Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson (Moderator)
Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson is the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice’s Director of Spiritual Care and Activism. Dr. Cari collaborates with religious and community leaders, advocating for reproductive freedom as a vital aspect of human dignity and divine integrity. Cari seeks to help foster a society in which religious pluralism and cultural diversity are valued, as she believes society’s greatness is reflected in its demonstrated commitment to honor, care for and nurture each individual, especially those most marginalized. She coaches leaders to strengthen their capacity and courage as agents of social healing and transformation. She is a minister in the United Church of Christ, grew up in the Pentecostal Church, and participates regularly in other spiritual traditions. Dr. Cari has a Ph.D. in Christian Social Ethics and is the author of several books.
Frederick Clarkson (Presenter)
Frederick Clarkson is a Senior Research Analyst with Political Research Associates and author of the work being discussed in this colloquium: “The Prochoice Religious Community May Be the Future of Reproductive Rights, Access, and Justice,” and “An Annotated Directory of the Prochoice Religious Community in the United States.”
He is a nationally recognized expert on both the Christian Right and the Religious Left who has studied and written about religion and politics for nearly four decades. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Mother Jones, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Ms. magazine, Church & State, and Religion Dispatches.
His expertise has been sought out by major media outlets from The Guardian to the New York Times to NPR. He is the editor of Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America and author of Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy. His articles have been anthologized in scholarly works, most recently in Trumping Democracy in the United States from Ronald Reagan to Alt-Right. He previously served as an investigative editor for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and as the Communications Director for the Institute for Democracy Studies.
Rachel Tabachnick (Presenter)
Rachel Tabachnick is an independent writer, researcher, and speaker on conservative infrastructure and activism. A former Fellow at Political Research Associates, she is the author of a response paper presented at this colloquium.
Rachel has been researching and writing about the Religious Right for two decades. Much of her work is focused on the impact of the Religious Right on science, education, foreign policy, and civil rights. She has been interviewed on radio across the nation including NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and her expertise has been sought and cited by numerous nonprofits and major news outlets including the Associated Press, The New York Times, Slate, Salon, Rolling Stones, Haaretz, and The New Yorker. She has written for publications including PRA’s The Public Eye and was a prolific blogger at the group blog Talk to Action in the early 2000s, where she developed an international reputation for her research on Dominionism and the New Apostolic Reformation.
She is active in the Democratic Party and nonprofit organizations in Pennsylvania, where she is well-known for her presentations on the intersection of the Religious Right and conservative infrastructure at the annual statewide Progressive Summit. She was raised Southern Baptist in Georgia but left the denomination in the 1980s, following that denomination’s fundamentalist shift, and converted to Judaism when she married her husband. Following her adult bat mitzvah, she was the first woman to lead the main prayer service at a large Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Patricia Miller (Presenter in absentia)
Patricia Miller an award-winning author and journalist who writes about issues at the intersection of religion, sex, and politics. She is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church and was a Senior Correspondent for Religion Dispatches. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, The Nation, Huffington Post, and Ms. Magazine.
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Todd Peters
Rebecca Todd Peters is a feminist and Christian social ethicist who serves as a Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University. Her most recent book, Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice, is a Christian argument for abortion as a moral good and part of her work of developing a Christian ethic of reproductive justice as the framework for thinking about women’s whole reproductive lives, from access to contraception to fertility treatments to unplanned pregnancies.
Her other books include In Search of the Good Life: The Ethics of Globalization, which won the 2003 Trinity Book Prize; Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community and World; To Do Justice: A Guide for Progressive Christians; and Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World. She received her M.Div. and Ph.D. in Christian Social Ethics from Union Theological Seminary and is ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Cherisse Scott has served in the Reproductive Justice movement for 15 years. She is the founder and CEO of SisterReach, located in Memphis, Tennessee. Some of SisterReach’s work under her leadership includes their 2015 research report on the need for comprehensive sex education for southern youth of color; their Pro Woman billboard campaign organized in opposition to anti-abortion billboards erected in Memphis; and their Faith & Advocacy Training Curricula, which trains people working at the intersection of faith, social justice and religion using the racial justice lens as a catalyst for culture and social change.
