#Abortion: The Religious Right Meets TikTok
Given the centrality and heatedness of the abortion debate in the U.S. political sphere, it might seem as though abortion has always been a rallying cry for religious conservatives. But as Sarah Posner describes in her book Unholy, despite abortion’s contemporary significance, other evangelical grudges emerged “long before” abortion became a key issue. Conservative evangelicals have long felt aggrieved about major twentieth century cultural shifts, including the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, and second wave feminism. In fact, opposing abortion was not a priority for evangelicals at all until it was embraced as a campaign issue in the 1970s. Hoping to topple Jimmy Carter and his much more progressive mode of evangelicalism, conservative leaders turned to abortion to motivate voters. Ever since, abortion has become a key issue, serving as a litmus test for the religious right and its demands for certainty in an increasingly uncertain world. And as I propose here, the rigidity of conservative evangelical theology marks it as incompatible with contemporary notions of flow and ambiguity, a feature which also makes it hard to control new social media spaces like TikTok, where fluidity of “texts” is built into the platform’s design.
In his book Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right, American historian Randall Balmer defines the religious right as “a movement of politically conservative evangelicals who, since the late 1970s, have sought to exert their influence in political, cultural, and legal matters”. This impact has included ongoing political influence opposing abortion. But as Balmer argues, opposition to abortion was not the primary motivation for new political engagement in the 1970s. Balmer describes how, in 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention affirmed the need for legislation that would allow abortion in cases of rape, incest, “fetal deformity,” or to protect the “emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” This position was reaffirmed in 1974 and 1976, well after the passage of Roe v. Wade. That is to say, evangelicals certainly did not get riled up about abortion as soon as it was legalized. Indeed, it took them years to focus on that issue. Balmer claims that the abortion-themed “myth of origins” has Jerry Falwell and other evangelicals “emerging like mollusks” after Roe v. Wade, waking from their “apolitical stupor to fight the moral outrage of legalized abortion.” The reality, according to Balmer, is that leading evangelicals had long been ambivalent about the ethics of abortion. The “most cherished and durable myth” of immediate evangelical opposition to Roe v. Wade is, according to Balmer, a means of hiding other much less principled political goals having to do with the racist origins of new evangelical political fervor in the 1970s.
This historical revisionism about evangelical views on abortion, then, has been quite complete, and its success owes much to the labor of Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, and the conservative political organization called the Moral Majority. In the mid 1970s, Falwell was furious that the federal government was investigating his ministry for mismanagement of funds. He was also unhappy that the tax-exempt status of fundamentalist school Bob Jones University was under threat, as they had refused to enroll black students in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Balmer says that Falwell and the Moral Majority “needed a catalyst — a standard around which to rally”. But they needed something less embarrassing than wanting white schools to stay white. Weyrich relays in an interview from decades later that he had tried a variety of issues to galvanize evangelical voters, including pornography, prayer in schools, the Equal Rights Amendment, and even abortion — but nothing stuck. Weyrich said: “I was trying to get these people interested in those issues and I utterly failed.”
It was only in the late 1970s that Frances Schaeffer, whom Balmer describes as a “goateed, knickers-wearing theologian,” finally managed to pique large-scale evangelical interest in the threat of abortion through his controversial film What Ever Happened to the Human Race? As Balmer notes, the film featured shocking images of the abortion process, punctuated by Schaeffer describing his fear that abortion was just a prelude to infanticide and euthanasia. Schaeffer toured evangelical churches around the country with his film, capturing the attention of Weyrich and Falwell and convincing millions of evangelicals to oppose abortion. With abortion as the public centerpiece, Falwell and Weyrich lumped their prejudices together under the virtuous-sounding banner of “pro-family” values.
Abortion had successfully secured the political mobilization of the religious right, but its racist beginnings did not simply fade into the background. Anthea Butler’s White Evangelical Racism attests to the racism hard-baked into contemporary evangelical politics. While Butler recognizes that “not all white evangelicals embrace the kind of conservative politics that build on the foundation of racism,” it remains that many do. Her book focuses on “the trajectory of evangelical history that supported slavery, the Lost Cause, Jim Crow, and lynching”. This history, she insists, is “the key to understanding how evangelicals used and continue to use scripture, morality, and the political power they gathered across the course of the twentieth and, now, the twenty-first centuries”. She observes that in 2016, 81% of evangelical voters supported Donald Trump, despite his frequent racist rants on the campaign trail. Butler calls out the “shenanigans” of evangelical racism, condemning a “patriarchal culture imbued with a persecution complex”. This terrain, haunted by racial violence and hatred, provides the context in which abortion was identified as a more respectable public issue — rather ironically, given its insistence on the worth of all human life.
