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. shawn

    life can only come from life. The parents (who are alive) split the cell of creation (LIVING cells), much like an atom releasing the new life form. At the moment of conception, the new life has a unique DNA blueprint that can be traced to his/her parents but is unique. The life has begun, fetuses don't suddenly spring to life in the 3rd month, or the 5th month, it's ridiculous to assume that something is developing inside it's mother, yet is inanimate or dead, and then SUDDENLY becomes alive. So we have established it is alive, and it is assuredly human. So now we are talking about a human life. Please use a search engine to read about Dr. Bernard Nathanson one of the co-founders of NARAL and read how the entire argument was based on a lie, that abortion is in over 90 percent of cases used strictly as contraception for young men/women who couldn't be bothered and how once he saw one being performed back when ultrasound was new he ceased immediately because the truth could no longer be concealed. The large majority of pro abortion arguments on here are feckless and illogical. This isn't a religious issue at all. Watch an abortion on an ultrasound, watch as the fetus tries to move away from teh probe, sensing that it is NOT a part of it's mother's natural support mechanism. Do you think the fetus has consciousness at that point? Do you think concsiousness is rooted in the brain? Do you think it's a good idea to suck the brain out of a live conscious being? If this was a puppy wouldn't people be freaking out? It's not that pro abortion folks are evil, they are just stupid or illogical and incapable of thinking for themselves. Let's start a drinking game, everybody have a shot each time some dufus comes on and mentions zygote.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Your use of the term "pro-abortion" implies that there are people out there actively soliciting pregnant women to get abortions, which is patently absurd.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • shawn

      that's all you've got, patently absurd?

      October 31, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • realbuckyball

      There is no "moment of conception". Take a Biochem class. Is it when the electron cloud of the sperm begins to approach the electron cloud of the egg ? What EXACTLY is your "moment" ? "Pico-second". I have a better clock than you. Try atomic clock. There is no absolute line between "life" and non-life. It's a fallacious dualism, which is non-existant. You need some science courses, old man. It's all Chemistry. Labs HAVE created beating hearts in the lab, thus your premise is false. Just because we don't have the formulas YET to do it doesn't mean we won't or can't.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  2. Oakspar

    We are very glad that Mr. Dudley has learned to read, but it is silly to take a child's interpretation of the history he has read over the life experiences of those of us who remember the 1970's with clairity.

    It is true that many church leaders in the 60's and early 70's supported many liberal positions – that was the result of a long process of the seminaries being influenced by academic liberalism. The average believer in the pews was a Bible believing conservative, but a generation of liberal ministers and professors had emerged with the latest in literary criticism (narrative, deconstructive, associtive, and idealogical criticism).

    This created strain between the churches and the seminaries as young ministers, energetic in faith, to come back disengaged and distant from their congregations – holding beliefs that those in the pews no longer recognized.

    The conservative resurgence under not only Farwell, but Patterson and dozens of others, was quickly embrassed by the faithful, led to almost every protestant denomination to divide, with the smaller side usually bleeding out into a denomination more in line with their core beliefs.

    Mr. Dudly's assertion that Evangelical supported abortion wholeheartedly is as foolish as a historian 40 years from now saying that the USA supported gay marriage in 2012, because of the statement of the President at that time, and disreguarding the many state referrendums on the issue (which strongly show that America still opposes that practice with their votes).

    Keep on using that library card, Mr. Dudly – it will pay off with a few more years experience.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  3. Thecatwoman

    So for everyone that is against abortion, how many foster kids do you have in your home? How many children have you adopted? You think every fetus has a right to life but once that fetus becomes a living, breathing being, well, they are on their own. I'm sure the 5 year old kid that spent his first 5 years in a dog crate is really happy he had a chance at life.

    I'm so tired of hearing people proclaim how pro-life they are but have yet to take one of the thousands of unwanted, abused and neglected children in our foster care system. Put your money, time and efforts into caring for the ones that are already here....there just aren't enough homes for them all.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • shawn

      perhaps in Obama's economy many folks can't afford to take in foster kids. How is it everybody else's responsibility to take care of the life that someone else created? Are you trying to imply that someone not being able to foster someone else's children that were irresponsibly created somehow makes ending a human life OK? Would you be OK with it if only conservatives fostered these kids and raised them to be conservatives?

