You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Religion’ category.

The Sun, San Bernardino, Calif. * April 8, 2005 * by Sue Doyle

CLAREMONT – Considering a run for the presidency? Better pull out your thesaurus to plant religious buzz words in your speeches and policies that will resonate well with voters.

And after assuming office, it doesn’t hurt to be seen at church or to hold Bible study sessions in the White House.

That was the message delivered Thursday on the third and final day of a conference on “Religion and the American Presidency’ at Claremont McKenna College, where educators from throughout the nation discussed the role of Catholicism, evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Jews in politics.

‘Language is the most important tool a president has,’ said David Leege, author and professor emeritus from Notre Dame University. “If you try to attract a certain voting block, you will use a strident language to mobilize them.’

Leege said that Ronald Reagan and President Bush originally used the word “pro-choice’ on the campaign trail and in speeches. But when they realized that evangelical voters were restless about the issue, they tapped into it and changed the syntax to “right to life’ and “culture of life.’

The change in wording spoke directly to that block of voters, making the presidents more appealing.

At the same time, Democrats went in the other direction to appeal to women in the work force and used words such as a “woman’s right to choose.’ That may have worked with Democratic voters, but it polarizes swing voters who are crucial for a win.

Leege said that if the language is too strong, it scares away voters. When that happens, politicians turn to more moderate words.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., for example, is using softer language these days about the abortion issue that appeals to both sides. She still defends abortion but says people should do everything they can to reduce them. Clinton encourages others in the Democratic Party to accept this language.

“Politicians use speech for political purposes. There are speech writers who in part write speeches that connect with audiences. And you need to know your audience,’ said Corwin Smidt, political science teacher at Calvin College and director of the Paul Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics.

Reagan, who was known as the Great Communicator, connected well with people because he kept his language simple and optimistic. Known for saying things such as “it’s a new day,’ Reagan kept his messages easy and they worked with constituents.

“If you can find something that’s simple, most people will go for that politically,’ said Smidt.

Whether it was scenes shown on TV of Bill and Hillary Clinton leaving church on Sundays or words from religious hymns embedded into George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address, presidents use religion as a way to reach out to constituents, said Adam Warber, author and assistant professor of political science at Clemson University.

The Bush administration, for example, was the first to develop a unit within the White House devoted to religious issues with the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.

But Bush’s religious intentions were no match for Beltway politics. After he established the office, Bush didn’t have a clear direction in which to steer it. The White House focused on tax cuts and education instead, Warber said.

Still Bush refers to the office every once in awhile in speeches and on camera, although it hasn’t done much of anything. But its very existence represents a religious position that resonates well with some voters.

“It has become a political tool,’ said Warber. “He has a rhetorical strategy that he knows won’t work in the end.’

Zahid Bukhari, director of the American Muslim studies program at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, was scheduled to speak on Muslims and the presidency, but an illness kept him from attending.

Also scheduled to speak about Jews and the presidency was Rabbi David Dalin, an author and a history and political-science teacher at Florida’s Ave Maria University. Dalin was too ill to travel.

Scripps College student Miriam Lazewatsky, 20, read Dalin’s paper to the audience.

(original article)


This paper was written for David N. Hempton’s course, Secularization in Europe and the United States, c. 1780-2000, which was offered in the spring semester 2010.

Contemporary Spain is an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Although the 1978 Constitution transitioned the country from a dictatorship to a democracy and abolished an official state religion, 75% of Spaniards still self-identify as Catholic.1 In recent years, however, the number of people who ascribe to no religion has increased, while regular church attendance has decreased. According to a 2009 study, just over 20% of Spaniards are either atheist or profess no belief in any defined religion.2 The marked increase in religious apathy among contemporary Spanish citizens indicates a trend toward secularization.

The current Spanish government, lead by Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has made changes to Spanish laws regarding social norms that put the government at odds with the Catholic church. Zapatero is not the first post-Franco leader to liberalize the Spanish constitution. The changes instituted under his leadership, however, do move much farther from Catholic social doctrine than previous changes and indicate a distinct separation between Spain’s Catholic roots and current social leanings.

