This is part one in a series on Trump’s legacy. This one focuses on his assault on women’s reproductive rights.
In the recent presidential election, 75 percent of American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. That was slightly less than in 2016 (around 80 percent) but large enough to count evangelicals among Trump’s most loyal supporters. Among Catholic voters, Trump did less well. He spits the vote almost evenly with Biden. But then, Biden is a Catholic, so they should be forgiven.
Foreign observers not familiar with the intricacies of American faith communities might find these results rather puzzling. After all, Trump distinguished himself throughout his four-year tenure as a man who certainly cannot be credited for “walking with the Lord.” Not only has Trump’s lifestyle been the very antithesis of everything the New Testament teaches, he has also never appeared to show the necessary contrition and repentance that American tele-evangelists usually demand from their audience.
This kind of thinking is, of course, far too naïve and idealistic. History has shown often enough that churches have hardly ever hesitated to pact with the devil — as long as the pact furthered their agenda. The Russian Orthodox Church, for instance, in 1943, expressed to Stalin its “sincere gratitude and joyful conviction that, encouraged by this sympathy, we will redouble our share of work in the nationwide struggle for the salvation of the motherland”. Meanwhile in Germany, both churches were to a certain degree complicit – significant internal resistance notwithstanding – with the Nazi regime, a complicity only recently fully admitted.
Christians have generally excused their complicity with the likes of Donald Trump (and Hitler) with the notion that he represents God’s tool, all imperfections, and flaws notwithstanding. Hitler was clever enough to exploit this kind of naivete, promoting himself as on a mission, selected to do the work of the Lord. For American Christians, Donald Trump represented a godsend.
As a recent article in The New York Times has put it, Trump “gave them everything they wanted: Two hundred federal judges appointed for life. An embassy in Jerusalem. Anti-abortion policies. Two Supreme Court Justices, and then in the final hours, a third. He was their bulwark, their defender, at a time when the country as they knew it, and their place in it, was changing”. For Christian conservatives, this was more important “than what the president may have done with a porn actress more than 10 years ago,” as the Des Moines Register once put it.
The world has been changing and continues to change at an increasingly rapid pace. Nostalgia for a time when churches and the clergy were still considered the ultimate authority with respect to ethics and morals, when young people flocked to Sunday school instead of surfing the net is human, all too human, as Nietzsche once put it, but it tragically falls short of reality as it is in 2020. The reality is that over the past two decades the authority of particularly the Catholic Church, marred by an apparently endless series of child abuse scandals, has been severely tarnished. As a recent report from the UK stressed once again, the Catholic Church has consistently cared more about its reputation than the welfare of child sex abuse victims.
By holding on to an image of a bygone era, a glorified past, American Christians of both major confessions have enabled a president who, in return, has offered them a poisoned chalice. In November, Trump was voted out of office; his toxic legacy, however, is likely to linger for years to come.
A Systematic Targeting Of Women’s Reproductive Rights
Take, for instance, the question of women’s reproductive rights, the main topic of the present column. In 2017, the Trump administration came out with a new policy that did away with a part of Obamacare that requires most employers to cover contraception in employer-provided health insurance plans. The administration’s rollback “expanded the list of organizations that can claim religious exemptions to the mandate to include nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies and religious institutions of higher education”.
A number of religious institutions, such as major Catholic universities – albeit hardly all of them – took the opportunity to eliminate contraceptive devices from their health insurance programs. Given the fact that a “significant proportion of the US healthcare market is controlled by Catholic healthcare systems, which use moral teachings to inform guidelines to care” the new policy has had far-reaching implications.
The Trump administration’s assault on women’s reproductive rights was only one in a series of initiatives, designed, or so the administration would frame it, to protect and safeguard the religious freedom of all Americans and all religious organizations. In early 2020, for instance, the administration unveiled a “religious freedom initiative.” Its core item was a reminder to public schools that they were required by law to allow students to pray in school.
