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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. Petroff

    Christianity Today wrote a response to this Op-Ed that basically said: "Jonathan Dudley is WRONG!!! Actually, he's completely right, but IT DOESN'T MATTER!!!

    October 31, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  2. Petroff

    It's kinda of hard to take evangelicals seriously in light of this article when they say the Bible clearly says life begins at conception. If this "teaching of Scripture" is so "clear," why didn't they realize that 30 years ago?

    October 31, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  3. Roger McDaniels

    Jonathan Dudley has sinned by writing this article and made Jesus cry!!!!

    October 31, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Man up jesus

      October 31, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  4. Blondie

    Evangelical Christians are complete reetards and this article proves it.

    October 31, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • my child is mentally disabled

      What a horrible and insensitive statement to make.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
    • Roger McDaniels

      You will meet your judgment.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Cool it with the r-word Ann Coulter.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • Blondie

      truth hurts

      October 31, 2012 at 8:18 pm |
    • my child is mentally disabled

      You remain a hate filled bigot then, may mental disability continue to be be your portion.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  5. George

    Why is it not illegal to kill sperm, since it is human life?

    October 31, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • peter whacker

      How often do you kill sperm George ?

      October 31, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
    • George

      For every baby that's born, many many sperm die. So every person who had a child is responsible for killing sperm, which is human life. Killers. Hypocrites. Murderers. Pro life means death to sperm, not fish sperm, not dog sperm, human sperm, human life. It's illegla to harm eagle eggs, but not human sperm or eggs. How have we come to such ruin in society?

      October 31, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
  6. Odumba the Magnificent

    Newsflash: CNN puts out random rectal plucks. This article is yet another.
    The church of the left is so blindly fanatical, they don't even know that they are religious. Separation of Church and State? The left needs to stop trying jam their fecal matter down everyone else's throats.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Yeah how dare they want religious freedom.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • Spike

      Is this not in the bible? “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)

      October 31, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • sybaris

      "The left needs to stop trying jam their fecal matter down everyone else's throats."

      mmmkay, let's play!

      We have......

      Bibles in every motel room
      God on our money
      Prayer before public events
      Christian cable networks 24/7
      Discounts on insurance for being christian
      Churches every 6 blocks in every city over 100,000
      Christian bookstores in every town over 12,000
      God in the Pledge of Allegiance
      Televangelists 24/7
      Christian billboards along the highway advertising Vacation Bible School and “repent or go to He.ll”
      Federally recognized Christian holiday
      Radioevangelists 24/7
      Religious organizations are tax free
      75% of the population claims to be Christian
      National day of prayer
      God in the National Anthem
      Weekday Christian Education for elementary students.

      Yeah, you can take the christian persecution whine line to the next aisle.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:08 pm |
  7. First century catechism regarding abortion

    "you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born."

    The Didache

    October 31, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • Doug

      It also forbids magic. And it's not the bible. And the bible is dumb anyway.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  8. Todd

    Christians (and others) used to own slaves, cut off hands for stealing, or think the world was flat. As such, does that mean we should revert to the old ways or now understand new ways because we see, for example, all humans have equal (basic) rights or the world really is not flat or a fetus has a heartbeat at 7 weeks?

    October 31, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  9. msadr

    Nice article. Hopefully, it will open a few eyes.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  10. Anybody know how to read?

    Trust and obey, for there is no other way, than to trust SCOTUS and pray. To the usurpers in DC.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  11. Dick Grace

    I guess it is a question to be answered by the word since the author brought it up. A not too careful reading of Exodus 21:22-24 provides a totally different take than what he espouses in his article. Verse 22, " If men strive" the word here is plural men, strive, fight, quarrel or contend. Then we can see that in the course of a heated discussion to a physical altercation a group of men hurt a woman. Think accidentally not intending to involve her in their problem and she lose her "CHILD" and nothing further happens the man causing the "CHILD" to "depart from her he shall be surely punished". A third grader reading this passage would understand that what is departing from her "her fruit" is a "CHILD". It is unbelievable that the author puts forth his baseless assertion that life begins at birth when the very passage he quotes clearly describes the fruit in her body as a "CHILD". The simple truth is that abortion is acceptable to anyone who claims to be a Christian is foreign to the very clear teaching of the Bible. Simply put you cannot be a Christian and support abortion.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • NoTheism

