Is Abortion No Longer Significant for Evangelicals — or Has it Just Become Like Water?

Fish swim in what we recognize as water at the Bangsaen Aquarium in Thailand. Image: Jakaphan Suwannakrua/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In 2018, I published an article here on Religion Dispatches about how abortion is a decisive issue for white evangelical voters. As a young evangelical, it became the single issue that determined my vote:  

The few times I garnered the courage to admit my uncertainty to other ministers they looked at me in disbelief. Despite my reasoning that the war in Afghanistan was leading to the deaths of innocent people and that more support for the poor, for single parents, and for education all seemed to align with Jesus’ message, my spiritual elders always repeated the refrain back to me: abortion is murder.

However, some are now doubting whether or not abortion still drives white evangelical politics. Last week the sociologist of religion Ryan Burge published a piece in which he argues that abortion no longer holds a privileged place on the white evangelical political agenda. 

Given my experiences as a former single-issue voter, it seemed worthwhile to analyze Burge’s claims to see if they hold water. Has there been a sea change in how white evangelicals prioritize abortion? 

Burge bases his argument on a series of polls from 2018. First, there is data from PRRI that shows how white evangelicals rank certain political issues: 

From this graph we can see that white evangelicals mention reducing healthcare costs, the budget deficit, immigration, and addressing the opioid epidemic as the highest priority in higher percentages than enacting anti-abortion laws. However, two-thirds of white evangelicals still rank abortion as “high” or “highest” on their political agenda. 

Burge points to additional data from 2018 that reveals that over half of white evangelicals see abortion as one issue among several that are important to them when choosing a political candidate. Additionally, he charts data that reveals how white evangelicals view the ability of a woman to receive an abortion: 

These numbers lead Burge to conclude that there’s ample reason to believe large numbers of white evangelicals don’t place a great deal of importance on abortion and don’t think it’s likely it will ever be outlawed in the United States.”

Burge makes a good argument for a shift in evangelical priorities. The numbers suggest that single-issue voters on reproductive rights are less abundant than one might assume. However, it’s an overstatement to say that white evangelicals no longer place a “great deal of importance on abortion.”

First, Burge admits that the data he uses is from 2018, and thus before the nominations and nominations of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. In 2016, Trump claimed “I am putting pro-life justices on the court.” He fulfilled that promise with both these appointments. Both Kavanaugh and Coney Barrett were nominated to uphold the white evangelical bloc Trump wooed in 2016 and needed to retain in 2020. Part of Kavanaugh’s appeal, as Daniel Bennett notes at Religion & Politics, is his nuanced approach to Roe v. Wade and the possiblities of handing states the right to determine the legality of abortion within their borders. By 2019, data from Pew showed that white evangelicals remained an outlier in their strong opposition to Roe v. Wade

white evangelical Protestants (61%) are much more likely to say they want the high court to completely overturn Roe v. Wade than are Catholics (28%), white Protestants who are not evangelical (26%) and religious “nones” (10%).

When Coney Barrett was nominated in September of 2020, Trump’s polling numbers among white evangelicals had dipped to a low of 55% in August 2020. However, once her nomination was made public that number rose to the normal average of 71%. Coney Barrett’s record on reproductive rights was a central issue in her confirmation hearings, as Anna North points out at Vox

Barrett, a Catholic and member of the religious group People of Praise, has also said that she personally believes life begins at conception, and that Roe “ignited a national controversy” by deciding the issue of abortion by court order rather than leaving it to the states.

Here’s how bioethicist and lawyer Katie Watson described the then-nominee to NPR

“I’d expect her to overrule Roe, and she appears to have four other sitting justices who are willing to join her.”

Again, Burge admits that his data is from before either of these justices were appointed. Yet, he assumes that “it doesn’t seem likely that opinion shifted rapidly on this question in the last few years.”

While it’s not clear that opinion shifted as dramatically as he proposes, it’s also true that in 2021 more anti-abortion laws than ever before have been put forth in state legislatures. According to the Guttmacher Institute

More abortion restrictions—90—have already been enacted in 2021 than in any year since the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973. Many of these actions took place in the beginning of the year, despite the need for state legislatures to address critical issues ranging from racial equity to the COVID-19 response and pandemic-related health care.

If we take the appointment of Coney Barrett and Kavanaugh together with the onslaught of anti-choice laws proposed since Trump left office, it’s reasonable to conclude that a sizable majority of white evangelicals still place significant importance on the issue of abortion. Both Kavanaugh and Coney Barrett were nominated to maintain the goodwill of white evangelicals in order to get Trump re-elected. It worked, kind of. Although he lost the election by seven million votes, 84% of white evangelicals voted for him—a 7% increase from 2016. 