In 2016, Cherisse presented to the United Nations regarding the impact of Tennessee’s “fetal assault” law on Tennessee women and families. SisterReach later conducted research and released a report on the Impact of the Fetal Assault Law on Marginalized Women and leveraged it to inform policy and procedure change on the local, state and national levels. Cherisse and the work of SisterReach has been featured in the January 2018 edition of O Magazine and recognized by Essence Magazine as one of their 2018 Woke 100. Cherisse is featured in the 2019 premier documentary, PERSONHOOD: Policing Pregnant Women in America, and is a featured contributor in Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World (2020), a book of essays from some of the leading voices in social change. She is an ordained minister in the Christian faith, mother, singer and songwriter, poet, and national speaker on reproductive justice and other human rights violations experienced by vulnerable Tennesseans.
Elaina Ramsey is the Executive Director of the Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She has more than a decade of campaign, advocacy, grassroots organizing, and communications experience at the intersection of faith and politics. In addition to being a prolific writer, Elaina has served as editor of Sojourners magazine and held positions with Women’s Action for New Directions and Obama for America. She is also the current Interim Executive Director at Red Letter Christians.
Elaina earned master’s degrees in both theological studies from Wesley Theological Seminary and in international peace and conflict resolution from American University. She trained as an organizer in the South Bronx with the Industrial Areas Foundation and, in 2019, was recognized as a Coolidge Scholar by Auburn Theological Seminary for her work in religion and reproductive justice. Elaina is a former fundamentalist evangelical and a current member of the United Church of Christ.
Katherine Stewart is a journalist and author who has written extensively about the religious right and Christian nationalism. She is the author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, a deeply reported investigation of the inner workings and leading personalities of the movement that has turned religion into a tool for political power. The book, published in March 2020, features the development of abortion as a political focus for the Christian Right. A previous book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on American’s Children, is an exposé of the coordinated effort by Christian nationalists to advance their agenda through the public schools. She has been featured on such broadcast outlets as NPR, MSNBC, and the BBC. She contributes to the New York Times opinion section, The New Republic, the New York Review of Books, and the Washington Post.
On May 14, 2020, Political Research Associates (PRA) convened a colloquium on Building the Cultural and Political Power of Prochoice Religious Communities. As PRA Executive Director Tarso Luís Ramos explained in his welcome to the some eighty attendees who joined on Zoom to discuss strategic opportunities and challenges in advancing reproductive freedom––and to that period that most observers think is inevitable, when Roe itself is overturned.
Panelists included Rebecca Todd Peters, a feminist and Christian social ethicist who serves as a Professor of Religious Studies at Elon University; Elaina Ramsey, the Executive Director of the Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; Cherisse Scott, the founder and CEO of SisterReach, based in Memphis, Tennessee; and author and journalist Katherine Stewart, author of The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. Cari Jackson, Director of Spiritual Care and Activism for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, served as moderator.
As Ramos noted, PRA’s mission is to support movements that work to build a more just, democratic society and today’s colloquium speaks directly to that purpose. He also noted that the organization has a long history of working closely with grassroots religious leaders, which is why the organization had convened the colloquium of organizers, researchers, and advocates with their own deep connections to religious communities. PRA in conversation with its invited panelists explored questions of composition and strategy in organizing a parachurch, examining the ways in which organizing a unifying body could mirror and oppose a well-organized Christian Right.
To begin the colloquium, PRA Senior Research Analyst Frederick Clarkson presented his paper “The Prochoice Religious Community May Be the Future of Reproductive Rights, Access, and Justice,” which served as the anchor for the discussion. According to Clarkson, the power of the Christian Right comes not from their numbers, as the absolute number of people who identify as evangelicals has declined over time, but in their organizing prowess.
Polling consistently suggests, said Clarkson, that a majority or near majority of the religious community in the Unites States is prochoice. This majority, said Clarkson, helps explain how the prochoice religious community may be central to the future of reproductive rights, access, and justice in the United States.
