The White Supremacy of Natural Law: Miscegenation and Same-Sex Marriage as Sodomy in American Law and Culture

by Will Hogue

In the wake of the Kim Davis scandal, where Davis, a Rowen County, Kentucky clerk denied a marriage license to a same-sex couple on the grounds of religious freedom in 2015, Governor Mike Huckabee came to her defense. In a nationally broadcast interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Huckabee was asked how his and Davis’s stance, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges which legalized gay marriage, could be justified in comparison with the court’s ruling in Loving v. Virginia which struck down bans on interracial marriages. Tapper inquired, “I know that you are a supporter of the Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967 which outlawed all bans on interracial marriage…. Even after the bans were struck down, even though there may have been Mormons or adherents to Bob Jones who, at the time, thought of blacks as inferior, as taught by their religion… you would have said [law clerks] have the right to defy the Supreme Court.” Huckabee, confidently retorted, “It’s not the same case. That was an interpretation of marriage, but it’s still man-woman marriage. This is a completely new, total redefinition of marriage. And, I think what’s important is we have a county clerk who is not accommodated for her faith.”1CNN, “Mike Huckabee Defends Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis,” YouTube (CNN, September 4, 2014), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X24TE0R_Ekc. This statement from Huckabee is one that many Americans likely agreed with, but the question for me was, is it not the same case? 

In her groundbreaking book on miscegenation law, What Comes Naturally, historian Peggy Pascoe argued that the “bottom line of white supremacy” was the naturalizing of anti-miscegenation law.2Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (New York, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), 1. She argued that race-mixing was prohibited by the white male elite using “three animating fictions—one constitutional, one scientific, and one popular” which served to create a natural law basis for constitutional separation.3Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (New York, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), 6. Natural law, “a body of unchanging moral principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct,” is generally grounded in the cultural and religious prohibitions of a given society, and gives moral, natural credence to something as part of, or counter to human nature.4Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), s.v. “Natural Law.” When we look to the legal arguments posed for anti-miscegenation law we find that even at the highest levels, the moral and scientific language of “human nature” was involved to maintain the social order. From the Western medieval period, sodomy laws prohibited any sex which was not productive—heterosexual, homosexual, and beastial.5Zeb Tortoricci, Sins Against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial New Spain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018). These miscegenation acts against nature, were often legally seen as sodomy because they were considered unprocreative or encouraging “deplorable results.”6Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, 71. Under this umbrella of sodomy was beastiality, which according to Victorian race science after the antebellum property laws of the United States included the mixing of “negroid” and “caucasoid” human races. As Keith Sealing writes:

To the monogenists, slavery or anti-miscegenation laws based upon a theory of White superiority over a fellow descendent of Adam had to be justified by a theory of specific unity followed by racial degeneration…. Although the proponents of the second theory had an apparently more scientific justification for slavery and anti-miscegenation statutes, it was not well-received in the South because it conflicted with the Bible. The “polygenists” saw Blacks as a separate and inferior species descended from a different Adam, and, thus, saw slavery as qualitatively no different from the ownership of a horse, and miscegenation as approaching bestiality. But the polygenists had one major problem: species are generally defined as populations that cannot mate, or populations that if successfully mated produce sterile offspring, such as the mule [the word “mulatto” is often considered to derive from the Spanish for mule, although this is debated]. Every admitted child of master and slave stood as evidence against the polygenists’ separate species theory. Polygenists were forced to hold fast to the position that these mixed-race individuals were of diminished fertility, even though that was patently false, or else to redefine the term “species” to fit the obvious fact of vigorous infertility between Whites and Blacks.7Keith Sealing, “Blood Will Tell: Scientific Racism and the Legal Prohibition Against Miscegenation,” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2000, https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1260015.