In the nineteenth century, abolitionists began loudly protesting slavery, and white Christian slave owners responded by evoking sketchy biblical justifications for their ownership of other humans. They argued that slavery was a civil institution, not the church’s moral responsibility. Some even claimed that slavery was an ultimate good: Through their white owners, slaves had the chance to learn about Christianity and to earn a place in heaven. If God had instituted slavery (as they claimed), then humans had no right to dispute it. The continuing impact of these preposterous claims persists in the screeds of white supremacists such as Richard Spencer, who has said that slavery allowed the Africans who were captured to benefit from moving to America.
As part of the justification for slavery, many southern Christians tilted away from progressive Christianity and its hopes for building the kingdom of God on earth. Instead, they embraced a darker view of human nature that tolerated contemporary evils in the hope that Christ would soon return. This exaggeration of Protestant principles decried the possibility of building a godly world and argued instead that salvation is a private matter between the believer and God. Slavery, then, need not be addressed. With the end of the world nearly upon them, white Christians sought to nourish souls, not bodies.
Despite the delay of the apocalypse, the effects of this theology are still with us. If Christians are responsible only for saving others’ souls, then social change becomes a waste of time. Such half-baked theological reasoning likely informs GOP attempts to curtail public programs like food and housing supports. The underlying reasoning becomes: “Nobody should help those whom God has destined to struggle; if people are poor or exploited, it’s because God made them that way.” Understanding this reasoning could help us examine common GOP resistance to reparations, as well as claims that Black Lives Matter is a “socialist” or “Marxist” institution. In its calls for systemic reform, Black Lives Matter resolves that we are responsible for one another — an idea that has also thrived in progressive evangelical circles — but which is anathema in today’s conservative evangelical fold. For evangelical conservatives, if everyone is judged individually before God, then nobody is responsible for anybody else.
The evangelical belief in individual salvation has obvious political implications which help to explain its persistence. For contemporary evangelicals, the insistence upon individual salvation has a host of advantages. It denies responsibility for the actions of one’s slaveholding ancestors, even if one still lives with the benefits of that ill-gotten wealth. It also excuses believers from any responsibility for their neighbors. Because social justice groups argue for a kind of wealth-sharing through the dismantling of white supremacy, they are seen by evangelicals as theologically in error; it is individual souls, not impoverished or suffering bodies, that God cares about. For Black theologian James Cone, the biblical character Cain’s plaintive cry of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is an indictment of white failure to see Black Americans as their brothers and sisters, and to take responsibility for the systemic injustices that perpetuate oppression. The blood of Cain’s murdered brother – who stands in for slaves and their descendants – cries out from the very soil on which white neighborhoods flourish. For these Christians, individual salvation means that the sins of racist parents do not transfer to their children. But apparently their bank accounts do.
During his presidential campaign in 1979, Ronald Reagan reversed his view on abortion in order to gain the support of the evangelical voting bloc. Reagan also supported creationism, marking him as friendly with biblical literalism and fundamentalism. Most importantly, Reagan promised to protect evangelicals from government interference in “independent schools” — thus speaking directly to the desire of key evangelical leaders for continued segregation. When Reagan defeated Carter in 1980, fundamentalist evangelicals were allowed their first real taste of political power. Ever since, the fight to reverse Roe v. Wade has been a rallying call for evangelical morality, a single issue that has allowed morally motivated evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump despite his moral debility. As Posner notes, after the long Obama years, Donald Trump was “the strongman the Christian right had long been waiting for”.
What is crucial to recognize about the opposition to abortion we see today among evangelical conservatives is its intrinsic relation to biblical literalism. Human embryos do emerge as sentient beings at some point — but when? It’s impossible to know. But the uncertainty is intolerable. For the religious conservative, the greatest theological clarity can be found in the insistence that God has designated embryos as people from the moment the sperm enters the egg. Biblical passages intended to argue for God’s omniscience and omnipotence are frequently repurposed to argue for this new view. The insistence on personhood at conception guards against the disturbing notion that there is actually no clear delineation for when an embryo becomes a person, because we simply do not know when a clump of cells achieves personhood — or for that matter, what personhood even is.
Evangelical insistence on religious certainty is a coping mechanism for a world that is complicated, globalizing, and constantly changing. This resistance to ambiguity frequently expresses itself as a mode of biblical literalism, but it is also evident in evangelical anxiety about gay rights, women’s rights, non-Christian religions (especially Islam), and race. Insistence on certainty shows up in recent evangelical anxiety about teaching “critical race theory” in schools, but importantly, the theory becomes redefined in the religious right’s view as an aberrant form of social theory. In arguing for shared responsibility, systemic change, historical context, and for the complexities of individual identity (including race, gender, and sexuality), critical race theory becomes a convenient symbol for social fluidity itself. Critical race theory is therefore viewed as a threat to the simplicity of biblical fundamentalism with its straightforward insistence (so many fundamentalists will say) on a two-gendered world with clear delineations of race and divinely prescribed rules about sexuality.
