Building the Cultural and Political Power of Pro-Choice Religious Communities
Please join us for an online colloquium on Thursday, May 14 from 3:00 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. ET hosted by Political Research Associates. As the Supreme Court prepares what could be another landmark abortion decision, we imagine what a movement rooted in transdenominational solidarity could achieve. We will discuss strategies for building the cultural and political power of pro-choice religious communities with a panel of distinguished guests.
Please email Patti Miller to request an invitation or if you have questions about our event.
Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson (Moderator)
Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson is the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice’s Director of Spiritual Care and Activism. Dr. Cari collaborates with religious and community leaders, advocating for reproductive freedom as a vital aspect of human dignity and divine integrity. Cari seeks to help foster a society in which religious pluralism and cultural diversity are valued, as she believes a society’s greatness is reflected in its demonstrated commitment to honor, care for and nurture each individual, especially those most marginalized. She coaches leaders to strengthen their capacity and courage as agents of social healing and transformation. She is a minister in the United Church of Christ, who grew up in the Pentecostal Church and participates regularly in other spiritual traditions. Dr. Cari has a Ph.D. in Christian Social Ethics and is the author of several books.
Frederick Clarkson (Presenter)
Frederick Clarkson is a Senior Research Analyst with Political Research Associates and author of the work being discussed in this colloquium: “The Prochoice Religious Community May be the Future of Reproductive Rights, Access, and Justice,” and “An Annotated Directory of the Prochoice Religious Community in the United States.”
He is a nationally recognized expert on both the Christian Right and the Religious Left who has studied and written about religion and politics for nearly four decades. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Mother Jones, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Ms. magazine, Church & State, and Religion Dispatches.
His expertise has been sought out by major media outlets from The Guardian to the New York Times to NPR. He is the editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America and author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. His articles have been anthologized in scholarly works, most recently in Trumping Democracy in the United States From Ronald Reagan to Alt-Right. He previously served as an investigative editor for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and as the Communications Director for the Institute for Democracy Studies.
Rachel Tabachnick (Presenter)
Rachel Tabachnick is an independent writer, researcher, and speaker on conservative infrastructure and activism. A former Fellow at Political Research Associates, she is the author of a response paper presented at this colloquium.
Rachel has been researching and writing about the Religious Right for two decades. Much of her work is focused on the impact of the Religious Right on science, education, foreign policy, and civil rights. She has been interviewed on radio across the nation including NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and her expertise has been sought and cited by numerous nonprofits and major news outlets including the Associated Press, The New York Times, Slate, and Salon, Rolling Stones, Haaretz, and the New Yorker. She has written for publications including PRA’s The Public Eye and was a prolific blogger at the group blog Talk to Action in the early 2000s, where she developed an international reputation for her research on Dominionism and the New Apostolic Reformation.
She is active in the Democratic Party and nonprofit organizations in Pennsylvania, where she is well-known for her presentations on the intersection of the Religious Right and conservative infrastructure at the annual statewide Progressive Summit. She was raised Southern Baptist in Georgia but left the denomination in the 1980s, following that denomination’s fundamentalist shift, and converted to Judaism when she married her husband. Following her adult bat mitzvah, she was the first woman to lead the main prayer service at a large Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Rev. Sung Yeon Choimorrow
Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the Executive Director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. She is a first-generation immigrant working mom who is passionate about building power to create change for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women and girls. Under her leadership, NAPAWF has gone from one organizer (herself) to a team of nine working on immigrant rights, economic justice, and reproductive rights and health, using the reproductive justice framework.
Ms. Choimorrow was previously the Director of Organizing at Interfaith Worker Justice, leading collaborative work with community organizations, unions and faith communities on worker organizing and worker justice public policy. She came to the U.S. at the age of 18 to study Political Science and Urban Studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL and earned an M.Div from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church(U.S.A.).
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Todd Peters
Rebecca Todd Peters is a feminist and Christian social ethicist who serves as a Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University. Her most recent book, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice, is a Christian argument for abortion as a moral good, part of her work of developing a Christian ethic of reproductive justice as the framework for thinking about women’s whole reproductive lives, from access to contraception to fertility treatments to unplanned pregnancies.
