Gordon Campbell on America’s plunge into religious extremism

eed8c14b7de6743db34fYikes. If either Donald Trump or Florida governor Ron De Santis win next year’s presidential contest with Joe Biden, the commander-in-chief of the world’s greatest nuclear arsenal will be beholden to millions of voters who expect Armageddon to occur during their lifetimes. Unfortunately, the Republican Party is being led by people calling for a militant form of Christian nationalism, or even a full-blown Christian theocracy.

De Santis is not a moderate alternative to Trump. Last month, he signed into law in Florida a ban on abortion after six weeks. On more than one occasion, De Santis has cited a Biblical text ( Ephesians 6:11-12) in a dog whistle signal meant to inform Christian fundamentalist voters that he thinks the American centre-left is Satanic.

Spurred on by this militant Christian fervour, the anti-abortion movement and the anti-trans movements have been working virtually in tandem. By January 2023, the Guttmacher Institute calculated that abortion had been almost totally banned in 12 states, although in six of them, these bans are being challenged in the courts. In two other states, abortion was simply unavailable because clinics had been closed down, and in another three states beside Florida there were bans based on gestational age. This is happening across the country despite the fact that a sizeable majority of Americans still support the system that existed before the Roe v Wade basis for abortion rights was struck down by the Supreme Court.

An abortion ban at six weeks – or from the moment a fetal heartbeat can be detected – is almost as soon as many women realise they are pregnant. In some of the states imposing draconian time limits, exceptions are commonly not being allowed for the victims of rape or incest – even though some 85% of Americans polled believe those exceptions should be allowed. A useful interactive state -by-state map of US abortion availability can be found here.

It doesn’t stop there. Texas has recently tried to ban outright the abortion pill (aka mifepristone) through which over 50% of abortions in the US and in New Zealand take place. Many other states have sought to forbid access to the abortion pill by mail. Idaho has seriously tried to forbid women to travel inter-state to obtain an abortion – an absurd proposal that would not only violate the constitutional right to transit, but could only be meaningfully enforced by making women undergo pregnancy tests at the border.

Anti-abortion = anti trans

Significantly, the states restricting women’s access to abortion procedures have also been pursuing similarly punitive laws outlawing the provision of gender-affirming healthcare for young people. Last month, there was this:

Idaho is at least the 12th state to enact a law restricting or banning gender-affirming care for minors, and nearly two dozen more are considering bills that would ban or restrict the care…. The law is set to go into effect next January, making it a felony to provide hormones, puberty blockers or other gender-affirming care to people under age 18.

In Alabama, a temporary legal block has been placed on a law that would have made anyone providing gender-affirming care to minors guilty of a felony crime and liable to 10 years in prison or a fine of $15,000, or both. Alabama’s proposed law would have required young people already receiving such care to discontinue it immediately, since there was no “grandfather” clause in the law to protect current recipients.

These anti-trans laws are being passed regardless of the likely harm to the minors they claim to protect, and despite the lack of evidence that the gender-altering surgeries being banned are even taking place at all.

Despite the moral panic about trans women in dressing rooms there has been a similar dearth of example. Going by the E Jean Carroll case, women would be more at risk in their dressing rooms from Donald Trump than they would be from a trans predator.

The Idaho proposals banning gender-affirming care were signed into law by the state governor last month, and predictably, it has polarised public opinion:

Opponents of the legislation have warned it will likely increase suicide rates among teens, but proponents of the bill said it was necessary to “protect children” from medical or surgical treatments for gender dysphoria. Still, supporters have acknowledged there has been no indication that gender-affirming surgeries are being performed on transgender youth in Idaho.

The Supreme Court Mullahs

The reactionary trends I’ve mentioned are not limited to backwater states in the Midwest and the South. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court have also been busily dismantling America’s long held constitutional boundaries between church and state. For starters, the Court ruled in favour of a football coach who had insisted on regularly leading his players in prayer at an allegedly secular public school. The Court also ruled in favour of a Christian group that wanted to fly a flag emblazoned with a cross over Boston’s City Hall building .


In other rulings in recent years, the court broke down barriers for public money to go to religious schools and churches and [ on religious grounds] exempted family-owned corporations from a federal requirement regarding employee insurance coverage for women’s birth control… It also sided with a Catholic organization receiving public money that barred LGBT people from applying to be foster parents. and backed a Christian baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

Emboldened by these Supreme Court decisions, the state of Texas now wants to go further:

The first bill SB 1515, would require public schools to display the Ten Commandments in a “conspicuous place” in classrooms. The other bill, SB 1396, would permit public schools to set aside time for students and staff members to pray or read the Bible and other religious texts. The third, SB 1556, would give employees the right to pray or “engage in religious speech” while on the job. The bills are on their way to the Texas House for approval. These bills follow Texas’s SB 797, which took effect in 2021 and requires schools to display “In God We Trust” signs.

