A provocative new book argues that the Christian Right has turned to “rights” arguments to advance their political agenda — and that the strategy started with abortion.
In The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars (Cambridge University Press), political scientist Andrew Lewis explores the highly successful tactics of conservative Christians as they have moved from “moral majority” to “shrinking minority” but have managed to hold on to a game-changing amount of political clout. — JKR
RNS: You argue that in recent years, the Religious Right has moved away from discussing morality to “rights,” especially the “rights of the unborn.” Talking in terms of individual rights used to be primarily the purview of liberals. How did we get there?
Lewis: It happens over time, but essentially the big picture is that as the cultural status of conservative Christianity declines, they no longer have the cultural power that they once had. They move from taking cultural majority positions to thinking about rights and minority positions.
So it’s a pluralism position, more about finding a place within the culture than dominating the culture. Religious conservatives have in some sense taken up this rhetorical and political strategy of the left, and adopted the playbook of groups like the ACLU as they have targeted the Supreme Court.
RNS: So in part this is occurring because evangelicals now feel like an embattled minority rather than the “moral majority” of a bygone era?
Lewis: I think the question is how will they react to becoming a minority. The 2016 election exposed a handful of reactions to that. One option is that you seek to reclaim the past, and we saw on the one hand some conservative Christians seeking to go backward to some sort of “Christian America.” On the other hand you had some trying to plot a new path forward, seeking greater religious freedoms and protections for their way of life within this pluralistic culture. So the debate goes on about the best way to do that.
At the same time, the answers to both of those debates are all wrapped up in one party. Evangelicals may have voted overwhelmingly for one political party, but these factions have very different visions of the future, which you could see in the primary season. They have very different ideas about the way forward, even if the end result in the general election was the same. I think evangelicals are at a crossroads of where they’re going to go. Part of this is generational, and part of it is their commitment to the rights of others. There’s a fear of losing their cultural position, and this idea that they’re being threatened.
Lewis: This is the most provocative theme in the book. A lot of people have understood that conservative Christianity is moving toward rights and minority politics, even though no one has documented it yet in the way of this elite politics and mass opinion the way that I have done. Abortion is central for two reasons:
1) It taught conservative Christians the language of rights, and about minority politics.
Once Roe v Wade happened, and the decade after, people in the pro-life movement became the minority, and had to learn what it was like to be in that. They began countering the left’s “right to choose” language with their own potent language. It’s been very effective, as borne out in survey data.
2) Abortion is the issue to which all other issues get connected.
As conservative Christians start engaging on a wider array of things, particularly issues that might be controversial and the base might not be sure what to do with, the leadership always ties it to abortion. “We need to argue for more free speech, because this will help us when we protest about abortion.” Or, “we can’t have national health care coverage, because what are we going to do if the government wants to provide abortion or contraceptive care?” So it becomes the single most important issue to allow the expansion of the sphere of conservative rights advocacy that legitimizes this enterprise to the base.
RNS: So abortion is a wedge issue?
Lewis: Not a wedge issue in the eyes of these leaders, but an easy issue to link to. Rather than driving people away, it’s easy to bring their base in. Abortion is the center of the bicycle spoke. In the death penalty chapter, there’s an entire argument of a pro-life ethic for capital punishment: if life is so valuable, then if someone takes a life, then they deserve the ultimate punishment.
I end it on a positive note, that in some ways, conservative Christians have become more tolerant in the last 40 years, and more respectful of other people’s rights. When we have evangelicals pick a group that they like the least and say whether those groups should be protected in public, they are now more likely to extend those rights to other people as well, even the groups they dislike. So there is some sort of grand movement toward valuing the rights of others. That might be a salve for the wounds of the culture wars for some on the left.
We often get so consumed with the idea that evangelicals support Donald Trump, or the Muslim ban, that we haven’t seen that in the last 40 years, evangelicals’ support of gays or for other religions have outstripped the general population in becoming more tolerant. These kind of things are episodic and not necessarily linear, but it is important to step back to see what it looks like over decades.
RNS: How did the phrase “religious freedom” become coded language for people who oppose gay marriage? Or is that question loaded in itself?
Lewis: Maybe a little loaded, but culturally it’s fair to describe how many people see it. You don’t see the real rise of many of these things until 2013, 2014. Federal religious freedom laws gained some steam in the mid-1990s, and a decent number of conservatives were involved in them, but there was very little public awareness that they were going on.
It’s not until you see the legalization of same-sex marriage that you see this real drive to protect religious freedom. The day that the Obergefell case was decided, you got these conservative religious legal organizations standing on the Supreme Court steps making their claim to protect the rights of religious individuals to practice their beliefs. Immediately, there was a shift to define these protections. They knew that they were losing this cultural battle and this was a way to preserve what they thought was their orthodox faith in action.
The trouble is that it pits two really important rights against each other, the right of people not to be discriminated against, and the right to practice your religion—not just in a house of worship but wherever you are. That’s what makes it particularly volatile.
RNS: What are you hoping the book accomplishes?
Lewis: I hope that it shows the significant change in our cultural politics of late, where rights on the left and right now compete with each other. In doing so, I want the book to engage where we’ve been and where we’re going culturally. The biggest takeaway, however, may be that as evangelicals have come to protect their own rights there have been positive secondary effects. Evangelicals have become more favorable to extending these rights protections to others than they were generations ago. While there’s certainly nuance, I think this is a valuable lesson.
And what might I do next? Religious freedom and racial politics are the issues culturally right now, and I’d like to handle religious freedom, particularly how as it becomes more politicized, what are the effects on how we think about the right to religious liberty. I hope to write a book about that.