Since the end of the Spanish State led by Francisco Franco, the relationship between religion, public policy, and the people has been contentious. During Franco’s regime, from 1936 through 1975, Catholicism “dominated social and civic life;” National-Catholicism, as it came to be called by it’s detractors, created as strong relationship between the government and the Catholic church.3 Shifts during the Franco regime, however, also show changes in the Catholic character of the Spanish State. When he first came to power in the 1930s, Franco worked to reestablish a “national Catholic culture” in order to maintain a cultural hegemony that would both unite the country and reinforce his power as dictator.4 Under Franco’s leadership, Spanish schools and universities were run outwardly by Falange, a fascist political party, but moral formation was still the province of the Catholic church, which held ultimate authority over the educational system. By maintaining control over the education children received, the church was able to instill in them a strong belief in Catholic doctrine in conjunction with allegiance to the state.

The church hierarchy, with some reluctance on the part of Rome, had supported Franco’s Spanish State since its inception in 1939.5 In 1953 Pope Pius XII signed a Concordat giving Franco Rome’s official moral endorsement. The Second Vatican Council, lasting from 1962 through 1965, changed the manner in which the Catholic church related to the modern world, particularly in the realm of human rights. This shift created problems between the church and the Spanish State, which, under Franco’s dictatorship, had severely restricted the rights of Spanish citizens and executed or imprisoned tens of thousands of dissenters.6 Gaudiam et Spes, one of the best known pastoral documents to come out of Vatican II, states, “persons and societies thirst for a full and free life […] in which they can subject to their own welfare all that the modern world can offer them.”7 This level of freedom is not possible within the type of dictatorship that defined the Spanish State under Franco, in which culture was defined and controlled by conservative Catholic values.

Anti-clerical sentiment was evident among Spanish Catholics even before the doctrinal conflict instigated by Vatican II. As early as 1957, close to 90% of Spanish workers considered themselves anti-clerical, while close to half described themselves as anti-religious.8 These numbers, in a country in which over 85% of citizens still labeled themselves Catholic, betray a deep divide between outward labels and private beliefs among Spanish Catholics even during Franco’s regime. After Franco’s death in 1975, however, the shift became more distinct. Franco had arranged to reinstated the monarchy after his death and named Juan Carlos, a member of the exiled royal family, as his successor. Franco believed that Juan Carlos would continue his tradition of autocratic rule. This, however, was not the case, and soon after assuming power, King Juan Carlos set in motion the beginnings of a Spanish democracy.9 A social and democratic constitution was ratified on December 6, 1978, signaling a beginning to the Catholic church’s more direct influence in Spanish politics.10 Although the church, particularly post-Vatican II, “played a major role in demanding respect for human rights and in supporting the whole democratic process,” conflicts arose as the clergy saw the approach of social freedoms in direct conflict with Catholic values.11 Even with the shift towards democracy, Spain maintained some remnants of traditional Catholic social values. This is evidenced by the restrictions placed on abortion in a 1985 law limiting its availability to “cases of rape, if a [fetus] is damaged or if the pregnancy could endanger the physical or mental health of the mother.”12 While this new law decriminalized abortion, its prohibition on abortion at the mother’s discretion demonstrates that the Catholic church did still retain significant influence over matters they considered to hold moral significance.

From the 1980s through the present, the Spanish government shifted farther to the left. From 1982 through 1996, the office of the prime minister was in the hands of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which again gained control in 2004, with the election of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. From 1996 through 2004, José María Aznar of the Partido Popular (PP), a right-centrist party, held office. Although more conservative than the PSOE, Aznar and the PP lead Spain during a period in which apathy towards institutionalized religion soared.13 During his two terms in office, Aznar liberalized Spain’s economy through labor market reform, but his support of “The War on Terrorism,” in addition to the March 2004 terrorist attack in Madrid, hurt his party’s standing, and they lost to the PSOE in the 2004 elections. Under Prime Minister Zapatero’s leadership, Spanish social policy has continued to liberalize, often in direct conflict with church teachings. After more than 40 years of influence over Spanish social policy, progressive social reforms in the areas of abortion, same-sex marriage, and education have angered many traditional members of the church hierarchy.

One of the first changes to Spanish social policy after the shift to a democratic government was the decriminalization of abortion. The bill was first introduced in 1983, to the anger of Catholic groups, who argued that it conflicted with Article 15 of the Spanish Constitution, which states, “Everyone has the right to life.”14 This version of the bill was ultimately declared unconstitutional in 1985, but another version, amended with safeguards to prevent “abortion at will,” was passed later that same year. This version allowed abortion only in cases of “rape, malformation of the [fetus], and grave danger to the life of the mother.”15 In February 2010, Zapatero’s government further liberalized abortion laws to remove restrictions on abortions performed up to 14 weeks of pregnancy and to allow teenagers 16 and older to obtain abortions without parental consent.16 The liberalization of Spanish abortion policy has created tensions between the progressive government and both the Catholic church and more conservative citizens. Aznar’s party, the more conservative PP, accused the PSOE of trying to destroy the family, “one of the pillars of Spanish society,” through “unrestricted abortion.”17 By allying themselves with the Catholic church and its socially conservative viewpoints, the PP speaks both to Catholic Spaniards and Spanish nationalism, highlighting the relationship between the two.

