(RNS) — Tuesday’s votes in Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia provide more evidence (if more was needed) that the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade has been a lifeline for the Democratic Party. You might go so far as to say the evidence is conclusive.
As Arizona Republican strategist Barrett Marson told CNN after the state elections, “Abortion initiatives are both driving turnout among Democrats and forcing Republicans to talk about an issue of which they are on the wrong side of the electorate.”
And yet, Republican politicians have given precious little indication that they are prepared to dial back their anti-abortion enthusiasm.
“As a 100% pro-life conservative, I remain steadfastly committed to protecting life, and that commitment is unwavering,” ran a statement from Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens after his state’s landslide vote in favor of abortion rights. “The Legislature has multiple paths that we will explore to continue to protect innocent life.”
I’d say it’s not simply that abortion remains a core issue for the white evangelical Christian base of the GOP. It’s that in the MAGA vanguard of white evangelicalism, the abortion issue has been ratcheted up from a call to protect unborn human life to a summons to spiritual warfare.
That vanguard is the New Apostolic Reformation, the burgeoning charismatic movement that latched on to Donald Trump when he first ran for president, and which ended up playing a significant religious role in the Jan. 6 insurrection. (For a fine overview of the NAR, check out religion scholar Matthew D. Taylor’s nine-part podcast, “Charismatic Revival Fury.”)
Here, for example, is NAR “apostle” Robert Henderson, a pastor in Waco, Texas, taking spiritual credit for the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “If we don’t shut down this abortion issue, that blood altar will invite demonic powers into the nation. It will continue to do it. As bad as killing the babies is, it’s not just about the babies. It’s about a blood altar that is inviting demonic powers. We have to shut it down.”
It is not a mere figure of speech to say that evangelical pro-lifers are demonizing the other side. They are literally doing so — in an apocalyptic culmination of the evolution of Christian anti-abortion views.
To be sure, Christianity has stood against abortion since the early days of the church. But for most of Christian history — from the fifth through the 19th centuries — the prevailing authoritative view was that a person’s life did not begin at conception. Rather, the thinking was that the developing fetus received its soul from God at some point well after conception.
It was not until 1869 that Pope Pius IX declared abortion to be punishable by excommunication from the beginning of fetal existence, and not until 1918 that this position was formally incorporated into Catholic canon law.
Catholicism’s hard line on abortion can be seen as of a piece with the biblical literalism (inerrancy) position adopted by conservative Protestantism in America in the 1910s. Both aimed to defend religious belief against the acids of modernity.
Whatever its theological merits, however, the traditional Christian position on abortion was more in tune with ordinary people’s sense that, at least in its early stages, the fetus is not a real person, and that the pregnant woman’s life and health are more valuable than her unborn child’s. Most other religious traditions continue to hold to that view.
And so, the GOP, having wedded itself to life-at-conception, finds itself out of tune with American public opinion and condemned to lose election after election where abortion is the dominant issue. The pro-life movement may think it can change public opinion. I’d say it’s whistling past the graveyard.