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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.

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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. xirume

    The bible has been interpreted and re-interpreted to serve the needs of the "moral majority" and influence the establishment of laws, from dawn of Christianity and continues to do so today. It really is time to evolve from these primitive doctrines and outlaw all attempts to use religious precepts to drive secular legislation. End religious oppression NOW !!!

    October 31, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  2. Chris

    What's next? Viable sperm and eggs are alive. Is it going to be murder to masterbate, resulting in the death of countless potential babies?

    October 31, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • XYofLight

      If I'm not mistaken the Popes have stated masturbation is murder by wasting sperm.

      October 31, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Ting

      Yes, masturbation will be outlawed. To ensure that you are following the laws or "master of your domain", twice a month you will be required to go to your priest to have your sperm count tested.

      October 31, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  3. Religious hypocrisy

    I had considered entering the ministry when I was a young adult. That was before I started encountering the hypocrisy of church leaders who taught one thing on Sunday but held opposite opinions when it came to certain topics. The present day pro-life movement doesn't even address the medical and scientific facts when it comes to fetuses and life. They don't care about the consequences of their actions limiting or even banning abortions. And as far as adoption being an option...try adopting a child in the USA. It's expensive, intrusive, and available to a select segment of society. My wife and I were turned away from adoption because we didn't make enough money. We weren't even looking to adopt an infant but an older child about 4 or 5 years old.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  4. snarkjeg

    People are completely misunderstanding this article. Although one can infer that the author is probably pro-choice, that is not the argument he is making here. He is not trying to justify a stance on abortion, one way or the other, at all. He is simply trying to show that evangelical public opinion has shifted on this issue over time. He quoted conservative authors of the past to make his point. Verses from the bible are not relevant to this discussion except in so far as they were quoted historically by others to support earlier points of view.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:46 am |
  5. lookmom

    It would be good form to publish the verses, fully written out, that you used to support this whole article. But then everyone reading it would be able to tell that the verses you list actually contradict everything you say here. Ex 21:22-25 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • Gaunt

      Its fun watching zealots lie about their own bible. Or, only read modern versions which put their own spin on the words.

      here, see for yourself. Note that several of the modern versions try and spin this as 'give birth prematurely'. In fact, as older versions and direct translations make clear, it means to miscarry.

      bible. cc/exodus/21-22. htm

      October 31, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • Louis

      "Gives birth prematurely" is a liberal interpretation of Exodus 21: 22-24, the traditional interpretation is "miscarriage" as in "so that her fruit depart from her" in the King James Version that most older evangelicals prefer. Perhaps you should ask why younger evangelicals found it necessary to reinterpret the Bible to support their new belief that abortion is wrong?

      October 31, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • CTed

      THat does support the article completely. Injury for injury wether it is referring to the mother's injuries or the BORN BABIES injury. The passage is unclear but we're talking about two people there, not a fetus. A premature babie has been born.....

      October 31, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Louis

      CTed
      The KJV refers to it as the woman's "fruit", not as a person. Besides there is also
      "And if it be from a month old even unto five years old, then thy estimation shall be of the male five shekels of silver, and for the female thy estimation shall be three shekels of silver." - Leviticus 27:6 and
      "Number the children of Levi after the house of their fathers, by their families: every male from a month old and upward shalt thou number them. And Moses numbered them according to the word of the LORD." - Numbers 3:15-16 where the Bible places no value on fetuses or infants less than one month old.

      October 31, 2012 at 10:06 am |
  6. NM Desert

    Who the hell is Jonathan Dudley? I didn't know that CNN would post opinions from a 1st grader.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • Gaunt

      John Dudley is a graduate of Yale's Divinity School and currently a M.D. student at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. You dont like what he has to say, so you attack his youthful appearance. Brilliant.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • Thomas the Doubter

      Gaunt, exactly my thought: the desert crawler has nothing else to say, so he attacks the looks of a contributing blogger.
      Should we try this on robot romney? or wonk the marathon man Ryan? Gawd, imagine the outcry: foul, no fair, using human traits to play politics.
      Wait a minute, aren't the fundis using the bible to play politics? Just a thought....

