Reverend Amelia Fulbright has helped her congregants navigate all sorts of questions in the 13 years she has been an ordained minister. She has talked with them about whether they should move cities or change jobs or go on birth control or divorce their spouse. She has helped them figure out how to talk to their conservative families about being trans. They’ve asked her what to do if you think you no longer believe in God. They’ve asked her how to handle the sensitive communication required in polyamorous relationships. But never has a member of her church asked her to help them think through whether to end a pregnancy.
Fulbright gets it. She knows that the stereotypical Christian pastor is far more likely to be imagined protesting an abortion clinic than blessing it. But Fulbright, who is in her early 40s, is not a stereotypical pastor. If you ran into her on the street, you might assume, from her dangling earrings and asymmetrical bob, that she spends more time at the local food co-op than any church. And she has, in fact, walked the halls of Whole Woman’s Health in Austin, Texas, where she lives, praying for peace and safety for the patients and staff. For the past eight years, as religious conservatives have cheered the ongoing erosion of abortion rights across the country, Fulbright has been part of a much less visible circle of progressive Christian pastors who speak clearly and openly in favor of women’s reproductive rights. She has preached sermons about the Christian case for abortion access, testified many times against restrictive legislation before the Texas government, written pro-choice op-eds, trained fellow pastors in how to talk about reproductive rights at church, and worn her clerical collar to protests. But “even in a progressive congregation, people don’t feel entirely safe to talk to clergy about abortion,” she says. “You have this really hateful minority in the culture that is so amplified, even though they don’t speak for most Americans or even most Christians.”
This might be changing. Since Texas Senate Bill 8, one of the most severely restrictive abortion laws in the country, went into effect in September, there has been a swell of clergy interest in joining the fight for reproductive rights. In early October, Fulbright attended a pro-choice organizing call for ministers and realized that it was the largest gathering of clergy she had ever attended in Texas. Could this finally be the moment, she and others wonder, that the religious left is able to reconstruct the moral framework for the conversation around abortion — and in so doing, shift the public’s understanding of what it means to be a 21st-century Christian?
For years, Fulbright has met regularly with about ten fellow clergy members at the offices of Just Texas, an organization that trains members of the state’s religious left to step into public discussions of progressive issues, especially LGBTQ rights and abortion access. Since early September, four times as many clergy have been joining Just Texas’s meetings. They want to know how they can support clinic workers whose hours are being cut and what those seeking abortion care need. In the past several weeks, another hundred got in touch to find out how they could get involved. “I just don’t think we ever thought SB8 would actually go into effect,” Fulbright tells me from a seat outside her neighborhood coffee spot, which recently began writing JUST SAY ROE on the cookies it sells. “People are like, ‘We have got to do something, because things are off the rails.’”
By day, Fulbright is the pastor of the Congregational Church of Austin, where many members are affiliated with the University of Texas — the type who might not feel comfortable in a lot of mainstream churches. She started the job only a few weeks before SB8 exploded into the news. Alongside her advocacy work, she is helping her new congregants figure out how to respond. She estimates that, in October alone, she spent as much time on reproductive-justice work as she would normally spend on it in an entire year. The surge of involvement by her fellow clergy was, in that context, a relief. On a recent call, an organizer theorized that long-term change in Christians’ attitudes toward abortion, in Texas and across the country, is probably a 40-year project. “That’s going to take more than a roomful of ten people,” Fulbright says. But a part of her also wondered where everybody had been all those years when Texas was passing ever more restrictive abortion laws. “If I’m being totally honest, there’s that feeling of, like, It’s been bad for a while, y’all. But I know that part of the reason I feel that so intensely is because I come out of the Evangelical church, which has been responsible for so much of this.”
Though Fulbright now belongs to one of the most progressive denominations in the country, she grew up the child of Southern Baptist missionaries. She spent her early years in Zambia, until her family settled in North Carolina in 1984. Their return coincided with the rise of the religious right and the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative takeover. Throughout her adolescence, Fulbright’s family attended a rural church that, once a year, held “sanctity of life” Sundays. Fulbright now realizes they were actually anti-abortion Sundays; she can still visualize the drawing of a fetus in the womb on the cover of the worship bulletin. At home, her mother spoke about opposing abortion. In contrast to the church presentations, she said there could be exceptions, such as if someone had been the victim of rape or incest. Even as a kid, Fulbright noticed that for her mother, there was apparently flexibility to a prohibition that others saw as absolute.
In college, she took courses in philosophy, encountered feminism for the first time, and had a crisis of faith. Her questions propelled her into seminary, which seemed like the best place to work things out. There, she learned that Jewish teaching held that until a baby’s first breath, the life of its mother took precedence. For Fulbright, this was revelatory. She realized that her religious upbringing had always implicitly taught the opposite. In ways large and small, women were meant to sacrifice their lives — their needs and hopes and desires — for their children.
She began to wonder when Christian thought diverged from Jewish teaching, and in her research she found something that shocked her: Two years before Roe v. Wade, the Southern Baptist convention passed a resolution calling for the legalization of abortion. The denomination continued to support Roe for years after the Supreme Court decision. It wasn’t until the late ’70s that Jerry Falwell and the other architects of the religious right began to preach anti-abortion sermons. The reason they did so had less to do with abortion itself than with trying to galvanize white Evangelical Christians to vote for Republicans. Learning this history “was what really caused me to look on everything with skepticism,” Fulbright told me. By the time she was ordained, in 2008, she was no longer Southern Baptist.