Her other books include In Search of the Good Life: The Ethics of Globalization, which won the 2003 Trinity Book Prize, Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community and World, To Do Justice: A Guide for Progressive Christians, and Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World. She received her M.Div. and Ph.D. in Christian Social Ethics from Union Theological Seminary and is ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Cherisse Scott has served in the Reproductive Justice movement for 15 years. She is the founder and CEO of SisterReach, located in Memphis, Tennessee. Some of SisterReach’s work under her leadership includes their 2015 research report on the need for comprehensive sexuality education for southern youth of color; their Pro Woman Billboard campaign organized in opposition to anti-abortion billboards erected in Memphis; their Faith & Advocacy Training Curricula which trains people working at the intersection of faith, social justice and religion using the RJ lens as a catalyst for culture and social change.
In 2016, Cherisse presented to the United Nations regarding the impact of Tennessee’s “fetal assault” law on TN women and families. SisterReach later conducted research and released a report on the Impact of the Fetal Assault Law on Marginalized Women and leveraged it to inform policy and procedure change on the local, state and national levels. Cherisse and the work of SisterReach has been featured in the January 2018 edition of O Magazine and recognized by Essence Magazine as one of their 2018 Woke 100. Cherisse is featured in the 2019 premier documentary, PERSONHOOD: Policing Pregnant Women In America, and is a featured contributor in Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change The World (2020), a book of essays from some of the leading voices in social change. She is an ordained minister in the Christian faith, mother, singer and songwriter, poet and national speaker on reproductive justice and other human rights violations experienced by vulnerable Tennesseans.
Elaina Ramsey is the Executive Director of the Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She has more than a decade of campaign, advocacy, grassroots organizing, and communications experience at the intersection of faith and politics. In addition to being a prolific writer, Elaina has served as editor of Sojourners magazine and held positions with Women’s Action for New Directions and Obama for America. She is also the current Interim Executive Director at Red Letter Christians.
Elaina earned master’s degrees in both theological studies from Wesley Theological Seminary and in international peace and conflict resolution from American University. She trained as an organizer in the South Bronx with the Industrial Areas Foundation and, in 2019, was recognized as a Coolidge Scholar by Auburn Theological Seminary for her work in religion and reproductive justice. Elaina is a former fundamentalist evangelical and a current member of the United Church of Christ.
Katherine Stewart is a journalist and author who has written extensively about the religious right and Christian nationalism. She is the author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, a deeply reported investigation of the inner workings and leading personalities of the movement that has turned religion into a tool for political power. The book, published in March 2020, features the development of abortion as a political focus for the Christian Right. A previous book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on American’s Children, is an exposé of the coordinated effort by Christian nationalists to advance their agenda through the public schools. She has been featured on such broadcast outlets as National Public Radio, MSNBC, and the BBC. She contributes to the New York Times opinion section, The New Republic, the New York Review of Books, and the Washington Post.
The Prochoice Religious Community May be the Future of Reproductive Rights, Access, and Justice
By Frederick Clarkson
“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” Matthew 5:15 NRSV
There is a vast prochoice religious community in the United States that could provide the moral, cultural, and political clout to reverse current antiabortion policy trends in the United States. Most, but not all, of this cohort are Christians and Jews. There are also deeply considered, theologically acceptable, prochoice positions and, therefore, prochoice people and institutions within all of major world religious traditions present in the United States, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Chinese traditions. Taken together, they have vast resources, institutional capacity, historic and central roles in many towns and cities, and cadres of well-educated leaders at every level –– from national denominational offices to local congregational leaders, current and retired.
This cohort is often measured by reputable pollsters and may actually comprise the majority or near majority of the religious community. Nevertheless, it is not well identified or sought out by the organized prochoice community, the media, and elected officials. What’s more, this wide and diverse constituency is insufficiently organized by the prochoice religious community itself. But it could be.
This essay will show that this demographic and the institutions and traditions that inform it, may be vital for the restoration and sustaining of abortion rights, access, and justice in the United States at a time when the Christian Right and its allies in state and federal government are undermining and seeking to eliminate them.
First a word about terms: Although the term prochoice is used broadly, it is inadequate for many reasons, a few of which are mentioned below. But being for or against choice to varying degrees is how most of the major religious bodies frame their positions and it is how most polling is framed. So, it is necessary for purposes of this essay.
One of the limitations, as Presbyterian theologian Rebecca Todd Peters says in her 2018 book Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice, is that it creates a false binary between prochoice and prolife, when, most people are both. Prolife in the sense that whatever their view, they recognize that whether or not to have a child is a moral decision, but prochoice in the sense that they also believe that abortion should be legal.