As Kathleen Belew showed in her work on 20th century white supremacists, the idea of preserving the “naturally ordained” hierarchies of racism and sexism were beholden to an understanding of compulsory heterosexuality and procreative intercourse. This logic, in the neo-fascist’s eyes would see homosexuality as a crisis to bring the demise of Western White Civilization.8Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home the White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press, 2019). Fundamentally, these laws existed to keep two groups as distinct castes—women and African Americans. The creation of these illicit castes made natural and inferior African American sex, and the supposedly “passive” women.9Andrew Koppelman, “The Miscegenation Analogy: Sodomy Law as Sex Discrimination,” The Yale Law Journal 98, no. 1 (1988): p. 145, https://doi.org/10.2307/796648., 147. This passivity is a pejorative stereotype applied to women, blacks, and homosexuals which serves to preserve the white propertied male as the hierarchical head. In all of this, there is a concern for the property rights of white men and, as one judge put it, the “highest advancement of our cherished Southern civilization.”10Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, 71. In the end, the preservation of this social order depended on officials at the local level—county clerks—who Pascoe referred to as the “gatekeepers of white supremacy.”11Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 4. It seems that this “white supremacy” is protected, both in anti-miscegenation and anti-gay marriage law through the tripartite rationale Pascoe explicates. A tiny section of What Comes Naturally is dedicated to the connection activists drew between Loving and the fight for gay marriage; however, revisiting the topic in our current political climate with a resurgence of white nationalism and homophobia seems both timely and necessary.

American laws prohibiting intermarriage between whites and people of color date back to the colonial era. However, the rights extended to black people in the Reconstruction amendments created a newfound panic around interracial sex and the slippery slope to race-mixing. “Scientific” arguments, based on miscegenation as sodomy, were offered to defend this bias. James Trosino cites the 1883 State v. Jackson case which claimed, “It is stated as a well authenticated fact that if the issue of a black man and a white woman, and a white man and a black woman, intermarry, they cannot possibly have any progeny, and such a fact sufficiently justifies those laws which forbid the intermarriage of blacks and whites.”12Issac West, “Analogizing Interracial and Same-Sex Marriage,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 48, no. 4 (2015): https://doi.org/10.5325/philrhet.48.4.0561, 4. There were also scientific studies to defend the argument for bestiality that suggested “mulattoes” could not bear children past the third generation, and that those who were born would be “sickly” and “effeminate.”13Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 7. Psychologists and eugenicists had also similarly classified people of African descent and homosexuals as mentally inferior and mentally disordered, respectfully. These pseudo-scientific rationales not only rest on racism and homophobia, but on the understanding that marriage is an institution which only exists for procreation. Of course, scientific studies were not employed to ban women from marrying after menopause, and the question of adoption does not figure into these late nineteenth century arguments as a way of having children; rather, these studies were employed within a system with preconceived ideas about race and sexuality.  

The removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of disorders in 1973, supported by the widespread existence of same-sex attraction as reported by Alfred Kinsey among others, sparked the decriminalization of gay sex state by state, to be held up by the Supreme Court in the 2003 case Lawrence vs. Texas.14Neel Burton MD., “When Homosexuality Stopped Being a Mental Disorder,” Psychology Today, Spt. 18, 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201509/when-homosexuality-stopped-being-mental-disorder. Similarly, as Phoebe C. Godfrey argued, the equality that blacks obtained through Brown vs. Board, which was justified, in part, due to a psychiatric belief in the inferiority of black mental faculties, mirrors Lawrence, and was likewise grounded in a fear of the possibility of illicit sexual behavior.15Phoebe C. Godfrey, “Eschatological Sexuality: Miscegenation and the ‘Homosexual Agenda’ From Brown v. Board of Education (1954) to Lawrence v. Texas (2003),” Race, Gender, and Class, Vol. 19, 3-4 (2012), 143-160. When these pseudo-scientific arguments eventually fell flat, the argument rested on the same Christian morality which served to make this sex taboo. As Trosino writes, “the heterosexual supremacist’s fear that legalized gay marriage will taint traditional heterosexual marriage also is closely analogous to the white supremacist’s fear that miscegenation would harm white womanhood… something sacrosanct.’”16James Trosino, “American Wedding: Same Sex Marriage and the Miscegenation Analogy,” Boston University Law Review 73 (1993), 110. These arguments, and most of the arguments against miscegenation and gay marriage, rely on a moralization grounded in white Christian traditions. 

Also, as Darwinism forced polygenists to rethink their arguments about multiple human races or deny evolution entirely, the existence of homosexuality in nearly all mammal species, particularly in great  apes, eroded the argument of homosexuality as against nature.17W. Byne, “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity,” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 283, no. 16 (2000): pp. 2170-2170, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.283.16.2170. A lesser studied aspect of the religious debate over the theory of evolution is its connection to upholding the racist order. Indeed, Darwinism opened up the possibility of denying the existence of multiple human races for the one “Out of Africa” human race, and the “naturalized” prohibitions against sodomy could be contextualized with other species of Great Apes. Until Darwin, the polygenetic idea of Co-Adamism, as supported by Giordano Bruno, Charles White, and others argued that Africans were a separate race, and that, like mules and other hybrid animals, they would be impaired due to the bestiality involved in their reproduction.18David N. Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 2011), 15. These arguments about the naturalness of anti-miscegenation and strict heterosexuality fell flat with the general acceptance of On the Origin of Species, however the cultural and religious afterlife of these beliefs can still be felt in our social and legal structures.