The conflict between traditional Catholic values and socially progressive laws is also evident in the changes to Spanish divorce laws. Divorce is not allowed under Catholic doctrine, but in 2005 Prime Minister Zapatero introduced legislation to make divorces easier and quicker to obtain.18 Although divorce was officially legalized in 1981, the law required a long period of legal separation before an actual divorce could be obtained. This requirement, as well as social stigma, kept the divorce rates in Spain significantly lower than in the rest of Europe.19 Since Zapatero’s government eased the divorce laws, rates have increased steadily, leading the clergy, as well as many social conservatives, to argue that liberal divorce laws are detrimental to society. A leading Spanish family lawyer, however, argues that the law simply allows divorces among people who might otherwise have simply separated before the change.20 Liberalizing Spanish divorce laws does not, in his opinion, drastically impact the number of people who want divorces, but rather makes divorce a viable option to those who would otherwise stay married, but live completely separate lives. Evidence supports the claim that more lenient divorce laws do not significantly impact the number of couples who want to divorce. Additionally, the majority of the Spanish population supports liberal divorce laws. Despite popular opinion, however, Catholic doctrine opposes divorce and the church continues to oppose changes to Spanish divorce law.

In 2005, shortly after current Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero took office, the Spanish legislature voted to approve legislation to alter the constitutional definition of marriage. With the addition of one sentence, “Marriage will have the same requirements and results when the two people entering into the contract are of the same sex or of different sexes,” Spain extended full marriage privileges to same-sex couples.21 The extension of marriage and adoption privileges to all couples, regardless of sex or sexual orientation, made Spain’s legislation the most liberal to date. Had it been less progressive, however, it seems likely that the Catholic church would still have reacted strongly to what it saw as the dissolution of the traditional family. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on the Family, denounced the legalization of same sex marriage, and called for faithful Catholics to refuse to enforce the legislation, even if it meant losing their jobs.22 By calling on adherents to endorse the political and social positions of the church over those of the state, the Catholic hierarchy has inserted itself into Spanish politics to a degree that is not often seen on other Western European countries.

In the United States and much of Europe, even those countries with an official state religion, the process of liberalization has had relatively little interference from a religious opposition with legitimized influence or power. While religious groups in the United States do wield some political power over their congregants, churches risk losing their nonprofit status if they become overly involved in political matters. Both Norway and Sweden have state churches as well as laws legalizing same-sex marriage and other progressive social reforms. Although membership in the state church is generally not indicative of church attendance or belief in religious principles, it is important to note that even a state religion is not necessarily a barrier to social progress. Spain’s struggle between Catholic tradition and social liberalization and secularization is representative of the past and present influence of the Catholic hierarchy, as well as remnants of the national Catholicism that Franco promoted during his regime. The reelection of the PSOE, Spain’s socialist party, in 2004 demonstrates the commitment of a plurality of Spanish citizens to maintaining a separation between church and state.

1. “Barómetro de Julio Estudio nº 2.811,” Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, July 2009. p. 19.
2. Ibid.
3. Frances Lannon, Privilege, Persecution, and Prophecy: The Catholic Church in Spain 1875-1975 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), pp. 33-34.
4. Lannon 221.
5. Audrey Brassloff, Religion and Politics in Spain: The Spanish Church in Transition 1962-96 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p. 6.
6. Ibid.
7. Second Vatican Council. Gaudium et Spes. Rome, December 7, 1965.
8. Brassloff 11.
9. Brassloff 80.
10. Brassloff 98.
11. Brassloff 99.
12. “Madrid Anti-Abortion Protest Draws Thousands,” New York Times, 7 March 2010.
13. Brassloff 138.
14. Brassloff 123.
15. Brassloff 124.
16. “Spain OKs new abortion law, angers church,” MSNBC. 24 February 2010.
17. Ibid.
18 Paul Hamilos, “Spain’s divorce rate soars after rules relaxed.” The Guardian, 17 November 2007.
19. Ibid.
20. Hamilos.
21. Renwick McLean, “Spain Legalizes Gay Marriage; Law Is Among the Most Liberal,” New York Times, 1 July 2005.
22. “Vatican condemns Spain gay bill,” BBC News, 22 April 2005.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

