The Religious Right’s Agenda Is Center Stage Again — And It’s As Unpopular As Ever

With its decision overturning Roe v. Wade and ending national protections for abortion rights, the Supreme Court gave the religious right its greatest policy victory since the mass movement of white evangelical Protestants joined hands with the Republican Party more than 40 years ago.

The problem? The religious right’s unpopular policy of banning abortion is now reality, at least in certain states. Republicans can no longer hide behind Roe and express support for unpopular policies that will never become law. They will have to defend abortion bans, and other unpopular restrictions pushed by an emboldened religious conservative movement.

Republicans are already seeing how unpopular banning abortion can be. In the first vote on abortion since the court’s June decision, voters in Kansas ― a state that decisively voted to reelect Donald Trumprejected a referendum that would have overturned a state Supreme Court decision protecting abortion rights, and did so by a double-digit margin that exceeded Trump’s win there.

“It’s no longer a theoretical possibility,” Melissa Deckman, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, which tracks public opinion on politics and religion, said about the prospect of abortion bans. “It’s actual reality, and we’re seeing a backlash.”

This should come as no surprise to Republicans. The religious right’s policy agenda has always played second fiddle to other priorities of the conservative coalition that powered Ronald Reagan to victory in 1980 and secured dominance for decades to come.

But it’s not in second place anymore. Trump promised the religious right that “Christianity will have power.” He also promised to only appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe. It “would happen automatically,” he said. And it did.

Now the Republican Party must deal with the consequences of putting such an unpopular policy agenda into motion, and learn whether it will crack their coalition.

“It’s like when the dog catches its tail, it’s kind of like, ’What’s next?” said Bradley Onishi, an associate professor of religious studies at Skidmore College and co-host of the “Straight White American Jesus” podcast.

The public broadly disapproves of the court’s decision to overturn Roe, and opposes policies that ban abortion. Nearly two-thirds of Americans opposed the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a CNN poll found. Sixty-two percent believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a Pew Research poll. Sixty-five percent said the same thing in a PRRI poll.

Abortion rights supporters cheer on Aug. 2 in Overland Park, Kansas, as the proposed Kansas constitutional amendment to remove the right to an abortion fails.
Abortion rights supporters cheer on Aug. 2 in Overland Park, Kansas, as the proposed Kansas constitutional amendment to remove the right to an abortion fails.

Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

“The Christian right currently has very disproportionate influence based on public opinion,” Deckman said. “Their views on those issues are not held by other Americans.”

This is perhaps why past Republican presidents did not prioritize the religious right’s issue set.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s 1980 election win reordered American politics around the issue set offered by the coalition that came together to create the conservative movement.

The religious right, animated in particular by the precedent set by Roe in 1973, played a major role in forming that coalition. But their abortion priorities were shelved behind the Reagan administration’s agenda of countering the Soviet Union and cutting taxes, spending and regulations.

“Ronald Reagan … knows you’re not going to shove that stuff though Congress no matter how much he wants it, certainly not with the makeup of Congress today,” Lyn Nofziger, Reagan’s first White House political director, said in 1986. “Other things, like taxes, the budget and summits, have superseded the social agenda, and they always will.”

It’s not as though the religious right failed to secure any policy victories. Reagan’s Mexico City policy banned federal funding for international NGOs that provided any abortion-related services, including counseling. His Justice Department, headed by abortion rights opponent Ed Meese, pushed in court to overturn Roe. And his administration helped create the strategy of appointing conservative ideologues to the judicial branch with the goal of eventually delivering on social policy.

But Reagan still kept a distance from the anti-abortion movement’s big events. He never personally attended the March for Life, the rally against abortion rights held every year on the anniversary of Roe, instead sending a video message each time.

Two of Reagan’s four Supreme Court nominations ultimately proved a disappointment. Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy voted to affirm Roe while also upholding some abortion restrictions in the 1992 decision in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, which many thought would be the case that overturned Roe.

George H.W. Bush

Casey came down in the final year of President George H.W. Bush’s administration. A blue-blood New England Republican whose family helped found Planned Parenthood, Bush was a foreigner in the world of movement conservatism. He praised the Casey decision for upholding some restrictions on abortion, but did not comment on its affirmation of Roe.

Afterward, he distanced himself from the GOP platform opposing abortion rights, while first lady Barbara Bush reminded voters that she personally supported a woman’s right to choose. All of this was clearly intended to appeal to the 1992 general electorate that did not support banning abortion. Bush lost anyway.

George W. Bush

Surrounded by male Republican lawmakers, President George W. Bush signs legislation banning so-called "partial-birth" abortions.
Surrounded by male Republican lawmakers, President George W. Bush signs legislation banning so-called “partial-birth” abortions.

Brooks Kraft via Getty Images

Bush’s son George W. Bush, himself a born-again evangelical Christian, proved a more reliable supporter of the anti-abortion religious right, which by the time of his 2000 election had become dominant within the party.

Bush II proudly spoke about his Christian faith, repeatedly declared his support for a “culture of life,” and campaigned strongly in opposition to same-sex marriage, another religious right priority, in 2004. The press credited “values voters” with helping his reelection campaign, and the moniker was taken up by the powerful evangelical pastor James Dobson for his annual political summit.

Congress, of which Republicans had won full control in 1994, passed legislation banning procedures that the anti-abortion movement called “partial-birth abortion,” and allowing prosecutors to charge people with a number of felony crimes for harming or killing an unborn fetus. Bush signed the legislation.

