Faith, gender and abortion center stage at Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation

Greg Nash

On the surface, American politics appears to be full of paradoxes. In 2016, many women — and especially white Christian women — voted for Donald Trump over the first woman nominated for U.S. president by a major party. Now, in 2020, confirmation hearings are occurring for a woman, nominated by Trump, who opposes a woman’s right to choose abortion. How might those women who voted for Trump feel about these hearings that reopen questions about women’s autonomy over their own bodies? 

A further seeming paradox can provide context for the role of faith, gender, and abortion in these hearings. People often assume that it’s men who are most likely to oppose women’s right to choose what to do with their bodies. But, as we’re seeing in a vivid way, men don’t have a monopoly on opposing abortion rights. In fact, in a recent study, I found it’s actually men who are more likely to support abortion in the United States. 

On the surface this might seem paradoxical: Why would women be more opposed to a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body? 

Sometimes we forget that women (and men) are complex people with multiple aspects of who they are, a range of things they care about, and a diversity of life experiences. And these factors interact with one another in complex ways. Women are not just women: They also have a racial identity, a region where they live, a sexual orientation, and so on. And each of these can come with accompanying values and interests.  

Importantly for questions of reproductive politics, women — like other structurally-disadvantaged groups in the United States — are substantially more religious than their more privileged counterparts. Despite having more liberal politics as a whole, their greater religiousness promotes greater support for traditional politics on specific issues, like abortion, where their religious beliefs are particularly salient. In fact, I’ve found it’s precisely because of their greater religiousness that women are less likely to support abortion than men. If it weren’t for that greater religiousness, women would be significantly more likely to support abortion than men. 

Religion trumps gender for many women’s politics more generally, which can help explain why so many women, especially white Christian women, voted for Trump in 2016.

Rather than being disappointed in Trump nominating a woman who opposes abortion, many women who voted for Trump are getting exactly what they wanted when they voted for him. Trump may not always walk the walk of what conservative religious women (and men) want, but he talks the talk. In fact, while one could question whether Trump’s personal beliefs and actions are in line with traditional religious values, research shows he knows what his support base wants to hear: He’s talking about religion and referencing God much more than other presidents. In fact, in his speeches Trump is using religious words at a rate almost twice that of even Ronald Reagan, a favorite figure of conservative religious Americans.  

And in these hearings, conservative religious women are hearing what they want to hear: that a judge will promote their values.

Beyond the issue of abortion, conservative religious women want politicians and judges who will advocate for Christian values — and the standing of Christians — in a country they perceive to be in moral decay and unfriendly to Christians (who, by the way, still make up the vast majority of American society). In fact, polling data suggests that white Christians, who continue to make up a dominant (both in terms of size and political power) segment of American society, think they face more discrimination than Muslims (who make up about one percent of the population). 

These hearings highlight how political divides on reproductive politics and other issues can be just as large among women with different visions of the past, present, and future of America as between women and men.

Barrett, rather than a paradox, typifies what we see among many highly religious American women. Their religious identity trumps their gender identity in their reproductive politics.

Landon Schnabel is an assistant professor of sociology at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @LandonSchnabel

Tags Abortion debate Amy Coney Barrett Barrett confirmation hearing Christianity and abortion conservative women Donald Trump Religion and abortion Supreme Court of the United States Trump court picks white women voters Women's rights

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