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Abortion and liberal Protestant decline

Depleted denominations mourn the baby-saving reversal of Roe

Episcopal Bishop Marc Andrus, left, speaks to the media as ELCA Bishops Elizabeth Eaton, center, and Megan Rohrer listen in San Francisco in September. Associated Press/Photo by John Hefti

Abortion and liberal Protestant decline
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Sixty years ago, one of six Americans belonged to seven historically liberal mainline Protestant denominations. Today it’s less than one of every 20 Americans. Their demographic collapse aligned with their emerging support for abortion rights in the 1960s, years before the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade made the claim of a constitutional right to abortion.

In some ways, mainline Protestantism, which was then the predominant religious force in America, prepared the moral and cultural way for Roe. Justice Harry Blackmun, an active United Methodist, authored the Roe decision. So, it’s no surprise that mainline Protestantism has reacted angrily to Roe’s recent overthrow.

“I’m deeply grieved by it,” wrote Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry about the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v Jackson ruling last month, returning abortion law to the states. “We as a church have tried carefully to be responsive both to the moral value of women having the right to determine their healthcare choices as well as the moral value of all life.”

The Episcopal Church has endorsed abortion rights since 1967—six years before the U.S. Supreme Court proclaimed a constitutional right to abortion. Since then, it has since declined in membership from 3.4 million to 1.7 million. “As Episcopalians,” Curry said, “we pray for those who may be harmed by this decision, especially for women and other people who need these reproductive services.” Curry, like other mainline church officials, complained that poor women after Dobbs would have less access to abortion than rich women. But he, like his fellow mainliners, avoided any theological or Christian ethical reflection on the moral status of unborn life.

In this vein, the president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, Tom Bickerton, complained that the Dobbs ruling “had denied the sacred worth of women” and “serves to create a further divide between persons of privilege who have the means to seek necessary health care and those who lack this privilege due to their current economic condition. The bishop also said that the Dobbs decision “further creates division, anger, and chaos in an already divided and conflicted country.” The United Methodist Church first backed abortion rights in 1970, three years before Roe, when it had nearly 11 million members in the United States. Now it numbers just over 6 million.

In some ways, mainline Protestantism, which was the predominant religious force in America in the 1960s, prepared the moral and cultural way for Roe.

The United Church of Christ has supported abortion rights since at least 1971, two years before Roe, when it had nearly two million members, compared to just 800,000 today. Its president and associate general ministers last month denounced the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision as a “continual effort to oppress women and people who can give birth,” noting the “gravity of this decision and the devastation of its impact cannot be overstated.”

In 1970 the predecessor of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) backed abortion rights, when there were 4 million members in the two denominations that became the PCUSA in 1983. Women have “lost a choice around their bodies,” complained PCUSA President Herbert J. Nelson in response to Dobbs. Diane Moffett, head of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, said, “God gives us a choice and you cannot legislate morality,” declaring, “Each person has to pray and decide what is best for their situation and then move forward…” Another PCUSA official featured in a video with Nelson and Moffett wept and said she was “appalled” and “saddened.” Like the others, mainline Presbyterians have been losing members for decades.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, responding to Dobbs, noted that her denomination, formed through merger in 1988, had supported abortion’s legality since 1991. The ELCA’s predecessor churches had nearly 6 million members in the 1960s. Today the ELCA has just over 3 million members.

Similarly, the General Minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) responded to Dobbs by saying, “I must honestly confess my lament that today’s decision removes that freedom in many states for my daughter-in-law and my nieces,” citing the “history of the church’s strong support for reproductive freedom for women.” Her denomination has backed abortion rights since at least 1975, when it had over 1 million members, now it has about 350,000 members.

Mainline Protestant denominations started backing abortion rights in the 1960s amid increasing concerns about global overpopulation and the need for “responsible parenthood.” These denominations had long before liberalized theologically and, at least at the seminary and governance level, separated from historic Christian orthodoxy. Their ethical liberalization, separating from historic Christian orthopraxy, accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s especially on sexuality issues and abortion.

These denominations assumed they were America’s ethical vanguard. They did not realize their turn against historic Christian abortion teaching would accompany their own membership implosion and growing cultural marginalization. Churches lacking theological orthodoxy inevitably decline. The absence of babies in liberal denominations that affirm abortion rights is ironic, unsurprising, and instructive for others tempted by their path.

Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Prior to joining the IRD in 1994, Mark worked eight years for the Central Intelligence Agency. A lifelong United Methodist, he has been active in United Methodist renewal since 1988. He is the author of Taking Back The United Methodist Church, Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century, and The Peace That Almost Was: The Forgotten Story of the 1861 Washington Peace Conference and the Final Attempt to Avert the Civil War. He attends a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Va.

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