      October 31, 2012 at 8:08 am |
    • daisy

      catwoman-I agree with you. So many people are quick to point the finger at other people but do little to make it a better world-thank you. I'm a senior citizen and remember when a child was born that's when the rights of being human begin. Today. women are being treated like crap!!

      October 31, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  4. BurnNotice

    Nice to read that History.

    Unfortunately, it seems Falwell has poisoned the well for a long time to come.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  5. Johnni

    Excerpt from…
    The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles

    The Didache

    (1st Century AD)

    The Lord's Teaching to the Heathen by the Twelve Apostles:

    1 There are two ways, one of life and one of death; and between the two ways there is a great difference.

    2 Now, this is the way of life:…

    The second commandment of the Teaching: "Do not murder; do not commit adultery"; do not corrupt boys; do not fornicate; "do not steal"; do not practice magic; do not go in for sorcery; do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant. "Do not covet your neighbor's property; do not commit perjury; do not bear false witness"; do not slander; do not bear grudges. Do not be double-minded or double-tongued, for a double tongue is "a deadly snare." Your words shall not be dishonest or hollow, but substantiated by action. Do not be greedy or extortionate or hypocritical or malicious or arrogant. Do not plot against your neighbor. Do not hate anybody; but reprove some, pray for others, and still others love more than your own life.

    Note: 1st century AD
    Abortion is far from new!

    October 31, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  6. Dystopiax

    I think that an automatic post hoc, argument that the Big Bang had a god given right to happen is evangelical tripe. We live in a second-hand solar system. From everything we know – if we remove our heads from our butt – is that Nothing has any Natural Right to exist, particularly in perpetuity – with the possible exception of a Republican Universe in which life forms that receive some assistance to live are detested.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:40 am |
  7. cameron

    Thinking that the author might want to reread Exodus 21, it sure seems like a capital offense:
    Exodus 21:22-24
    New International Version (NIV)
    22 “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely[a] 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,

    October 31, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • richunix

      I have a better version “BNJV” My make-believe is better than your make believe. Really dude you believe this crap and if so tell me unicorns don’t exist?

      Stephen F Roberts: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

      October 31, 2012 at 7:53 am |
    • CatSh

      You might want to read other translations. Most of them make it clear they are talking about miscarriage.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:56 am |
  8. Dana

    Jonathan, when you grow up you will realize that everything they told you at church was make-believe.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  9. Jand Meditz

    Conception begins when God first thought of YOU! Then eventually you are conceived on earth.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:29 am |
    • Dana

      You really need to put down your fairy tale and open up a science book.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:37 am |
  10. David DeForge

    GOd can shove off.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  11. TopMike

    You can't believe someones opinion if the first quote from Dallas Theological Seminary was either misquoted or didn't come from the scripture they wrote. Unless they wrote the Bible it came from.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:12 am |
    • george smythson

      In any case, Dallas Theological Cemetery is hardly a source worth quoting...

      October 31, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  12. Stephen Kriz

    Life doesn't begin at conception. Both the sperm and the egg are living things. Life began 3 to 4 billion years ago on Earth and all living things, from human zygotes to giraffes to the fungus that grows on rocks are manifestations of that single self-replicating organism. Whether a God started it all or whether it was a chance coming together of amino acids depends on whether you believe in unverifiable creation myths. Maybe if we all thought about how interconnected life on Earth really is, we would treat each other and our fellow creatures with more respect and dignity.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • HJ Cav

      In all my readings and listenings I have never seen something more beautifully written and balanced. For a second, everything seemed to make sense.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:33 am |
  13. Reggie

    Yawn... Regardless of the exact timing of ensoulment, you will find that abortion was considered a profound sin dating all the way back to the very earliest Christians. Read the Didache if you have any doubts about that.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • Jeff

      Yeah, that sounds about right.

      As an agnostic, however, I don't need a Bible to tell me abortion is heinous/sinful/wrong. It's crystal clear that when a doctor's drill pierces and mixes the brain of a viable fetus (a la late-term abortion), there is something very very wrong with that, and with the fact that 99% of pro-choicers find this practice acceptable. Partial-birth abortions might be illegal now, but you can bet there are plenty on the left who would like to see them allowed once again. I hope for the sake of decency that doesn't happen.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:35 am |
  14. laststonecarver

    When am I supposed to celibrate my 'Conception Day"?
    Is it approximately 9 months before my Birthday?, and I just choose a day?
    Will there no longer be a birth certificate?, and how will that confuse all applications?

