When Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed her state’s new abortion law, she called it a “powerful testament” to the belief that “every life is a sacred gift from God.”
Ivey, a Southern Baptist, was far from alone in viewing the law – now the country’s most restrictive – in religious terms.
But Alabama provides a case study in how difficult it can be to dissect religion’s complicated role in the nation’s fraught abortion debate. It often reveals itself in moments of triumph, as in Ivey’s celebration – or protest, as when a woman stood outside the Alabama statehouse dressed like a character from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a work of fiction about the dangers of dystopian theocracy.
Most of the time, religion runs like an undercurrent through this debate. You know it’s there, even when you can’t see it directly.
A full 43% of Alabamians identify as white Christians. That’s 10 percentage points higher than the number who identify as Republicans, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. And we know from studies that high levels of religious observance – measured by how often one prays, attends church and reads Scripture – correlate with conservative views on abortion.
But Alabama laws and similar bills nationwide carefully avoid explicit mentions of religion. Except for a brief nod to the “sanctity” of life, the text draws on natural law – a legal philosophy that posits a universal and objective set of laws. (The fact that those laws are assumed to be created by God is often left out of legal texts.) Similarly, Alabama’s law cites science, not scripture and makes ethical arguments based in largely secular terms.
One of those arguments, which compares abortion to historical genocides, including the Holocaust, deeply offended Jewish groups, who said the law “misappropriates a profoundly tragic historical event for political purposes.”
Nearly all 25 Alabama senators who voted for the bill – all of them men – list their conservative Christian bona fides in official biographies. They’re deacons and ushers, Sunday school teachers and missionaries.
But six Alabama senators who voted against the bill also tout their Christian faith in official biographies, demonstrating another facet of the abortion debate: Religious views are more diverse than we often assume.
30% of Southern Baptists say abortion should be legal in most circumstances
According their official biographies, many of the Alabama lawmakers who voted for the new abortion restrictions are members of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest fellowship of evangelical Christians.
The SBC’s official position on abortion is that “all human life is a sacred gift from our sovereign God” and that abortion is only moral in “very rare cases where the life of the mother is clearly in danger.”
Even among Southern Baptists, though, there is some diversity of opinion on abortion.
Three in 10 Southern Baptists say abortion should be legal in most circumstances, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.
Overall, 61% of white evangelical Protestants oppose abortion rights, which is actually down from 70% in 2017. To put that number in context, far more white evangelicals (76%) supported President Trump’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.
And the Christian denominations whose members show the most opposition to abortion – Jehovah’s Witnesses and Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal movement – largely shy away from partisan politics. In both faiths, more than 70% of believers opposed abortion in most or all circumstances.
It’s also worth noting that several of the Alabama senators who voted for the new law belong to churches with less restrictive views on abortion. Del Marsh, the Senate leader, is an Episcopalian, which condones abortion in cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormalities, exceptions that are not in Alabama’s bill.
And according to Pew, Marsh is a distinct minority among fellow Episcopalians, nearly 80% of whom said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Alabama Senator Greg Albritton, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, isn’t such an outlier among Mormons, only 27% of whom support abortion rights.
But, again, church’s official position is more permissive than Alabama’s. While Latter-day Saints can be excommunicated for supporting “elective abortion,” certain circumstances, such as rape, incest or a pregnancy that threatens the mother’s health can “justify” an abortion, the church says.
Politics, not religion, is the best indicator of how someone votes on abortion
As for the six Alabama senators who voted against the bill, several are Baptists, though they’re affiliated with traditions outside the Southern Baptist Convention.
Nationally, 57% of the historically black National Baptist Convention support abortion rights. So do the majority of other predominantly black denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, according to Pew.
And despite the Catholic Church’s ardent battle against abortion, one of the Alabama senators who voted against the new law, Senator Linda Coleman-Madison, is Catholic. Coleman-Madison told ELLE magazine that she is “personally against abortion” but is pro-choice “in the sense that I could not or would not impose my will, my desire, or my beliefs on anyone because it is an individual choice.”
More than half of American Catholics agree that abortion should be legal in most or all cases, according to Pew.
So rather than look at religion, the better indicator of how someone will vote on abortion seems to be political partisanship. All 25 senators who voted for the Alabama bill are Republicans, while all six who voted against it are Democrats.