      Dick, Christians don't even know why they believe what they believe, they just do because of cultural and religious indoctrination.
      Nobody can argue a god into existence, no matter how valid their arguments may be.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
    • adjunctions

      That's a translation issue. Before the 1970s that phrase was simply translated as a miscarriage, not referring to children, but "fruit" ("if her fruit depart from her"). Since the 1970s, translations refer to premature birth and children, only confirming the author's argument.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  12. Sambopete

    It isn't the Bible, it is human conscience. You son have a lot to learn.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
  13. Chad Woodburn

    It would be extremely erroneous to say that theologians did not think that life started at conception until the 80s. Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD) taught that the soul comes from the parents at conception. Many other Church Fathers also believed it. In more recent times, people like Lewis Sperry Chafer (February 27, 1871 – August 22, 1952) the founder of Dallas Seminary also held to that position. I mention this because the author also cites a Dallas Seminary prof by saying,

    "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.”

    My blood is almost boiling with rage as I read the article. And Bruce's assertion about Ex. 21:22-24 is something I completely disagree with. That passage does indeed assert that the destruction of the fetus is a capital offense. There is only a monetary penalty if no harm comes, but if there is harm (to either the mother or the fetus) then the penalty is eye for eye, life for life, etc. But regardless of this debated text, anyone who has seriously studied theology knows full well that theologians long before Falwell, etc. believed that life began at conception.

    But the suggestion that until 30 years ago theologians did not consider life to have begun at conception until the birth of the child is not even arguable or defensible. It is a flat out lie. I graduated from seminary years before that, and we were taught and lived that it started at conception. But, I guess all those who disagreed with the author weren't theologians.

    What the author, Jonathan Dudley, is presenting is a lie for political purposes.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      What the church presents is a lie for political purposes.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • John Carroll

      I was just going to write a response to this article when thankfully I saw that Chad had already responded as I would. The kind of twisting of God's word by Mr. Dudley is dangerous and must be dealt with immediately. Chad's response is correct that the verse that Mr. Dudley misquotes clearly says that if the fetus' dies as a result of a blow than the punishment is life for life. If Dallas Theological seminary taught that the Bible says that life begins at birth, and they may have, they were in serious error. I am 43 years old and I remember knowing when I first learned about abortion in the late 1970's that it was wrong. I did not need some political organization to tell me that it was wrong.

      Thank you Chad for responding to this article so clearly. Keep speaking the truth.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • NoTheism

      You are not saying that the sources the author provides to establish his claim are false, you say that you disagree with them. Also, it seems that you fail to recognize that not all theologians agree about everything.
      You say that the author is presenting lies for political purposes but all you've pointed out was that you disagree with the information he provides...
      I don't think you're in the position to argue that the author is lying.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:35 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Thank you John for responding to Chad. Keep telling fairy tales.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
    • adjunctions

      Dudley does actually reference this–he talks about the Roman Catholic position being different from the evangelical (and the Catholic position has historically been mixed as well, particularly since Augustine, and did not re-codify into life-at-conception until the 19th c). But Protestant evangelicals have historically been pretty liberal about the issue, which is his point. Evangelicals distance themselves from Catholic teachings and history, too.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
    • bob

      It seems troubling that you are treating what some people in the past said as fact. What would you say if some random dude from Arkansas said that he talked to god and that god wanted him to circulate a new bible with changes to his teachings? How can you say with any certainty that the dudes from hundreds of years ago were actually talking to god and that the random dude from Arkansas was lying and shouldn't be believed?

      October 31, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • adjunctions

      "There is only a monetary penalty if no harm comes, but if there is harm (to either the mother or the fetus) then the penalty is eye for eye, life for life, etc. But regardless of this debated text, anyone who has seriously studied theology knows full well that theologians long before Falwell, etc. believed that life began at conception."