      October 31, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  7. snarkjeg

    Doesn't it ever occur to Christians that there is something wrong with a "god" who provides a manual that contradicts itself and allows so many conflicting interpretations. That "god" is either unintelligent, uncaring, or non-existent.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • TiredODaCrap

      Or, it could be that different humans interpret the words of the bible in their own selfish ways – to support their point, or how they want to live. Couldn't be that, could it?

      October 31, 2012 at 9:39 am |
    • snarkjeg

      So that would mean that "god" isn't competent enough to say something that would be clear to everyone in the same way. If he were truly all powerful, that shouldn't be beyond his abilities.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:41 am |
    • TiredODaCrap

      We aren't action figures that he moves around and has interact with each other. You are free to choose howto live, how/who to believe in, etc. Again, the fact that humans are interpretting these words (to/for other humans) puts an automatic bias in what they say. Have never seen two competing sides take a poll and write articles on how it "proves" on their side??
      If you can't get past the idea that words (stats, etc) will only be interpreted as they were intended by the author, there is no reason to discuss this further. I guess everyone who claims to be a Christian must be then, too?

      October 31, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Louis

      TiredODaCrap
      Well, seeing that the King James Version of the Bible interprets Exodus 21:22-24 as a miscarriage and later interpretations have rendered it as just a premature birth then you have to question the anti-Choice generation of evangelicals about this, wouldn't you say?

      October 31, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • TiredODaCrap

      Again, how do YOU interpret it, vs what was meant? Are we talking premature birth, or miscarriage? Are we talking "serious injury" to the mother, or child, in this verse? How can you or I be 100% sure of which (I know I wasn't around back then). I can't see miscarriage being possible if there was no "serious injury" to the child.

      I think this one simple verse shows how anyone to can the words, and spin them however they want. That in no way means that God's intent agrees with every interpretation, but again, we have free will to take things how we choose. Don't we?

      October 31, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • CTed

      Tired o the Crap:

      Uh.. BS. The bible could just say.... "no abortions"... or "Abortions are fine". God can see the future, he forsaw this agurment, he foresaw that he was not clear in the bible. So either god is intentionally obtuse, doesn't care, or more likley, didn't write the book....

      November 1, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  8. Darrell

    And this article leaves out the fact Numbers 5:11-31 proscribes how the temple priests induce abortion into a wife who has been unfaithful. Christians need to read more and preach less.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • seriously

      It doesn't say that Darrell, you must assume people won't read what quote.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • Louis

      Yup, "seriously" Numbers 5:11-31 doesn't mention pregnancy at all, it just outlines how a Temple Priest can force a wife to drink "cursed" water as a test of her faithfulness towards her husband. It's about the ritual use of magic by the Priests of YHWH not about abortion.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • CRayofDallas

      Darrell,
      I read Numbers 5:11-31 and I cannot find any reference to the priests causing an abortion on the suspected unfaithful wife. The drink they prepared for her would cause her abdomen to swell and her thighs to waste away but nothing about abortion. Perhaps you have a different version of the Holy Bible then I do?

      October 31, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Cubana

      Where do you get that from? It says no such thing....

      October 31, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • HieTide

      Darrell, perhaps you should likewise read the text before using to make your case. No, it says nothing about abortion.

      October 31, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • ReadMuch?

      Darrell,
      Did you even to bother to read the scriptures you quoted? Go read it! It does not say anything about the priest causing a miscarriage or abortion. It clearly says that if a married woman was unfaithful to her husband and her husband is unaware or suspects it, then the priest performs a ceremony that will curse her to never have children again. However, if she is pure, then she will be able to continue to conceive. It has nothing to do with abortion.

      Again, do you read much?

      October 31, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  9. Gaunt

    Simple question for the anti-choice zealots who claim their illogical claims are supported by 'science' or 'medicine'.

    If that is the case, why is every single major professional medical association in the US pro-choice?
    If that is the case, why is every single national medical association in the first world pro-choice?
    If that is the case, why (when 52% of the general US population is pro-choice) are a full 78% of US medical health professionals pro-choice?