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.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Political Mobilization and Disparate Religious Groups

The Religious Right has struggled with the inclusion of non-Protestant groups. A
pamphlet distributed in 1982 states:

“America was founded by men of faith on Biblical principles! Virtually all of our founding fathers recognized the crucial importance of religious morality as the foundation for our liberty and social well-being. [It is] our Biblical imperative to be God’s standard bearer in the affairs of our nation. We cannot, in other words, rely on the unrighteous to safeguard morality in our government”36

Based on this pamphlet, it seems that the Religious Right might have easily included conservative Catholics and Jews into their midst. To some extent, there were non-Evangelical Christians involved in the formation of the Religious Right, but they have never taken on prominent roles. There are several major inconsistencies in the rhetoric of the Religious Right that would exclude other groups.

The Catholic Church, as a whole, opposes abortion. This conviction, however, is part of a “constant life ethic,” which requires believers to oppose the death penalty and other actions, such as torture, that demean human life37. As a whole, evangelical Christians do not oppose either the death penalty or torture under specific circumstances. The inconsistencies in their calls for respect for human life have alienated many Catholics who might otherwise join with the Religious Right to oppose abortion.

On the most conservative end of the spectrum of Jewish beliefs regarding abortion, some Orthodox Jews believe that abortions must be limited to cases in which the mother’s life is in direct and physical danger. Many rabbis, however, agree that a threat to a woman’s well being may not solely be physical. Because Jewish law is vague on the issue of abortion, and Judaism has a tradition of intricate scriptural analysis, Jewish laws on abortion are vague and extremely subjective. For this reason, many, if not most, Jews feel that the government should generally protect a woman’s right to abortion. The final decision is between a woman and her rabbi (and, perhaps, husband); the government has no business interfering with such a personal decision38.

There are a number of obstacles for engaging non-Protestants in the Religious right. A number of anti-abortion activists, including John Burt of Rescue America, have ties to the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations that have previously targeted Catholics, Jews, and non-whites39. There are additional problems for conservative Jews. Members of the Religious Right generally support Israel, but not out of any measure of sympathy for Jewish history. Instead, their support derives from Christian eschatology and a believe that a specific number of Jews must be in Israel (and then convert to Christianity) before the second coming40.

Non-Christian involvement in the Religious Right is minimal at best, but “[f]undamentalists need to recruit Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and secular conservatives because, without such support, they are powerless beyond the boundaries of their own regions”41. In order to make their arguments palatable to non-Protestants, the Religious Right must sometimes secularize their own tradition, making it appear to be far more universal than it genuinely is. Appealing to non-Protestants, whether they be other Christians, Jews, or even Muslims or secular conservatives, gives the Religious Right more political power while appealing to a broader base.


36. Bruce p. 83.
37. Balmer p. 70.
38. Rabbi Raymond A. Zwerin & Rabbi Richard J. Shapiro, “Jewish Perspectives on Abortion.” (Retrieved 4 May 2010).
39. Larry Rohter, “Towering Over the Abortion Foe’s Trial: His Leader,” The New York Times, 5 March 1994.
40. Bruce p. 87

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Why Choose Abortion?

In a circa 1983 brochure published by the Moral Majority, a conservative, anti-abortion organization founded in 1979, Rev. Jerry Falwell describes his base as “made up of millions of Americans […] who are deeply concerned about the moral decline of our nation, and who are sick and tired of the way many amoral and secular humanists and other liberals are destroying the traditional family and moral values on which our nation was built”26. This descriptive statement very clearly pits Falwell and his followers against a society they see as overwhelmingly secular. Falwell blames cultural secularization for the “moral decline” of the United States, maintaining that the only valid moral code is one based on Christian doctrine. Because they see the United States as a Christian Nation, conservative Christians “refuse to face the fact that the ancient moral ethos reflected in scripture is not always noble by our [modern] moral standards and has been superseded by a more adequate morality” that is more appropriately dispatched in a multireligious society27. By attempting to force scriptural moral
codes onto a nation that is not Christian, organizations such as the Moral Majority, which dissolved in the late 1980s, fail to acknowledge either modernization or individual choice as valid philosophies.