Second, the broader view of reproductive justice is gaining traction in the religious community. A leading reproductive justice group, SisterSong, defines it as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” It also includes, as Loretta J. Ross and Rickie Solinger explained in their book, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction, the idea that individuals do not have the ability to make choices on equal terms, when factoring in economics, as well as matters of family and community, and a variety of life responsibilities.
Peters told journalist Stephanie Russell-Kraft that this approach contextualizes rather than isolates abortion, thus providing what she calls a counter-narrative or a counter-framework.
“The three principles that that movement identifies are the right not to have a child, the right to have a child, and the right to parent the children that we have. I think what is so powerful about that framework is that it recognizes that the issue is about parenting and families and motherhood, and the right not to be a mother, and the right to be a mother, and the right to raise our children in healthy and safe environments,” Peters said. “A reproductive-justice framework highlights the difficulties women face when they do have children, in raising those children in a country that tolerates obscene levels of poverty, obscene levels of racism and damage to vulnerable children and families.”
We should note that access to reproductive health care has both practical and legal implications, often impinging on choice, since for example, even when abortion is legal, if abortion care is not available, the right to choose is rendered meaningless. In fact, making choice meaningless by making it inaccessible has been the stated strategy of most of the antiabortion movement since the late 1990s and it has been quite successful. What’s more, lack of access to reproductive health care disproportionately affects women who are poor, women who are rural, women who are immigrants, and women of color.
This essay is not intended to resolve these matters so much as to suggest that there are ways forward that can and should focus on the organized prochoice religious community. This includes the prochoice religious community that has yet to be organized, but which nevertheless, brings a history of deeply considered and evolving moral thought to the table, as well as leaders, institutions, and the legitimacy that comes from serving as central institutions both in communities and, more broadly, in American history.
The main recommendation is that the prochoice religious community must gather sufficient cultural and political power to regain and make permanent what has been lost in reproductive rights and access in recent years –– as well as what is likely to be further lost in the likelihood that Roe v. Wade is overturned. To do this it will be necessary to advance a culture and politics of health care that makes reproductive health care central and not marginal, and reflects these values in law and public policy.
The following broad considerations are intended to help jump start the process of getting there.
Generally, the prochoice religious community needs to discover itself. Since a majority or near majority of all religious people in the United States is prochoice, finding likeminded people in all parts of the country is within reach. PRA’s Annotated Directory of Prochoice Religious Organizations the U.S. may help with that.
More specifically, the prochoice religious community needs to create organizations outside of traditional religious institutions. A significant part of the historic success of the Christian Right 90 has come through the organizations and actions of what are called parachurch organizations, operating trans-denominationally –– which is to say, outside of, but not necessarily in coordination or in conflict with denominations. There are certainly already small scale projects, but to meet the current challenges new entities will need to be considered, developed and scaled up to be profoundly culturally and politically influential.
The prochoice religious community needs to envision what such transdenominational organizations of its own might be like. The Christian Right has had the benefit of being more religiously and racially homogeneous while the prochoice religious community will necessarily be religiously and racially more diverse, and the nature of the diversity will vary, depending Building the Cultural and Political Power of Pro-Choice Religious Communities: Strategic Considerations Political Research Associates 29 on locality and region. Navigating our differences while building greater unity maybe challenging, but the call to do so is at the core of the values of most religious communities –– and this usually includes the commitment to the values of religious freedom, religious equality, and separation of church and state.
For these reasons, creating one big national organization may be an unworkable goal, at least in the near term. A more promising series of possibilities would be the creation of such transdenominational groups as state, local or regional entities –– at least as pilot projects to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Although such groups would be separate, they would all need to have some common understandings about their mission at the outset. They would need to be dedicated to finding people who share a vision of creating a politically strong prochoice religious community. Some of these groups may need to be specific to a certain tradition, Catholicism, for example. Or they might be ecumenical, involving various strains of Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and others. Or they might be multi-faith. Most American communities are racially and religiously diverse to varying degrees, so creating such diverse groups ought to be possible. In the spirit of ideological diversity, some may be more oriented to a choice point of view, others with a justice point of view. Still others may want to consider a multi-issue approach, in the manner of what Religious Left organizations might be like if reproductive choice, access and justice were part of the agenda. All should be considered, encouraged, supported and understood to be part of a greater whole on a common mission.
An important consideration will be whether these groups would be more or less single issue, or have a more integrated, multi-issue view. For example, are reproductive rights and health care actually separate from human and civil rights and health care in the broadest sense of those ideas? These questions are already foundational to the conversation on reproductive rights and access, and are likely to become even more so as religious organizations and leaders that have existing, deeply considered social visions begin to more fundamentally engage the politics of all this.
