How Raphael Warnock Came to Be an Abortion-Rights Outlier

Raphael Warnock
Brynn Anderson / AP / The Atlantic

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.

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By contrast, in that same time period, pro-choice leaders liked to focus on religion. Before Roe, respected religious leaders launched the Clergy Counseling Service, an international network that helped women obtain both legal and illegal abortions from licensed medical professionals. In 1973, pro-abortion-rights, faith-based groups such as Catholics for Choice and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice opened their doors. In court, immediately after Roe, pro-abortion-rights attorneys argued that new restrictions violated the constitutional separation of church and state—and stripped religious, pro-choice people of their freedom of religion.

What changed in the decades since was simple: Abortion in the United States became a political wedge issue and a constitutional question, and these dynamics set up incentives that caused each movement to choose a side—opposing ones—on faith. At the same time, Black people of faith, who disproportionately leaned Democratic, became more likely to support abortion rights, even as the national conversation focused more and more on the white, conservative Christians who did not. All that led to the perception that, on matters of faith and morality, only one side had anything to say.

Polls do show that the most devout Americans (those who attend church or pray most often, for example) tend to more strongly oppose abortion. But any number of religious traditions don’t condemn abortion in straightforward terms, and there is a wide variety of opinions within each faith community. In reality, party identification and race are much better predictors of someone’s beliefs about abortion than faith is.

Partly because they have tended to be more devout, Black Americans were long more likely to oppose abortion than whites. In the past 10 years, however, Black voters have become significantly more likely to support abortion rights. Much of that boils down to party affiliation: While Republicans’ views on abortion have stayed constant over the past 10 years, Democrats have become far more likely to say abortion is morally acceptable (and to oppose criminalizing it). Many Black Americans, more than three-quarters of whom identify as or lean Democratic, have changed their views too. When people equate religious faith with opposition to abortion, they focus on a subset of mostly conservative, white, Christian believers—and miss out on a much more complex story.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the anti-abortion-rights movement seemed to be winning over Black Americans. Some, such as the civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson, did describe abortion as “Black genocide.” A Black woman, Mildred Jefferson, led the National Right to Life Committee, the nation’s largest anti-abortion-rights group. But despite poll after poll showing that Black Americans were more likely to oppose abortion, both the pro-life movement and the pro-choice movement remained predominantly white. After aligning with the Republican Party in 1980, the anti-abortion-rights movement struggled even more to recruit Black Americans. The GOP took positions on welfare law, criminal justice, and discrimination policy that a majority of Black Americans rejected. The result: Black Americans, even those who opposed abortion, felt uncomfortable joining a movement they associated with the Republican Party.

This broader restructuring helped lead to the realignment we live with today: an abortion debate that many believe splits largely along America’s faith divide. That shift in thinking began in the decade after Roe, as the two social movements fighting over this issue followed divergent strategies, pushing the pro-choice movement to align itself more deeply with rights-based arguments, and the anti-abortion-rights movement to make arguments—and outreach—more directly premised on faith.

For pro-choice groups, the sidelining of faith-based arguments came in response to an increasingly hostile Supreme Court. In 1980, the justices rejected a faith-based attack on the Hyde Amendment, a ban on Medicaid funding for abortion. The Court’s decision, Harris v. McRae, sent the message that the Court would sometimes let the government restrict abortion rights—and that pro-choice arguments about religion probably wouldn’t save what was left of Roe.

Politics also made pro-choice groups rethink faith-based arguments. By 1992, GOP presidents had appointed six of the Court’s nine justices. Most commentators agreed that, sooner or later, Roe would be gone. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, groups such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood concluded that politicians and voters—not courts—would have to save abortion rights. The problem was that many voters were ambivalent about abortion; polls suggested that many who supported legal abortion also thought it was morally questionable (and wanted it restricted).

Instead of fighting to change the status quo, pro-abortion-rights leaders tailored their message to appeal to an existing majority. That meant focusing on the freedom to choose abortion rather than defending the morality of that choice. Larger pro-choice organizations began using focus groups and polls to craft their message. Faith-based arguments, which dealt in depth with morality, were deemed counterproductive.

