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My Take: When evangelicals were pro-choice
The author notes that evangelical Christians were once largely pro-abortion rights.
October 30th, 2012
05:54 PM ET

My Take: When evangelicals were pro-choice

Editor's Note: Jonathan Dudley is the author of "Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics."

By Jonathan Dudley, Special to CNN

Over the course of the 2012 election season, evangelical politicians have put their community’s hard-line opposition to abortion on dramatic display.

Missouri Rep. Todd Akin claimed “legitimate rape” doesn’t result in pregnancy. Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock insisted that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

While these statements have understandably provoked outrage, they’ve also reinforced a false assumption, shared by liberals and conservatives alike: that uncompromising opposition to abortion is a timeless feature of evangelical Christianity.

The reality is that what conservative Christians now say is the Bible’s clear teaching on the matter was not a widespread interpretation until the late 20th century.

Opinion: Let's get real about abortions

In 1968, Christianity Today published a special issue on contraception and abortion, encapsulating the consensus among evangelical thinkers at the time. In the leading article, professor Bruce Waltke, of the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, explained the Bible plainly teaches that life begins at birth:

“God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: 'If a man kills any human life he will be put to death' (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense… Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”

The magazine Christian Life agreed, insisting, “The Bible definitely pinpoints a difference in the value of a fetus and an adult.” And the Southern Baptist Convention passed a 1971 resolution affirming abortion should be legal not only to protect the life of the mother, but to protect her emotional health as well.

Opinion: Why the abortion issue won’t go away

These stalwart evangelical institutions and leaders would be heretics by today’s standards. Yet their positions were mainstream at the time, widely believed by born-again Christians to flow from the unambiguous teaching of Scripture.

Televangelist Jerry Falwell spearheaded the reversal of opinion on abortion in the late 1970s, leading his Moral Majority activist group into close political alliance with Catholic organizations against the sexual revolution.

In contrast to evangelicals, Catholics had mobilized against abortion immediately after Roe v. Wade. Drawing on mid-19th century Church doctrines, organizations like the National Right to Life Committee insisted a right to life exists from the moment of conception.

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As evangelical leaders formed common cause with Catholics on topics like feminism and homosexuality, they began re-interpreting the Bible as teaching the Roman Catholic position on abortion.

Falwell’s first major treatment of the issue, in a 1980 book chapter called, significantly, “The Right to Life,” declared, “The Bible clearly states that life begins at conception… (Abortion) is murder according to the Word of God.”

With the megawatt power of his TV presence and mailing list, Falwell and his allies disseminated these interpretations to evangelicals across America.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

By 1984, it became clear these efforts had worked. That year, InterVarsity Press published the book Brave New People, which re-stated the 1970 evangelical consensus: abortion was a tough issue and warranted in many circumstances.

An avalanche of protests met the publication, forcing InterVarsity Press to withdraw a book for the first time in its history.

“The heresy of which I appear to be guilty,” the author lamented, “is that I cannot state categorically that human/personal life commences at day one of gestation.... In order to be labeled an evangelical, it is now essential to hold a particular view of the status of the embryo and fetus.”

What the author quickly realized was that the “biblical view on abortion” had dramatically shifted over the course of a mere 15 years, from clearly stating life begins at birth to just as clearly teaching it begins at conception.

During the 2008 presidential election, Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren demonstrated the depth of this shift when he proclaimed: “The reason I believe life begins at conception is ‘cause the Bible says it.”

It is hard to underestimate the political significance of this reversal. It has required the GOP presidential nominee to switch his views from pro-choice to pro-life to be a viable candidate. It has led conservative Christians to vote for politicians like Akin and Mourdock for an entire generation.

And on November 6, it will lead millions of evangelicals to support Mitt Romney over Barack Obama out of the conviction that the Bible unequivocally forbids abortion.

But before casting their ballots, such evangelicals would benefit from pausing to look back at their own history. In doing so, they might consider the possibility that they aren’t submitting to the dictates of a timeless biblical truth, but instead, to the goals of a well-organized political initiative only a little more than 30 years old.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jonathan Dudley.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Abortion • Catholic Church • Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (2,844 Responses)
  1. Law Professionals

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    August 13, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  2. Jedidiah Palosaari

    x

    August 5, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  3. Jedidiah Palosaari

    I don't really care what evangelicals think, or when they did it. I'm not evangelical. I do care what the Early Church believed. Read the Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, 1st Clement, and the Epistle of Barnabas- four books that *were* considered canonical by large sections of the Early Church, and are not considered heretical. *All* four represent the universal feeling of the Early Church- that abortion- as distinguished from infanticide- was immoral.

