On May 16, the North Carolina legislature overturned Governor Roy Cooper’s veto of SB 20, another in a long line of abortion bans blanketing the country. The threats that this bill pose to the health and safety of pregnant people and the threat to democratic processes posed by the underhanded actions of the bill’s sponsors have been well documented.
But what continues to be overlooked in legislation banning abortions is how it reflects a ruthless attempt to impose a narrow vision of Christian theology on a diverse and multi-religious nation.
The Presbyterian Church (USA), where I am ordained, passed a resolution last summer affirming reproductive justice that stated our desire as a denomination to “clearly and publicly make known the PC(USA)’s consistent support of access to contraceptive and abortion care and our commitment to respect the moral agency of all God’s people.” Most mainline Christian denominations support continued legal access to abortion care and hold that the decision should be made by pregnant people and not the state. Many Christians also believe that abortion is a moral and social good.
Recognizing the clear threats to religious freedom, human dignity, and public health marked by the Christian nationalism of SB 20, religious leaders from across North Carolina spoke out against the legislation in an attempt to raise awareness about the religious zealotry embedded in the bill.
The North Carolina Council of Churches, the Spiritual Alliance of Communities for Reproductive Dignity (SACReD), and the North Carolina Jewish Clergy Association tried to further dissuade legislators from pursuing this path of Christian nationalism in an open letter signed by over 1,200 religious people across the state. The letter urged legislators “not to codify into North Carolina’s legal doctrine a particular religious belief that is not shared by all the people of our state. Religious beliefs should be taught in religious communities and practiced by individual believers. They should not be embedded into our legal codes.”
The logic of Roe, which established that the state’s interest in regulating abortion lay in the prenate‘s “potential” for life, was theologically neutral. In replacing Roe’s language of “potential life” with that of “unborn human being” Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito fundamentally rewrote American law and changed the legal status of the prenate.
This fundamental shift in legal doctrine, which is profoundly theological and mightily contested, inaugurated a new era of Christian nationalism.
Anti-choice Christian activists have long been explicit about their intention to outlaw abortion from the moment of conception. While Alito and movements that claim to be “pro-life” may not use overtly Christian language in their rulings, legislation, or even in their op-eds, their language of “the unborn” and the “thousands of babies that will be saved” as well as descriptions of abortion procedures as “barbaric practice, dangerous for the maternal patient, and demeaning to the medical profession” is clearly dog-whistling to Christian supporters who share their theological belief that abortion is murder.
Christian patriarchal support for anti-choice legislation is often evident in floor debates, strategy sessions, prayer breakfasts, and email exchanges that surround abortion bans. This was evident in North Carolina when several legislators emailed the executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches with graphic and rude responses that demonstrate the anti-choice Christian strategy of resorting to hyperbolic and inaccurate language intended to elicit emotional responses. One legislator, in fact, commented that “you did not study the same version of the Holy Bible that I did this morning.” Which is precisely the point. There is no mention of abortion in the Bible, at all. We probably don’t read the same translations of the Bible, but more importantly, we interpret the Bible in different ways—that is the nature of religious belief and practice.
Even though the anti-abortion Christian movement is composed of a minority of Christians, they have gained formidable legislative power. These same legislators are eagerly following their success with abortion bans with anti-trans legislation, attacks on drag queens supporting literacy, and book bans.
Christian support for abortion has been effectively erased from the public sphere even though the majority of Christians, including white mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, Hispanic and white Catholics support legal access to abortion care. Christians who support abortion access must publicly challenge the perversion of the Christian principles of justice, love, and care of neighbor that are daily being obliterated by the public policies of Christian nationalism. And we need the media to recognize and complicate public understanding of the complexity of Christian thought and practice.
Rebecca Todd Peters, author of Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice, is professor of religious studies at Elon University, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and vice president of the Society of Christian Ethics.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.