The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics

How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars

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Andrew R. Lewis
Cambridge Studies in Social Theory, Religion and Politics
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , April
     291 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When US bishops voiced their opposition to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate, they used the concept of religious liberty to argue against the requirement that all employers provide insurance coverage for contraception. Sounding like a guide post of religious freedom, the bishops declared, “[it] is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide coverage for contraception or sterilization, even if that violates their religious beliefs.” Two years ago—taking up that banner of the right to religious freedom—the University of Notre Dame decided to stop offering health insurance that covered contraception. The bishops proclaimed it a triumph of the founding father’s vision of the right to religious liberty in the US. Subsequently, when the Trump administration began proposing that Title X no longer cover birth control for women, conservative Catholic voters applauded this suggestion as an act of religious freedom. The same language that once defended the right to not practice religion, and guaranteed that religious institutions did not have political control of the government, was now being used in the battle over reproductive rights. 

As a scholar of Catholicism in the US, I feel a sense of vertigo when I hear these proclamations. For generations, the Catholic hierarchy has used the Thomistic language of morality and natural law to make pro-life arguments against abortion and contraception. However, in the last ten years the very language of religious freedom has become an effective way for the bishops to advocate anti-rights policies—using the language of human rights. Andrew R. Lewis’s book, The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars, has calmed some of my unsteadiness. With a combination of quantitative analysis and historical research, Lewis argues that abortion has shifted the way conservative Christians engage in US politics. 

Lewis begins with a historical analysis of the ways conservative Christians have learned and adapted the language of “rights.” Analyzing the last forty years of debates over abortion rights, Lewis’s history starts in the 1970s with Francis Schaeffer’s rhetorical merger of “minority-based anti-abortion positions” and “rights-based arguments”—which advocated for the rights of fetuses (39)—and concludes with contemporary religious opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Southern Baptist leaders argued that the new law forced employers to “pay for health insurance for that which they find unconscionable” (105). Lewis presents a genealogy of the way debates about contraception and health care have also become fights over abortion. His use of rhetorical and statistical analysis is convincing, and the complexity of these views speaks to the need for more qualitative research on the nuances of these deeply held opinions. 

Throughout The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics, Lewis compares attitudes on abortion and the affiliated “life issue” from the perspectives of both “elite” and “rank-and-file Christians.” This analysis helps readers think through who is counted in the label “conservative Christian.” Careful to avoid aligning either the rank-and-file or the elite as a complete picture of the label, Lewis instead notes places of convergence and divergence. Significantly, he argues that the movement of the anti-abortion concern from one of morality to one based on free speech and personal rights has been “episodic rather than linear.” This has been especially true for non-clergy Christians (58). This serves as a reminder that sermons and political action only tell part of the story of conservative Christian politics—how the people in the pews interpret those sermons is often overlooked.

Lewis closes the text by stepping away from the issue of abortion and analyzing how changing attitudes about abortion affect the way that Christians view affiliated topics: health care, capital punishment, and same-sex marriage. With this move, Lewis demonstrates the subtle ways the abortion issue influences other concerns. For example, he tracks the correlation between Christians’s opposition to abortion and their opposition to same-sex marriage. The right to religious liberty—defined by Lewis’s interlocutors as freedom to exercise their religiously-informed opinions—links the two. Lewis’s work maintains that the topic of abortion is an instrumental part of how conservative Christian’s conceive of rights in the contemporary US.

Lewis argues that evangelicals learning to extend rights in new ways over the last forty years indicates that the “politics of abortion have the potential to activate rights extending among American evangelicals” (166). Therefore, he suggests, evangelicals might learn to extend rights for immigrants and other minorities (170). Lewis’s need to conclude with this optimistic glance to the future is appreciated. However, this interpretative optimism seems to overread the type of rights-extending he documents throughout the book. The conservative Christians in Lewis’s work are much more strategic in their use of rights language. Though the logic is understandable and attractive, there seems to be not enough evidence that embracing rights language is leading “rank-and-file” conservative Christians to extend rights to minorities.

This examination of religious-based use of rights language and religious liberty offers clear interpretations of rhetorical shifts among a range of religious actors. Lewis’s work contributes much to a collective understanding of how religion participates on the political landscape.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Katherine Dugan is Assistant Professor of Religion at Springfield College.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew R. Lewis is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati. He researches the intersection of religion, law, and American politics. He contributes to FiveThirtyEight and other media outlets, and is currently Book Review Editor at the journal Politics and Religion.



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