Christian ideology on sodomy and bestiality is probably the most influential and lasting source both for supporting anti-miscegenation and opposing same-sex marriage laws. While Pascoe does not focus on Christianity specifically, ideas surrounding “Christian Civilization” are overwhelmingly present in the book. She argues that the ideas of “illicit sex” and legitimate marriage served to preserve “white purity” by ensuring any sex outside of marriage was illicit. This made all sex between members of the same sex, and interracial sex illicit.19Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 12. However, as becomes clear in the book, what was considered moral and immoral was largely dictated at the state and local level by the Protestant dominant ideology. At Indiana’s founding in 1866, State Supreme Court Justice Buskirk noted that:

Marriage is treated as a civil contract, but it is more than a mere civil contract. It is a public institution established by God himself, it is recognized in all Christian and civilized nations… the right, in states, to regulate and control, to guard, protect, and preserve this God-given, civilizing, and Christianizing institution… cannot be surrendered.20Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 56. 

This was one of the justifications for Indiana’s anti-miscegenation law. Likewise, Trosino quotes the 1877 Green v. State case defending anti-miscegenation which claimed that God had “made the two races distinct.”21James Trosino, “American Wedding: Same Sex Marriage and the Miscegenation Analogy,” Boston University Law Review 73 (1993), 103.  These religiously inspired condemnations of interracial marriage were not confined to the 19th century, however. Indeed, the trial judge in Loving wrote:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.22“U.S. Reports: Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967).,” The Library of Congress, accessed December 11, 2019, https://www.loc.gov/item/usrep388001/

This line of thinking is consistent with the “popular animating fiction” Pascoe discusses which was present in many white Christians’ worldviews. When the courts and legislatures had finally reached a place where they could no longer defend white supremacy scientifically, or by way of God’s Natural Law, they relied on the First Amendment right to religious liberty. Religious groups which were inspired by polygenism often relied on an ancient argument that the African race is descended from Noah’s dark-skinned a cursed son Ham. Thus, in this view, Hamites (Africans) were doomed to serve light-skinned (Caucasians) for all time.23Michael F. Robinson, The Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and the Theory that Changed a Continent (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 85-94. Famously, Mormons prohibited interracial dating, and the evangelical Bob Jones University was taken to the Supreme Court over its ban on interracial dating which made it lose its tax-exempt status, but the ban remained in place citing the First Amendment. (Bob Jones did not lift the ban until the year 2000).24“Bob Jones Univ. v. United States,” Legal Information Institute (Cornell Law), accessed December 23, 2019, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/461/574. 

