Conservative Liberals – A Conversation with Andrew R. Lewis

LewisAndrew R. Lewis is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. His book, The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars, was published last fall by Cambridge University Press. In it, he argues that the anti-abortion activism of the 1980s and 90s inaugurated a shift toward liberal language on the Christian Right.

ECM: Your book argues that anti-abortion activism has prompted the Christian Right to embrace liberal discourse. How so?

ARL: The primary argument is that the politics of abortion have taught conservative Christians about the value of public arguments grounded in the language of rights, as rights are one of the most accessible forms of American political discourse. This is particularly true as American culture has become more secular and less apt to embrace calls for public morality.

Going back to the early days of the pro-life movement in the 1960s, there was a strong liberal, human rights element to anti-abortion activists, seeking to defend the right-to-life of the unborn. Much of this came from Catholics. As evangelicals and the Christian Right joined the cause in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was often more rhetorical focus on the immorality of abortion than the rights of the unborn. This reflected the politics of the “Moral Majority.”

A rights-based stream within the pro-life movement persisted, however, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the right-to-life rhetoric triumphed for both the elite activists and the rank-and-file. Importantly, this right-to-life-based framework has allowed for opposition to abortion to compete with the liberal right-to-privacy based argument, serving as a quality public counter-argument. Even more, as conservative Christians have increasingly become a cultural minority in the past two decades, they have begun embracing rights-based rhetoric first learned and used in the pro-life movement in a whole host of other areas of public life, specifically free speech and religious liberty politics. 

ECM: The minority angle is interesting since many scholars have traced the founding of the Christian Right back to desegregation, rather than abortion. Does racial politics factor into your argument?

ARL: My book is not specifically about the causes of the Christian Right or the shifting of partisan alignments in the South in the latter half of the twentieth century, though I do think my work has some implications for these arguments.

I point readers to those debates, particularly about the role of race versus abortion in the launching of the Christian Right. But I am particularly interested in how conservative Christian politics have been transformed after partisan realignment has occurred—after the conservative Christians have been largely integrated into Republican politics. It is the later period, from the mid-1990s to the present, when the politics of rights have emerged as a dominant force in Christian Right politics. Some of the most thorough quantitative analysis suggests that racial politics were more responsible for partisan change prior to 1990, but after 1990 abortion and other cultural issues played an important role. And so I think I can say with confidence that abortion politics were particularly important in this period.

That said, I do think my book provides a challenge to the historical narrative that minimizes the importance of the politics of abortion in evangelical and Christian Right politics. My book shows how central this issue has been to a host of conservative Christian issues over time, both in elite and mass politics. Abortion is central to conservative Christian politics because it is what political scientists call an “easy issue”—an issue on which people may develop strong, stable opinions. Therefore, it can be used to expand the scope of political conflict into new arenas, and over the past few decades it has been used to teach conservative Christians about the value of rights.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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