."

In the essay, Clarkson writes, "There is a vast prochoice religious community in the United States that could provide the moral, cultural, and political clout to reverse current antiabortion policy trends in the United States…. Taken together, they have vast resources, institutional capacity, historic and central roles in many towns and cities, and cadres of well-educated leaders at every level."

This is not brand new, in historical terms. In his report, Clarkson cites the story of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, the largest abortion referral service in pre-Roe America, with nearly 2,000 religious leaders involved.

His findings were not what he had initially expected, Clarkson told Salon.

"For many years, my colleagues and I have argued that there is much to be learned from the successes of the Christian Right (and much that we shouldn't emulate)," Clarkson said via email. "But when I was tasked with a project to look over the horizon to a time when Roe v. Wade will have been overturned, I didn't expect I find myself trying to live up to my own advice."

He discovered that "part of the secret of the success of the Christian Right was what are called 'parachurch' organizations, and that the time had also come for the pro-choice religious community to have some of their own, if there was going to be any hope of turning things around someday."

The power of "parachurch" organizations

Parachurches are nonprofit organizations outside denominational control, and Clarkson describes three different sorts of roles they could play. The first is issue-oriented groups, rooted in basic shared values. "A menu of possibilities would include the creation of state, local or regional groups — at least as pilot projects — to figure out what works and what doesn't," he said.  They could also vary in focus from within a single denomination, such as Catholicism, to being ecumenical or multi-faith. "They might also be multi-issue in the manner of what Religious Left organizations might be like if reproductive choice, access and justice were part of the agenda."

The second sort of organization is electorally-oriented: both creating a voter base and building a cadre of political workers — up to and including candidates and office-holders. But they would not go away after Election Day. Their whole purpose is to be ongoing, to build capacity over time and not to require reinvention every two or four years.

The third kind of organization is needed to support the first two: clearinghouses, or strategy and training centers.

The overall result is more than the sum of the parts. "The genius of the Christian right was, first, to adjust theologies and connect specific religious values to the activities of politics and government and to the ongoing project of building for power via electoral politics," Clarkson said:

Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition was the first large-scale such organization, its leaders having moved past the apolitical theologies of evangelicalism to ones that not just accommodated, but required political action and governmental control. What historian Gary Wills recognized was, it was all about dominion. The coalition not only sought voters to expand its base, but turned voters into activists, activists into politicians and political professionals, and politicians into candidates and government officials.

All of that is what goes into keeping the Christian right's political power constant, even as its share of population continues to plummet.

"Groups on the liberal left of the religious community might say they already do some of this," Clarkson observed. "But exactly none, to my knowledge, do such things with the comprehensiveness and on the scale that the organizations of the Christian right have done — especially in organizing across the electoral cycle with a vision for the future."

There are lobbying groups connected with major religious institutions that "focus on regulations, legislation and making public statements," Clarkson said. "All good, but not the same thing as developing a broad and deep vision, and building capacity for electoral engagement."

Another way of understanding parachurch organizations came from researcher Rachel Tabachnick in a response paper. She introduced a simplified organizational structure tree describing how they function: "First, the branches of the tree represent the deliverable products and services.... policy guidelines, education, media, get-out-the-vote efforts, etc." Second, "The trunk of the tree represents the tangible resources," which she describes in shorthand as "Fixers, Funders and Fellows." The fixers are the architects who create the organizations. Third are the roots, the intangible resources: "These are often the least visible assets, but they are the foundations on which the rest of the organization depends. These include knowledge, vision, values and ideas."

The religious right has had a relatively easy time building its infrastructure, in part because it was a social minority with relatively homogeneous views and strong deference to authority. In his essay, Clarkson writes:

The Christian Right has had the benefit of being more religiously and racially homogeneous while the prochoice religious community will necessarily be religiously and racially more diverse. Navigating our differences while building greater unity may be challenging, but the call to do so is at the core of the values of most religious communities — and this usually includes the commitment to the values of religious freedom, religious equality, and separation of church and state.

These core values alone could form the foundation for a broadly shared framework for advancing a pro-choice religious agenda. Separation of church and state is historically important for many people of faith — particularly Roman Catholics, as John F. Kennedy made clear in a famous speech to Protestant ministers two months before the 1960 election. A long line of Catholic politicians, in the spirit of Kennedy's speech, drawn a sharp line between their own personal following of Catholic dogma (which is contested) and their actions as public officials.

The reproductive justice framework

But Clarkson also discussed another framework: that of reproductive justice, defined by the group SisterSong as "the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities."