This first amendment argument on the basis of individual religious freedom continues to be the predominant avenue through which people oppose same-sex marriage. When Mike Huckabee referred to same-sex marriage as a “total redefinition,” we must keep in mind how closely related race mixing was to sodomy and bestiality in American law and consciousness. Indeed, Christianity has done much to naturalize compulsory heterosexuality and anti-miscegenation from antiquity to the present, but they have always existed, just as same-sex marriage and civil unions existed in various cultures.25For references to Homosexuality in the Middle Ages and Ancient Europe, see: John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015). For references to Homosexuality and Same-Sex marriage in Asia see: Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: the Male Homosexual Tradition in China (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1992)., and Gregory M. Pflugfelder, Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). This may seem superfluous, but given the ancient moral roots of Christianity and aspects of American law, these prejudices shaped the creation of the entire legal tradition.  Brown, Loving, Lawrence, and Obergefell all created a backlash in which conservative Christians sought to maintain the previous system in the name of their individual first amendment rights. Not only could law clerks, like Kim Davis, make it difficult for same-sex couples to gain marriage licenses, but as the 2019 case Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission shows, discrimination based on religious freedom will be federally upheld where it stands for LGBT people, whereas the religious freedom to discriminate by race in public services was shot down in Newman v. Piggie Park in 1968 via a definition of the Civil Rights Act.26Jared Ham and Amanda Wong, “Masterpiece Cakeshop, LTD. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission,” Legal Information Institute (Cornell Law), accessed December 13, 2019, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/cert/16-111, and  “Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc., 256 F. Supp. 941 (D.S.C. 1966),” Justia Law, accessed December 12, 2019, https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/256/941/2349546/. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave workplace protections and legal access to public services to African Americans, there are no workplace protections against religious freedom bias for LGBT people in a majority of U.S. states.27“Non-Discrimination Laws,” Movement Advancement Project, accessed December 13, 2019, https://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps/non_discrimination_laws. The Supreme Court will decide whether Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act includes sexuality and gender identity, or not, in 2020. The court is projected to make a narrow decision on the issue, and it seems they may not rule in favor of LGBT rights.28Adam Liptak and Jeremy W. Peters, “Supreme Court Considers Whether Civil Rights Act Protects L.G.B.T. Workers,” The New York Times (The New York Times, October 8, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/08/us/politics/supreme-court-gay-transgender.html.https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-biz-cb-lgbt-workplace-discrimination-case-20191007-5q2lvkrco5eqnmk4y3kztv6l7a-story.html. So while county clerks, the traditional “gatekeepers of white supremacy,” have lost much of their ability to prevent the illicit behaviors of mixed-race and same-sex marriage to support the white patriarchy, the private sector in a majority of states still has the first amendment right to discriminate legally against LGBT employees and users of public space, and African Americans are continually denied access or removed from public space, sometimes though violence. 

Interestingly, the first amendment religious freedom argument which preserved this racist line of thinking also helped to bring it down. The Los Angeles Catholic Interracial Council, a coalition of interracial Catholics who sought to end anti-miscegenation laws worked to support the marriage of a white Latina Catholic and a black Catholic man. Since the Catholic Church had banned the belief in polygenism and anti-miscegenation in Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, the group stated that anti-miscegenation defied their religious freedom. While the Catholic hierarchy distanced itself from the group, the case went to trial and struck down the anti-miscegenation laws in the state of California.29Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 223. While religious freedom was part of the fight against miscegenation as well as for it, same-sex marriage has taken to employ the language of human rights instead. In both cases it was essential to break down the tradition of natural law which used was created with a European patriarchal bias to establish laws around sex and marriage. Sodomy law, rather than just miscegenation law specifically, to expand Pascoe’s thesis, seems to be the “bottom line of white supremacy.”30Pascoe, What Comes Naturally, 1.

Bibliography

Baxandall, Rosalyn, and Linda Gordon. Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.

Belew, Kathleen. Bring the War Home the White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press, 2019.

Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Byne, W. “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 283, no. 16 (2000): 2170–70. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.283.16.2170.

Hinsch, Bret. Passions of the Cut Sleeve: the Male Homosexual Tradition in China. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1992.

Koppelman, Andrew. “The Miscegenation Analogy: Sodomy Law as Sex Discrimination.” The Yale Law Journal 98, no. 1 (1988): 145. https://doi.org/10.2307/796648.

Livingstone, David N. Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 2011.

Pascoe, Peggy. What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. New York, New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011.

Pflugfelder, Gregory M. Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Rosen, Michael. Dignity: Its History and Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Sealing, Keith. “Blood Will Tell: Scientific Racism and the Legal Prohibition Against Miscegenation.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2000. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1260015.

Self, Robert O. All in the Family: the Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2013.

Tortoricci, Zeb. Sins Against Nature: Sex and Archives in Colonial New Spain. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.

Trosino, James. “American Wedding: Same Sex Marriage and the Miscegenation Analogy.” Boston University Law Review 73 (1993): 93–120.

“U.S. Reports: Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967).” The Library of Congress. Accessed December 23, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/item/usrep388001/.

USCCB. Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching. USCCB. Accessed December 23, 2019. http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/abortion/respect-for-unborn-human-life.cfm.

West, Issac. “Analogizing Interracial and Same-Sex Marriage.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 48, no. 4 (2015): 561. https://doi.org/10.5325/philrhet.48.4.0561.

