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Secularizing Religion in the Political Sphere

Like the women who shaped the feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s, the New Religious Right that arose in the aftermath of the sexual revolution made the personal political. “During the campaign, [presidential candidate Ronald] Reagan made a point of courting the evangelical and Catholic vote. He told a gathering of ministers in Dallas that he would base his presidency on traditional values”42. Reagan’s promise hearkens back to the United States’ long tradition of sexual conservatism, in which the government “dictated an appropriate socialization of children within the family, as well as appropriate roles and behaviors for heterosexual couples, strictly within the confines of marital relationships”. The United States’ sexual conservatism, however, is not constant or unwavering. Historical periods of liberalization have always been followed by periods of regressive social policy, particularly concerning women and sexuality43.

Matthew D. Lassiter argues that “the evolution of the Religious Right from a grassroots social movement to a powerful interest group […] has not succeeded in reversing the cultural trends of secularization targeted by evangelical activists,” but recent legislation, both at the federal and state levels, indicates otherwise44. Abortion is indeed still legal throughout the United States, but individual state governments are slowly chipping away at a woman’s right to choose. In early 2010, several states passed legislation limiting women’s access to abortions.

In Oklahoma, state legislators overrode the governor’s veto of a law that would force women seeking abortions to undergo an invasive ultrasound. After the ultrasound, women would be subjected to up to an hour-long lecture explaining the “findings” of the ultrasound45. A second law prevents women from suing doctors who knowingly withhold information concerning genetic or developmental abnormalities from a woman seeking abortion46. The Oklahoma attorney general temporarily blocked the laws at the request of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which has filed suit against the state on behalf of several Oklahoma abortion providers. The hypocrisy of these two laws, when looked at together, is clear. On the one hand, women are forced to spend up to an hour listening to a doctor, or even an ultrasound technician with limited medical knowledge, “explain” the findings of an ultrasound. The doctor, however, is allowed to lie by omission to the woman, by failing to disclose any evidence of abnormal development noted during the ultrasound. By condoning this behavior, the Oklahoma legislature makes clear their bias against abortion, and their belief that women are not intelligent or knowledgeable to make an independent decision about their own bodies.

In Kansas, the state legislature overturned the governor’s veto of a law that requires abortion providers to medically justify abortions performed past 22 weeks by proving that the woman’s physical health is directly threatened by continuing the pregnancy. The law also allows the partner of a woman who has undergone an abortion, or even the parents of a minor, to sue an abortion-provider suspected of violating these new terms47. Giving this type of power to husbands or parents, traditionally a woman’s protector, takes away the woman’s right to make independent decisions about her own body. Like those in Oklahoma, the Kansas laws treat women as though they are not capable of making informed, consensual decisions regarding their own bodies.

In order to avoid violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, authors of bills that seek to limit access to abortion must frame their arguments in non-religious terms. Referring to a fetus as an “unborn child” instead of discussing ensoulment, stating that medical abortion is unnatural, and calling the legalization of abortion a “holocaust” all recontextualize abortion as a non-religious debate. While legislators may use nonreligious rhetoric in their arguments against abortion, the vast majority of anti-abortion organizations are either affiliated with Christian ministries or use religious language to support their anti-abortion stance. Although individual conscience is integral to the freedoms guaranteed by the United States government, much of the apparently-secular anti-abortion movement has
religious roots.

It is difficult to imagine that any woman actually enjoys the thought of needing an abortion. Over half of women seeking abortion in the United States had been using some form of birth control when they became pregnant. Another third believed that they were not at high risk of becoming pregnant 48. Without comprehensive sexual education, which the Religious Right generally opposes, young men and women are left without the tools to properly prevent unwanted pregnancy or understand what behaviors put them at risk. Even when framed using secular language, conservative Christian rhetoric permeates American attitudes towards sex and sexuality. These attitudes, often invoked in order to maintain control over women’s bodies, deny women full status as American citizens and the ability to fulfill the promise guaranteed to all Americans in the Declaration of Independence: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Abortion may not have been the original issue that mobilized conservative Christians to become active in American politics, but over the past forty years it has become the issue with which they are most closely associated. The Religious Right astutely judged that few Americans would be energized by issues of non-profit status and tax exemptions; opposition to interracial dating is taboo to admit publicly for fear of accusations of racism. Abortion, however, is a political position that can easily be tailored to appeal to a wide variety of Americans, many of whom are not evangelical, or even Christian. By reframing their message as “pro-family” rather than “anti-abortion,” the Religious Right is able to appeal to Americans who fear that an increase in divorces, sexual freedoms, and out of wedlock pregnancies has led America toward moral decline. By capitalizing on the fears all parents have about their children’s health and well being, the Religious Right created a secularized version of their message that has become ingrained in the fabric of the American political rhetoric of sexuality and abortion.

40. Bruce p. 87
41. Bruce p. 90.
42. Sara Diamond, Not by Politics Alone: The Enduring Influence of the Christian Right, (New York: The Guilford Press 1988) p. 133.
43. Diane di Mauro and Carole Joffe, “The Religious Right and the Reshaping of Sexual Policy: Reproductive Rights and Sexuality Education During the Bush Years,” in Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight over Sexual Rights ed. Gilbert Hurdt (New York: New York University Press 2009) p. 47.
44. Lassiter p. 27.
45. “Kan. House Overrides Veto Of Antiabortion Bill; Okla. Law Temporarily Blocked,” Medical News Today, 5 May 2010. .
46. Kathy Lohr, “Strict Oklahoma Abortion Measures Become Law,” National Public Radio, 27 April 2010.
47. (ibid. footnote 45).
48. RK Jones, JE Darroch and SK Henshaw, “Contraceptive use among U.S. women having abortions in 2000–2001,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 2002, 34(6) p. 294–303.