The organizers of Moral Majority and other organizations that made up the new Religious Right might have chosen any number of issues as their central concern. These groups argue that their positions are derived directly from the Christian scriptures. Yet they choose their issues quite carefully. In addition to opposing the legalization of abortion, the Religious Right supports the State of Israel because of Christian Millennialist teachings and opposes the Federal Department of Education because it provides secular education and curricula do not contain Christian doctrine. Later, opposition to homosexuality became a major issue. They do not, however, oppose liberalized divorce laws, even though the Christian Bible is far more critical of divorce than abortion or homosexuality28. Perhaps the Religious Right refused to address divorce because their own divorce rates are indistinguishable from national divorce rates, which indicates that in this area conservative Christians have accepted some aspects of the secular marriage model29.

Some Religious Right organizations have embraced opposition to divorce as one of their issues, though always as one of several areas of focus. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family states that its mission is to “cooperate with the Holy Spirit in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible by nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide”30. The organization lists six guiding beliefs:

1. The Preeminence of Evangelism
2. The Permanence of Marriage
3. The Value of Children
4. The Sanctity of Human Life
5. The Importance of Social Responsibility
6. The Value of Male and Female

Issues relating to marriage, family, and children are prominent in Focus on the Family, which is in line with the name of the organization and the greater focus of the Religious Right as a whole. Procreation is considered a fundamental part of marriage and human purpose. Both men and women have God-given purpose, both within the family and in society at large. Responsibilities within the family are gender specific, as each gender has “unique and complementary qualities,” while “social responsibility” is both within the family and in society at large. Focus on the Family argues that their purpose is to “protect [family, church, and government] against destructive social influences” through active political involvement and Christian organizing31. The social responsibilities of men and women are similar, as they both relate to specific family values, but differ based on the belief that women are inherently more invested in children and home life32.

The focus of Christian opposition to reproductive choice centered on women. Men are rarely, if ever mentioned in their rhetoric. Although the Religious Right arose in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, which made sexual freedom accessible to both men and women, it had previously been women who suffered the most from sexual stigma. Both daughters and sons were, on the surface, supposed to be chaste until marriage, but women bore far harsher consequences if they were sexually active, and their sexual activity was likely to be more obvious if they accidentally became pregnant. The Religious Right inexorably ties female sexuality to moral decay; to whit, the Christian Voice argued that “the unmistakable signs of moral decay are all around us: Sexual promiscuity and perversion, […] legalized abortion, the disparaging of marriage, family, and the role of motherhood […] are rampant in our schools, our government, and even in many churches”33. Note that the moral decay is tied specifically to the
declining role of motherhood, but not fatherhood. Thus, women are made responsible for moral uprightness, and it is their sexual freedom, and not men’s, that causes “America’s rapid decline”34. The view that women are responsible for moral decline is complicated by the fact that no modern Christian can truly see changes in sexual moors from outside the his own context (I use his in this case because the majority of anti-abortion leaders are male).

Sexuality, specifically abortion was one of the last areas in which Christian influence exercised control over public morality:

“[S]ecular norms displaced earlier Christian influence on public morality in the political and economic spheres [throughout the 20th century], [but] biological fertility increasingly remained an unchallenged image for God’s direct action in human life. Because the birth process seemed so ‘natural’ and ‘mysterious,’ it remained sacralized long after most human activity had ceased to be understood as accessible to direct divine intervention”<sup35.

Modern medicine removed much of the mystery associated with the reproductive process. Although it was still clearly natural, the processes of fertilization, implantation, and fetal growth could be monitored visually as doctors began to use ultrasounds in the second half of the 20th century. These developments made pregnancy and birth more science than religion, and took away much of the sacralized mystery.

Part 6

26. Steve Bruce, The Rise and Fall of the New Christian Right: Conservative Protestant Politics in America 1978-1988 (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1988) p. 81.
27. Beverly Wildung Harrison, Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion (Boston: Beacon Press 1983) p. 71.
28. Balmer p. 69.
29. The Barna Group, “New Marriage and Divorce Statistics Released,” 31 March 2008. (Retrieved 2 May 2010).
30. Focus on the Family, “Focus on the Family’s Foundational Values.” (Retrieved 3 May 2010).
31. Ibid.
32. Focus on the Family, “How do Men and Women Differ Emotionally?” . (Retrieved 3 May
33. Harrison p. 59.
34. Harrison p. 59.
35. Harrison p. 66.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

What Are “Family Values”?