      Only modern medicine gives us the luxury of such an interpretation. Premature births (especially caused by trauma) very nearly always resulted in the death of the fetus. No one before modern medicine would have interpreted "harm" as harm to the fetus; the fetus was already dead. It's about harm to the mother. The history of the interpretation of this passage bears this out.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  14. JennyTX

    Once again, PUH-LEAZE keep your religion out of our government.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      Pulley pleaze keep your sleaze from the Beasties. They already have enuff trouble counting. The children should be counted.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  15. librowicz

    brilliant article

    October 31, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  16. Skeptimist

    Addressing the real issue – women and families in crisis – is apparently beyond the capacity of this sad society.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
  17. Lamb of dog

    NEWS FLASH. People are going to have a abortion, do drugs, have affairs etc whether it is illegal or not.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • John M

      News Flash: a civil society must make some acts illegal. Everything can't be permitted. *Which* acts we permit or forbid is a reflection of our values, and which values to have is a very, very, very important question

      October 31, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      I agree. But laws don't stop things from happening. Rather than outlaw drugs make them legal and tax them. If you make abortion illegal it will simply become a black market. And that won't help anything.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
  18. Penny Dever-Reynolds

    to HillClimber: Amen.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  19. Colette

    Abortion is certainly convenient for many men and women (Christians or not), but really, this is in direct contradiction to the very heart of Christianity which is about love and doing the right thing in spite of the cost. Also, the original translation of the Bible for the verses quoted as meaning "the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense" clearly state that if the woman gives birth prematurely but there is no injury – i.e. the child is ok – then the offender is just fined.

    Exodus 21:22-24 (King James Version)
    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.
    23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
    24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,

    In any event, these arguments are pointless. Whether you are a believer or not, this is common sense. If you must kill something – whether or not your consider it a fetus, or with or without a soul – then it was alive. Abortion is taking a life. We must do what we can to stop it but out of concern and followed up with real action that exemplifies love and concern.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Women will have abortions if it's legal or not.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • Brendan

      "Whether you are a believer or not, this is common sense. If you must kill something – whether or not your consider it a fetus, or with or without a soul – then it was alive." I see your logic, But you are implying that we accept your premise that we are killing something. I think that that's the very point......not everyone believes that you are killing something. That's the entire argument that you are just skipping over.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • msadr

      Colette, eating dinner is taking a life. what's your point?

      October 31, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      msadr, now you're playing Hindu stupid. Are you a Muslim operative? They throw a lot of money at Planned Parenthood for a cheap 911 everyday. Darwin, Hindu, Muslim genetics. You are perfectedly fitted to be a killa!

      October 31, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
    • adjunctions

      "the verses quoted as meaning "the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense" clearly state that if the woman gives birth prematurely but there is no injury – i.e. the child is ok – then the offender is just fined."

      Only modern medicine gives us the luxury of such an interpretation. Premature births (especially caused by trauma) very nearly always resulted in the death of the fetus. No one before modern medicine would have interpreted "harm" as harm to the fetus; the fetus was already dead. It's about harm to the mother. The history of the interpretation of this passage bears this out. Do you think the very prominent, respected evangelical interpreters of the 60s simply missed this?

      October 31, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  20. HillClimber

    First: Get your religion out of my government! That is the promise of the First Amendment. Second: Know that Government has only two functions regarding abortion. One – to assure that the person performing the abortion is properly licensed (and therefore trained) to perform the procedure. Two – to assure that the facility used for the procedure is on par with other facilities used to perform surgical procedures. Government is to have no opinion on whether an abortion is to be performed.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • notea4me

      Yes !!!

      October 31, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Innerspace is God's place while outerspace is for the human race.

      You were your parent's twinkling in their eyes prior to intercourse and then came conception. Where would you now be if abortion became your parent's right? Although I am leaning towards a woman's choices to or not to abort, I am riddled with many deep thoughts regarding anyone's natures to set the wheels in motion regarding legalized intercourse for even those who themselves are but children. Sick is this world and so full of moral diseases!

      October 31, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • msadr

      Absolutely agree with HillClimber.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      They already gave their opinion, dudette. You paid and now you want the children to pay their fair share.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:38 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.