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Evangelicals opposed abortion long before their leaders caught up

Before Roe v. Wade, Catholic leaders were more vocal about their opposition — but rank-and-file evangelicals mostly agreed with them.

Antiabortion advocates rally outside the Supreme Court on May 17 in Washington. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

A recently leaked draft opinion suggested that the Supreme Court will soon overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion. To get here, evangelical leaders and voters have spent 50 years pushing Republicans to support conservative justices and to promote policies that would curtail or outlaw abortion.

But how did evangelicals become so opposed to abortion rights? Observers often note that before Roe v. Wade, opposition to abortion rested primarily in Catholic circles. By the late 1970s, however, evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and their politically allied operatives reacted to and fomented a post-Roe backlash that shifted evangelical opinion on abortion from diverse to conservative. These activist-leaders then mobilized evangelicals to get involved in politics.

While true, this narrative, however, misses an important point: Evangelicals emerged as a prominent conservative voice on abortion because ordinary evangelicals — the people who filled the pews on Sundays — held some of the most conservative abortion attitudes in the pre-Roe United States. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, everyday evangelical Protestants were as conservative on abortion as Catholics in pre-Roe America. This conservative sentiment predated the Religious Right or the emergence of abortion as a widely debated political issue.

Evangelical leaders held a variety of abortion views in the 1960s and early 1970s

It is true that in the 1960s and early 1970s, many prominent evangelical leaders were either silent about or supported moderate to liberal abortion policies, while Catholic leaders were actively and vocally opposed. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination and center of Protestant evangelicalism at the time, endorsed a series of moderate abortion positions in the early 1970s. And W.A. Criswell, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and later a leading figure in the conservative takeover of the SBC, initially expressed sympathy for Roe.

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How I did my research

As part of my recent research, I found that ordinary evangelical Protestants were as conservative as Catholics in the years before Roe, despite prominent evangelical leaders’ indifference or support.

It is difficult to identify “evangelicals” in the earliest public opinion polls, because pollsters did not directly ask this question. Today, public opinion researchers often ask if someone considers themselves “born again” or an “evangelical,” which Gallup first asked in 1976.

However, pollsters did ask individuals which Protestant denomination they belonged to. Such denominations are often categorized as either mainline or evangelical. Further, when talking about U.S. politics, people often use “evangelical” as shorthand for White evangelicals, usually in the South.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Southern Baptist Convention was the heart of evangelical Protestantism in the United States. The Southern Baptist Convention is predominantly White. This contrasts the National Baptist Convention, for example, which is predominantly African American. Both are broadly evangelical.

Not all Baptists in the South belong to churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, and some SBC churches exist outside the South. But as the name suggests, the SBC is concentrated in the South, having split with northern Baptist churches over slavery in the mid-19th century.

As a result, my analysis focuses on Baptists, especially White Baptists in the South. Some Baptist churches are mainline Protestant, and other denominations and nondenominational churches include evangelicals, but this is a reasonable proxy for the era.

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Baptists, especially in the South, were already strongly opposed to abortion before Roe v. Wade

To understand pre-Roe abortion attitudes by religion and denomination, I analyzed a 1969 Gallup poll that asked, “Would you favor or oppose a law which would permit a woman to go to a doctor to end pregnancy at any time during the first three months?” To my knowledge, this was the first public opinion poll that asked whether the government should be able to restrict access to abortion in the first trimester.

As you can see in the figure above, ordinary Catholics and Baptists held essentially the same attitudes in 1969, with approximately 66 percent opposing legal abortion, even in the first trimester. That’s 10 percentage points more conservative than the average for all Americans, in which 55 percent are opposed; 17 percentage points more conservative than mainline Protestants, with 48 percent opposed; and far more conservative than Jewish respondents.

To capture variation among Baptists, I split public opinion among Baptists by race and then by region, as you can see in the figure below. Once I separate those out, you can see that White Baptists are 67 percent opposed to legal abortion in the first trimester, while only 59 percent of Black Baptists are.

The biggest variation among Baptist comes by region. Fully 78 percent of White Baptists in the South opposed allowing abortion in the first three months — more than the 65 percent of Catholics, 54 percent of Baptists outside the South and 55 percent of the population at large that opposed abortion in the first three months.

No wonder White evangelical Protestants, inside and outside the Southern Baptist Convention, joined Catholics as the face of the antiabortion movement. People like Jerry Falwell were articulating a sentiment that had long existed among rank-and-file Baptists, especially in the South.

Catholics’ and Protestants’ opinions on abortion differed subtly in 1969

There are caveats. First, a 1969 Gallup poll shows Catholics were 6 percentage points more likely than White Baptists in the South to oppose abortion even when the mother’s life was in danger. When public debate on reforming abortion laws emerged in the 1960s, it first concentrated on allowing for abortion in the most extreme circumstances. However, outside extreme circumstances, when women had other reasons for wanting abortions — a discussion that dominated 1970s and 1980s abortion politics — White Southern Baptist and Catholic opinion converged in opposition.

Second, while public opinion on abortion is more stable than other political attitudes, the increasing politicization of abortion may have made evangelical opinion even more conservative after the 1970s. My analysis emphasizes that evangelical opinion was already conservative to begin with. But religious membership is fluid: People who were Southern Baptists in the 1960s and 1970s were not necessarily Southern Baptists in the years that followed, and vice versa. People were attracted to and repelled from these institutions in part because of the church’s stances on abortion and other political and theological issues.

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Neil O’Brian is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oregon.