The mission of the groups, whatever their composition, must be grounded in the basic values of religious freedom, religious pluralism and separation of church and state. Without this grounding, it is difficult to relate to the constitutional and legal issues, and explain how a variety of views on abortion can be accommodated in a pluralist society, even as the prochoice religious community strives to regain what has been lost, and hold to a vision of improving even on what used to be.
This brings us to the second main type of multi-faith organization: political organizations, whether state regional or national that are able to develop an electoral constituency not only as a voter base, but developed as a source of skilled political workers, candidates and office holders. Thus knowledge and skills for electoral politics must be foundational to building for power sufficient to regain what has been lost and to move beyond it. These organizations will understand that the education and outreach activities they engage in are ongoing process across election cycles, and must not need to be reinvented each election cycle, or organized solely around a candidate or party. But a movement based on democratic values, necessarily requires a deeply held democratic vision and profound knowledge of the skills it will take to make it so.
It is important to distinguish between this kind of political organization and traditional educational interest groups, lobbies, and coalitions. What would be different would be that these organizations would have a set of unambiguous principles (not just policy goals) towards which they are working in the post-Roe era, and will rally people who agree with these principles, want to culturally and politically pursue them, and seek the resources and skills to infuse them into culture, government and law. This ultimately means creating lasting institutions and organizations to carry this forward.
In order to sustain a vision of building for power, it is essential not to wait for permission from national organizations (whether from church or other religious bodies, advocacy groups, or political parties) to act. There is also no need to wait for a national organization to make a faith outreach effort in order to take action. The idea outlined here is different. Independent entities can make their own decisions, albeit in consultation with friends and allies, as appropriate. In that spirit, it will be important, for example, for groups to keep their own contact lists and ask that candidates and consultants share information and not hoard it. A predatory culture of political consulting and egocentric politicians has contributed to getting us to where we are.
All this may require the creation of a third kind of organization, a clearing house, and a strategy and training center, to create or to point people to appropriate resources and conduct ongoing organizer, campaign and candidate schools. Once established, trainings can be conducted anywhere; especially as a cadre of experienced trainers is developed. These trainings would not necessarily be a substitute for existing training schools (although they could be) but perhaps more as a supplement to fill in the missing elements of what is need for the prochoice religious community.
Creating a culture of learning will be essential. This will include ongoing education in how to connect religious values to prochoice public policy and politics; and ongoing education on the history and nature of the Christian Right, the antiabortion movement, and the ongoing evolution and evaluation of strategy, tactics and campaigns; as well as the history of the prochoice religious community, and the lessons learned. As in any endeavor, the competition changes and adapts to new circumstances, and all sides learn from their experiences, or risk repeating their mistakes. The prochoice religious community must have that capacity and integrate it into ongoing tactical and strategic thought.
In support of such efforts, for example, the prochoice religious community may want to develop–– sooner rather than later–– short, well-produced educational videos aimed at highlighting prochoice religious leaders and bringing prochoice religious views into public life –– instead of allowing them to be marginalized. There should be a recommended reading list. And if the existing literature is insufficient (which it probably is) that literature will need to be created by underwriting and commissioning books and articles, and their distribution for maximum impact. Eventually, there should also be remote online education and training programs.
The prochoice religious community should also have its own mission oriented online magazine. Such a publication could be located either within another publication as an incubator/fiscal sponsor, within the center, or as a freestanding start up. Similarly, it may require a specialized publishing house or imprints from several publishers to meet the needs of a vigorous new movement. Encouraging and supporters of writers in this area will be important. Arguably, the many topics related to the prochoice religious community could and should also be foci for any number of existing outlets.
These are things that could be underwritten by traditional philanthropies and developed and incubated through non-profit organizations. And while some of these things could happen quickly, most will take time, planning and development. In the interests of time, establishing such a center within an existing institution to serve as an incubator and fiscal sponsor, might be a consideration. This center should not be located in Washington, DC, where there is too strong a centrifugal pull into the details of policy, legislation, and the courts. The development of a prochoice religious community of sufficient cultural and political power to restore and advance what has been lost, cannot afford to get mired in the contemporary details of government. This is necessarily a matter of grassroots political development. The location of a center might be better in a city or state with a supportive prochoice religious community, such as Cleveland, Ohio, headquarters of the United Church of Christ. New York City is home to The Episcopal Church and many prochoice Jewish organizations, United Methodist Women. Chicago, Illinois, is headquarters to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Chicago Theological Seminary. Boston is home to the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Episcopal Divinity School, and more. These are of course, just ideas and are not intended as a plan, although obviously some or all of them could become part of a plan going forward.