The initiative was part of a larger strategy to guarantee continued support from Christian conservatives by charging, as The Los Angeles Times put it, that “Christianity in America is under sustained attack and that the federal government must come to its rescue.” This, of course, is largely nonsense. The nonsense has been perpetuated for years by right-wing media with a barrage of stories that, for instance, there was a war on Christmas – reflected in controversies over public nativity scenes and seasonal cards proclaiming “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. The whole thing is quite silly; yet, in a highly polarized political climate, provides a perfect opportunity for populist mobilization.
Lining up with right-wing culture warriors over school prayer or seasonal cards in one thing; the frontal assault on women’s reproductive health quite another. It involves highly personal questions, such as family planning and the right to choose, which often entail serious, if not dramatic, consequences. Moreover, it reflects a complete disregard of existing realities.
The reality is that even among American Christians, attitudes toward sexual morality are much more diverse and nuanced than your average Bible thumping mega-church preachers would like to make us believe. In a recent Pew survey, more than half of Catholics and Protestants agreed that casual sex was sometimes or always acceptable. Even among evangelicals, a third of respondents agreed.
On abortion, the central concern for American Christians who voted for Trump, the results are similarly diverse. In 2019, about 60 percent of Americans agreed abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Support among white mainstream Protestants was 60 percent, among Catholics, around 55 percent, among the religiously unaffiliated, more than 80 percent. The only groups staunchly anti-abortion were white evangelicals, with more than 75 percent opposed. And yet, in a last-ditch effort, Trump appointed a Supreme Court justice who is so far out of the mainstream – and this even for the majority of American Christians — that she qualifies for an extremist. A member of a Catholic sect, that preaches that women are subordinate to their husband, she will be in a position to affect the lives of millions of American women on questions of reproductive rights for decades to come.
The appointment is one more piece in a desperate attempt to turn back the clock and pretend that reality does not exist. In this context, the Supreme Court has become “a prize in a war over how far the country will go to privilege religious rights over other rights.” including the right to access to safe family planning. Recent Supreme Court decisions give a taste of what might be in store.
In July, the Supreme Court ruled 7:2 (with the two women on the Court dissenting) that employers “that object to the coverage of contraceptives for religious or moral reasons can decline to cover contraceptives for employees or students.” Justice Ginsburg, in her dissent to the ruling, pointed to the government’s own estimate “that between 70,500 and 126,400 women will immediately lose access to contraceptives without cost-sharing as a result of the ruling and face numerous barriers to accessing these services.”
A few months ago, an article in an American Jesuit magazine noted that the Supreme Court was “not supposed to be a place for applying religious principles to the law.” At the same time, the article quoted a law professor from Notre Dame (where Barrett taught before her appointment to the Supreme Court) who observed that “the real division” today in the United States is “more the kind of religious versus secular divide.”
It is not too far-fetched to suppose that the Supreme Court’s rulings on matters such as contraception are a last-ditch effort to stem the advancement of secularism, which, as a recent Pew survey has shown, is progressing at a “rapid pace.” This is the new reality, particularly among younger generations. In the Pew survey, less than half of Millennials identified themselves as Christians, around 40 percent as religious “nones.” This is the generation, primarily affected by the religious right’s assault on reproductive rights.
The reality is that roughly 80 percent of American undergraduates are sexually active, a quarter of them reporting to have had six or more “sex partners” during their life lifetime. On average, American teens have their first sexual experience at age 17. They usually don’t marry until a decade later. As a result, today’s “young adults are likely to be “at increased risk for unintended pregnancy and STIs for nearly a decade or longer than in previous generations.”
Under the circumstances, allowing Catholic universities to terminate the supply of contraceptives in their health plans is counterproductive, to say the least. All this in the name of archaic dogmas which have nothing to do with today’s reality. In fact, those who invoke Scripture to justify the Catholic Church’s position on contraception are on thin ice. As an expert on the question has noted, there is “nothing in Scripture [that] explicitly prohibits contraception.”