    October 31, 2012 at 9:30 am |
    • Steve M

      Because they want to justify their choice that killing an-unborn child is acceptable. It is called Cognitive Dissonance. It is amazingly powerful. A very similar situation existed for many years in the US around slavery. The majority of Americans supported slavery. The Courts and Legislatures made laws supporting and continuing it. By far and away the majority of Americans believed that African-Americans were in some way inferior. Thank God we realized the error of our ways and at least started on the path to justice for the African-American citizens of our nation.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  10. willhpacheco

    "... but instead, to the goals of a well-organized political initiative only a little more than 30 years old."

    Should read: "... but instead, to the goals of a well-organized religious initiative only a little more than 2000 years old."

    October 31, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • AdamSF

      Obviously you didn't read the article, or else your reading comprehension is sadly lacking.

      October 31, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  11. Joe Smith

    And Catholics might want to explore their own chruch's teachings on this as well, since until the mid 19th century the Catholic church's official doctrine was that life does not begin at conception, but rather at the "quickening." (Hence - "the quick and the dead....") Quickening is when the fetus begins to noticably move. This consception thing is a completely modern idea, not something that is rooted in church history or the teachings of Jesus, or even in the old testament Jewish scriptures.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • snarkjeg

      But to be fair, quickening would be the first sign of independent life before medical science was very advanced.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:52 am |
  12. pat

    Outstanding writting, Mr Dudley. Now I want to read your book.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  13. Sane Person

    Apart from a few good moral lessons from Jesus, the bible contains HORRIBLE morals. Anyone who makes up their mind on something based on the bible is not a rational person.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  14. Phil

    The author misread or is liar.. if the child is born premature in otherwords lives otherwise it's a life for a life.
    If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury

    October 31, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Gaunt

      No, you misread or are a liar. If the child is aborted but there is not harm to the mother, its a minor offense. If the chuld is aborted and the mother dies, there is a capital crime. Stop spinning your OWN bible to make it mean what you want it to mean.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • CRayofDallas

      Gaunt,
      Exodus 5:22-25 states that "if a pregnant woman is hit and she gives birth prematurely , but there is no serious injury, however if there is a serious injury then you are to take life for life." What other serious injury could there be in this case but that the baby was dead due to premature birth? I believe you and the author of this article need to reread this passage???

      October 31, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  15. sonny chapman

    My Catholic Catechism USED to teach that Limbo was where unborn souls went to if they didn't make it to birth.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • snarkjeg

      But times change and that is no longer the official church doctrine. Just another indication that religion is man-made and responds to the needs of the day.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  16. Joe Smith

    A little caveat ...all those evangelicals voting for romney might want to look no further back than a few months when their own denominations labeled mormonism a polythestic cult. They are so blinded by this 30 year old political ploy of anti-abortion rhetoric that they are going to support someone whose own faith labels them heretics.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • TiredODaCrap

      No, we are so tired of the joke that the guy currently in office has made of this country that we can live with a Mormon as president.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:37 am |
    • Mormonism

      My dad's last wife had been previously married to a Mormon. We did not know about her past. She left the Mormon husband without getting a divorce. She then married my dad. Her first husband died several years later, making her marriage to my dad a common-law marriage, still unbeknownst to us. During the probate of the will, her bigamy was discovered. But by law she was legally my dad's wife because her first husband died. Marriage records in Nevada show her first husband claimed he divorced her in Texas when he applied for a license for his next marraige. Dad's last wife claims she divorced him in Utah. He, She or both lied about getting divorces and engaged in the type of bigamy typical of the Mormon church.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  17. seriously

    Read it, Ex 21 has nothing so say that differs fetus from person.
    22 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Darrell

      22 If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.

      Notice how Christians edit out the portions of the Bible they don't like so it says what they want?

      October 31, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • CRayofDallas

      Darrel – you are the one that is editing out the information that you don't want because it does not support your position. YOU ARE AN IDIOT!!!!!

      October 31, 2012 at 10:12 am |
  18. Bob

    And this is why Catholicism (along with Greek and Eastern Orthodox) is and will always be the only real Christian religion. As soon as the Protestants decided they wanted to make up theri own religion, they opened the door for the continual devolution and convenient rule changes we've seen since Luther. Without the body of Christ, they have drifted too far from the shore.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  19. us_1776

    Life begins at birth because that is where survivability is determined.