Clarkson argued that a coherent, sustained effort to identify and organize explicitly prochoice religious voters to create a sustainable prochoice religious movement would be a powerful counter to the Christian Right. He proposed that such a movement might consist of a number of distinct, independent organizations that are not defined by the ups-and-downs of any given electoral cycle or the tactical decisions of political parties. Such “parachurch” organizations have been used effectively by the Christian Right, he noted, to organize anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ rights electoral efforts outside of and across denominations. Focus on the Family is one example of a broad, parachurch organization that works at both the state and federal level.
Of course, Clarkson noted, there are many potential obstacles to creating such a movement, including the difficulty of organizing a Religious Left that is substantially more diverse and less homogenous in thought than the Christian Right. But if such an effort were to be possible, how that might be achieved was the focus of the discussion.
Following Clarkson, Rachel Tabachnick, an independent writer, researcher, and speaker on conservative infrastructure and activism and a former PRA Fellow, expanded on the idea of parachurch organizations.
Tabachnick defined parachurch organizations as “voluntary, not-for-profit associations of Christians working outside denominational control to achieve some specific ministry or social service.” Parachurch advocacy organizations can take many forms: they may be single issue or multiple issue organizations; they may have varying degrees of involvement in legislative and electoral politics. They can be local, state, regional, or national. Some direct their advocacy toward the public, while others target elites. These and other choices would need to be made in the development of pro-choice parachurch advocacy organizations
According to Tabachnick, conservative parachurch organizations like Focus on the Family grew hand-in-hand with free market think tanks like the Acton Institute. These two tracks eventually merged into organizations like the Cornwall Alliance, which created an anti-climate change program called “Resisting the Green Dragon,” linking environmentalism to supposedly damaging anti-family practices such as abortion and feminism. It also teaches, in its widely distributed DVDs, that environmentalism is in conflict with Christianity and free-market values.
Tabachnick used this example to illustrate the organizational structure and deliverables of a typical Christian Right parachurch organization. In the figure below, the branches of the tree represent deliverable products and services: policy guidelines, education, media, get-out-the-vote efforts, etc. These deliverables may be directed to policy elites or the public.
The trunk of the tree represents the tangible resources: human resources and financial support. This includes the people she calls “Fixers, Funders, and Fellows.” Fixers are the architects of movements. Examples include Paul Weyrich, who founded some of the major bastions of conservative infrastructure, and Don Eberly, who played a leading role in establishing the Focus on the Family-affiliated Family Policy Council in Pennsylvania. Today Family Policy Councils have proliferated throughout the country, lobbying on issues of abortion and contraception access, LGBTQ rights, and broad “religious freedom” issues under the “family values” rubric.
Lastly are the roots of the tree, the intangible resources: knowledge, vision, values and ideas. These are often the least visible assets, said Tabachnick, but they are the foundations on which the rest of the organization depends. These resources undergird sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts and must be understood to be countered. Electoral politics and issue advocacy at its best will not stop the Christian Right if the fight is not grounded in well-articulated values and vision, she noted.
Patricia Miller, author and journalist who writes about the intersection of religion, sex, and politics, was unable to attend and Clarkson presented her prepared response “Organizing Prochoice Catholics.”
Clarkson noted that Catholics are the single largest denomination in the United States and represent some 51 million potential voters. Catholics remain a powerful electoral presence in the traditional Catholic strongholds of the East Coast and Midwest but are increasingly an electoral force in the South and Southwest.
As Clarkson noted previously, polling consistently shows that a majority of Catholics are pro-choice—56% according to the most recent Pew Poll, which is far above the 20% of White Evangelicals who support abortion rights.
Organizing Catholics, however, presents distinct challenges. The Catholic Church is the only major religious denomination that is unequivocally opposed to abortion in almost every instance.
In addition, the Catholic Church has a centralized hierarchy whose teachings such as the prohibition on abortion are considered binding on all Catholics. Finally, there is a lack of prochoice leadership from either clerics or others with significant authority within the church.