Williams, Daniel K. God’s Own Party: the Making of the Christian Right. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Pro-Life as Liberal or Backlash? A Critical Review of Daniel Williams’ Defenders of the Unborn

by Will Hogue

While on the campaign trail, Donald Trump was questioned in a public audience about his position on abortion. Trump, who is known for frequent misogynistic comments, went on to say that not only was he pro-life, but that he believed women should receive “punishment” for an abortion procedure.1Lucia Graves, “Trump Once Said Women Should Be Punished for Abortion. Now, He’s Making It Happen,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, January 24, 2017), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/24/trump-once-said-women-should-be-punished-for-abortion-t. While many pro-life groups came out and rejected his statement, his sentiment is part of a growing, arguably reemerging, trend. A failed Texas bill which somehow made it into the legislature would have made abortion punishable by death.2Anna North, “A Texas Bill Would Allow the Death Penalty for Patients Who Get Abortions,” Vox (Vox, April 11, 2019), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/4/11/18304825/abortion-texas-tony-tinderholt-death-penalty-bill. These situations beg the question of why abortion is such a contentious issue, and is the fetus or the mother the object of concern or ire? With this current political climate, the history of the culture wars has seen a timely explosion of historical literature in recent years. With this, the history of Christianity, in particular the Christian right, has seen an enhanced interest from scholars. Within these histories, historians have begun to examine more closely the beginnings of anti-abortion activism sixty years ago. The critical question that Williams addresses is the age of the pro-life movement, which predates Roe v. Wade. Yet the framing of this creates an argument that goes against some of the classic literature in the field. 

 In her essential book on the subject, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, Kristin Luker argues that the controversy over abortion is not so much about the fate of the embryo, but rather, motherhood as a source of meaning for women’s lives. Luker shows that the debate surrounding abortion is mainly concerned with abortion as an aspect of  the breakdown of traditional gender roles.[1] Similarly, Rebecca Klatch gives a nuanced perspective of the various motivations for women’s involvement in conservative politics in her book Women of the New Right.[2] Klatch argues that “laissez faire” and “socially conservative” women are the two main camps of the New Right. “Laissez faire” women are ideologically rooted in 19th century liberalism, while “socially conservative” women are influenced by religious traditions.[3] Another classic work, Abortion and Woman’s Choice: The State, Sexuality, and Reproductive Freedom by Rosalind Petchesky, more overtly claims that the battle over access to abortion was an issue of upwardly mobile women abandoning patriarchal norms (abandoning a strictly domestic life for the workforce). Those who do not support feminist advancement are part of the backlash politics of the pro-life movement.  In her essential work, Backlash, Susan Faludi lays out the fundamental argument that “backlash” occurred when women stepped outside of traditional gender roles. This backlash is, in part, connected to any shift in women’s traditional role as mothers, and is linked to their growing autonomy from reproductive labor. When this change takes place, no matter how minute it may be in reality, patriarchal values resurface through media, religion, science and popular culture.[4] These are but some of the essential texts which established an understanding of the abortion debate as something intrinsically connected to gender roles.


[1] Kristin Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984).

[2] Rebecca E. Klatch, Women of the New Right (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1987).

[3]Debra Reneé Kaufman, “Book Reviews.” Gender & Society, vol. 4, no. 1, 1990, pp. 118–120., doi:10.1177/089124390004001023.

[4] Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women (London: Vintage, 1992).

Defenders of the Unborn, however, looking at the longer history of the largely Christian pro-life movement begining in the 1950s, takes issue with the idea of the pro-life movement as backlash to Roe v. Wade. The most recent proponent of framing anti-abortion activism as backlash politics is Robert O. Self in his sweeping history All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s. Religious historian Daniel Williams in his book Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade rethinks both the ideas posited in Self’s book, and in Williams’ previous book on the religious right[1]. Defenders of the Unborn considers the longer history of the pro-life movement starting in the 1950s as a movement for which used a rhetoric of “human rights” for the unborn in a politics which Williams refers to as initially “liberal.” Williams, however, oversells his argument about the pro-life movement as an ecumenical “liberal” Christian movement across denominational lines. Indeed, he identifies little ecumenism or theological unity between Catholics and Protestants before at least the late 1960s after the Second Vatican Council. In this context, where Catholics were one of few denominations that opposed birth control or abortion, it is difficult to define something as broadly “liberal.” Indeed, Williams’ argument begins to fall flat when he acknowledges the differences in Catholic opposition to abortion and contraception, and almost universal Protestant support (mainline and evangelical) for abortion rights before the late 1970s. While he proves effectively that Catholics employed a rights-based argument to sell the pro-life agenda which he defines as “liberal,” he still admits that this did not reconcile with Catholic doctrine which had, at least since the nineteenth century, seen contraception, abortion, and sodomy as interrelated sins against nature.[2] Given that, doctrinally, the church’s abortion stance, and the idea of the “dignity of the human person” is rooted in a medieval understanding of social hierarchy, as Michael Rosen has shown, the politics of backlash may still be a valuable piece of the story even in respect to Catholicism.[3]


[1]Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: the Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[2] USCCB, “Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching (USCCB),” accessed December 20, 2019, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/abortion/respect-for-unborn-human-life.cfm.