    Many fetuses are not survivable are either stillborn or die immediately after birth.

    Birth is proof of a survivable offspring.

    Until the birth everything is just another one of natures experiments with DNA.

    .

    October 31, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Guest

      "Many fetuses are not survivable are either stillborn or die immediately after birth."

      Doesn't this imply that the fetuses that are not stillborn or die immediately after birth are ALIVE? They may not be able to live unassisted outside the womb, but if there can be a dead fetus that can be stillborn, doesn't that mean that the ones that make it to birth are alive? That's always the puzzling part to me. I do not approach the abortion issue from a religious point of view, but I can't help but think that a fetus is a living being, even if not a fully formed human. I'm not sure I can think of a fetus as just a blob of cells. It's a human, even if not a viable one. I think that's why it troubles me when society seems to have no moral qualms about extinguishing life inside the womb; whether it's viable at that point or not, it's certainly not some dead thing that magically comes to life at birth.

      October 31, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
    • CTed

      Nobody is saying it is, but you have no right to life unless you can sustain it on your own. You don't, I don't... so a fetus doesn't either. There is simply no requirement that anyone keep you alive. You need a kidney> THe law doesn't force me to give you one. You need a blood transfusion, nope, I can say no to that to (and that's jsut a needle in the arm).

      But you want a woman to be foreced to say yes to childbrith, which carries the risk of death, and lifelong health issues. Childbirth is no less risky than me donating one of my kidneys but we don't DREAM of forcing a parent to donate a kidney to their own 1 month old child to keep it alive, but we do force them go through pregnancy and childbirth for their 1 month old blastocyst that has not 1 single brain cell yet. I don't consider anything with no brain a human being. Human tissue sure, but a human body with no brain whatsoever is not a human being, it's no different than my finger if it was cut off, human tissue, but not a human being the brain is what makes us us. THought is what makes us us. Blastocysts have no brain funcitons, and no brain cells.

      November 1, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  20. Ken

    So – let all the pro-lifers take care of all of the children that they are forcing to be born. They are not allowed government assistance (since they have to be kept accountable and cannot enforce the decisions of the Supreme Court). Not everyone is a Christian; not everyone interprets the Bible the same as the evangelicals. It is, and should be, in my opinion, a matter of choice – it is personal, and the individual(s) who make the choice, must live with the consequences of the decision, regardless of what they are. The fetus doesn't know what has happened to it. But let that fetus be born into an environment where it is unwanted, unloved, and neglected, and it certainly will. I'm not a woman; it's not my right to say. And as a believer, I also know it is not my right to judge or to force others to believe the way I might.

    October 31, 2012 at 9:18 am |
    • jimbocombo

      The part about living with consequences regardless of
      Choice of action needs some
      More thought.

      A litmus correlation would be: You're really angry. You go and buy a gun. You can choose to 1)cool down and return it, reconcile and/or move 2) Shoot your neighbor. You get to live with consequences either way.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • TiredODaCrap

      I love the "Let the Pro Life folks take care of the unwanted babies" argument. What is that? Why can't those who agree with Pro Choice start thinking about things BEFORE they get knocked up? If you have s@x, you may get pregnant – that's what happens! There are things you can do to keep that from happening, without having to abort a fetus. My wife and I have s@x all the time, and somehow, she's doesn't get pregnant. You can make the choice to be smart about it if you do make the choice to have s@x. Come on, people. Grow up and quit acting without thinking!

      October 31, 2012 at 9:35 am |
    • Mike M

      I totally agree with you.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Pregnancy

      @Tiredodacrap – Condoms do break. Birth control pills are not 100% effective. Medications can and do negate birth control effectiveness.

      October 31, 2012 at 10:01 am |
    • crissy

      Ken, very well said.
      @jimcombo....that was a poor choice of comparision. I am sure most woman take time to think about their choice and the consequences each choice would bring. They don't just get a positive pregnancy test result and run the the abortion clinic. This should not be the government's choice, it is a personal choice. If I have cancer and refuse treatment, in theory I am killing myself, but you don't hear Catholics and Evanglics or the govenment forcing people to seek treatment based on suicide being wrong in some religious eyes... j/s

      October 31, 2012 at 10:58 am |
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