The Silence in the Pews: Pro-Choice Evangelicals.

The Silence in the Pews: Pro-Choice Evangelicals. December 28, 2015

Fred’s written an excellent piece at Slacktivist about how Lifeway recently discovered that a third of evangelicals are pro-choice, meaning they think abortion should be legal. As you can imagine, evangelical leaders are freaking out about this finding and trying to think up ways to rationalize the results of the survey, with many of them deciding that pro-choice evangelicals aren’t TRUE EVANGELICALS™. They’ve been on a kick lately to define who is in the tribe and who’s out, so their new line in the sand isn’t a big surprise to see.

But they’re wrong about their tribe’s monolithic opposition to abortion–just like they’re wrong about all the other ways they’re trying to police the use of Christian terms–like “Christian” itself.

Whoops. (Credit: Matthew H, CC-NoDerivs license.)
Whoops. (Credit: Matthew H, CC-NoDerivs license.)

A High-Speed Intervention.

When I myself was a Pentecostal, I didn’t get a big production or to-do over my deconversion–but when word got out that I never intended to have children despite having gotten married (to a man who wanted children desperately but who’d lied to me about it at our pastor’s direction because women are such big ole sillies; he guaranteed I’d change my mind later), that is when I received a full-on, old-school-style intervention. In a car going down the highway at mach speeds. With me in the middle back seat surrounded at front and sides by screaming “friends” from three different fundamentalist/evangelical denominations (AoG, Maranatha, UPC). Apparently the big fear was that I might *GASP* have an abortion if I got pregnant from my super-approved Jesus sex.

Let me clarify slightly: I was not at the time actually pro-choice. I hadn’t quite decided what I’d even do if I became pregnant by accident, only that I knew I didn’t want kids ever. That was enough for them.

The experience they put me through was enough to make me seriously wonder WTF was going on with the direction evangelicals were taking with regard to women’s rights.

I kept repeating to them that if I got pregnant, what happened would be my business, and I’d decide if the matter ever came up without their help, thank you very much. “Of course it’s our business,” screamed the “friend” to my left into my ear. “You might kill a baby! We can’t let you do that!” I don’t remember how I mollified them, but when I finally escaped from the car, I resolved never to go anywhere with them again–and I didn’t.

Now imagine if they’d discovered I was pro-choice rather than childfree–what would the fine Christians of these three denominations have done to me then, if they put me through all that over not ever wanting to have a child?

A few weeks afterward, still quite unsettled by this experience, I finally realized what a bunch of baloney the whole anti-abortion position is and what lies it is filled with, and became actually pro-choice, and when I shortly thereafter realized that my religion pursued many of the same tactics and used many of the same sorts of lies, I deconverted fully. So for a brief shining moment, I was the only pro-choice Pentecostal I knew. That’s why Fred’s piece was so resonant for me: I know exactly what it’s like to so flagrantly step over the line my tribe had drawn in the sand.

Even in the 1990s I was sure there must be others who felt as I did, but I didn’t know any of them. Sometimes I’d look around my church during a service and wonder how many people there were pro-choice–and even how many women there might have had abortions. I never found out. If what happened to me is any indication at all of the reception women could expect for stepping out even a little from the party line, is it any wonder that nobody would talk about supporting women’s rights? And that was in the 1990s, when fundagelical opposition to abortion was still being solidified.

Nowadays that opposition is one of the two major culture wars that right-wing Christians are known for, taking precedence over every other doctrinal question (the other litmus test is, of course, opposition to LGBTQ rights and dignity). It is also one of the many litmus tests Christians use to figure out who the tribe’s members really are. Christian writers and leaders openly state that no TRUE CHRISTIAN™ could ever be pro-choice. Some of them sniff that “some Christians” might support abortion rights, but declare in the next breath that those Christians are simply wrong. Others flatly declare that “there is no such thing as a pro-choice Christian”, forgetting that this so-called Biblical view is actually a very new doctrine–in fact, as Fred pointed out years earlier, fundagelicals’ cherished culture war is “younger than the Happy Meal.”