There is a theological resemblance, then, between biblical literalism and the insistence that humans are either male or female; that God intended humans to be matched only in heterosexual pairs; that men and women have fixed and unchanging roles in the household; that there is only one correct way to understand God’s activity on earth; and that race is an absolute category. Biblical literalism offers a salve in claiming that despite fluidity and ambiguity, there is one truth, and that it is a truth accessible to those who buy into the stark simplicity of evangelical fundamentalism. Committed believers then try to roll back rights for LGBTQ+ individuals, seeing this activity as an expression of piety. They deny systemic and historical racism by proclaiming that “all lives matter.” And they stave off theological crisis by legislating when human life begins.
There are other theological implications for this kind of performative certainty. Women who seek abortions must have, by implication, already offended God by placing themselves in situations where rape or unwholesome sex could occur. God, as the ruler of all things, must have allowed such women to get pregnant despite their poor choices, perhaps precisely to give them a chance at redemption. Such a reading goes a ways toward explaining — though not excusing — U.S. Representative Todd Akin’s bizarre 2012 remark that a woman who is raped need not get pregnant because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” For believers like Akin, pregnancy only occurs when God decides to let the sperm fertilize the egg and produce an instant human being. God can “shut that whole thing down” if he wants to. And since the female body is God’s alone to deposit embryos into whenever he pleases, all embryos must be intended to be people — whether placed in a woman’s body by rapists or not. Evangelical lawmakers who outlaw abortion, then, must see themselves as hard at work to save those poor women’s souls.
The abortion battle’s newest location is the popular social media platform TikTok, shaped by digital affordances that tilt decidedly toward the flexibility and fluidity of culture so troubling to evangelical fundamentalists. In 2020, teenager Mehtaab Kaur single handedly contacted hundreds of reproductive rights organizations to urge them to join TikTok to get their message out — and they listened. TikTok seems readymade for its predominantly young, largely liberal audience. The platform made big news in the abortion debate this past September when hacktivists, recruited via the app, produced viral videos calling for pro-choice users to flood the Texas reporting website and crash their servers. It’s unclear if the protestors succeeded in crashing the servers, but they did force GoDaddy to refuse to continue hosting the site. They also got a lot of admiring press for their fearlessness. Another teen, Alex Cueto, has used TikTok successfully to record and share her confrontations with people protesting outside her local abortion clinic. Another pro-choice group produced a viral video in July of this year in which abortion rights activists are shown picketing outside the doors of a church while it was hosting a pro-life conference.
TikTok has been able to accomplish something that progressives have been unable to do in their everyday politics: reflect the fluidity and complexity of contemporary human identity, while symbolically unifying large groups of people. As such, it is a procedural threat to fundamentalism. Without relying on slogans or fixed symbols, TikTok can bring groups of diverse people together through catchy clips of music and individualized narrative text. Users create community through shared hashtags, allowing space for personal storytelling while uniting behind a cause or theme. For example, one recent TikTok meme is a snippet based on the artist Mika’s song “Grace Kelly,” covered by singer Sarah Cothran. The lyrics say simply: “I could be brown, I could be blue, I could be violet sky/I could be hurtful, I could be purple, I could be anything you like.” Over a cascading harmony, individual users make videos with confessional texts laid visually on top. Unique stories echo together as users scroll through as many iterations of the song as they like. As of early October, videos identified with the hashtag #gracekelly had over 180 million views.
On TikTok, no text is final since users can just “stitch” their own snappy reply onto any TikTok video and share it again. Dances, music, and humor bring groups together in ephemeral playful camaraderie. Not all accounts will go viral, and not all messages are harmonious and fun. But many of them are. Like any social media platform, TikTok is commodified, populated with advertisements, and gathers data on its users. It is far from a utopic virtual space. There are, of course, dark corners of TikTok in which white supremacy blooms — though these accounts are deleted once detected by TikTok’s active moderators. Users who accept TikTok’s imperfect algorithms will be rewarded with a niche shared by like-minded users who, at least for now, largely embrace the diversity of our contemporary world. TikTok videos can be fun, emotional, or just catchy. But they are almost always engineered to make people feel a sense of connection with one another. With its amorphous, ever-changing content, TikTok resists the kind of rigidity that fundamentalism and biblical literalism demand. It is hard to imagine fundamentalism and literalism flourishing in an environment like TikTok. Unable to shut down conversations with snappy insults or haughty interpretations, TikTok doesn’t allow the mic drop. As such, the role of platforms like this will continue to eat away at the attempts at rigidity that have fueled the religious right for so long. This brings hope for those women looking for more flexibility in their faith, and more options for their family planning. ♦
Rachel Wagner is Professor of Religious Studies at Ithaca College. Her work focuses on the intersection between religion, culture, and media. Her first book, Godwired: Religion, Ritual, and Virtual Reality (Routledge, 2012), explores religious practices online as well as online practices as religion. Her second book, Cowboy Apocalypse, will consider the screened and role-played performance of gun violence in the American apocalyptic imaginary.
Wagner, Rachel. “#Abortion: The Religious Right Meets TikTok.” Canopy Forum, January 17, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/01/17/abortion-the-religious-right-meets-tiktok/.