[3] Michael Rosen, Dignity: Its History and Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Historians generally agree that the white male heterosexual was the de facto representative of the citizen, or the “universal subject,”3Robert O. Self, All in the Family: the Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2013), 4. and that civil rights, feminism, and gay rights proved a challenge to his dominance in the hetero-patriarchal order. Self argues that while the state has always been heavily involved in the regulation of bodies and sexuality through abortion law, sodomy law, and marriage, the nuclear family was so unquestionable that sex and sexuality were still culturally imagined to be private before the sexual revolution.4Robert O. Self, All in the Family, 4. This breakdown of the divide between public and private, both politically and socially, through Great Society programs and the new left eventually developed into an uneasy coalition of neoconservative Catholics and Jews, evangelicals, Southern Baptists and fundamentalists who believed in sustaining the traditional nuclear family. Self successfully connects the development of a neoconservative/conservative coalition with his idea of “breadwinner conservatism,” a political ideology which rejected Great Society social welfare programs and protected an idealized nuclear family from the “moral threats” of the new left.5Robert O. Self, All in the Family, 5. Self argues that for breadwinner conservatives abortion belonged within the umbrella of the new left’s promotion of immorality in the sexual revolution, feminism, and gay rights. Abortion, in Self’s view, is viewed as an issue that “challenged the conventional views of motherhood and the divide between public and private life in America.”6Robert O. Self, All in the Family, 134.

Here Daniel Williams suggests that the narrative must focus more on the origins of the pro-life movement rather than seeing it as appearing in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade. While Williams usefully reminds us that the pro-life movement had origins far earlier than Roe, the idea that this movement is grounded in New Deal liberalism, while interesting, is really only an issue that pertains to Catholics, and even then, Catholics supported abortion liberalization in numbers only slightly lower than their Protestant counterparts.7T.W. Smith, “Catholic Attitudes Toward Abortion,” National Center for Biotechnology Information (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1984), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed. Throughout the 1970s, Catholics were only 10% less likely to support abortion liberalization than Protestants, and even today only around half of Catholics are pro-life. The focus on pro-life Catholics whitewashes the intra-denominational struggle taking place among Catholics after the Second Vatican Council and promulgation of Humana Vitae. Catholics for Choice, a pro-choice lobbying group in Washington D.C. could be a group to look to in order to see the division among Catholics. Catholics for Choice, like their pro-life counterparts and most Protestant denominations, set their advocacy in the language of human rights. In a 1974 statement they stated, 

Sinful and barbaric laws forbidding women their human, personal right to terminate an unwanted and impossible conception, were forced upon them, in and out of marriage, and deprived them of their human and spiritual inalienable right to their own souls, conscience, free will, and full personhood, reducing them to the unholy status of bondage, and slavery to a patriarchal mystique which insisted on the state and male ownership of every woman’s body and mind.8Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon, Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000)., 174.

Not only did pro-choice Catholics use the same rhetoric of rights as Catholic pro-lifers, this time for the mother, as well as discuss the inconsistent history of the dogma of “life at conception,” but they also framed their rights discussion in a private/public sphere discourse which resonates with Robert Self’s argument, that “private” had to be made public to see the injustices inherent in the system.9Robert O. Self, All in the Family. These Catholics are reflecting a liberalism which fits within the Great Society coalition even while critiquing it which is similar to most of their liberal protestant counterparts. 