But in the quiet of their hearts, a great many fundagelicals aren’t on board with the party line. And some of them have a secret that they daren’t whisper a word about to their tribemates: they, themselves, have had an abortion or at least considered having one, or helped someone get one, or know that they wouldn’t oppose a partner having one if she wanted it. They’re aware of the many shades of grey that intrude and jostle uncomfortably against the perfect-fundagelical-world narrative peddled by their leaders of the thoughtless, careless, sex-hungry young woman hopping from bed to bed and then laughing as she slips free of her divinely-meted punishment for having unapproved sex; moreover, they’re aware of the devastation that an unwanted pregnancy can wreak in a woman’s life–devastation that their narrative barely acknowledges, let alone addresses.

Little wonder that fundagelical women seeking and considering abortions can so easily exempt themselves from their tribe’s strict prohibition of abortion services. Their own situations bear very little resemblance to that narrative. They don’t stop to wonder if maybe other women’s situations don’t either.

In 2012, when I learned that Mitt Romney had bagged less than 80% of the Mormon and evangelical Christian votes, I realized that there was something going on in the pews of right-wing churches across America–a quiet revolution going on that Christians didn’t dare discuss or even describe. There was not one single evangelical leader that I could find who opposed Mitt Romney, and not one evangelical Christian I could identify who spoke of voting for anybody but him. But once they got into the voting booths, some 20% of white evangelical Christians and Mormons voted for Barack Obama. Despite Mitt Romney’s unanimous show of support among evangelicals, the votes said something else was happening.

I wondered right then and there how many other aspects to this quiet revolution there might be. Might there be evangelicals who opposed their tribe’s other party lines? Might there be evangelicals who–and this was barely a whisper in my mind, it was so unthinkable–totally supported equal marriage and abortion rights?

The next year, in 2013, Gallup released a poll showing that a sizeable number of self-identified Christians (48% of surveyed Catholics, 40% of Protestant and “others”)–even self-identified Republicans (28%)–called themselves “pro-choice.” A poll a couple of years later indicated that even more Americans had settled on the “pro-choice” label for themselves, and Gallup thinks that this trend will only continue–especially since Nones (people who don’t consider themselves affiliated with any religion), who are rising steadily in number every year, tend to be overwhelmingly pro-choice. (The response of the Christian Right, of course, was to decide that people didn’t actually understand what “pro-choice” meant.)

Tiny Cracks in the Monolith.

I was starting to see the cracks in the monolith built by evangelicals. They might pretend that their tribe’s opposition or support for this or that cause is complete and total, and that no TRUE CHRISTIAN™ would ever, ever, ever differ from that party line, but the reality is starting to show through the facade.

Fundagelical Christian leaders and writers, of course, see the same surveys the rest of us do–but their solution has been to declare that any Christians who support abortion rights aren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™. Sometimes they try to tease out categorizations of Christians to figure out who is stepping out of bounds so they can slice away the dissenters from their main body (as in, “Aha! People who don’t attend church every day are saying this, but obviously they’re not TRUE CHRISTIANS™ so they don’t count!”), or flatly declare that anybody who has a different opinion is simply a traitor to the cause or an idiot.

I haven’t heard of anybody getting interventions like I did, but I strongly suspect that the only reason for that is that Christians nowadays are a lot more aware of the social penalties in store for anybody who speaks against the tribe’s dominant opinions.

The tribe can be downright savage in its suppression, policing, and silencing of dissent. Silencing tactics are really only the beginning of what dissenters can expect. Very few people know that confidentiality laws often don’t apply to ministers or church staff, but quite a few people know exactly how powerful a church’s gossip mill can be, especially when that gossip is disguised as “prayer requests” or concern for a fellow church member’s soul. And any Christians who do dare to publicly voice support for abortion rights know exactly what the rest of the tribe will say about this flagrant dissent: calling them evil, spouting ideological claptrap and debunked talking-points on cue, or simply dismissing them with loftily-sniffed accusations of “shocking liberalism.”

These strategies are designed not only to punish the dissenter but also to warn anybody else considering the same dissent of what is in store for their offense.