The Power of Parachurch: A Response
By Rachel Tabachnick
This response is an elaboration on the power, possibilities, and challenges of parachurch from the perspective of observing decades of successful organizing of the Christian Right and its coordination with other conservative infrastructure.
One definition of parachurch is a “voluntary, not-for-profit associations of Christians working outside denominational control to achieve some specific ministry or social service.” Parachurch organizations usually pursue IRS nonprofit designation as 501(c)(3) public charities. They have paralleled and sometimes exceeded the dramatic growth in the total number of nonprofits in the United States over the last forty years. Parachurch organizations fall into numerous categories: evangelism, relief and development, education, publishing and broadcasting, advocacy, and more. The advocacy sector only includes about 5% of the larger parachurch world but includes many powerhouses of the Christian Right.
Bypassing Traditional Institutions
Parachurch growth also has paralleled that of conservative think tanks, which began to have dramatic growth in the mid-1970s. Self-described “free market” think tanks were founded in almost every state and networked by national organizations as a way to circumvent the existing traditional political and academic institutions to bring about cultural and political change. Decades of direct marketing to both political elites and the public has increasingly empowered this conservative infrastructure to now work inside the system, rebuilding institutions in their image.
In his book Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, D. Michael Lindsay describes parachurches as the “fulcrum of evangelical influence.” Lindsay calls business leaders the “principal agents of change,” functioning as donors, directors and leaders of parachurch organizations. He describes some donors as preferring to bypass the “deliberative democratic process” of church boards to work with parachurch organizations that operate more like modern corporations. One result, Lindsay notes, is that it is possible for these leaders to be “religiously active for years without interacting with a poor person in a religious setting.”
While some parachurch organizations work in coordination with denominations, many can be described as ecumenical, transdenominational, or nondenominational. This has created space for unprecedented partnerships, including between Protestants and Catholics and interfaith alliances between Christians and Jews, for example, as well as alliances with secular entities.
Author Christopher Scheitle, in a rare academic treatment of the topic, compares today’s parachurch movement to the ecumenism of 20th century liberal and “modernist” leaders who “sought a literal elimination of denominational boundaries.” The irony of the story, according to Scheitle, is that this goal is being achieved today, but it’s through a parachurch movement that is predominately conservative and evangelical and has chosen to bypass denominations altogether and “market their products and services directly to churches and individuals across denominational lines and to the unaffiliated population.” The earlier ecumenical movements were necessary to allow “individuals to unite for a cause when their churches and denominations were crippled by division on these issues.” Scheitle adds, “It is not surprising that the same motivation provoked the creation of many contemporary parachurch organizations, although the issues may have changed to abortion, sexuality, and family values.”
Simplifying the Process
Parachurch advocacy organizations can take many forms. They may be single issue or multiple issue organizations. They may or may not coordinate with secular organizations. They have varying degrees of involvement in legislative and electoral politics. They can be local, state, regional, or national. Some direct their advocacy toward the public, while others are targeting elites. These and other choices would need to be made in the development of pro-choice parachurch advocacy organizations.
For the purposes of this response, I offer an abbreviated approach to the task of both analyzing the Christian Right’s success and beginning to chart a pro-choice religious movement. I use an adaptation of a basic organizational structure tree to illustrate how conservative infrastructure has been able to dominate issues or move the Overton Window (the frame of the acceptable range of positions on any given issue) on issues where they hold a minority position, including abortion and reproductive rights.
In the figure below, the branches of the tree represent the deliverable products and services. In this adaptation, they are the entire array of everything nonprofit advocacy can possibly produce: policy guidelines, education, media, get-out-the-vote efforts, etc. These deliverables may be directed to policy elites or the public.
The trunk of the tree represents the tangible resources. I focus on human resources and financial support. I have used “Fixers, Funders, and Fellows” for shorthand. Funders and fellows may be obvious, but fixers are the architects. Examples include Paul Weyrich, who founded many of the major bastions of conservative infrastructure, and Don Eberly, who played a leading role in establishing the Focus on the Family-affiliated Family Policy Council in Pennsylvania and presented it to the Heritage Foundation as a model for states around the nation. Today these Family Policy Councils have proliferated throughout the country, lobbying on issues of abortion and contraception access, LBBTQ rights, and broad “religious freedom” issues under the “family values” rubric.