The question of the “Right to Life” movement being grounded in liberal values is also a slippery argument. While Williams should be applauded for this insight, this argument needs a deeper discussion on the rise of Catholic neoconservatism, and a broader Christian liberalism had generally which been pro-choice. Christine Rosen points to a history of mainstream liberal support of not only what we would today conceive of as eugenics (race based forced sterilization, etc.) but also birth control and abortion in her problematic, yet insightful book Preaching Eugenics.10Rosen’s funding comes from a neoconservative thinktank, Ethics and Public Policy Center, and often blurs the lines between what we would normally consider eugenics and birth control. Much like Rosen, Williams does not define what is liberal and conservative distinctly, and blurs lines, even referring to the progressive era prohibition movement as ‘socially conservative’ while seeing pro-lifers as socially liberal.11Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: the pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 3. Could not the Catholic stance on contraception and abortion be characterized as socially conservative as well? After all, at the Lambeth Conference of 1930 the Anglican Communion liberalized its rules on contraception, and it seemed as if the Catholic Church would follow suit after the Second Vatican Council.12The Anglican Communion, “Lambdeth Conference,” The Lambdeth Conference Resolutions of 1930 (Church of England, 2005), https://www.anglicancommunion.org/media/127734/1930.pdf. In fact, when Paul VI published Humana Vitae shortly after the Council, a lay member of the commission commented that, “It was as if they had found some old unpublished encyclical from the 1920s in a drawer somewhere in the Vatican, dusted it off, and handed it out.”13Lisa McClain, “How the Catholic Church Came to Oppose Birth Control,” The Conversation, October 31, 2019, https://theconversation.com/how-the-catholic-church-came-to-oppose-birth-control-95694. Williams’ other claim that these liberal Catholics clashed with second-wave feminists, while true, implies that earlier liberals and “liberal” Catholic pro-lifers may have been of one accord, but further investigation suggests this is not so.14Tracy A. Thomas, Misappropriating Women’s History in the Law and Politics of Abortion , 36 SEATTLE U. L. REV. 1 (2012). 

While the Catholic Church has prohibited abortion at any stage under the penalty of immediate excommunication since 1869, the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant body in the country) only began to debate abortion officially after their schism in 1979.15J. T. Noonan, “Abortion and the Catholic Church: A Summary History,” The American Journal of Jurisprudence 12, no. 1 (January 1967): pp. 85-131, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajj/12.1.85. In her dissertation, “The Spiritual is Political,” Laura Foxworth contends that after the 1977 International Women’s Year (IWY) conference in Houston, Texas, connection between the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion and homosexuality threw the Southern Baptist Convention into a tumult.16Laura Foxworth, “The Spiritual Is Political,” The Spiritual Is Political: The Modern Women’s Movement and the Transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention (dissertation, 2014), https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3760&context=etd., xii. Foxworth contends that the inclusion of provisions for lesbians at IWY was the tipping point for conservative Southern Baptists. Before this point, the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention was moderately liberal and supported the ordination of women and much of the Second Wave Feminist platform. However, conservative Baptists began to coalesce in the mid-70s, and by the end of the decade were able to elect a fundamentalist president, taking the Southern Baptists into the rhetoric and politics of Anita Bryant and Phyllis Schlafly.17Laura Foxworth, “The Spiritual Is Political,” The Spiritual Is Political: The Modern Women’s Movement and the Transformation of the Southern Baptist Convention (dissertation, 2014), https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3760&context=etd., 125. Williams usefully points out that Catholic Right-to-Lifers’ opposition to the ERA only came after reports from STOP-ERA that abortions would be paid with taxpayer dollars.18Williams, Defenders of the Unborn, 239. However, Schlafly worked to relate the issues of feminism, gay liberation and abortion in a way that greatly shaped some of the rapidly growing Catholic and opposition to ERA and abortion.19Greenhouse, Linda and Siegel, Reva B., “Before Roe v. Wade: Voices that Shaped the Abortion Debate before the Supreme Court’s Ruling (2012).” Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 257. Available at SSRN: http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2131505. While the Catholic reaction to abortion may be a mix between backlash and a movement that was shaped around a language of rights, for Southern Baptists and the Moral Majority (a conservative Christian political coalition), backlash was a key component to opposing abortion. 

Nevertheless, Williams makes a critically important point about the Catholic Church’s efforts to create an institutional movement to lobby and promote grassroots activism against abortion which proved essential for the creation of the movement as it exists today. Despite the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion and contraception being rooted in patriarchal theology which connects abortion, contraception, and sodomy as against nature, the framing of the pro-life movement as a movement for the rights of unborn people was a distancing from the politics of motherhood. However, other denominations still seem to have only joined in response to advances in the feminist movement, and in particular the “breakdown” of the family with its connection to abortion on demand and the rights of lesbians. Williams gives us excellent food for thought, and we should consider the staying power of abortion politics and the nuances that affect it.

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