When the Democratic Senate candidate Reverend Raphael Warnock tweeted that he was a “pro-choice pastor,” backlash arrived within minutes. Conservative commentators including Ben Shapiro and Erick Erickson lined up to mock Warnock. A group of conservative Black ministers recently sent Warnock a letter asking him to reconsider his position. Representative Doug Collins, a Republican and an ordained Southern Baptist minister, called the tweet “a lie from the bed of hell.”
In this brief and explosive incident, one of the most significant dynamics of America’s abortion politics was laid bare: the seeming invisibility of pro-choice religious voices. It’s not that pro-choice faith leaders such as Warnock aren’t out there. It’s that, for decades, they’ve been losing the fight for the spotlight.
It’s hard now to imagine a world where pro-choice groups focused more on religious arguments than pro-life ones did. But for a long time, that was the case. For more than a decade after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion-rights leaders avoided religious arguments, while pro-abortion-rights groups emphasized them. The anti-abortion-rights movement’s Catholic roots (and open opposition to birth control) made winning over a more religiously diverse group of supporters difficult. So in the 1960s and early ’70s, anti-abortion-rights activists sought to reframe their cause as a secular, constitutional struggle. Abortion foes claimed the mantle of the United States civil-rights movement, and looked not to scripture, but to the Declaration of Independence and the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. For abortion opponents, invoking faith could threaten all of the work their movement had done to build a multidenominational base—and to become a major player in U.S. politics.