It used to be that religion impacted politics but now politics is instead changing religion. And the catalyst for how religious people are modifying their other beliefs to achieve a common political goal is abortion.
The cozy political lines of the last generation, where Republicans are generally against abortion and Democrats are for it, may get more blurry. The reason is evangelicals; a whole lot of them are Democrats and a whole lot of them are increasingly concerned about abortion.
Southern Baptists are the second-largest religious denomination in the US and while Southern Baptist membership is trending down, along with all denominations, the political authority of their 16 million people has increased. The reason their authority has grown is that most Americans believe in some limitations on abortion – the U.S.remains one of only two developed nations with federally unrestricted abortion at any time. As a result, more religious states are issuing their own restrictions while less religious states are increasing access by allowing non-doctors to perform abortions. The effort to have midwives perform abortions in California recently passed the state Senate.
The overarching political goal of restricting abortion has led to changes in other religious attitudes. Southern Baptists have not historically been free speech advocates, for example, they instead have called for boycotts regarding media they dislike, but now they are increasingly filing briefs advocating just that - because the free speech is for abortion protesters. A political issue has changed how the laity regards a behavioral issue, a complete switch from previous generations when religious people instead told politicians what platforms to endorse.
There is a panel this week at the 2013 American Political Science Association meeting regarding "The Christian Right Today" to discuss how politics is changing religion. There is no similar panel regarding the left and religion,though there should be - when the 2012 Democratic National Convention removed reference to 'God' in its platform it was a huge controversy among members. The reason is because African-Americans are 87 percent religious and 74 percent Democrats. Meanwhile, 20 percent of Southern Baptists are African-American and 15 million other Baptists are. They are a solid Democratic constituency, but they are often factored out of discussions because the topic of religion focuses on 'the right'.
Yet African-Americans have historically voted for their issues rather than for a party. Though solidly Republican for 60 years, when Democratic Pres. Harry Truman desegregated the military he got 77 percent of their votes in 1948 and Democratic Pres. Lyndon Johnson got 94 percent of their votes in 1964 after the Civil Rights Act was passed (1). Religious groups, including those with large African-American representation like Baptists, still want to use that leverage, and they are willing to reshape their tenets and leadership to achieve that goal. In 2012 the Southern Baptist Convention named its first African-American president, showing how powerful that 20 percent representation is – they are not the casually religious that make up the majority. And American Baptists have been noting that when Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream 50 years ago, he was one of them.
Watershed moments like 1964 happen periodically and as abortion politics becomes a renewed hot-button issue, Southern Baptists and other groups may find themselves modifying their other beliefs in order to appeal to a broad enough critical mass to effect their political desires, rather than trying to get politicians to adapt to an increasingly fragmented religious constituency.
(1) It passed in Congress with 80 percent Republican support yet only 61% Democratic support but the 1964 Republican presidential contender was against it. Due to that, the common belief is that Republicans, the party of Lincoln, were against civil rights.