Where are mainline Protestants on abortion?

On Friday (Jan. 19), nearly 45 years after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, hundreds of thousands will rally in the streets of Washington.

The annual March for Life is overwhelmingly composed of religious Americans.

Initially conceived as a mostly Catholic event, the march has included significantly more Protestants in recent decades.

Yet at the March for Life, the historic denominations of mainline Protestantism are hardly represented at all.

The simplest explanation is that the largest Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Congregationalist denominations support abortion rights.

In fact, these and other progressive faith groups include advocacy for a woman’s right to choose as part of their robust commitments to gender equity, family well-being and social justice.

While abortion is often portrayed as a binary issue, with religious people against it and secular people for it, the truth is much more complicated. America’s faith communities feature significant differences of opinion about the legality and morality of abortion.

Many are surprised to learn that there are groups as diverse as Secular Pro-Life, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Democrats for Life and Catholics for Choice.

At the March for Life, Catholics and white evangelicals will march alongside their clergy. Yet half of Catholics and a quarter of white evangelicals believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

Those evangelicals are mostly invisible in the political and religious debates over abortion rights. The media, the politicians and even their pastors act as though every evangelical Christian thinks abortion should be criminalized in this country. That is simply not true.

Likewise, mainline Protestants who oppose abortion rights also get lost in the debate. They dissent from their liberal clergy and co-religionists, but may hesitate to feel at home politically or theologically with their Catholic and evangelical friends at the March for Life.

Much of Americans’ division over abortion rights is a function of partisanship. But just as in the religious sphere, there is much more ideological diversity on abortion than we suppose. More than a third of Republicans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while about a quarter of Democrats do not.

So what can we say about the Christian divide over abortion politics in America?

One trend line we can observe is that religious traditions that strongly affirm abortion rights are declining faster than conservative traditions that oppose abortion.

As the mainline Episcopal Church and Presbyterian Church (USA) decline, conservative denominations such as the Anglican Church in North America and the Presbyterian Church in America are gaining ground. Both are strongly opposed to abortion rights and are increasingly visible at the March for Life.

While opponents of legal abortion have always held a hard-line position, abortion-rights supporters’ increasingly extreme pronouncements may strain alliances with faith groups.

The United Methodist Church, to take one example, affirmed abortion rights in 1972. But at almost every quadrennial General Conference since, Methodists have watered down their abortion position to the point where it is pro-life and pro-choice. It says everything and nothing.

Liberal Protestants could once support legal abortion with the caveat that it was a tragic necessity, or that it should be “safe, legal and rare.”

But today, progressive rhetoric has completely shed the idea that abortion is tragic or should be rare. Instead, abortion is celebrated as the fundamental right on which all female liberation relies. For Christians squeamish about abortion, today’s radical messaging may be a pill they cannot swallow.

And yet the United Methodists’ ambivalence reflects what Americans actually believe about abortion rights: It’s complicated.

At the March for Life, mainline Protestants will not have their pastors and bishops alongside them, as evangelicals and Catholics will.

But maybe mainline Protestants, so often castigated as a muddled middle, can help improve our broken debate about abortion — both in political and religious life.