Of course, parachurch organizations can include a larger and different list of tangible resources.
Last are the roots of the tree, the intangible resources. These are often the least visible assets, but they are the foundations on which the rest of the organization depends. These include knowledge, vision, values and ideas.
Transactional or Transformational?
Conservative infrastructure has invested deeply in developing these roots, including a vision of the transformed world they wish to see decades down the road. The movement is not monolithic and there are bitter fights between factions, but this has allowed for these factions to determine what ideas they share at a foundational level. These ideas are then represented in issue advocacy, electoral work, and throughout the deliverables or canopy of the organizational tree.
Daniel Schultz, author of Changing the Script: An Authentically Faithful and Authentically Progressive Political Theology for the 21st Century, addresses the shortcomings of some of the efforts to counter to the Christian Right by both the Democratic Party and the Religious Left, including common ground efforts. He asserts that these efforts accede to the framing of the Right. “By not ‘breaking the frame’ of the debate, the Religious Left has often conceded morally unacceptable positions before the fight has even begun,” argues Schultz.
The Christian Right must be countered with a “workable progressive theology,” says Schultz. He argues that it is not enough to just say fighting poverty is a moral value: “Voters must understand not only what the value is, but why it is important and who they should hold accountable if it is not upheld.”
Using the example of fighting poverty, there has been a forty-year relationship between the “free market” think tanks and the Family Policy Councils in many states that could be dismissed as transactional politics, but in fact has merged into a cohesive worldview that has had transformational effects on politics. Described as “Teavangelicalism” by one author, it blends laissez-faire economics of the Tea Party with social conservatism. Likewise, leaders of major national and international libertarian networks are calling for a rejection of Ayn Rand-style anti-religion and an embrace of religion friendly to their economic cause.
This worldview is the primary focus of parachurch entities like the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, which merges laissez-faire capitalism with social conservative policy and market it to Protestants and Catholics worldwide, including through their branch a few blocks from the Vatican. Acton initiated the gatherings and helped develop the parachurch organization that produced “Resisting the Green Dragon,” a training film widely used with churches and organizations to feed anti-environmentalism and global warming denial. The multiple DVD set includes numerous Christian Right leaders, including Charmaine Yoest, the former head of Americans United for Life and a former Trump administration appointee to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who is now the vice president of the Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation. In the DVD set, environmentalism is described as a religion competing with Christianity and environmentalism and its advocates as the greatest threat to the poor of the world.
Evangelical activist David Barton, a Christian nationalist who has been described as one of the most influential leaders in the Christian Right today, exemplifies this blending of far-right social values and economic policy. He says he uses abortion as a litmus test to determine if a politician will “protect your money.” Barton says, “If you don’t respect the right to life, you won’t respect property, you won’t respect protecting income, you’ll think you ought to tax people more rather than protect their income, you’ll take it from them, you won’t protect their property, you won’t protect their religious liberties, you won’t protect their right of self-defense, you’ll try to take their self-defense away from them.”
David Barton’s words may evoke chuckles of disbelief, but this is a philosophy that has been marketed at well-funded events around the country that bring together thousands of pastors to hear Barton speak. It undergirds sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts and must be understood if it is to be countered.
These examples are a few among many of the ways in which parachurch organizations have played a leading role in the Christian Right’s efforts to claim ownership of religious morals and values on a range of political issues and marginalize those who disagree with them. The leaders in these examples also express sincere concerns about poverty, but the roots of their tree are deeply rooted in the sacralization of unfettered capitalism and the canopy, or the deliverables, will be a very different product from those fighting structural poverty. Electoral politics and issue advocacy at its best will not stop the Christian Right if the fight is not grounded in in well-articulated values and vision.
 Reid, Daniel G., Concise Dictionary of Christianity in America, InterVarsity Press, 1995, p. 256.
 According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, religion-related nonprofits were proportionally the fastest growing sector in both revenue and expenses in the nation between 2005 and 2015.
 The “Structure of Social Change,” 1996, by VP of Koch Industries Richard Fink describes a three-pronged approach including the advantage of funding think tanks: https://kochdocs.org/2019/08/19/1996-structure-of-social-change-by-koch-industries-executive-vp-richard-fink/
 D. Michael Lindsay, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 201.
 Ibid, p. 194.