And traditionally, these strategies work. They work beautifully. They do exactly and precisely what they are supposed to do and what they were designed to do: they totally shut down anybody who might express support for abortion rights.

I’ve heard a number of evangelical Christians say that they don’t feel safe expressing their real opinions to their churchmates (check out the comments on that first Slacktivist link for some of them saying exactly this). At this point, knowing what they know about how the tribe will react, it’s safer for Christians in right-wing churches to express feelings of doubt in the whole message of Christianity than to express a single iota of dissent from its “pro-life” crusade. As I detailed earlier this year, such churches allow for general religious doubt in very controlled ways. But conservative Christian leaders and organizations have created a system in which there is no way whatsoever to allow for any exploration of doubt in the anti-abortion crusade other than blanket condemnation of the heretic–a system in which any sign of compassion for or even agreement with their sworn enemies is the same exact thing as capitulation to the forces of darkness.

So a woman who is thinking about getting an abortion–or has gotten one–or even agrees with the pro-choice position–is quite unlikely to mention her feelings to anybody in her tribe. She knows what awaits such foolishly-misplaced trust. Little wonder that Baptist research group Lifeway discovered that most women wouldn’t ever trust their church friends or ministers when it comes to talking about having had an abortion.

I agree with Fred that Christians who adhere to the party line are surrounded by women–and men–who disagree with the anti-abortion position that right-wing Christianity has staked out as one of its two hills to die upon. The reason anti-abortion Christians don’t know about these dissenters is because they have very effectively made dissent a capital offense. They’ve made themselves a very unsafe target for these dissenters’ honesty, but that doesn’t mean that the dissent is really gone.

Silent dissent is as good as no dissent at all to these Christians. If they aren’t confronted with dissent, then they can pretend it doesn’t exist. And that’s just fine with them.

Change is in the Air.

That’s why I’m really happy to see more and more Christians speaking out in their disagreement with their religion’s culture wars. Besides the Unfundamentalists, a progressive Christian group that vocally supports women’s rights, there are pastors here and there who agree that abortion should be legal, umbrella groups of Christian churches that support abortion rights, and even individual Christians who write movingly of their personal struggles to reconcile the tribe’s party line with their sense of compassion, their desire for social justice, and their support for women’s rights.

The tribe is used to jumping with both feet on dissenters, but at this point there are so many dissenters about so many different party lines that the tribe doesn’t have a clear direction anymore for their ire. Oh, they still try hard to punish transgressors when they become aware of them–even targeting people totally outside of their tribe. When efforts pop up like the 1 in 3 Campaign (the name is a reference to how many women have had at least one abortion) and Shout Your Abortion, anti-abortion crusaders have been doing what they can to punish the people responsible by threatening and terrorizing the creators of the movements and the women who participate in them, and by concern trolling them when they can.

But I perceive a difference between these efforts and the ones of my young adulthood; they seem more diffused now than they used to be. I also perceive that more Christians are unwilling to allow leaders who don’t represent their views to define their religion or their labels–and many more are saying “Fine, then if I’m not a good enough Christian for y’all, then I’ll just leave,” and walking away from their churches and sometimes their entire religion–forever.

This unwillingness to allow right-wing Christians to define Christianity for every single Christian is starting to seep into their other attempts to control labels and narratives–like the ones they try to define around abortion.

The more women who talk about their experiences and validate the experiences of their peers and friends, the less mysterious and secretive abortions will be, and the less anti-abortion crusaders will be able to peddle narratives that don’t look like real women’s lives and the less their non-options for women will be taken seriously–and the less the Christian Right will be able to target any one dissenter for abuse and terrorism.

The monolithic facade is cracking. There’ll still be some terrible days ahead–abusers and oppressors do not willingly give up their power–but it’s happening. I see these recent surveys and movements as signs of change, and it is change that will only accelerate as the Christian Right continues to lose its power and its dominance over American culture.

The pews aren’t quite so silent anymore. They are alive with the rumble of dissent.

It’s about damned time.

This is one wall that humanity needs to see turned to rubble.

Yes. (Credit: SBA73, CC-SA license.)
Yes. (Credit: SBA73, CC-SA license.)
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