Moreover, the rush of abortion laws in 2021 coincides with Joe Biden’s first term as president and the surprising Democratic majority in the Senate (not to mention their control of the House). Whereas in 2018, when Trump was in office and the GOP held majorities in both houses of congress, anti-abortion policies were a given, they’re now perceived to be under threat by the Biden administration and the Democrats’ control of congress. In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, one of the common misinformation campaigns waged against Joe Biden was the false claim that he supports the mythical thing conservatives call “late-term abortions.” 

In another example, when Raphael Warnock challenged Kelly Loeffler in 2020 for one of Georgia’s Senate seats, the incumbent held a rally where her political ally Doug Collins said, “There’s no such thing as a pro-choice pastor.”

White evangelicals make up one-third of the GOP. The GOP is notoriously probing when it comes to gauging their bases’ priorities and desires. If abortion isn’t much of a motivation anymore, why has this been a record-breaking year for anti-abortion legislation? Why the typical attack lines against the likes of Warnock and Biden on their pro-choice stances? One would have to believe that Republican research, communications, and outreach are all woefully off base concerning the party’s most cherished and loyal constituency.

Asking white evangelicals about abortion in 2018 may have been like asking vacationers how important it would be for a fancy resort to provide running water in all their rooms. Most would assume that such establishments would provide this amenity by default. Thus, when asked if it were a priority over, say, a private hot tub or an ocean view, the former may not show up at the top of the list for everyone surveyed. 

Or, to put it in political terms: Asking white evangelicals about abortion in 2018 might be akin to asking progressives in solidly blue districts about affirming LGBT rights in 2021. It’s hard to imagine any candidate gaining traction without baseline support for queer rights. It’s assumed, and therefore not something that might appear as a felt need on a ranked political survey or as the single issue that would determine support for a candidate. 

In a now infamous commencement speech titled “This is Water,” the late writer David Foster Wallace shared this anecdote: 

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

There’s a chance that in 2018 for many white evangelicals the abortion issue had become like water for fish. White evangelicals are concentrated in the South, where abortion laws tend to be strict and anti-abortion positions are a given among conservative candidates. 

When Trump was in office, he became the first president to address the “March for Life.” Mike Pence promised to one day send the Roe v. Wade decision to the “ash heap of history.” Now that a new administration and congress are in office, the rise in state laws trying to restrict abortion access seems to reflect fish flailing about in shallow tide pools all of a sudden cognizant of their situation—and fighting to re-enter the water they once took for granted. 

Burge concludes his article by observing that “The votes of white evangelicals do not turn solely on a woman’s right to choose, and other issues like immigration and issues of race may be even more effective at turning out the base in the future.”

I agree that the number of single-issue voters seems to have dissipated. It’s also true that over the last five years race and immigration have become expressed priorities for white evangelical voters. But, there’s more than one way to interpret the data. It doesn’t have to be either/or. It is not simply that abortion has been replaced. A more nuanced conclusion is that Trump’s presidency ushered in a new era where racial dog whistles and xenophobic statements have been re-normalized. 

This was one of my original points back in 2018 when I wrote about what motivates white evangelicals to focus so myopically on abortion: 

First, you get to deny the messy stakes of loving the born and bodied—those with melanin in their skin, different kinds of hair, genderqueer expressions, immigrant parents, and non-Christian faiths. Second, you get to deny the messiness of the social contract—of the political realm and all its irreducible details and multiple voices. You are absolved of responsibility for the brown skin of Dreamers, the unwashed hair of refugees, the cry of bullied trans teenagers, the mourning songs from families of black men and women killed by police. Myopic and unwavering focus on abortion is the way to avoid the carnality of living, breathing beings. The way to get away from bodies. Away from the bodies of murdered children. Away from the body politic. It’s a way to render love for angels, while pretending you are one.

In 2021 many white evangelicals (and others) no longer need to use abortion as the rhetorical middleman to justify their disdain for religious, racial, sexual, and gender minorities. One explanation for the apparent shift in priorities isn’t one replacing the other, but a new political climate in which the vitriol once funneled through reproductive rights discourse has burst the canals and is now running free on its own. 

Abortion, in conclusion, remains significant to white evangelicals, period. Since the late 1970s it has been an expedient way for them to gain the moral high ground. After all, what’s worse than someone who wants to hurt children? But racism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism are now re-mainstreamed in conservative politics in ways they haven’t been since the 1970s. Where reproductive rights discourse once functioned as the most effective pathway to smuggle disdain for “others,” it’s now just one avenue among several that white evangelicals take to advance their political agenda.