election 2016

Our Bodies, Their God

Photo: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Beth Moore had had enough. On October 9, the day after the release of the Access Hollywood tape where Donald Trump bragged that he could grab women’s vaginas, the evangelical author and owner of the Texas-based Living Proof Ministries tweeted to her more than 700,000 Twitter followers: “Trying to absorb how unacceptable the disesteem and objectifying of women has been when some Christian leaders don’t think it’s a big deal,” and, “I’m among many women sexually abused, misused, stared down, heckled, talked naughty to. Like we liked it. We didn’t. We’re tired of it.”

Other high-profile evangelical women also lashed out against Trump, including author Jen Hatmaker, who posted to her 260,000-plus Instagram followers, in part: “I could not be more sorry and furious that we now have a presidential candidate not only degrading women but normalizing sexual assault … Good voters, I want to remind you that you are not stuck or without options on Election Day. There are four names on the presidential ballot. You can vote your conscience.” Talk-show host Julie Roys wrote in The Christian Post, “I honestly don’t know what makes me more sick. Listening to Trump brag about groping women or listening to my fellow Evangelicals defend him.”

Just weeks before the election, conservatives feared the tide was turning. One-fifth of all registered voters and one-third of GOP voters are white Evangelicals, according to Pew Research Center, and a rebellion among Christian women could have been devastating to Trump’s campaign. But what we now know is that despite Trump’s derogatory remarks and abhorrent behavior toward women, no such rebellion took place. In the privacy of voting booths across the country, Evangelical women voted as they usually do — for the Republican candidate. Or more precisely, the anti-abortion candidate.

It’s impossible to know if Trump’s extreme and medically inaccurate description of late-term abortion in the third and final debate had any effect, but it was certainly well timed. Just 11 days after the release of the now-infamous tape, Trump told an audience of roughly 72 million TV viewers, “In the ninth month, you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. Now, you can say that that is okay and Hillary can say that that is okay, but it’s not okay with me.” He went on to suggest that under Clinton, a fetus could be aborted “on the final day” of pregnancy, a grossly inaccurate claim, and one that demonizes both abortion providers and women. (In reality, just 1.3 percent of all abortions in the U.S. are performed after 21 weeks, usually when severe fetal abnormalities are detected in the second or third trimester — not once the pregnancy has come to term. That’s called birth.)

“Given that other Evangelicals were denouncing him around that time, for him and his purpose, it was a smart strategy to shore up that small proportion of the voter base,” says Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, about Trump’s debate remarks. “He was saying, ‘Even though you are hearing from these Evangelical leaders that I’m not your guy, I’m your guy’… He needed to make sure he didn’t lose those voters, because he needed them and he knew it.”

While the majority of Americans are pro-choice* — a Bloomberg Politics poll found that 67 percent of people say women should have the constitutional right to an abortion — the anti-abortion vote remains powerful, and passionate. Twenty-three percent of “pro-life” Americans say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views; for abortion-rights voters, that number drops to 19 percent, according to a 2015 Gallup poll. This gap matters in a close election, especially when you look at the entire voting pool. Among issues important to all registered voters this year, abortion didn’t even rank in the top ten. But for Evangelicals who believe that life begins at conception, abortion isn’t just an issue. It’s the issue.

“I can say that for the majority of my Evangelical friends, the reason they voted for Donald Trump was the Supreme Court,” Roys told NPR after the election. “They were very, very concerned about the possible nominations that are coming up. And they were very concerned about the court becoming very progressive.”

It’s the Supreme Court, of course, who would have the final say on any changes to Roe v. Wade, and Trump has already reaffirmed that he will appoint anti-abortion justices. Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life, an anti-abortion organization dating back to the 1960s, says that weighed heavily on NRL members’ votes: “They knew that if Hillary was [elected] and got to replace Justice Scalia and appoint maybe two or three other judges, abortion was going to be enshrined by the court for generations to come,” she says.

Tobias calls religion “a strong motivating factor” for NRL members, and says it’s women who are leading the charge. “I can tell you that when I go out speaking, when I look at our national board, when I look at the leaders of our state groups, the people that I come in contact with most are women,” she says.

That women are leading the charge against reproductive rights can be a difficult reality for abortion-rights advocates. It’s one thing for men to reinforce patriarchal structures that hurt women, but another for our own sisters to do so — much less on God’s behalf. And make no mistake, it is specifically white Evangelicals who supported Trump and his ultraconservative running mate, Mike Pence — a man who signed a bill requiring funerary services for aborted fetuses. According to the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, 66 percent of white Evangelicals and 49 percent of white mainline Protestants planned to vote for Trump one to two months before the election. Just 3 percent of black Protestants said the same. “Particularly in the Latino community and black community, regardless of religious affiliation, there has been overwhelming support of access to abortion,” says Alencia Johnson, director of constituency communications for Planned Parenthood.

Given that 77 percent of Americans say religion is very or somewhat important, and the majority of the country believes abortion should be legal, there’s clear overlap between women of faith and women who believe in protecting abortion access. And the hypocrisy of women who vote against a safe, legal medical procedure for all women — including those who don’t share their belief system — is, in this election more than most, virtually unbearable. At the core of Trump’s campaign were messages of hate and intolerance: punish women for having abortions, ban Syrian refugees (most of whom are women and children), create a registry for Muslims in the U.S., build a wall to keep out Mexicans (who, according to Trump, are criminals and rapists). The man bragged about assaulting women and even made fun of a disabled reporter at a rally. It’s fair to ask: Where was your righteous faith then?

Now here’s the worst part: White Evangelicals don’t seem to care. In a dramatic shift, 72 percent of them said that an elected official who commits an immoral act in his or her political life can still behave ethically in office, according to the PRRI. Only 30 percent of white Evangelicals said the same in 2011. Trump is a convenient exception.

“In regards to the opposition, it is unfortunate that they use God and Christianity to impose such hateful and violent rhetoric,” says Johnson. “That’s not just on abortion … In this election, not only did they talk about abortion, but also, they didn’t push back on Donald Trump’s hateful words and the violence he was inciting.”

Abortion-rights voters have responded to the election by putting their money where their anger is. In just over a week, more than 128,000 donations totaling more than $7 million have been made to Planned Parenthood, and at least 46,000 of them were in Pence’s “honor.” It’s a defiant “F-you” to a man who put his own faith before the women of Indiana as governor, and a clear message that progressives are prepared to fight on. What remains to be seen is to what extent white Evangelical women will press on as well, with their God, but against their own gender.

*Due to a copyediting error, an earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that the majority of Americans are anti-abortion. In fact, most Americans are pro-choice.

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