Why is the Religious Right Obsessed With Abortion?

This topic is hotly debated in one form or another on social media all of the time. Liberals seem unable to get their heads around the fervent, single mindedness that drives the religious right when it comes to the question of abortion. This single issue has developed into the "great divider". I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve followed a debate between the two sides on a topic such as corporate wars or guns in schools without abortion being brought up. Inevitably, someone pitches abortion as a counter argument. Perhaps according to the devout, there is no other form of senseless murder that compares to what they perceive as a continuous slaughter of unborn children. We might as well have wars if we’re going to kill babies.

Does the religious right not feel the same horror at the body count of the forever wars?

Are they not equally outraged at the devastating consequences to children growing up in America where mass shootings are so prevalent? I’ve thought about this a lot. At first glance, there appears to be a huge discrepancy in the levels of moral outrage the far right musters when it comes to murder and the sanctity of life. Abortion is the five-star sin, the king pin that produces the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to people rallying around a cause. It’s the master divider between the two sides. At least for now. But, I suggest that maybe it hasn’t always been so.

In fact, it’s possible that the fervency surrounding abortion is not just about protecting the unborn but may also be a desperate struggle to hang on to a moral high ground that separates the godly from the ungodly, the right from the left or Christians from sinners.

 Let’s face it, the religious right is far more secularized than they want to admit. Thanks to the secular movement in western culture, churches have less control over society than they once did. That hasn’t always been the case, however. In the not so distant past the laws of the land reflected the ethical standards of churches. They were very intertwined. Divorce wasn’t legalized in Ireland until 1996. It wasn’t legalized in Malta until 2004. Most Americans don't know that.

It only became easier to get a divorce in the United States in 1969 with the Divorce Reform Act.  The reform allowed couples to divorce after two years without having to prove fault.

Before that, divorced women caused a bit of a scandal. They were looked upon with suspicion and often avoided in polite company. My great aunt was married twice. Her first marriage was short and violent and ended in a divorce. She remarried and started a family but she was ashamed of herself for divorcing. She never told her two daughters about her first husband. They were grown women with children of their own before they found out quite by accident. Of course, times had started to change by then. My aunt’s oldest daughter was divorced twice without experiencing the same cultural shame. The other girl had a tumultuous marriage that ended up in a split for almost two years followed by reconciliation.

Nowadays, divorce is quite common if not rampant among the religious right.

In fact, the evangelicals may have higher divorce rates than atheists according to some reports. How does all of this play out in the big picture? The religious right simply can’t use the sin of divorce as a legal, moral or political football any longer. In fact, whenever I mention divorce and the secularization of marriage, Christians from all walks of life grow silent. I can hear the crickets chirping and that’s about all. I also sense that the topic makes them squirm in their pants a wee bit. They aren’t the least bit interested in revisiting the topic of divorce from a moral standpoint let alone designating it as a mortal sin. It tickles me immensely, because they owe their freedom to obtain a legal divorce without being afraid of eternal damnation to the secularization of society.

But wait a minute, that’s not all. In the good/old bad/old days, there were lots of issues that churches and government could collaborate on in order to wield power over the rest of us.

Finding the moral high ground was so much easier in the mid to late 20th century. Interacial marriages weren’t legalized across the nation until 1967 with the landmark decision of Loving v Virginia. Girls who got pregnant before marriage or even had sex before marriage were bad girls. They were hustled away and hidden, often within the walls of what now would be considered harsh religious institutions until their babies were born and taken from them even against their will.

Living together was called living in sin.

It wasn’t until the late sixties that unmarried people started to openly cohabitate. Now living together is part of the culturally accepted steps towards eventual marriage. You meet, date, move in together and if that works out then marry. No big deal. Not so in the past. In the past there were plenty of young people having sex, but they had to do it the back seat of their parent’s station wagon. It was something that was hidden. If a girl in particular spent too much time in the back seat of the station wagon with several different guys, she soon became known at her local high school as poor marriage material.

 I hope you can see where I’m going with this. Before the 1950s, there were dozens of ways the devout could claim moral superiority. 

Abortion was happening in back alleys but it wasn’t something that people focused their attention on as a single, all encompassing and unrelenting legal or moral issue. Christians who were devoutly religious were busy trying to keep people from divorcing, remarrying, sleeping around, living in sin or marrying someone from a different race. Laws were enacted to enforce these moral standards and institutions were established where people could be punished. Cultural expectations in regards to the behaviors of Americans were so strong as to produce cooperation. If you wanted to protect your reputation, you simply did not behave in certain ways.

Within a short period of time, the world changed. Now, the Philippines is the only country in the world where getting a divorce is not only difficult but illegal. 

The only one! It would appear that just about everyone is doing it. The big divide has narrowed between the religious right and the rest of us. This has created a huge problem for those who are in need of a moral high ground in order to insist that the rest of us are either going to hell or are politically depraved. Abortion is one of only a handful of things left. The religious right has little else. They are divorcing and remarrying, having sex before marriage, choosing spouses from other races, living together before marriage and if they get pregnant, they reserve the right to live in plain sight and  keep their babies. I contend some of them are getting abortions, too, but on the down low.

This article is not about whether abortion is right or wrong, however.

I happen to think it’s a personal choice but that’s neither here nor there and has little bearing on the point I’m trying to make. Why is the religious right currently so politically obsessed with abortion? That was the queston that precipitated my thoughts that eventually evolved into a written piece. I contend that the reasons are far more complicated than we may think. Abortion has evolved into a single driving issue of such monumental proportions in part because society has become far more secularized than we realize. The shift away from a moral code dictated by churches and enforced by government has caused a great deal of discomfort for individuals and institutions that once wielded so much power over our lives. They are now struggling to reclaim what they perceive as their god given right to determine and enforce the new moral code that defines modern culture. They feel the shifting tide as they continue to lose their tight grip on the reins of society. It has turned them into crusaders, not just for the protection of the unborn but for a return to the glory days when the church had the final and last say over what would be tolerated and what would not.

That’s the silver lining behind the dark clouds on the political horizon. The world is changing in spite of the religious right.

Teresa Roberts is an author, world traveler and dedicated myth buster. Her recent book - Have We Been Screwed? Trading Freedom for Fairy Tales - can be purchased on Amazon.