However, there are also significant opportunities for organizing a prochoice Catholic population, including a significant body of Catholic moral philosophy about the acceptability of abortion in the Catholic tradition and the primacy of conscience in moral decision-making. There is also no Catholic position on the jurisprudence of abortion laws. Finally, the Catholic hierarchy has become sensitized to the issue of appearing to favor one political party over the other.
Significant questions about organizing the prochoice Catholic community include whether there are different organizing strategies that would be most effective for subsets of the U.S. Catholic community? What would be the best way to deliver resources to educate Catholics about abortion within the Catholic theological tradition? How should we identify, train and support prochoice, lay Catholic leaders? And what are the best organizational structures to support the development of a prochoice Catholic constituency?
Following these presentations, moderator Cari Jackson presented the panel with the opening question, transcribed below, of the colloquium. Clarkson’s essay, Jackson noted, proposes the creation of some kind of parachurch political organization, or a series of such organizations, for the prochoice religious community. There are several different models that pilot parachurch projects could take: one might be organized around a single religious tradition; another might ecumenical; another might be interfaith. Such groups could have a narrow agenda, could take a broader approach, or even be multi-issue organizations such as those that have powered the Christian Right (such as Focus on the Family). What do you think would be the best approach? What lessons, good and bad, can we learn from evangelical parachurch organizations?
One theme that evolved strongly from the discussion was the need to develop different strategies, and perhaps even different types of organizations, for different faith groups. One opinion that was expressed was that a multi-faith effort would be most effective in the South, where much organizing work is done across Christian denominations. At the same time, working with the issue of reproductive health or rights can be a barrier in many faith communities. For example, in the Black Christian community there is still a lot of shame around sex and abortion. Some faith leaders are reluctant to tackle these issues head on or to align themselves with these issues publicly, so you need to find ways to reach people where they are comfortable, even if it’s just being able to offer comprehensive sex education to begin with and then building community and clergy trust from there. The opinion was offered that in both the South and the Midwest, it can take people longer to get on board and that people respond more positively to a reproductive justice frame that doesn’t necessarily lead with abortion. It was noted that even progressive pastors have to be very careful in talking about reproductive justice in terms of how the membership receives it.
At the same time, another panelist noted that it’s important for religious leaders who are pro-choice to be encouraged to speak out because a lot of people still believe you can’t be religious and pro-choice. Religious leaders need to say they are pro-choice on specifically religious grounds, so people can see the spectrum of views.
There was also support expressed for developing an explicitly evangelical pro-choice parachurch organization, which may also appeal to the growing cohort of ex-Evangelicals. “The gospel good news of abortion,” as one panelist put it, that would use language Evangelicals are comfortable with to discuss the redemptive possibility and promise of reproductive justice, and show how this can offer a new way forward by recognizing the moral authority and bodily autonomy of everyone. An Evangelicals for Reproductive Justice movement, as such, would move from “fire and brimstone” to “faith, freedom and flourishing.”
Another panelist expressed that such movements would be necessary to meet the goal of changing the national conversation about abortion from a “justification framework,” in which women have to justify their reproductive decisions, to a conversation about the socio-culture issues underpinning reproductive justice. The primary goal of organizing, this panelist asserted, should be to change the national conversation about justification to justice. Such an effort would need a clear and focused agenda for movement building with a solid connection to the prophetic tradition of Christian/Judeo faiths.
At this point the moderator took a question about how to build such movements in rural areas. The panelists agreed that much of the focus of reproductive justice is recognizing who is on the margins, and that is especially clear in rural communities, where in addition to lack of abortion access, people also often lack access to health care and transportation. In addition, it can be very risky for people in rural communities to espouse progressive abortion ideology.
Jackson then posed question number two to the panel. Creating such parachurch organizations would involve new approaches to cultural and political thought, as well as the possible enhancement of existing organizations. If the prochoice religious community were to look in this direction, and assuming that resources would be available to do it, what are the next steps we should be thinking about and planning? What are any potential obstacles?
One panelist noted that organizing outside of traditional church spaces isn’t normal for mainstream Christian churches, that that work is done by small groups within larger denominations. In addition, on the Christian Right there is a unity of thought and dogma that isn’t desirable or possible, so the very nature of differences on the progressive left potentially mediates against organizing success. These differences may suggest the need for separate parachurch organizations.
