When Roe v. Wade was overturned last year, many white evangelical Protestants didn’t just see the Supreme Court’s ruling as a political win — it was a spiritual victory. For decades, religious conservatives have been singularly focused on ending the constitutional right to abortion, a priority that few other demographic groups shared. White evangelical Protestants — a group that has, since the 1980s, voted overwhelmingly for Republicans — were much more likely than other religious groups to say that abortion was a high priority.
The fall of Roe appears to be changing that. In 2021, the share of religiously unaffiliated Americans (a group that includes atheists, agnostics and people who identify with no religion in particular) who said abortion was a critical issue started to rise. And for the first time in 2022, the year the Supreme Court overturned the federal right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the share of religiously unaffiliated Americans who said that abortion was a critical issue was higher than the share of white evangelicals who said the same.
Surveys conducted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life and the Pew Research Center found that abortion has become much more important to religiously unaffiliated Americans than it was in the past, while becoming less of a critical concern for white evangelicals. These findings suggest that an entirely different group of people could become the next generation of “abortion voters” — a label once associated with the religious right. An overwhelming majority (71 percent) of unaffiliated Americans, who made up one-quarter of the electorate, voted for Biden in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. That makes them a crucial part of the Democratic base. Historically, Democratic politicians haven’t done much to mobilize nonreligious voters — but that could be about to change.
“Religiously unaffiliated people are worried about this issue in a way that they weren’t before Dobbs,” said David Campbell, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame who studies religious and nonreligious Americans. “And evangelicals are maybe feeling some more ambivalence about abortion restrictions now that they’re actually happening. We’re in a very different era now and it’s changing how people are feeling about the salience of the issue on both sides.”
The question of how much Americans care about the issue of abortion has always been key to understanding the politics of the issue.
Prior to the Dobbs decision, public support for legal abortion was very consistent. However, the 2022 midterm elections sent a strong, early signal that voters on the left were thinking about abortion differently — and that trend seems especially pronounced among nonreligious Americans. When abortion was protected by Roe v. Wade, Americans who supported abortion rights didn’t tend to prioritize it as a voting issue. Pew found that in 2020, only 31 percent of nonreligious Americans said abortion would be very important in deciding how they would vote; in 2022, more than 6 in 10 (63 percent) said abortion would be very important. In that same period, the share of white evangelical Protestants who said abortion was a very important voting consideration fell by 7 points.
|White non-evangelical Protestant
|White evangelical Protestant
Unaffiliated Americans are today overwhelmingly in agreement on abortion — even more so than white evangelicals. A new survey conducted by the Survey Center on American Life found that 60 percent of white evangelical Christians believe that abortion becoming less available is a good thing for society — but a much larger percentage (78 percent) of unaffiliated Americans say this has been a negative development. And a Pew survey found last year that religiously unaffiliated Americans are much more united in support for legal abortion than white evangelicals are in opposition (84 percent vs. 74 percent, respectively). Recent polling also found that 65 percent of nonreligious Americans say the term “pro-choice” describes them very well, a jump from 54 percent roughly a decade earlier.
It’s true that nonreligious Americans have become a loyal Democratic constituency, so it’s possible that what we’re seeing is just an outgrowth of the broader increase in enthusiasm for abortion rights on the left that followed the Dobbs decision. But there are signs that the issue of abortion might be especially galvanizing for people who actively identify as secular — not simply people who do not identify with a particular label.
That distinction between people who are just unaffiliated and people who identify as secular is important, because people who are secular are united by a common definition, rather than by the absence of one. The broader lack of a political and ideological identity among religiously unaffiliated Americans has been a problem for Democrats so far. “It’s very hard to organize a group that’s defined by what it’s not,” Campbell said.
That ability to rally around a shared cause or identity matters a lot for whether religiously unaffiliated Americans become an influential force in politics. There are potential parallels between this moment and the early 1980s, when white evangelical Protestant leaders began to organize around issues like abortion, gay rights, desegregation mandates and pornography. At the time, evangelicals were a diffuse group without a shared set of political goals — in fact, they were notoriously disengaged from politics for most of the 20th century. The Christian right’s success in getting the Republican Party to support their issues was due, at least in part, to the fact that rank-and-file evangelicals became deeply invested in the issue of abortion, according to Andrew Lewis, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati. “Abortion kept people turning out to vote, even in primaries, which was critical to the role that Christian right activists had in reshaping the Republican Party,” he said. “They had a lot of influence at the grassroots level. The rank-and-file activists knocking on doors, registering people to vote — they were motivated by abortion.”
There are a few big differences between then and now. One is that religiously unaffiliated people don’t have to persuade Democratic politicians to care about abortion — it’s already become a major priority for the party. And there also aren’t places where nonreligious people gather, like churches, that can become hubs for grassroots organizing. “With evangelicals or any religious groups, you have a built-in set of organizations,” Campbell said. “That’s hard to reproduce among secularists.”
But the issue of abortion may influence Americans’ views about religion down the road — strengthening the link between rejecting religion and supporting abortion rights.
Political scientists have previously shown that conservative Christian activism in opposing LGBTQ rights prompted some moderate and left-leaning people to stop identifying with religion at all. It’s possible that the abortion issue may operate in the same way. It would explain why a recent Pew study found the gap on abortion rights between secular and religious Americans is larger in the U.S. than in other countries. It would also explain the surge in nonreligious identity among young women, who are among the strongest supporters of abortion rights. Ryan Burge, analyzing the General Social Survey, found that young women (born around the year 2000, according to Burge’s analysis) are now as likely as young men to identify as nonreligious, a break from the past. And young women’s views of organized religion dropped sharply in just the last couple of years. A 2022 survey conducted by the Survey Center on American Life found that the number of young women who said churches and religious organizations “bring people together” dropped 10 percentage points since 2019.
And what about white evangelical Protestants? Abortion is still clearly an important issue to many of them, even if it appears to have declined in salience in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision. But in a swift reversal, the issue of abortion is now much more complicated on the right than on the left. Evangelicals disproportionately live in places where abortion is now banned or heavily restricted, so it may become less of a political priority for them because the anti-abortion movement has accomplished its goals in their area. And while it’s true that white evangelicals strongly oppose abortion, there is not universal support for complete bans that some states have implemented.
“A lot of this is about how people are feeling about the status quo, and the status quo has changed,” Lewis said. “Lots of evangelicals are now more satisfied with the current status of abortion law and politics in the U.S., and increasing numbers of nonreligious people are frustrated and outraged because of the Supreme Court’s decision. These are major, major changes and it’s not a surprise to see them changing the way people on both sides are thinking about the issue.”