One nation under God, indeed, But only the one God embraced by the zealots who control so many US state legislatures.

The political backlash

For reasons that have nothing to do with principle, Donald Trump has been more of a moderate on abortion bans than Ron De Santis. In recent months, Trump has enraged Christian pastors by refusing to commit to a nationwide federal ban on abortion, should he be re-elected President.

Instead, Trump has called for such matters to be left to individual states to decide. In practice that would mean abortion oases like New York, California and New Mexico (and soon, Wisconsin) that could continue to provide abortion services

No doubt, once he was safely elected, Trump would change his mind. But in the meantime Trump can see that fudging the issue of a nationwide ban is politically essential. Another Republican presidential candidate, the former US ambassador Nikki Haley, has also been lukewarm about a federal ban for the same cynically pragmatic reason.

DeSantis, by contrast, has had no room to move, since he needs to appease the Christian right in order to win the Republican nomination in the first place. At this point, De Santis is running as much as 36 points behind Trump among Republican primary voters. The hapless De Santis therefore seems to be feeling obliged to give the Christian right whatever it demands.

In stark contrast, the Republican nomination seems in the bag for Trump. Yet to win the presidency, he seems well aware that the abortion issue could swing the entire presidential election in Joe Biden’s favour. That’s because the polls indicate that 85% of Americans want abortion to be legal, either unconditionally or under a limited set of conditions.

There’s more: last August a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that only 25% of respondents wanted their state to outlaw abortion. A Penn poll last October found that 86% of Americans want abortion to be available to victims of rape and incest. And so on. This useful article lays out the findings of many recent US polls on various facets of the abortion debate.

Contrary to anti-abortionists waving around the fully-formed dolls that allegedly represent a typical aborted fetus, this fascinating New York Times article (headlined “Early Abortion Looks Like Nothing You’ve Been Told”) explains that the pregnancy tissue evident at or before the 9 weeks time frame within which 80 percent of US abortions are carried out, looks nothing like an embryo, let alone a baby.

Clearly, abortion access will remain a potent mobilising force for the Democrats, and not just among women voters. The Republican Party has good reason to be worried. A month ago for example, a pro-abortion candidate won a crucial swing seat on the judiciary in then perennial swing state of Wisconsin, thanks to a huge bi-partisan outpouring of support from women voters in particular.

As the Wisconsin outcome showed, The abortion issue is galvanising the left to get out and vote. There is every reason to think it will do so again next year:

The Agenda

The anti-abortion measures mentioned above are a bad enough violation of any sense of a woman’s bodily autonomy. Yet the Christian onslaught on abortion rights has wider goals in mind beyond abolishing abortion access and trans gender healthcare. Entirely consistent with laws that seek to control the decisions made by people about their own bodies, the Christian right has made it clear it also aims to restrict the right to birth control, and to revisit the legal basis for same-sex and interracial marriage.

In line with this agenda, there have been related attempts to restrict the right to vote in dozens of states. After all, God would surely not want Satan to be able to use the ballot box to stay His Righteous Hand.

New Zealand’s abortion politics

Finally… Abortion has not been a hot political issue in this country since it was de-criminalised in 2020. This law change took abortion out of the Crimes Act and placed it under the purview of Health Act. One significant change since then has been the decision by then Associate Health Minister Dr. Ayesha Verrall to allow nurses, midwives and GPs to prescribe the abortion pill.

When asked about National’s policy on abortion, party leader Christopher Luxon has said that the abortion issue was settled by the de-criminalisation law change, which National has pledged not to overturn. That assurance however does not cover Verrall’s subsequent action to improve abortion access by allowing nurses, midwives and GPs to prescribe the abortion pill.

Moreover, one of the great advantages of placing abortion under the Health Act means that abortion is now (legally) deemed to be a health care procedure. That being so, it would seem relevant to ask Luxon and/or National’s shadow Health Minister Dr Shane Reti, what steps National will be taking to improve the current access that New Zealand women have to this vital healthcare procedure? After all… In rural and provincial New Zealand, we know already that access to healthcare can be sporadic, and uneven in quality.

Given those shortcomings in rural health delivery…. Does Dr. Reti welcome the advent of the abortion pill and the steps taken by Dr Verrall to enhance women’s access to it? Does Dr. Reti believe the abortion pill to be a simple and relatively safe method by which women can choose to terminate a pregnancy that they do not want, or may not be able to afford?

So far, Reti has been noticeably silent on how abortion access would rate among his Health priorities, should there be a change of government in October.