The anti-abortion movement and Religious Right have a number of similarities, notably their opposition of abortion rights, but they define themselves differently. While the anti-abortion movement “describes itself as the pro-life movement, […] the [Religious Right] defines itself as pro-family” and takes on issues more far reaching than abortion alone20. The 1970s gave rise to more liberal divorce laws, which affected conservative Christian families in almost equal number as the rest of the American population. Feminism took the blame for many of these changes that were seen as antithetical to the biblical family. No-fault divorce made it easier for marriages to dissolve, creating “broken” families. Birth control and access to safe, legal abortions allowed women sexual freedom with less worry about becoming pregnant or having to carry an unwanted pregnancy. The ill-fated Equal Rights Amendment would have protected women in the public sphere from discrimination because of gender.

In addition to opposing abortion, the Religious Right contends that “skyrocketing ‘out of wedlock births’ [are] ‘ripping apart our nations social fabric’”21. They seem to have created a catch-22 for themselves; by opposing abortion (and often contraception, as well), they give women little recourse should they accidentally become pregnant outside the context of marriage. Their solution to this problem is to promote abstinence only sex education for middle and high school aged children.

A number of abstinence only sex education programs include “virginity pledges,” in which students sign a document, or in some cases wear a ring, in order to pledge that they will not have sex until marriage. These pledges are distinctly religious in nature, despite being incorporated into federally funded sex education programs. In fact, the two most prolific organizations promoting virginity pledges are overtly Christian. True Love Waits is run by Lifeway Student Ministry, and has students sign a pledge stating:

“Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship”22.

The Silver Ring Thing calls itself a “para-church youth ministry” and states that itsmission is “to motivate, educate, support and transform generations of young people to embrace a lifestyle of Christ-centered sexual abstinence until marriage” in order “to create a culture shift in America where abstinence becomes the norm again rather than the exception.”23 The assertion that abstinence was the norm, rather than the exception, in previous generations is, in reality, a nostalgic idealization of the past, rather than a reflection of the truth24. The Sexual Revolution may have made non-marital sex more acceptable, but young women had been having sex outside of marriage long before the 1960s. Instead of reflecting American cultural norms, Silver Ring Thing and like-minded organizations seek to recreate an history of sexual purity that never truly existed. Their efforts to bring conservative Christian morals into the public sphere have been problematic. In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts brought suit against the United States Department of Health and Human Services for providing federal funds to the Silver Ring Thing, alleging that the virginity pledge presented to students in a three hour multi- media presentation is “permeated with religion” and “is a highly religious program that promotes Christianity”25.

The prevalence of these Christian-based programs touting the virtues of abstinence speaks to the conservative Christian concern regarding sexual immorality. Even though the Sexual Revolution may not have directly caused more women to have non-marital sex, it did create an environment in which they could be more open about sexuality and sexual pleasure. By defying the traditional mandates to be obedient and sexually demure, women of the Sexual Revolution spurred conservative Christians to embrace sexuality as a primary political issue. Abortion, generally framed as murder by conservative Christian groups, is not considered by them to be a valid option for women who become pregnant outside of marriage. Before the advent of reasonably reliable birth control, single women who became pregnant either quickly married, found someone to perform an abortion illegally, or were sent away until they gave birth and the child had been adopted. Both the pill and legalized abortion changed that. Women could have sex without facing the physical consequences. The threat to Christian morality was even more ominous than before, because women could act “immorally” and their family members and religious leaders might never know. They had lost control over the sexual purity of women.

Part 5
Part 6

20. Durham p. 85.
21. Durham p. 94.
22. “Welcome to True Love Waits,” Lifeway Ministries. (Retrieved 2 May 2010).
23. “What is Silverringthing?” (Retrieved 2 My 2010).
24. Elizabeth Alice Clement, Love For Sale (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press 2006) p. 13.
25. ACLU of Massachusetts v. Secretary of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (This case was never assigned a court case number as it was settled out of court.)

Part 1
Part 2

What Really Spurred the Religious Right to Mobilize?

It was not the decision in Roe v. Wade that cemented the commitment of the
leader of the Religious Right. In fact, “the Christian Right did not emerge until several years after the anti-abortion movement”15. Instead, it was a lesser known Supreme Court case that first led them to become a political force. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the United States government looked for ways to enforce the new legislation. In the early 1970s, the Internal Revenue Service gave notice that they would no longer extend tax-exempt nonprofit status to organizations that engaged in racial segregation. This decision led to a dispute between the IRS and Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian university that, for its 45 years of existence, did not admit African American students. Although the university did start accepting African American students in 1971, interracial dating was still grounds for expulsion. The IRS found that this stipulation violated the spirit of the Civil Rights Act and revoked Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status16.

