The Religion News Service (RNS) recently ran an interview with the author of a new book who claims, in the words of the RNS summary, “that in recent years, the Religious Right has moved away from discussing morality to ‘rights,’ especially the ‘rights of the unborn.’” This is portrayed as an ironic development, given that “[t]alking in terms of individual rights used to be primarily the purview of liberals.” The book is The Rights Turn in Conservative Christian Politics: How Abortion Transformed the Culture Wars, by political scientist Andrew Lewis.
But is the discussion of “‘rights,’ especially the ‘rights of the unborn’” among social conservatives really a “recent” move?
Not exactly. For example, one of the leading “anti-abortion” groups in America is the National Right to Life Committee, which was founded in 1968. Furthermore, the use of “rights” language with respect to abortion was not unique to one organization, or to activists. For example, in the original New York Times article reporting the Supreme Court’s January 1973 Roe v. Wade decision striking down abortion laws, they said that in May of 1972 President Richard Nixon had written a letter to Cardinal Terence Cooke, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, in which the president spoke out for “the right to life of literally hundreds of thousands of unborn children.”
It appears that the Religion News Service had simply mis-characterized author Lewis’ position by referring to the shift toward using “the rights of the unborn” as “recent.” Indeed, in the interview, Lewis himself suggests the change occurred “[o]nce Roe v. Wade happened, and the decade after,” which would hardly be “recent.” But, as indicated above, even that assertion is inaccurate.
Another odd assertion is Lewis’s statement in the interview regarding the relationship between the language used by those supportive of legal abortion and the language used by those who oppose it: “They began countering the left’s ‘right to choose’ language with their own potent language.” As noted above, conservatives have talked about the “right to life” all along. It is the Left that has had to scramble to find new language. Around the time of Roe, liberals did not hesitate to call themselves “pro-abortion,” or at least to speak about a “right to abortion.” But over time they found out that “pro-abortion” was a losing term for them, and it was their language that evolved to avoid talking about the real subject (abortion), and instead to use a euphemism like “the right to choose.”
Another example of the Left’s shifting language is the name of the well-known pro-abortion group that is often just referred to by the acronym “NARAL.” This group went from being dubbed the “National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws” to being the “National Abortion Rights Action League” (adding “rights” to their name) to being the “National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League” (expanding the range of “rights” they purport to defend) to now calling themselves “NARAL Pro-Choice America.”
Also odd is this statement by Lewis: “As conservative Christians start engaging on a wider array of things, particularly issues that might be controversial and the base might not be sure what to do with, the leadership always ties it to abortion.”
He makes it sound as though looking for the implications for abortion in various pieces of legislation (such as, for example, Obamacare) is merely a political strategy. Does it not occur to him that we really believe the things we say, and that although there are many aspects of the sexual revolution which bother us, abortion is objectively the worst, because it involves the mass slaughter of millions of innocent unborn human beings?
Lewis offers this explanation for the shift toward “rights” language he claims to have identified:
[T]he big picture is that as the cultural status of conservative Christianity declines, they no longer have the cultural power that they once had. They move from taking cultural majority positions to thinking about rights and minority positions.
His thesis, and his explanation for it, makes somewhat more sense in the context of the homosexual movement—where opposition to redefining marriage was argued in part on the basis of the “right of a child to a mom and a dad,” and opposition to sexual orientation and gender identity laws has been supported in part by arguments about the “right to religious liberty.”
However, Lewis fails to give social conservatives enough credit for the sincerity of the arguments we make, including “rights” arguments. And when it comes to the abortion debate, the facts and chronology simply do not support his thesis.