In Roe v. Wade (1973) the U. S. Supreme Court, by a vote of seven to two, affirmed a constitutional right to an abortion under certain circumstances. What I don’t get is why conservative evangelical Christians gave Donald Trump a pass on all his other affronts to their faith in exchange for his promise to appoint judges to the Court who’d vote to overturn Roe.
I’m not interested in relitigating the case. Rather, even supposing that Roe is overturned, which isn’t guaranteed should Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee be confirmed, I’m puzzled about what evangelicals think would happen if it were. Why do they think that the result would be so favorable to their position that it would vindicate their electoral support of a man who, in virtually every other respect, is their polar opposite?
What we have now is what you could call “local option” at the individual level. If Roe were overturned, that wouldn’t usher in the long-held social conservative dream of a nation in which abortion is illegal. It would just mean that the “local option” could be moved up several rungs from the personal to the state level.
Some states are poised to restrict abortion more than Roe permits now. But other states, freed from the limits imposed by Roe, are primed to do the very thing that horrifies evangelicals: leave the whole matter up to women and their doctors.
If evangelicals’ goal is to substantially reduce the number of abortions nationwide, then it looks like the strongest headwind they face is the loss of urgency surrounding this issue. That’s evident on several fronts.
First, in 2014, the last year for which I could find data, the number of abortions per thousand women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four was at a record low, 14.6 compared to its peak in 1981 of 29.3. It’s a reasonable guess that some of this decline is due to state restrictions on the procedure enacted within the Roe framework.
Second, public opinion isn’t on the evangelicals’ side. According to a poll last year by the highly regarded Pew Research Center, 69% favored Roe while only 28% were opposed. Even among white evangelicals, slightly more of those polled, 49%, wanted to see Roe upheld, while 47% wanted to see it overturned. And a very recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed support for Roe at an all-time high, with 71% endorsing it and 23% opposing it.
It can’t help to move those numbers in the evangelicals’ direction when Ireland, which they might have held up as a model among developed countries, recently voted overwhelmingly against the Irish constitution’s almost total abortion ban.
Third, evangelicals’ influence seems to be waning. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination, has lost a million members in the last decade, according to in-house outlets such as Baptist News and The Wartburg Watch, the latter noting with particular alarm that the Southern Baptist Convention is shrinking faster than the Methodists.
Complicating things is the fact that overturning Roe doesn’t guarantee that a constitutional right to abortion couldn’t resurface in the future. Without getting into the weeds here, many of Roe’s critics think it rests on flimsy constitutional arguments. Even if a majority of the current court comes to agree, that doesn’t rule out a successful case in the future that reinstates a right to abortion on other grounds.
We’ve already seen that kind of shift in certain religious freedom cases. Petitioners in the wedding services industry asserting a religious freedom right to decline service to same-sex couples have been having a rough go of it. But there are lawyers out there who specialize in framing cases in such a way that they’ll percolate up through the federal courts onto the U. S. Supreme Court’s docket. And they’re figuring out that their wedding services clients may have a better shot at avoiding liability under state anti-discrimination laws if they claim invasion of their free speech rights as well as their religious free exercise rights. We don’t know yet how effective that tactic is going to be. But we can be sure that the lawyers aren’t just going to lapse into a coma if Roe is overturned.
And then there’s Karen Tumulty’s observation in the Washington Post that Roe being overturned could be just as mobilizing for pro-choice voters in state elections as Roe has been all these years for pro-life voters. So they may actually face more political pushback from abortion rights forces than they did while the latter were able to rely on Roe’s protections.
All this takes me back to my original question. Why were evangelicals so eager to take a flyer on a sketchy character like Trump in exchange for a merely speculative outcome?
I don’t mean any disrespect in saying this but I think it’s because they’re heirs to a religious tradition that makes a virtue of credulity. This is a gross simplification of a centuries old story to which countless volumes have been devoted, but the epochal rupture between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation was over the path to salvation. The Catholic Church taught that how you behaved was critical and the Protestants taught that what you believed was. Pointing to perhaps the most familiar utterance in the entire New Testament—“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”—the Protestant Reformers, following Martin Luther, taught that we’re “justified by faith,” not works.
But the saving truths, Luther said,“which God has revealed to us in His Word, are in presence of reason…impossible, absurd, and false.” And further, “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has.”
There’s an unbroken line from Martin Luther’s assertion of faith’s saving supremacy over reason to the observation by the pastor of the Luverne, Alabama, First Baptist Church deep in Trump country. In a Washington Post profile of the congregation, Pastor Clay Crumb, puzzled that God would have chosen profane, adulterous Trump as his instrument, confesses, “It’s a hard thing to reconcile. I think ultimately God allowed him to become president for reasons we don’t fully know yet.”
So where reason has no authority, evangelicals’ posture in all this isn’t the outcome of sifting evidence, calculating odds or striving for moral consistency. It’s ultimately an expression of faith that they, like Trump, are instruments in God’s hands, faith that at the bar of reason can only appear “impossible, absurd, and false.”
Whether that’s a sound basis for crafting public policy in a pluralistic society like ours I leave as an exercise for the reader.