Conservative Christian activists viewed the IRS’ decision to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University as a direct consequence of government secularization. In a Christian nation, no organization would lose special status simply for enforcing their interpretation of scriptural authority. But in a secular nation religion would have no special status, and this is exactly what seemed to be happening. It was Bob Jones’ loss of tax exempt status that first rallied evangelical Christians to take a public stand, not because of any specific attachment to the racist policy, but because they were hostile to government interference in the “sanctity of the evangelical subculture”17. In fact, abortion was not mentioned at the first meeting of the people who would make up the new Religious Right. Abortion was suggested at a later meeting convened to discuss other issues that the new movement might want to tackle18. Although most people assume that the Religious Right’s fight against abortion came directly out of the Roe v. Wade decision, abortion was, in fact, originally a secondary issue, certainly influenced by the apparent trend towards secularization, but not a direct result.

Although “opposition to abortion is only one of a series of stances [the Religious Right] has taken up in defence of the family and Christian sexual morality,” it has become the most prominent of their political activities19. Anti-abortion arguments, as well as those against homosexuality, non-marital sex, comprehensive sex education, and even contraception are part of a larger campaign by the Religious Right against what they see as the degeneration of traditional (Christian) morality.

Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

15. Martin Durham, The Christian Right, the far right and the boundaries of American conservatism (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2000) p. 85.
16. Balmer p. 62-3
17. Balmer p. 64.
18. Balmer p. 64.
19. Durham p. 85.

Part 1

Changes in the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s

The cultural changes of the 1960s spurred new religious thought concerning sexuality and reproduction. Christian scholars, including Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr developed a more flexible Christian moral code that was capable of dealing with modern questions. Instead of looking to earlier Christian doctrine, theologians incorporated the ideas presented by secular philosophers like Kierkegaard and Sartre4. These theologians argued that their new moral philosophy was actually a return to the purer teachings of Jesus himself. Instead of dogmatic adherence to doctrinal church beliefs, the new modern Christian ethic relieved the church of “thousands of years of crusty superstition”5. To Tillich, Niebuhr, and their progressive contemporaries, they were both modernizing and purifying the church. To their detractors, however, these changes to “traditional” moral codes were signs that Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, was secularizing and taking on elements of the broader society. The Catholic Church also took on some elements of secular society during the 1960s. The Second Vatican Council, lasting from October 1962 through November 1965, made progressive changes to the Catholic Church. It was surprising, then, when, just under three years later, the Vatican released Humanae Vitae, an encyclical in that prohibited the use of any form of “artificial” contraception6. American Catholics rebelled. Within several months of being issued, over 600 American Catholic priests had signed a statement against the encyclical7. Their view reflected that of the Catholic lay community, among which nearly half supported the use of birth control and only slightly fewer felt that abortion was “morally neutral,” even though, at that point, it was still illegal in the United States8. The split between Rome and a large number of American Catholics, both priests and lay people, demonstrated the influence of secular influences on the Catholic community at large. This division has yet to be resolved, and many American Catholics simply choose to disregard the Vatican’s prohibition on birth control and abortion.

Before the Sexual Revolution, sex was connected to religious morality. Without safe, legal access to birth control and abortion, women were less likely to have premarital sex (though it did still happen), and most religious faiths harshly condemned non-marital sex. Calls for a return to “traditional values” came as a response to the liberalization of social mores. One of the loudest voices was James Dobson, child psychologist, Evangelical Christian, and founder of Focus on the Family, a “Christian media empire” and research center9. In 1970, Dobson published Dare to Discipline, a book blaming social and political turmoil on “immorality, […] illegitimate pregnancies, venereal diseases, […] and more”10. Among his suggestions for combating social decline, he urged parents to “teach abstinence-based sex education at home, and to curb exposure to the immorality promoted by Hollywood and network television;” he also advocated stay-at-home motherhood over the increasingly common two-working-parent household11. Dobson’s framing of the ideal family was based on his Evangelical faith and intended to combat the social and moral decline he saw as a product of the American social shift away from traditional Christian doctrine. Without the secularizing effects of the social revolutionary movements of the 1960s, Dobson would have found little need to act.

The feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s also threatened the traditional gender dynamic that was prized and upheld through conservative Christian marriages. Women were expected to submit to men, physically and mentally. The Women’s Aglow Fellowship, founded around the same time as the progressive feminist movements, touted submission, obedience, and “God-ordained roles of wife and mother” as the ultimate sources of female liberation12. In reaction to cultural shifts away from discrete gender roles, many Evangelical women took up the cause of maintaining their Biblically determined roles in the home. The founders of Aglow, as well as conservative anti-feminist organizer Phyllis Schlafly, and Beverly LaHaye (wife of Left Behind author Tim LaHaye) argued that feminism’s goal of eliminating gender discrepancies in both work and home was an affront to the scriptural origins of American culture. Cultural changes, particularly those attributed to feminist movements, were an affront to “conservative women [who] believe in a strict division of gender roles as decreed by the scriptures; [to them], gender is envisioned as a hierarchal ordering with God and Christ at the top, followed by men, and then women”13. The shift away from traditional roles, arguably a product of secularization, drove conservative Christian women to feel that they had been displaced.

Another shift that may have influenced the mobilization of the Christian Right was what Robert Bellah termed “civil religion.” Although the term “civil religion” was originally coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract (1762), Bellah’s conception proposed that Americans had created a national religion by sacralizing elements of our national heritage. First presented at a Daedalus Conference on American Religion in May of 1966, Bellah’s concept of Civil Religion argues that American society is inherently secular save for narrow religious references shared by most Americans, regardless of their specific faith. These references primarily refer to a generalized concept of “God” as well as symbols that are “Christian without having anything to do with the Christian church”14.

Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

4. David Allyn, Make Love Not War (The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History, (Boston: Little, Brown and Co. 2000) p. 111.
5. Allyn p. 111.
6. Allyn p. 108.
7. Allyn p. 110.
8. Allyn p. 110.
9. Lassiter p. 20.
10. Lassiter p. 20.
11. Lassiter p. 20.
12. R. Marie Griffith, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press 1997) p. 45.
13. Klatch, Rebecca, Coalition and Conflict Among Women of the New Right (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1988) p. 676.
14. Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Dædalus, Vol. 96, No. 1 (Winter 1967) p. 1-21.


Historical Overview of Reproductive Rights in The United States

In 1972, Time magazine published a cover story entitled “Sex and the Teenager,” which lamented the destigmatization of non-marital sexual activity. The article attributed skyrocketing numbers of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and abortions to “the destigmatization of premarital sex, […] the birth control pill, peer pressure, the drug culture, the compromised moral authority of divorced parents, and the women’s liberation movement”3. With the possible exception of peer pressure, each of these “reasons” for increased sexual activity can be connected directly to the Sexual Revolution.

Before the Sexual Revolution, which began in the 1960s and encompassed feminist movements, the liberalization of divorce laws, the introduction of hormonal contraception, and the legalization of abortion, sexual morality had been inexorably tied to religious morality. Until the Sexual Revolution, there was no need for traditional Christians to invoke conservative values because those values were already built into the fabric and behavior of American society.

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

3. Lassiter p. 17.

This paper was originally submitted to Prof. David N. Hempton in order to complete the course, “Secularization in Europe & the United States c. 1780-2000,” which was offered in the spring semester, 2010.

The full title is: The Sexual Revolution and the Rise of the Religious Right: How the Secularization of Sexuality Spurred Conservative Religious Mobilization.

Due to the length of the paper, I will be posting it in sections.


Before Roe v. Wade, abortion was not an essential issue among American religious believers, in large part because it had been illegal for the duration of the United States’ existence. The separation of Christian morality from American public life that occurred throughout the 1960s and 70s led to the rise of the Religious Right. Without the “cultural trends of secularization and liberalization” the Religious Right would have had nothing against which to fight1.

Abortion itself was not the hot button issue among American Christians even before Roe v. Wade legalized first trimester abortions. In fact, a number of denominations now associated with conservative Christianity originally supported abortion rights and access to contraception. In 1973 the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention stated: I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from it’s mother that it becomes an individual person […] and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed2. By 1984, the Southern Baptist Convention and other evangelical denominations had done a complete turnaround, arguing that life begins at conception, and abortion constituted murder of a human life.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

1. Matthew D. Lassiter, “Inventing Family Values,” in Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, ed. Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2008) p. 27.

2. Randall Balmer, The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press 2010) p. 61-2.

wordpress visitor counter