Meanwhile, as their movement became more religiously diverse, anti-abortion-rights activists began more often describing their cause as a religious one. In the 1980s, white evangelical Protestants began joining the movement in unprecedented numbers. At the time, white evangelicals seemed to be everywhere in American public life. Although mainline Protestant churches had been shrinking for some time, a surprising 35 percent of Gallup respondents in 1976—roughly half of all Protestants surveyed—described themselves as “born-again.” A series of celebrity conversions, including the rock-and-roll icon Bob Dylan and the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, underscored the mainstreaming of evangelicalism. Long a stronghold for born-again Christianity, the Sun Belt boomed as other regions rapidly lost population. The most successful televangelists had multimillion-dollar budgets and national audiences. George Gallup Jr., who led the polling firm of the same name, went so far as to predict that the 1980s would be the “decade of the evangelical.”

That was certainly true when it came to political influence. In the 1970s, different conservative evangelical denominations confronted deep divisions between southerners and northerners—and between and within faith traditions. By the 1980s, the culture wars had helped to overcome those differences. New Right operatives such as Paul Weyrich worked to mold the Christian right into a formidable political coalition. The Southern Baptist Convention did not officially oppose abortion rights until 1980. As the decade progressed, conservative white evangelicals arguably became the most visible opponents of abortion.

Then in the late 1980s, Operation Rescue, a clinic-blockade organization, burst onto the scene. Operation Rescue upended the anti-abortion-rights movement, leading thousands to risk arrest and fines to stop patients from entering clinics. The organization was unapologetically Christian. Many mainstream anti-abortion-rights groups did not want the controversy or legal liability that came with Operation Rescue’s lawbreaking. But the blockades showed that faith-based messages, not secular, constitutional ones, might energize abortion foes.

In the 1990s and 2000s, politics and law further pushed anti-abortion-rights groups toward religious arguments—and pro-abortion-rights groups away from them. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the Supreme Court surprised everyone by saving the right to choose abortion. But Casey chided the Roe Court for underestimating the value of fetal life, suggested that moral objections to abortion were legitimate, and implied that some women who might choose abortion would ultimately come to regret it. Now pro-abortion-rights groups had to defend not just Roe, but Casey. And Casey at times suggested that abortion itself was morally suspect. Faith-based arguments to the contrary did not seem likely to play well.

For their part, in the 2000s and 2010s, anti-abortion-rights advocantes reacted to a new conversation about religious liberty. At the time, conservative Christians and other faith leaders sought to push back against campaigns to allow gay and lesbian people to marry. Others fought against programs requiring employers to cover contraceptives (or pharmacists to fulfill prescriptions for them).

Conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews had already learned that they could get somewhere politically by working together. The need for an interfaith partnership seemed more urgent to them as polls captured what seemed to be the decline of Christianity in America. In 1976, roughly eight in 10 Americans identified as white and Christian. By 2017, only 43 percent did so. Meanwhile, non-Christian religions grew modestly, and the number of Americans who identified as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular continued to grow—reaching 26 percent in 2019, compared with only 17 percent just a decade before. Evangelical Protestants, who had bucked the trend during an earlier decline, saw their numbers drop. These declines cut across regional, racial, generational, and even party lines.

Religious-liberty arguments spoke to members of different faith communities who felt scorned or even silenced by what they saw as an ever more secular country. As important, connecting abortion to religious liberty helped conservatives reframe potentially unpopular positions. Rather than being against abortion, birth control, or LGBTQ rights, religious conservatives could be for religious liberty. Pro-life groups that had for decades said as little about faith as possible began branding themselves champions of religious liberty.

The story of the past decade wasn’t the same for Black Americans. There are prominent Black anti-abortion-rights activists, such as Catherine Davis of the Restoration Project or Ryan Bomberger of the Radiance Foundation, and Black organizations that fight to criminalize abortion. Some Black churches take strong stands against abortion, launch crisis pregnancy centers, or work to build anti-abortion-rights sentiment in their communities. But although insisting that abortion is immoral, other Black faith leaders do not back an outright ban—and focus on addressing the economic, social, and political disparities that brought so many Black women to end their pregnancies. Progressive pastors such as Warnock embrace abortion rights.

Black voters’ views about abortion remain complex, just as the positions of Black churches do. Nevertheless, politics seemed to have reshaped opinion: According to the most recent Gallup survey, Black voters were as likely as whites to say that abortion was moral—and slightly more likely to say it should always be legal.

Today, when people talk about religion and abortion, many think about the anti-abortion-rights movement (and only the anti-abortion-rights movement). That dynamic has obscured a more complex truth about race, religion, and social-movement politics: No one has ever had a monopoly on faith in this debate. There have always been pro-choice pastors such as Reverend Warnock. Caricaturing those who disagree with us—or pretending they don’t exist—will only drive us further apart.