    October 31, 2012 at 6:59 am |
    • Nemo

      if one were to look back at the day your mother discovered that she was pregnant with you, regardless of whether you have a desire to celebrate 'conception day', she did. Why Is there any doubt whether celebration shouldn't occur each time a child is conceived?
      John (the baptist) lept in the womb. Celebration? Most definitely.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • laststonecarver

      Can you conceive this?
      My body is clothing, and my mind is jewelry that adorn my soul. My soul, which is the thought of life.
      My soul will take on a new body and mind, and transverse space and time for million of years.
      I will take on many life forms. I will transverse until my soul becomes complete, a spirit, and still I will travel.
      I am not bound by your book, you are.
      Which rebirth conception do you want me to celebrate?
      I choose my conception of perception.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  15. jvance

    Regardless of personal views or whether Roe v Wade is ever overturned, it is good and proper to keep the moral aspect of abortion front and center. Abortion should never be considered a casual, expedient choice. It is "deadly" serious decision and can never be undone.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • Howard of Alexandria

      I suspect that it's a very rare woman who views her decision to have an abortion as "a casual or expedient choice." I suspect that nearly every woman who's had an abortion had to agonize over it for some amount of time before going through with it.

      If you want to oppose abortion, that's your right, but don't prop up your arguments with silly allegations about the women who've had an abortion.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:03 am |
  16. fiftyfive55

    Atheists should show respect the same way they want it,we have our beliefs and they dont so what business is it of theirs what we think,if they dont like it,stay away,simple.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:47 am |
    • Gaunt

      That doesnt even make sense. Everyone is showing FULL respect for your beliefs. Nobody is forcing you to have an abortion my friend. If you loathe abortions, then DONT HAVE ONE, thats your choice. Nobody is trying to infringe YOUR rights or control YOUR actions: that is entirely the anti-abortionists tactic.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Our beliefs are based on facts and evidence, yours not so much! We only want you to keep it out of the public square (ie; government; public schools).

      October 31, 2012 at 6:59 am |
    • fiftyfive55

      Gaunt-Sorry to disagree with you but I dont believe prgnancies are a thing of convenience,even if you do.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • fiftyfive55

      @Truth Prevails-I didn't catch the headlines claiming that someone,anyone,proved God doesn't exist.Maybe you can enlighten me since no one has proved anything Either way.Show us your so-called facts.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • HJ Cav

      Because your "view" is a cancer to our society and to the intelligence of our people and youth. I will have three children who believe in science and math as a way of solving problems, your kids will pray to solve their problems and when nothing goes their way they will likely shoot up a school in frustration.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Dana

      Here is a good reason.

      www youtube com/watch?v=gHbYJfwFgOU

      October 31, 2012 at 7:42 am |
  17. LakeRat1

    You wait; These right-wing-nuts, will change their opinion of abortion in a heartbeaat, when people start to reealize that "pro-life" means we shouldn't go around waging war and killing people.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:45 am |
    • HJ Cav

      War is justifiable because the Quran want's the Muslims to kill us. Thought everyone knew that. (Insert overt sarcasm here).

      October 31, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  18. Chris

    Third paragraph from bottom: I presume you either meant, "It is *easy* to underestimate...", or, "It is hard to *over*estimate".

    October 31, 2012 at 6:36 am |
  19. 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 6:36 am |
    • LakeRat1

      ... Why is every power hungry, right wing bully, anti-choice?

      October 31, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • Nemo

      Can you imagine a petroleum company not being pro-automobile? Self-inflicted wound to the throat....

      October 31, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • ol cranky

      they've flat out rejected science on issues in which that suits them. anti-choice legislators have said that their religion requires them to reject science on the matter in regard to hormonal contraception (which they now call abortifacient) and that others using science to refute their insistence that contraceptive be considered abortion is a violation of their freedom of religion.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  20. remoteDef

    The bible says whatever anybody with an agenda wants it to say.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:32 am |
    • blf83

      Just like ol' Mitt Romney!

      October 31, 2012 at 7:11 am |
    • Dana


      October 31, 2012 at 7:43 am |
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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.