Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans who follow a religious tradition believe abortion should be legal. “It’s astounding how many Roman Catholics are pro-choice and it’s astounding how many evangelicals are becoming pro-choice,” said Rev. Christopher Roe, a minister at Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids.
Need to Know
- A 2022 Pew survey found that 66% of Black Protestants, 60% of White non-evangelical Protestants, and 56% of Catholics openly support abortion being legal.
- Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Survey—a study which polled more than 35,000 Americans from more than two dozen religious traditions—found that 57% of them believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
- Founded in 1869 in Grand Rapids, Fountain Street Church is led by pro-choice ministers. The church also operates a choice fund, which helps low-income individuals who are seeking abortions overcome financial barriers and get the care they need.
MICHIGAN—There exists a narrative in the United States that most people of faith are anti-abortion. While it’s true that members of the Christian right have been vocal, aggressive supporters of anti-abortion measures and have spent 40 years waging war on abortion rights, polling has repeatedly found that a majority of Americans who follow a religious tradition believe abortion should be legal.
An April poll from the Washington Post and ABC found that 59% of white Catholics and 67% of white non-evangelical Protestants want the Supreme Court to uphold Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that guaranteed the right to abortion, but is on the verge of being overturned. Roughly 6 in 10 people in each group also believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
A 2022 Pew survey also found that 66% of Black Protestants, 60% of white non-evangelical Protestants, and 56% of Catholics support abortion being legal.
“It’s astounding how many Roman Catholics are pro-choice and it’s astounding how many evangelicals are becoming pro-choice,” said Rev. Christopher Roe, acting senior minister at Grand Rapids’ Fountain Street Church.
His colleague, Rev. Greta Jo Seidohl, assistant minister at Fountain Street Church, said that for her and other religious followers, support for abotion rights is actually rooted in their faith.
“Pregnant-capable people deserve and have the sacred right to make their own choices about their bodies, about how to have families, when to have families, if to have children, and that sort of thing–how to take care of themselves,” she said.
Clear majorities of most faith traditions surveyed support abortion rights. In fact, Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Survey—a study which polled more than 35,000 Americans from more than two dozen different religious traditions—found that 57% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The numbers varied widely across different beliefs, from 90% of Unitarian Universalists and 79% of mainline Episcopalians saying abortion should be legal, to 30% of Southern Baptists and 27% of Mormons saying the same.
What research finds time and time again is that religious people’s views on abortion are much more nuanced—and much more open to abortion—than common narratives might suggest. Indeed, the very notion that someone could be vocally pro-choice and a faith leader can be confounding to some.
“I understand for some people, it’s maybe an idea they’ve never been introduced to before,” said Rev. Katey Zeh, a pastor and the CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), a national organization for faith leaders who advocate for reproductive dignity and freedom, and who offer spiritual care and accompaniment to people seeking abortions. “For them, it’s brand new, and I understand–especially having come out of a faith tradition where there was [either] right [or] wrong…I understand that you might not be able to see how these things are connected.”
Zeh grew up evangelical and conservative in southeast Georgia, where gender roles were very specific and the tenets of purity culture—specifically the idea that one should wait for marriage to have sex—were considered moral and just.
After graduating from Davidson University with a degree in religious studies, Zeh attended Yale Divinity School. Even though she was in seminary, she was also wrestling with what it meant to have a body and to possess sexuality. One day, Zeh came across RCRC, the organization she now leads. The group was on campus to offer students pastoral care trainings–specifically, the chance to learn about what it’s like to accompany someone who’s seeking an abortion.
“I was so taken by that, because it was so practical and I knew it was going to help so many people,” she said.
Zeh set up a tour of a local clinic to better understand what patients and providers go through. When she got there, she was greeted by Christian anti-abortion protesters outside.
“I was assumed to be a patient there to have an abortion, which was a very impactful experience for me because I felt what it felt like to have Christian people–like me–yelling at me, telling me not to go inside,” she said.
Once in the clinic, Zeh said everything changed for her. “I had the most sacred experience of watching the nurses and the doctors and the staff care for patients.”
That prompted her to become a regular volunteer at the clinic, where she held patients’ hands during procedures—something she described as transformative.
“Here I am, a seminary student, and the Christian people I see who are overtly Christian are outside yelling at the patients,” she said. “It was just so sacred to accompany people through this very vulnerable moment—which for me, as someone who follows the model of Jesus, that is what I see him doing. He was someone who showed up for people during their most difficult moments, offered them care and compassion and love, and spoke up against unjust laws.”
Zeh’s devotion to Jesus is central to her fight for abortion rights, but for some Christians, that same faith has been central to their fight against them.
The Origin of The Religious Right’s War on Abortion
In the 1970s, Republican political operatives realized that they could weaponize growing anti-abortion sentiment among grassroots Catholics and evangelicals to build a voting bloc comprised of Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons to elect Republicans.
By uniting members of these disparate faith traditions under the banner of the anti-abortion Christian right, Republicans crafted a potent coalition that has been mutually beneficial. In exchange for their votes every election year, Republican politicians have passed a glut of increasingly radical anti-abortion restrictions supported by the Christian right.
This partnership continues to this day, even as Republican lawmakers have repeatedly fallen short of living out the socially conservative “family values” they espouse. The relationship has arguably gotten stronger in recent years, despite ample evidence showing the Republican Party’s economic agenda helps corporations and the very rich while doing little to nothing for most families.
Using abortion this way, as a wedge issue to divide voters and drive socially conservative Christians to the polls, is a form of gaslighting, according to Fountain Street Church’s Rev. Roe.
Abortion is “being used to distract from the larger systemic and structural issues that our country is so steeped in and not addressing,” he said.
And those issues are many. During the same 40-plus years that the Christian right has been waging war on abortion, their partners in Republican Party have overhauled the tax code to benefit corporations and the rich, gutted the collective bargaining rights of workers, and deregulated industries like health care—a series of moves that helped destroy the middle class and helped contribute to the extreme income inequality now plaguing the country.
One of the Christian right’s most common tactics–using Bible verses out of context–is essentially weaponizing religion, said Zeh.
“It’s been weaponized and intertwined with this really well-orchestrated political machine around this white, Christian nationalist agenda. They’ve done such a good job of amplifying what is really a fringe belief, and making it seem like that is the only belief that’s out there. In reality, there is no one understanding of, ‘Is abortion right or wrong?’ There’s a lot of theological diversity on this.”
The religious left, in contrast, has been far less likely to rally voters through faith—which has had political consequences.
“I think folks who tend to be more liberal leaning, who tend to be pro-choice, are also less likely to claim their faith as a motivation,” said Fountain Street Church’s Rev. Seidohl. “The left, I think in a commitment to separation of church and state, has forgotten that there’s a difference between political and moral discussions and that their religious convictions have a place in moral discussions—and abortion access and how the government legislates our bodies is a moral discussion.”
This imbalance, Seidohl said, has contributed to the American political culture’s conflation of devoutness with opposition to abortion rights. In other words, the idea that a person can only be religious or pro-abortion, but not both. She also thinks that part of the reason that so many self-proclaimed Christians are anti-abortion is not because of the Bible, but because of somebody else’s interpretation of the Bible. She encourages these individuals to return to their sacred text.
“Those conversations are between you and that text, and not you and some intermediary and that text,” she said.