Her next revelation came five years later, when Wendy Davis spoke in the Texas senate for 13 hours in a filibuster that attempted to block the passage of a 20-week-abortion ban. Fulbright was chaperoning a youth-mission trip in Houston. All the women were staying in a big room together, and someone had the livestream playing on her phone. “We were all huddled around, trying to wrap our heads around what was happening,” Fulbright remembers. At the time, she was doing some work on teen pregnancy and comprehensive sex ed. But watching Davis, she realized how serious an issue abortion access was and how strongly she felt drawn to advocate for it. “I believe so deeply in the dignity of every person, that our bodies are so sacred,” she told me. “I just feel like I have no choice but to speak.”
Fulbright is not a fiery speaker — she talks slowly, as if carefully considering each word — but her love of scripture is palpable, as is her anger when its message is misused for the sake of political debate. When she preaches about reproductive rights, as she does a few times a year, she sometimes points out that the Bible doesn’t really deal with abortion. She suggests to her congregation that “the best any of us can do when we’re talking about abortion is to draw from what we feel are the core teachings of scripture.” She tells them that at its heart, she sees the ministry of Jesus as “liberating people from systems and structures that oppress them, whether that was the poor or the women whom he brought into the center of his teaching when that was seen as taboo by religious authorities.”
Her congregants are a receptive audience — “You can preach about anything. They’re very open to ideas,” Fulbright says. But connecting the teachings of Jesus to abortion access tends to earn Fulbright hate mail from conservative believers. Whenever her work is written up in the press, she braces herself: “Every time I speak, whether it’s in a hearing or or an op-ed, I count the costs and know that there could be backlash,” she told me. One Sunday morning after the blessing of Whole Woman’s Health, Fulbright was preparing for a service when an email landed in her inbox with a subject line that read “you fucking bitch.” The message said she was sure to burn in hell.
She is equally attuned to the pushback she receives from certain corners of the progressive religious community, which comes in the form of silence. One faith group with which Fulbright and many fellow clergy work on issues like voting rights and police reform has refused to get involved with reproductive rights. When supportive colleagues invite Fulbright to their churches to preach about abortion, she will sometimes see people leave through the back door.
If the religious right’s strategy for the past 40 years has been to loudly proclaim the moral superiority of its positions and push for policies that are in line with its teachings, the Christian left has often done the exact opposite. “One of the tactics we used against the Christian Right was to say they needed to sit down and shut up because religion didn’t have a place in the public square,” says Reverend Jennifer Butler, who leads a progressive organization called Faith in Public Life. “There has been a lot of confusion on the left about the separation of church and state and what it meant to lift up a moral voice in society.”
Four years of watching Donald Trump advance a hateful agenda with the support of Evangelical Christians clarified the urgent need for a new approach. In the wake of SB8, Butler has seen more and more people from across the denominational spectrum, from Evangelicals to Catholics, asking, “‘What are we going to do about these abortion bans?’ I never thought I would see that,” Butler says. “We’ve all been driven together by the dire situation.”
Erika Forbes, an interfaith minister and the co-leader of Just Texas, believes the religious left’s reserve has allowed conservatives to “take God hostage.” Forbes has had two abortions, and she speaks about them frankly. She entered the clergy in part because she “realized how sacred it was to be able to provide the type of care and comfort I wanted as I made my decision. It’s not just ‘Let me give you a Kleenex,’” she says. “It means driving someone, figuring out how to get funding, putting my face out there on the line.”
In Austin, Fulbright is challenging her church to follow this example and speak out loudly and publicly for what it believes. “They will say things like, ‘Well, what’s the urgency? People already know we’re a progressive congregation.’ I say, ‘The church has a really bad track record on this, so we need to say it explicitly if we want people to know they’re welcomed and affirmed,’” she says. Though the congregation tends to be “camera shy,” a group from her church marched against SB8 in early October, and they’ve begun a series of discussions that Fulbright hopes will lead to being designated a Reproductive Freedom Congregation. Churches that adopt the designation affirm that access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care are moral and social goods. And they commit to taking concrete actions, such as speaking out on social media, attending protests, or testifying from a faith-based perspective when anti-abortion bills come before the legislature. “They’re not interested in doing things that are just performative,” Fulbright says of her congregants. “They want to think about what it will mean to really create space for conversations where people can share their own experiences.” That means staying the course, even if, in the short term, the Supreme Court strikes down SB8. Fulbright and her church are well aware that a larger threat to Roe v. Wade is looming.
Back in April, at the same time that SB8 was working its way through the Senate, Fulbright went to the Texas capitol to testify against another measure which would ban all abortions in Texas should Roe be overturned. (Like SB8, it passed.) During the hearing, a Republican legislator argued at length that the bill need not allow abortion in any case — even in a situation where carrying a pregnancy to term would threaten the life of the mother. Fulbright was appalled. Soon after, she was called to the podium, where she introduced herself as an ordained minister. “I don’t have respect for the politicization of this issue,” she said. “It plays on the faith of devout Christians for an unholy purpose.” The corridor leading into the hearing room was lined with pro-life activists, many of whom had brought their children to the capitol. When Fulbright finished her testimony, she heard them begin to boo and groan. She turned, looking for a familiar face. Forbes had come along for support and was seated in the gallery, a stole embroidered with interfaith symbols draped over her shoulders. The two women walked outside together and stood talking for a long time about their families and work and plans for the summer — “detoxing,” Fulbright said. When she returned home, she had a sermon to prepare.