6 Questions with Daniel K. Williams

Jonathan Den Hartog

Daniel K. Williams (University of West Georgia) has produced some outstanding scholarship on the connection of religion with modern American politics. His first book, God's Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (2010), provided a clear narrative of the institutional formation of the "religious right," while showing that it had much deeper roots than Jerry Falwell in the late-1970s.

Williams has just published a new book: Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade (reviewed well, we should note, in the New York  Times). In addition to tracing a political movement in opposition to abortion, Williams observes the significant role religion played in debating a profound moral issue. Daniel graciously allowed me to pose 6 questions for this blog.

And, after reading this interview, if you would like more, you can listen to Daniel's podcast with John Fea and Drew Dyrli Hermeling.

Question 1: I very much enjoyed your first book, God’s Own Party, about the place of religious conservatives in the Republican Party. What led you to follow up that book with a project about the pro-life movement before Roe vs. Wade?

As a result of studying conservative Christian politics, I realized that abortion was a different sort of issue than the other causes that had attracted the Christian Right’s attention, because ideological divisions on this issue did not correspond to the conventional left-right divide.  Although most pro-lifers after the 1980s aligned themselves with the political right, the language that they used to describe their cause was reminiscent of the human rights campaigns of the left. 

After I began researching the early history of the pro-life movement, I discovered that its origins were even more intriguing than I had suspected.  The conventional view among most historians is that the pro-life movement developed as a backlash against Roe v. Wade and the feminist movement, and that it originated as a conservative movement opposed to women’s rights.  These notions are false.  Not only was there a vibrant pro-life movement before Roe v. Wade but that movement was winning political victories precisely because it was a liberal human rights movement that foregrounded women’s activism and allied itself with other rights-conscious movements.  The pro-life movement’s leaders included opponents of the Vietnam War, supporters of the Great Society, and even some African American civil rights activists, along with numerous women.  In fact, women were more likely than men to oppose abortion in the 1970s, and women were often the executive leaders of state and national pro-life organizations.    The movement received plaudits from liberal acolytes such as Jesse Jackson and Ted Kennedy, and its grassroots organizers included many loyal Democrats, such as Eunice Kennedy Shriver.       

I wrote this book partly because I wanted to tell the surprising story of a liberal human rights movement that became a conservative cause – a story that challenges our assumptions not only about the abortion debate but about the history of modern American politics.

Question 2: You have an extended section about terminology in writing a history of the debate over abortion. What principles shaped how you decided to refer to the various opinions?     

Terminology on abortion is a potential landmine for any historian, because nearly every term that is used in this debate (including “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “reproductive rights,” and “abortion on demand”) is politically charged.  Furthermore, the terms that we most commonly use today to describe positions on abortion – such as “pro-choice,” “pro-life,” and “reproductive rights advocates” – did not originate until 1970 or afterwards, so these terms are anachronistic when used to describe earlier ideological divisions on abortion.  In the early 1960s, most advocates of abortion law liberalization did not discuss giving women greater “choice,” nor did they view themselves as advocates of a larger set of reproductive “rights.” 

I decided that to the greatest extent possible, I would use the terms that my subjects used to describe themselves.  Thus, when describing abortion opponents of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, or early 1960s, I generally avoided calling them “pro-life,” and when describing supporters of abortion law liberalization in these decades, I did not call them “pro-choice.”  By waiting until the appropriate chronological point in the narrative to introduce key innovations in nomenclature, such as “right to life,” “pro-life,” or “pro-choice,” I hope I gave readers a sense of the way that arguments and ideological self-conceptions in the debate over abortion changed over the course of the 1960s and 1970s.

Question 3: In considering the issue of abortion for the Roman Catholic Church, how do you think the pro-life position shaped the development of the Catholic Church in the last several decades?

By making abortion one of its central political concerns – indeed, for many American pro-life Catholics, the central political priority – the Church simultaneously became more overtly focused on social justice and more politically conservative.

In the late 1960s, pro-life leaders embraced the political priorities of Vatican II and made a conscious effort to sever their movement’s historic connections with anti-contraceptive campaigns while also embracing a comprehensive pro-life ethic that united antiwar activists with abortion opponents.  Catholic pro-life activists encouraged other members of their Church not to disparage women who became pregnant out of wedlock, but instead to offer them material resources and emotional support to deter them from terminating their pregnancies.  The Church’s emphasis on the theology of life also fostered greater ecumenism as parish priests and other Catholics made interreligious alliances with non-Catholic pro-life advocates.

Yet the pro-life movement ultimately played a central role in moving Catholics – and especially the nation’s Catholic bishops – into alliance with the Republican Party, even though the pro-life movement originated as a liberal cause.  Until the mid-1980s, the nation’s Catholic bishops took liberal positions on most political issues, and they were sharply critical of conservative Republican positions on nuclear arms buildup and welfare program reductions.  But despite their liberal views, some of these bishops eventually stopped voting for Democrats, because for them, abortion trumped all other concerns. 
Question 4: The common story is that evangelicals in America were late-comers to the pro-life movement, brought along especially by Francis Schaeffer. But your research suggests some evangelical support in the years beforehand. How should this book affect how we tell the story about evangelicals’ opposition to abortion?   