This definition resonates with the comments of a CCS client who had chosen to have an abortion, interviewed by Gillian Frank and quoted in Frederickson's report:

Later I had two healthy beautiful children and a marriage that's been excellent, and I always felt that this fetus was a potential life, but I had, every month, the potential for life. And if I had gone forward with that pregnancy, the children I have now would not have come to be. And so this was a choice that I needed and deserved.

One of the colloquium respondents, Presbyterian theologian Rebecca Todd Peters, author of "Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice," elaborated on the reproductive justice perspective in comments she provided to Salon:

I would propose that the primary goal of this organizing should be to change the national conversation about abortion from a conversation focused on justification to a conversation focused on justice. Everything about how we think and talk about the issue of abortion is shaped by the justification framework and the belief that women need to justify their abortion decisions.

That framework needs to be rejected, she said:

The idea of focusing on reproductive justice [RJ] began with a group of 12 black women in 1994 and the RJ movement has been developed and led by women of color from the beginning. I have learned an enormous amount from the leaders and activists in the reproductive justice movement and I believe that RJ offers a clear and focused agenda for movement building that also has a solid prophetic connection to the social justice traditions of Christianity and Judaism that will make RJ organizing both challenging and meaningful in religious spaces and with religious communities.

Progressive religious traditions have repeatedly drawn on a justice perspective. Today, Clarkson noted, "a variety of issue coalitions that arguably fall under the definition of parachurch exist on the social justice spectrum, but they avoid any focus on reproductive health, rights and justice." The reasons for this are varied. "Most originated in another time, when such matters were treated as marginal, if they were considered at all. Or they have no position and do not discuss such things because of the role of Catholics in the group. No such group has evolved in this regard, to my knowledge."

Which is why the need should be obvious right now, as Peters, the Presbyterian theologian, notes:

Organizing outside of traditional church spaces is not the natural orientation of the progressive Christian community. There is a certain irony that the people who hold the most narrow and rigid dogmatic religious beliefs are also those who are simultaneously most interested, involved with and influenced by parachurch organizations like Focus on the Family and the Moral Majority. On the Christian right there is a unity of thought and dogma that is possible that I do not think is possible on the left.

At times, that unity can verge on sheer fantasy. As can be seen in one example that Tabachnick cited, the product of a 40-year relationship "between the 'free market' think tanks and the Family Policy Councils in many states" that "merges laissez-faire capitalism with social conservative policy":

Evangelical activist David Barton, a Christian nationalist who has been described as one of the most influential leaders in the Christian Right today, exemplifies this blending of far-right social values and economic policy. He says he uses abortion as a litmus test to determine if a politician will "protect your money." Barton says, "If you don't respect the right to life, you won't respect property, you won't respect protecting income, you'll think you ought to tax people more rather than protect their income, you'll take it from them, you won't protect their property, you won't protect their religious liberties, you won't protect their right of self-defense, you'll try to take their self-defense away from them."

Barton's fantastical blending of right-wing grievances and bogeyman-paranoia is obviously not something progressives should seek to emulate. But if the content is inherently odious, the idea of developing new practices to build political power surely shouldn't be.

Along these lines, Peters notes, "There are some very obvious spaces and places where the religious pro-choice community has ceded ground to the anti-choice folk. These are places where we can start our organizing," based on a reproductive justice orientation.

First, she says, is "ministering to and with women who have had abortions," explaining that "in refusing to recognize that abortion can be a reproductive loss (even if wanted and chosen), we have lost the opportunity to think about what women, particularly religious women, need and want in terms of spiritual and material resources as they navigate abortion care — including the weeks and months after their abortions."

Second is working with local churches on reproductive justice, following the model of LGBTQ-welcoming churches that were critical to changing attitudes and understanding around LGBTQIA issues. "In my work across the country," Peters said, "I continue to meet amazing and inspiring lay people and religious leaders who are eager for new and different language and ideas about how to think, talk and act differently on this issue in their congregations and in their communities."

Third is "public religious voices in communities," a ground-level approach to the misconceptions cited above. "The vast majority of the American public believes that the Christian position on abortion is anti-choice," Peters observed. "While there are many of us who are speaking out with progressive Christian pro-choice arguments and perspectives, these voices are not being heard. A widespread public pro-choice campaign is needed and necessary in changing the public conversation about abortion in this country."

In fact, parachurch groups could potentially develop programs that can synergize all three of the above.

In his conclusion, Clarkson writes: "This enormous sector of American society — the prochoice religious community — is currently under-recognized, under-reported on, under-resourced, and under-organized. But because this is so, it is also a virtually untapped source of hope for the future of reproductive freedom, access and justice — and that a better future is possible."

When he wrote those words in mid-May, they might have sounded pollyanna-ish, even with all the evidence he had found. But consider how all our assumptions around police reform have been turned upside down in the last few weeks. Why can't the same thing happen with reproductive rights?

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