And yet, he kept the issue of overturning Roe at arm’s length.

“What he did not do was call for the reversal of Roe,” political scientists Thomas Keck and Kevin McMahon wrote in their 2016 article “Why Roe Still Stands: Abortion Law, the Supreme Court, and the Republican Regime.”

In fact, Keck and McMahon note, “Bush never publicly uttered the word ‘Roe’ during his eight years in office.”

The religious right faded from the political headlines after a series of scandals from Terri Schiavo to Ted Haggard in the later Bush years.

Barack Obama

After Obama won election in 2008, attention shifted to the populist Tea Party and its libertarian economic rhetoric backed by billionaire industrialists like the Koch brothers. The rank-and-file of the Tea Party did include libertarians studied in Austrian economics, but also the same white evangelical Protestants who make up the religious right.

“Next to being a Republican, the strongest predictor of being a Tea Party supporter today was a desire, back in 2006, to see religion play a prominent role in politics,” sociologist Robert Putnam and political scientist David Campbell wrote in 2011.

The overlap of the Tea Party with the religious right voting base became clear as states passed a record number of abortion restrictions following the Republican wave election in 2010. But when Republican candidates voiced the extreme positions of the religious right on abortion during this period, like Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock did, they paid the price and lost.

Donald Trump

Then came Trump, whose 2016 presidential run, and focus on immigration and trade, drew attention to Rust Belt communities, the swing voters who helped him win Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and the far-right nativists and racists he attracted from the fringes.

It was white evangelical Protestants, however, who have been his strongest supporters since he won the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. Today, they are the biggest supporters of his lies about the 2020 election after religious right iconography proliferated at the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Although Trump is a thrice-married philanderer accused of more than a dozen acts of sexual assault including rape, his apocalyptic rhetoric and blood-red symbolism of “American carnage” spoke to a long history of religious nationalism in the country. And, partially out of political necessity due to his irreligious lifestyle, he promised to give the religious right everything they wanted, from symbolic recognition to policy.

“He said things out loud that previous presidents had been more measured in talking about,” said Ruth Braunstein, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and an expert on the religious right. “And he was not in any way as concerned about presenting a pluralist America. That was incredibly satisfying to white evangelicals, to feel seen in that way.”

In 2020, Trump became the first sitting president to attend the March for Life in person.

Donald Trump was the first sitting president to attend and speak at the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., which he did on Jan. 24, 2020.
Donald Trump was the first sitting president to attend and speak at the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., which he did on Jan. 24, 2020.

OLIVIER DOULIERY via Getty Images

Trump also gave the religious right three Supreme Court nominees, who he promised would overturn Roe. And they did.

“One more reason that Trump remains the de facto leader of the Republican Party is he gave them everything they wanted in ways his more Christian predecessors didn’t,” Onishi said.

But there was a reason those prior Republican presidents, Congresses and even Supreme Court majorities decided to hold off on fulfilling the religious right’s wildest dreams.

“If Roe v. Wade were overturned, the political agenda would shift,” Yale Law School Professor Jack Balkin wrote in 2003. “For Republican candidates, it would no longer be just a question of defending limited restrictions on abortion. They would have to explain whether they were willing to send women and their doctors off to jail.”

The court’s decision in Dobbs makes real the unpopular position of banning abortion, as well as the penalties that go along with it. It also makes possible a host of even more unpopular policies, like limits on interstate travel, policing the mail for abortion pills and censoring information on abortion from the internet, or even a national abortion ban.

Twenty states have laws on the books that would ban or almost entirely ban abortion. Some of those laws have been temporarily suspended by judges as they face court challenges. The realities of abortion bans ― 10-year-old rape victims fleeing their state to obtain the procedure; pregnant women with nonviable pregnancies being forced into dangerous and painful situations before being allowed to have an abortion ― are quickly coming into focus.

No one knew whether the predicted reaction to the overturning of Roe would come true until Tuesday’s vote in Kansas.

“What the Kansas vote showed us is that bans on abortion are really broadly unpopular,” Deckman, the PRRI chief executive, said. “And bans on abortion, or looking to limit access to abortion, is an issue that potentially motivates Democrats than maybe we initially thought.”

Polling by PRRI in the wake of the Dobbs decision showed a dramatic increase to 43% of Democrats saying they would only vote for a candidate who shares their position on abortion. A higher percentage of Democrats than Republicans named abortion as a litmus test issue.

“Historically, abortion has really motivated Republicans to go out to vote,” Deckman said. “Now we are seeing it motivate Democrats.”

How that will change elections in 2022 and beyond is still unknown. Already, Democrats are running ads attacking Republican candidates, like Arizona Senate hopeful Blake Masters, Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon and Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, for their support of abortion bans without exceptions for rape, incest or saving the life of the mother.

Voters in Kentucky will be the next to cast a vote directly on abortion, with a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in the state on the ballot in November. Michigan residents are also likely to have the opportunity to vote, as abortion rights activists submitted signatures for a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights in July.

These amendment votes, like the vote in Kansas, are direct referendums on the abortion issue. But the end of Roe means that races up and down the ticket, from governor and state attorney general all the way down to district attorney and sheriff, are now colored by the politics of abortion.

The religious right finally got what it wanted. But at what cost?

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