    August 5, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  4. cynthia curran

    I mean it wasn't a crime at the beginning of conception in the Justinian code.

    July 30, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  5. cynthia curran

    I mean the Catholic view.

    July 30, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  6. cynthia curran

    Also, the Justinian Code punished abortion after 40 days for aborting girls and 80 days for boys, so it was considered a crime at the beginning of conception. Eastern Orthodox tend to believe the soul comes in the infant late and are not at the beginning as much, hence the Catholic view.

    July 30, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  7. cynthia curran

    True, evangelicals unlike Roman Catholics do not always take their views from extra-biblical souces like the church fathers or the Didiache and yes allianced with the conservative Catholics changed this.

    July 30, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  8. Sean

    Jeremiah 1:5

    July 24, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
  9. David

    The scripture is mis-used. This alludes to an accidental injury of a fetus: "22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman's husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm,[a] then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot," What it does do is give the fetus the same social rights as any human from the standpoint of the social contract that, at its root, was that you must pay in kind for the damage caused. That is the premise behind the life for life, eye for eye. But lets take the passage for what it is. It is not the 10 commandments given by God (If you even believe that). This is an outline of how that society worked at that point in history. Our society works differently. I don't like abortion, but neither do my close friends who have HAD an abortion. While I wish that this were not part of our society, I will stand next to any friend and support them in their difficult decision, wether I agree with it or not. No judgment, just love and kindness. -Dave

    July 24, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      OK, the rest of us will stand with the one who has no voice.

      July 24, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
      • David

        I stand by BOTH. I would try to persuade any friend of mine, in every loving way possible, to NOT have an abortion, but if they chose to do so, I will still choose to love them.

        July 24, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
  10. jeannedininni

    Has anyone even bothered to read Exodus 21:22-24? Shouldn't you read it for yourself to see whether Professor Waltke's assessment makes sense? (You'll find any Bible verse or passage you'll ever want to look up at BibleGateway.com - and you can even choose your translation.) Here's Exodus 21:22-25 in the New King James Version:

    22 “If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

    Ask yourself: Does any part of this passage specify that the harm mentioned applies only to the mother and not the child? The most obvious inference would be that it applies to both the mother and the prematurely born infant (who at the time of the injury was still a fetus). So, the passage Dr. Waltke uses to "prove" his point would appear to prove just the opposite (as an earlier commenter has pointed out). In fact, it's even possible that the harm referred to in this passage doesn't apply to the mother at all but only to the child, since the passage clearly states that the mother has already been hurt. Don't let Dr. Waltke - or anyone else - do your thinking for you. Think for yourself! Go right to the source and see if the claimed interpretation fits instead of taking someone else's word for it.

    April 1, 2013 at 2:33 am |
    • G.J. Peterson

      If you do a survey of English translations, you will see that "so that she gives birth prematurely" is usually translated as a miscarriage. With modern medicine we are able to sustain a baby that comes out way before full gestation occurs, but that would not be true in antiquity. Causing a baby to come out prematurely in those days would very likely be a miscarriage. The span of time in which a woman could be hit and spontaneously give birth to a stable healthy baby would have been a rather short span compared to the overall length of her pregnancy. Being hit so as to induce a miscarriage would have been a far more common occurrence.

      May 5, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  11. Joel

    Hey great article Jonathan, is it? How old are you Jonathan? You look about 14 in the picture. The content of the article looks that way too. You cite Ex 21:22 If you bothered to read the verse you would find that it states the very opposite of what you say in your article. I'm sorry you can't find verses in the Bible to support your blood thirst. Each time you find a reference to a pregnant woman in the Bible, you will read ( and you may want to note this), she was WITH CHILD! Not with fetus, no, no, no, she was WITH CHILD! You are Lying! What you will find in the Bible however, is condemnation for those responsible for taking human life, or injuring human life, or condoning the taking of life, or promoting the taking of life. Its hard to find lies in the truth.

    December 9, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
    • Observer

      Joel ,

      Try again. The Bible NEVER mentions abortion.

      December 9, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      So because there was no term for a fetus when your pals wrote the bible, that means something?

      Grasping at straws, are you?

      You guys are pathetic.

      December 9, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • Joel

      Sorry Tom Tom the Piper's Fetus. No, you won't find Fetus in the Bible.

      December 14, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • anonymous

      English was good enough for Jesus, ha? FYI, in KJV the meaning of Hebrew words is always changed to reflect the doctrine of that time. Your "with child" stuff is an example of these changes.

      January 10, 2013 at 6:16 am |
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    December 4, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  13. Pharmc247

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    December 4, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.