[The answer with more questions, after the Jump.]
My book offers evidence that the evangelical position on abortion before the mid-1970s was more nuanced than many have believed.  Only a small minority of conservative evangelicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s were thoroughly pro-choice, yet most also accepted the legitimacy of abortion in emergency situations, such as rape or in cases where a pregnancy endangered a woman’s health.  In the late 1960s, Christianity Today and other evangelical magazines provided tepid support for the modest liberalization of abortion laws, while also taking a firm stance against the legalization of elective abortion, which they called “abortion on demand.” In the early 1970s, shortly after New York and three other states legalized elective abortion, Carl F. H. Henry, L. Nelson Bell, Billy Graham, and a few other evangelical leaders stated their strong opposition to abortion in all cases except rape, dangers to a woman’s life, or, in the case of some evangelicals, dangers to a woman’s health.  Few evangelicals joined the pro-life cause in the early 1970s, partly because they were reluctant to cooperate politically with Catholics and partly because their opposition to abortion reflected a political framework that differed from the assumptions of many pro-life Catholics of the era.  They nevertheless spoke out against abortion in the strongest of terms, calling it “murder.”

Yet even though pro-life evangelicals and Catholics shared a common concern for the rights of the unborn, their framework for understanding the abortion issue was different.  Conservative evangelicals were far more likely than Catholics to connect their opposition to abortion to a larger opposition to the sexual revolution and moral decay.  While many pro-life Catholics and mainline Protestants saw the campaign against abortion as a social justice issue that was analogous to other human life causes, conservative Protestants saw it as a campaign for public morality.

In the late 1970s, Francis Schaeffer translated the social justice arguments of Catholics into language that conservative Protestants who were concerned about moral order could appreciate – that is, an argument that abortion legalization reflected the loss of Christian-based absolute values in American law.  When conservative evangelicals who were inspired by Schaeffer’s arguments mobilized against abortion, they linked the issue to other conservative moral causes, such as opposition to homosexuality and pornography, not to the antiwar and antinuclear movements that elicited support from some politically liberal Catholic pro-life activists.  Schaeffer thus not only mobilized conservative evangelicals against abortion but also helped reframe the pro-life cause as a Christian Right movement. 
Question 5: A major theme in the book is the contrast between the pro-life movement in the 1960s and 1970s and the movement as it developed in the decade after Roe. How would you characterize those differences? In particular, you paid attention to the language and concepts used to make the case. How did that evolve?   

Before Roe, the pro-life movement was grounded in one central liberal argument – namely, that the fetus, as a human person, had a constitutionally protected right to life.  Many prominent liberal Democrats, including senators Ted Kennedy and Thomas Eagleton, along with George McGovern’s running mate Sargent Shriver, found this argument compelling in the pre-Roe era.  But the Supreme Court rejected this argument in Roe v. Wade and instead ruled that women’s right to privacy gave them the right to elective abortion, at least in the first trimester of pregnancy.  The Democratic Party, which faced a deep divide between pro-choice women’s rights advocates and pro-life advocates of fetal rights, chose, after Roe, to follow the lead of the Supreme Court in endorsing one of these liberal rights-based movements at the expense of the other.  In 1976, the Democratic Party officially repudiated efforts to overturn Roe through a constitutional amendment, and in subsequent elections in the 1980s, the Democrats began endorsing women’s right to choose in stronger terms.

Having failed to win the support of Democrats, pro-lifers turned to the Republicans who, in 1976, formally endorsed the pro-life movement’s highest priority, an antiabortion constitutional amendment.  Pro-lifers’ alliance with the political right solidified in the 1980s due to a combination of factors, including Ronald Reagan’s strong rhetorical support for the movement, conservative evangelical influence on the pro-life campaign, and a lack of pro-life success in winning support from liberal Democrats. 

After pro-lifers allied with the Republican Party, they abandoned some of their movement’s earlier social justice interests, such as opposition to nuclear arms buildup and capital punishment, and they began linking their cause not to other human rights campaigns but to the sexual conservatism of the Christian Right.  By the early twenty-first century, opponents of abortion were far more likely to oppose gay right and same-sex marriage than to speak out against the Iraq War.  And their opposition to abortion became more narrowly focused on overturning Roe through a change in the Supreme Court – a priority that reinforced their alliance with the Republican Party, the only party likely to nominate justices who opposed abortion rights.
Question 6: I was interested to find that you had the opportunity to read in the papers of Richard John Neuhaus. In the period of the book, where was Neuhaus theologically, and how did his involvement in the pro-life cause contribute to his shifts in religious emphases?

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Neuhaus was an antiwar activist who served as a delegate for George McGovern at the 1972 Democratic National Convention.  He joined the pro-life cause because he, like many other liberal pro-life activists of the time, viewed the fight against abortion as a defense of human life and the rights of a defenseless minority. 

Neuhaus remained a liberal until the mid-1980s, but he became uncomfortable with the Democratic Party’s stances, including its position on abortion.  In Neuhaus’s case, his conversion to political conservatism was so thorough that in the early twenty-first century, he supported the Iraq War – a striking contrast to his opposition to the Vietnam War three or four decades earlier.  At the same time, his religious affiliation changed.  In 1990, he converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism, and spent the last two decades of his life as a Catholic priest and neoconservative intellectual leader. 

Neuhaus in some ways personified the political trajectory of the pro-life movement that my book chronicles – that is, the shift from a politically liberal, human rights movement to a campaign allied with political conservatism.  Yet as I point out in my book, the pro-life movement has never entirely abandoned its liberal ideology.  It remains a human rights movement, which is why it has remained politically salient (especially among younger voters), and why it has continued to win political victories even as other Christian Right causes, such as the campaign against same-sex marriage, have experienced a string of political defeats.


Anonymous said…
I also had the privilege to have a podcast conservation with Dan Williams on his excellent book. If you want more, here is the link. http://newbooksnetwork.com/daniel-k-williams-defenders-of-the-unborn-the-pro-life-movement-before-roe-v-wade-oxford-up-2016/

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