Again, however, there was widespread agreement that there is no one right way to organize. What we do need to have, one panelist noted, is space for people to sit with intersectional interchanges. This could result in the creation of deep messages about reproductive justice that translate in different ways for different communities and may take the form of different deliverables such as Bible study materials, educational aids, or sermon aids. What is most needed is representatives from different communities to guide and model these efforts.
It was also argued that there are three spaces where work needs to be done:
ministering to and with people who need/seek abortions, even if the abortion is wanted and chosen, as the progressive left has sacrificed the opportunity to find what women need and want in the weeks and months after abortion, which is a way to help women have more positive and powerful experiences;
teaching congregations in progressive local churches, i.e., LGBT welcoming and affirming churches; how to have these conversations around abortion; we need new language and ideas; and finally,
space for progressive, public religious voices within communities; these voices aren’t being heard; a widespread public prochoice campaign is needed and necessary.
Another panelist noted that if such progressive parachurch groups were to be organized, we would need bolder new organizations to focus on these issues for progressive evangelicals. The main challenges include funding such an effort and finding an appropriate organization or structure to incubate the idea. The panelist recommended getting a working group together to develop a long-term strategy with measurable goals, including training leaders.
There is also the need to tackle racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ bias, and explicit and implicit bias in how many “church folk” see the world. One example offered was a reproductive justice and faith curriculum called “faith and advocacy” that educates people about the progressive ministry of Jesus. We need to consider rebranding “repro” because that automatically translates into abortion care and it’s hard to get church folks to come to anything with “repro.” Examples include “Vacation Body School” that presents a progressive, comprehensive sex ed curriculum.
There was also an important discussion about communications and media structures. A panelist suggested that a central question is what kind of structures were needed to build up an army of faith-centered and faith-led activists and associated media hubs—we need a rapid response that matches the Right. One suggestion was for a news service that reaches churchgoers of all denominations with a more sophisticated perspective on repro justice issues. Another strength of the Right that should be noted, according to one panelist, is a broad network to distribute materials such as publications on pro-choice religious ethics to interested audiences.
It’s problematic, noted another panelist, that media outlets are often owned by conservatives. The question they posed is what do we need to do in terms of communications differently and how can we do it cost effectively? Potential answers include web casts, podcasts, radio, billboards. There is also a need to model people talking about having had abortions and sharing their abortion stories.
There was also broad agreement that there is a need to make more nimble use of messaging and data techniques in terms of public political capacity. This is especially important given that committed Christian Right voters are only 10% of population, but 91% turned out in 2016, which translated into 25 million voters. Because small numbers of people can have an outsized impact, there is a real need to invest in tools such as data, media, and messaging to match the Right. One panelist noted that the Right has created large multi-denominational pastor networks and delivers very sophisticated messaging and data tools, such as those that compare voter data with church membership lists. The Right is also very good with targeted messaging for specific cohorts. Its source of unity isn’t theological points; it is a common political vision. They are willing to try different messages for different groups and work with messaging shops to do that.
Clarkson concluded by noting that the Right has turned vast diversity into commonality, but that this was a multi-decade process that allowed them to put aside differences and find shared values, and common political purposes in order to hijack democracy. Ramos concluded by thanking the panelists and attendees for their time, vision, and enthusiasm, and reminding the participants that proceedings of the colloquium would be circulated.
Sample quotes from participants and observers:
- These really are powerful perspectives. We can ALL meet together based in shared values: Freedom, Faith, Self Determination.
- This colloquium is a major step in the right direction, another part is understanding how the pro-life movement began.
- This is the kind of hope-and-fire-filled language that we need in this work.
- Love this colloquium!
- This has been an important and informative discussion! I look forward to seeing how religious advocacy for reproductive justice can go forward and influence our national politics.
- I want to thank all of you for this, it was very helpful and encouraging.
- Changing the national conversation is critical…And, taking action steps that lead to equity and justice.
- This is a powerful discussion! Thank you for organizing it!
- If I could applaud with text, I would.