To be sure, in the Old Testament there is a passage that “encourages humans to ‘be fruitful and multiply’.” It is highly doubtful, however, that the Old Testament should be taken as an authority at a time when the world is suffering from population pressures that threaten to destroy the planet. By the way, this was a time when the average life expectancy was around 35 years, in large parts due to the high infant mortality rate.
Recent studies estimate that from ancient times to Medieval Europe, more than 25 percent of babies died within the first year of their lives; more than 45 percent died before reaching adulthood. Even today, more than five million children die before the age of five. The availability of modern contraceptives certainly would have prevented much suffering in the distant past, and perhaps even today. I doubt that those who like to invoke Scripture would be prepared to go back to this “gold age.”
In the meantime, Trump’s various initiatives targeting women’s reproductive rights are prone to prove counterproductive. Unless his evangelical supporters believe that these measures will somehow induce young people to abstain from sex – “just say no” – they are hardly the best way to prevent the perhaps most distressing potential outcome – teenage pregnancy.
To be sure, over the past years, teenage pregnancy rates in the US have fallen to record lows. Compared to other advanced Western countries, however, they still are relatively high. In 2018, birth rates for adolescents aged 15–17 and women 18–19 years were 7.2 and 32.3 births per 1,000 females. The vast majority of teenage pregnancies were “non-marital births.” Religious inculcation, by the way, does not seem to have much effect.
Mississippi, a part of the Bible belt where evangelicals are particularly strong, “boasts” the second-highest teen birth rates, just behind Arkansas, another Bible belt state. In fact, a study on teenage pregnancy from 2009 found that in religious states, teen pregnancy was particularly high. One potential explanation: “conservative religious communities in the U.S. are more successful in discouraging use of contraception among their teen community members than in discouraging sexual intercourse itself.” A classical case of shooting yourself in the foot.
The state of Colorado has shown that there are other options. Since 2009, Colorado has offered free IUD’s at the state’s public health clinics. State officials have claimed that they “are the main reason Colorado’s teen birth rate fell 54 percent and the teen abortion rate declined 64 percent over a period of eight years, from 2009 to 2017. At the same time, teenage birth rates fell significantly, faster than the national average. Starting in 2017, the state allowed women to get prescriptions for the pill or morning-after-pill at the pharmacy instead of only from a doctor. This turned out particularly beneficial to college students, for whom “visiting a pharmacy to get the pill is far less daunting than making a doctor’s appointment for a pelvic exam.”
The Trump administration, in a feverish attempt to secure the conservative Christian vote, has gone to great lengths to bar women from gaining access to reproductive services. This is likely one of the most important legacies of the Trump years, particularly in view of the make-up of the Supreme Court, which he decisively shaped. He has to a large extent done this under the guise of defending religious liberty. Defending religious liberty means putting religious institutions in a position to deny reproductive services to women who need them, all in the name of “religious conscience.” Religious conscience is a personal thing; denying reproductive rights and choices to others is imposing personal convictions on others who obviously don’t share these convictions.
This is exactly what American conservatives have accused “the left” for years. This suggests that Trump’s religious conversion has had less to do with an appreciation of religious liberty than to stick it to his enemies on the other side of the aisle. It is a symptom of what Linda Greenhouse from The New York Times has called “grievance conservativism” – defined as “conservatism with a chip on its shoulder, fueled by a belief that even when it’s winning, it’s losing, and losing unfairly.”
This, of course, is hardly a Christian attitude. As Jesus once said (Matthew 5:38-42) “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” But, then, Trump himself made it known that for him, the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye” was his favorite verse. The ones who will be most negatively affected are America’s “children of a lesser god” – vulnerable women.
Professor Hans-Georg Betz is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Zurich. See full profile here.
© Hans-Georg Betz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).