Racial attitudes and abortion– maybe not what you think

Y’all know I love Thomas Edsall’s columns that do a great job summarizing the social science on a newsworthy topic.  In 2021, he had a really interesting one on race and abortion (gift link):

Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth and the author of a new book, “Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right,” looked at conservative strategizing in a recent op-ed in The Guardian. In his essay, Balmer recounted a 1990 meeting of conservatives in Washington at which Weyrich spoke:

Remember, Weyrich said animatedly, that the religious right did not come together in response to the Roe decision. No, Weyrich insisted, what got the movement going as a political movement was the attempt on the part of the Internal Revenue Service to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies, including a ban on interracial dating that the university maintained until 2000.

In an email, Balmer wrote, “Opposition to abortion became a convenient diversion — a godsend, really — to distract from what actually motivated their political activism: the defense of racial segregation in evangelical institutions.”

The same is true, Ballmer continued, of many politicians who have become adamant foes of abortion:

At a time when open racism was becoming unfashionable, these politicians needed a more high-minded issue, one that would not compel them to surrender their fundamental political orientation. And of course the beauty of defending a fetus is that the fetus demands nothing in return — housing, health care, education — so it’s a fairly low-risk advocacy.

The reality in the 1970s was that the surging rights movements — rights for African Americans, women’s rights, reproductive rights, gay rights, rights for criminal defendants and for the mentally ill — had set the stage for what would become an explosive conservative reaction, a reaction that by the 1980 elections put Ronald Reagan in the White House for eight years, wrested control of the Senate from Democrats and elected a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats that wielded tremendous power in the House.

“There is a persistent association between abortion views and ethnoracial exclusion,” Bart Bonikowski, a professor of sociology at N.Y.U., wrote in an email:

What has happened is that both issue positions have become increasingly sorted by party, so that being anti-choice or holding exclusionary beliefs is a clear marker of Republican affiliation, whereas being pro-choice or defining the nation in inclusive terms signals Democratic identity. The same has happened to a wide range of other issues, from health care and voting rights to mask-wearing and vaccination during the Covid-19 pandemic — across all of these domains, policy views increasingly demarcate partisan identity.

David Leege, emeritus professor of political science at Notre Dame, has an additional explanation for the process linking racial animosity and abortion. In an email, he wrote:

For the target populations — evangelical Protestants — whom Viguerie, Weyrich, and Falwell sought to mobilize, racial animosity and abortion attitudes are related but mainly in an indirect way, through aversion toward intellectual elites. The people perceived to be pushing government’s role in equal opportunity and racial integration were now the same as those pushing permissive abortion laws, namely, the highly educated from New England, banking, universities, the Northern cities, and elsewhere.

In short, Leege wrote, “although the policy domain may differ, the hated people are the same.”

Very interesting stuff.  The history on this is undeniable, but my regular co-authors and I were actually struck by the complete lack of contemporary empirical analyses on this very issue.  So, we set out to do our own, and it just got published:


For many Americans, pro-life attitudes are directly attached to their religious beliefs, especially white evangelicals. Some have argued that evangelicals came to oppose abortion not simply because of their views on the sanctity of life, but out of a growing racial resentment as government policy and society moved towards greater racial equality.


This study explores the relationship of evangelicalism, racial attitudes, and views on the legality of abortion to explore whether racial resentment is behind evangelical opposition to abortion.


To carry out this exploration this study employs American National Election Studies data from 2000 to 2020 and the 2020 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) Values survey.


We find no support for the idea that racial attitudes are disproportionately correlated with the abortion views of white evangelicals. Rather, we find that racial attitudes are now correlated with views on abortion for all Americans. Where abortion attitudes are distinctive from attitudes on other policy issues is in having very strong religious determinants, suggesting that genuine religious beliefs do indeed underscore the pro-life views of white evangelicals.


This study provides a good baseline for understanding the relationship between racial attitudes, evangelicalism, and abortion attitudes at the cusp of the Dobbs decision overturning Constitutional protections for abortion, and should be revisited in the post Roe era.

Not what we expected, actually, which makes it all the more interesting.  Some key tables:



About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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