 Ibid, p. 204.
 Christopher Scheitle, “Beyond the Congregation: Christian Nonprofits in the United States,” PhD diss, The Pennsylvania State University, 2008, p. 46.
 Ibid, p. 23.
 See Frederick Clarkson, “Takin’ It to the States: The Rise of Conservative State-Level Think Tanks,” The Public Eye, Fall/Summer 1999, https://www.politicalresearch.org/1999/09/01/takin-it-states-rise-conservative-state-level-think-tanks
 Daniel Schultz, Changing the Script: An Authentically Faithful and Authentically Progressive Political Theology for the 21st Century, IG Publishing, 2020, p. 10.
 Ibid, p. 14.
 David Brody, The Teavangelicals: The Inside Story of How the Evangelicals and the Tea Party are Taking Back America, Zondervan, 2012. For an in-depth look at the “union of cyber-libertarian and Christian Right ideology,” see /chapter 5 in John Weaver, Technology, Management and the Evangelical Church, McFarland, 2020.
 Kris Alen Mauren, “How does Acton’s Rome office contribute to the mission of the Acton Institute?” Religion & Liberty, Vol. 17, No. 1,
 Right Wing Watch, “The ‘Green Dragon’ Slayers: How the Religious Right and the Corporate Right are Joining Forces to Fight Environmental Protection,” http://files.pfaw.org/pfaw_files/rww-in-focus-green-dragon-final.pdf.
 Miranda Blue, “David Barton: Pro-Choice Candidates Will Take Away Your Property and Guns,” Right Wing Watch, Aug. 7, 2014, https://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/david-barton-pro-choice-candidates-….
 David Barton is one of the primary speakers for “Pastors and Pews” events held across the nation and Champion the Vote/United in Purpose voter mobilization. Campaigns include “One Nation Under God,” see https://web.archive.org/web/20120620062148/http://onenationundergodevent.com/.
Organizing Prochoice Catholics: A Response
By Patricia Miller
As Frederick Clarkson points out in his paper “The Prochoice Religious Community May be the Future of Reproductive Rights, Access, and Justice,” Roman Catholics represent a potentially fruitful area for organizing prochoice people of faith. At the same time, Catholics present unique organizing challenges. An awareness of these challenges, and potential solutions, can help guide larger organizing efforts among the prochoice religious community.
The Potential Pool of Prochoice Catholics
Catholics comprise the largest single religious denomination in the United States. About 21% (20.8%) of Americans identify as Catholic, which translates into 51 million adult Catholics.
Catholics remain heavily represented in their historic home of the Northeast. Catholics comprise 42% of the population in Rhode Island, 34% of the population in Massachusetts and New Jersey, 33% in Connecticut, and 31% in New York. But other areas of the country also boast Catholic populations well above the national average. Catholics are heavily represented in important Rust Belt swing states: they comprise 28% of the population in Illinois and 25% in Wisconsin and 24% in Pennsylvania, as well as in western states with growing Hispanic populations: 34% in New Mexico, 28% in California, 25% in Nevada, and 23% in Texas. Overall, as Pew points out, the growth of the Hispanic population is gradually shifting the center of Catholicism from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West, which has important political implications.
What will come as a surprise to some is that the majority of Catholics are pro-choice, a finding that holds consistent across years and various polls. According to Pew, 56% of Catholics said in 2019 that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, which was far above the 20% of White Evangelicals who said abortion should be largely legal and close to the 60% of White mainline Protestants who support abortion rights.
Even a poll sponsored by the conservative Eternal World Television Network found that 51% of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Taking even this conservative estimate of the percentage of prochoice Catholics, which is borne out by other polls, there are some 25 million adult Catholics in the United States who support abortion rights. Based on numbers alone, prochoice Catholics figure to be a major component of any prochoice religious coalition.
The Challenges of Organizing Prochoice Catholics
That said, organizing prochoice Catholics politically presents a number of challenges based both on the nature of the Catholic Church and its opposition to legal abortion. The first is that the Catholic Church is the only major religious denomination that is unequivocally opposed to abortion in almost every instance, making only the narrowest exceptions if a woman’s life is in danger. The church teaches that any “procured abortion” is a “moral evil” and that this teaching is “unchangeable.”
