After interviewing 50 evangelical Christians, a recent Washington Post report cited Trump’s stance on abortion as a common denominator among the interviewees’ ardent support of him and the reason they will continue to support him in 2020. And a lot of them are going to support him. A July NPR/PBS poll showed Trump approval ratings among white evangelicals at 77 percent, echoing the famed 80 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016.
That overwhelming number (80 percent) aligned with the overwhelming number (70 percent) of white evangelicals who reportedly hated Hillary Clinton. At the center of that hate? Her stance on abortion.
As a white, evangelical-raised Christian, I am frustrated, angry and confused by the continued support of Trump even when his first term is coming to an end, but I can’t claim to be surprised.
A recent poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 65 percent of white evangelicals oppose abortion. The poll also found that “Americans who oppose the legality of abortion (27%) are significantly more likely than those who support the legality of abortion (18%) to say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on the issue.”
Anecdotally, among my evangelical friends, I know many who vote based on the abortion issue alone. In 2016, this meant they felt forced to vote for Trump even if they didn’t like him, or they voted third party or chose not to vote at all. But vote for Hillary they could not.
I understand the morality the pro-life movement is based on, and I know good people who fully subscribe to it. However, I have grown suspicious of the way some evangelicals identify with their pro-life status so deeply that it affects every political decision they make.
French literary critic and philosopher René Girard studied how ancient civilizations relied on the tradition of the scapegoat. Girard claimed that scapegoating was necessary because of what he called “mimetic desire,” which, put simply, is the fact that we want what others have. This coveting ultimately leads to conflict resolved only through an act of violence, usually cast upon one victim chosen by the tribe: the scapegoat.
Girard found that this method of scapegoating changed when Jesus arrived in ancient Palestine. Jesus himself was described as a scapegoat, a “sheep led to slaughter” (Acts 8:32). But Girard argued that the circumstances around Christ’s crucifixion symbolized the end of the need of scapegoating. As Girard explained in his book “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning,” “Jesus is innocent, and those who crucify him are guilty.”
Girard theorized that because Jesus’ innocence was known by those in attendance at his crucifixion (See the accounts of Pontius Pilate in Matthew 27:23-24 and of the centurion in Matthew 27:54), the curtain was pulled back on the scapegoat method. It was finally clear that the truly guilty are those who scapegoat, not the scapegoat. The crucifixion symbolized the final sacrifice and negated the usefulness of the scapegoat tradition.
Even though Christianity was founded upon this very sacrifice, some have not gotten the message that scapegoating has ended.
Although the pro-life movement has made steps toward helping women through pregnancy, many of its tactics to prevent abortion are sometimes driven by shame. Each movie that portrays the horrors of the procedure, each image of a fetus, each hand-scribbled sign bobbing up and down outside a Planned Parenthood seems to be pointing a finger and asking, How could you? And the finger is always pointed at the woman. Her decision, her body, her fault.
What I have seen in the pro-life movement and elsewhere in evangelical culture is this ancient reliance upon the scapegoat mechanism, and the scapegoat is always the same — the female body.
Purity culture — an evangelical movement that reached its height in the late 1990s and early 2000s — promoted a core message of abstinence before and outside of marriage. The way this sexual ethic was taught to me and many others badly warped my view of sex, the body and gender. Only in recent years have I been able to clumsily untangle the message from my faith, namely the weight, guilt and responsibility the movement put on females.
When learning about sex and purity, I was taught my virginity was my greatest commodity, therefore, I must protect it at all costs until I was married. Marriage and childbearing would be the pinnacle of my existence — a belief many evangelicals still hold today. Just this week, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, suggested being a parent is what makes one human.
According to purity culture, the protection of my virginity was up to me. I remember many lectures about the importance of girls’ dressing modestly so as not to let our brothers stumble into the sin of lust. I once heard a youth leader say that a mere glimpse of a bra strap would cause a boy to have impure thoughts.
I was warned about how often boys thought about sex and the warning’s undertone was a warning for me: Don’t lead him into temptation. It was up to me to keep myself pure and to keep my brothers in Christ pure, as well. If I had sex before marriage, I would not only taint myself, but I would also own the guilt of causing the male I had sex with to have sex with me.
It made for a world nearly impossible for a girl to do right and for a boy to do wrong.
The shame and guilt that drove purity culture is the same shame I see driving the pro-life movement today. And like purity culture, the woman is the scapegoat. She is the one making the decision. She, and she alone, is at fault.
The fact that white evangelicals still as a whole support Trump for a 2020 reelection with abortion as the flag over their crusade points to an important truth: Evangelicals are still obsessed with female bodies, controlling them and blaming them.
Recalling Girard’s theory of mimetic desire, this leads me to wonder, what is the desire behind the scapegoat of the woman’s body? What do evangelicals want that others have? Is it power? Is it fame? Is it women themselves?
Or, do they fear what an end to their scapegoat mechanism would do? When the woman, or scapegoat, speaks, it causes unrest. It causes a dismantling. Look what it did to former Southern Baptist seminary president Paige Patterson, one of the most prominent religious leaders of the late 20th century. Is the pro-life movement just a convenient, moral excuse to keep the woman as scapegoat and, therefore, maintain order?
Whatever it is, the pull to isolate a presidential vote to one issue is strong enough to blind many evangelicals to what Jesus would care about today: the poor (He was.), the immigrant (He was one.), the marginalized (He was.), the person of color (He was one.). It seems the primary rock some evangelicals are standing on is one in which the woman’s body is scapegoat, in which she is sacrificed.
Andrea Lucado is an author and freelance writer living in Austin.
Correction: This piece has been updated to include the correct spelling of Pontius Pilate and to clarify people who subscribe to the pro-life movement.