This means that the Catholic Church opposes abortion even in instances when it is accepted by other religions—in cases of rape or incest or when the health of the woman is at stake. Even the exception for the life of the woman stipulates that a medical procedure to save the life of a woman can only be performed if it has the unintended consequence of ending a pregnancy, such as removing a cancerous uterus. Thus, in cases of an incomplete miscarriage, Catholic hospitals have required the fetus to expire and the woman to progress to sepsis before an abortion can take place.
However, there is a significant body of Catholic moral philosophy about the acceptability of abortion in the Catholic tradition and the primacy of conscience in moral decision-making. Organizations such as Catholics for Choice provide resources such as The Truth About Catholics and Abortion, Catholics and Abortion: Notes on Canon Law, and The History of Abortion in the Catholic Church that offer a fuller picture of Catholic teaching on abortion. Catholic theologians like Dan Dombrowski and Robert Deltete have explored the issue in their book A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion.
A related question is how Catholics should apply the church’s teaching about abortion in the public square. As Father Robert Drinan, then dean of Boston College Law School (and later a Member of Congress and member of the House Judiciary Committee) wrote in 1968, even if a Catholic believes that abortion is immoral, they do not have to insist that such beliefs be incorporated into civil law. “There is no such thing as a ‘Catholic position’ on the jurisprudence of abortion laws,” he wrote.
This suggests that a critical part of any organizing effort that will include Catholics will be to make widely available resources about prochoice Catholicism and the application of Catholic moral teachings in the public square.
Second, unlike many other Christian denominations, the Catholic Church has a centralized hierarchy in the form of the pope and the curia whose teachings, such as the prohibition on abortion, are considered binding on all Catholics. In the past, various bishops have used this authority to suggest that faithful Catholics cannot vote for political candidates who support abortion rights. In 1998, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement on Catholic voting responsibilities called “Living the Gospel of Life,” which stated that Catholics couldn’t in good faith vote for prochoice candidates, even if they were “right” on other issues of importance to the church, such as the death penalty and war. The bishops’ governing body also suggested that individual bishops should “persuade, correct, and admonish” Catholic politicians who publicly violated the church’s anti-abortion stance.
Since then, a number of bishops have publicly admonished prochoice Catholic politicians, most prominently when John Kerry ran for the presidency in 2004. Newark Archbishop John Myers, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, and Pittsburgh Cardinal Justin Rigali told parishioners that voting for Kerry was unacceptable.
While concerns that Catholic bishops were entering the political arena in an inappropriate way have diminished much of the outright condemnation of prochoice politicians, it has not been entirely eliminated. In 2016, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops released a “Know the Positions of the Presidential Candidates” flyer that prominently featured the admonition of the U.S. bishops’ 2015 voting statement “Faithful Citizenship” that the “right to life” was the most “basic and fundamental right.” It then went on to note the prochoice position of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s proclamation that he was “pro-life.”
Such efforts are often well-publicized and may sway Catholics who are reluctant to support prochoice candidates without church sanction.
A third issue that is specific to Catholicism is the lack of prochoice leadership from either clerics or others with significant authority within the church. Unlike other denominations, no Catholic priest or nun can voice support for abortion rights, no matter how conditional. This speaks to the need to develop lay Catholic leaders who can serve as points of education and organizing within their parishes and communities.
The above considerations lead to a series of questions that are specific to the Catholic prochoice organizing context.
- As the center of Catholicism shifts to the South and West, are there different organizing strategies that would be most effective for Hispanic versus White Catholic populations?
- What is the best way to deliver resources to educate Catholics about abortion within the Catholic theological tradition?
- What is the best way to identify, train and support prochoice, lay Catholic leaders?
- What are the best organizational structures to support the development of a prochoice Catholic constituency? Catholic-specific organizations that may help support and educate prochoice Catholics; trans-denominational organizations that may make Catholics less of a target for criticism by priests or bishops; and/or virtual organizing platforms that offer anonymity?
 Matt Hadro, “New Poll Asks Catholics What They Believe About Abortion,” Catholic News Service, Feb. 24, 2020.
 Jessica Mason Pieklo, “Michigan Woman Sues Catholic Bishops for Negligence After Miscarriage,” Rewire, Dec. 2, 2013.
 Robert F. Drinan, “The Morality of Abortion Laws,” Address to the Twenty-Third Convention, Catholic Theological Society of America, June 19, 1968, Washington, DC.
 “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,” U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC, 1998.
 David Kirkpatrick and Laurie Goodstein, “Group of Bishops Using Influence to Oppose Kerry,” New York Times, Oct. 12, 2004.