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. Joe conic

    if and when scientists ever find a single cell or remnants of one on a distant planet it will be declared as "life on mars" etc. Once conception occurs, all the genetic information for that person is present right down to eye color even personality traits etc and the only thing that separates that embryo from a life like the one many of you enjoy is time- a mere nine months or less. No matter how you slice it, abortion destroys the potentiality of that newly formed gene pool. Do women have a right to destroy that, especially if technically half of that embryo is from the man? Why does the male partner have no say?

    October 31, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • realbuckyball

      The "potentiality" of the gene pool exists before the se'x act. Have YOU ever mas'tur'ba'ted ? If so, by your definition, you have aborted a potential life. It's a reductio ad absurdam argument. Try harder.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • jungleboo

      The male partner may or may not have a say because it is not within the parameters for his "permission". Kind of like, Oh honey, let me just put it in for a minute, I'll withdraw before I come!" These are issues that NO ONE has a right to speak to except the parties involved. And as I just pointed out, that involvement runs the entire gamut of human interaction, from abject cruelty to intense loving. It's none of your business. NONE. Stay out of it. Believe me, the human race will not go extinct because abortion is legal. The majority of pregnancies will run their course because there is a genetic predisposition to wish to procreate. Just keep your Mars philosophies to yourself and let others live by their own Earth philosophies. Not everything leads to procreation. Nature will take care of itself with no help from you.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Joe conic

      The fact that you equate the formation of an embryo with masturbation makes you incapable of having a sane discussion with. That's a little "half witted" since it does take a women and a man to create the gene pool of a human life, without it you have a half wit like your self. Can
      you created from just a man masturbating?

      October 31, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Eric G

      "the only thing that separates that embryo from a life like the one many of you enjoy is time- a mere nine months or less."

      Oh, and a uterus within a living female host. Just kind of left that part out because it didn't support your argument?

      October 31, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Eric G

      Yes Joe, you can create life from genetic material. It's called cloning. They teach that in Science class.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Joe conic

      Can any of you deny that at conception the whole entire gene pool to create that human being is not present even from a strictly scientific standpoint- never mind my mars philosophies.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • jungleboo

      Mars Philosophy: So what all the DNA is present. Who are you to require that a woman bear a child because she rolled in the hay with the farmhand? It's none of your damm business. Run your OWN life, and leave others private lives to themselves. Where do you get off requiring others to goose step to your personal ideas of the meaning of the Universe??

      October 31, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • jungleboo

      A woman sheds her eggs every month. A man juices himself every day. You mean to tell me that the mere "coincidence" of the two of them rolling for a brief moment in time forces the two of them into parenthood that they do not wish to accept the morning after? Get out of my bedroom. Just because the embryo is conceived does not make it the head of the household.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Joe conic

      Ok so go clone yourself a few million times and find out what happens to the population on earth. But seriously my friend, unique humans like yourself cannot be created with out both components of the formula, that being sperm and egg unless you want a whole world full of man made clones running around- that would make for a really interesting gene pool made up of only you. By the way are you saying that humans can be cloned from sperm cells or a women's egg cell alone? perhaps you need to go back to science class. And Stick on the topic bud...it's abortion not cloning.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Joe conic

      Jungle boo with all due respect sista, the aborted life has some rights to and I'm not the one that gave it those rights- you got me confused with something else and I'm not telling anyone what to do- do what ever floats your boat. I'm just saying that at the end of the day and from a scientific standpoint the full potentiality of a unique human life is being destroyed no matter how you slice it honey.

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

      Yes, Joe, and every acorn does not produce and oak tree and every geranium seed does not make a new red flower. You are holding humans to an impossible standard. Impossible because it would essentially put women in burka zoos as procreating machines, watched over by authorities to make certain her oh-so-sacred duties are not being toyed with. Don't cross that line, Joe. You are not the god police, and your science platform begs the question of the spontaneity of Nature itself.

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

      YOU began the discussion of "potentiality". YOU decided where to draw the line of the potentiality. If yOU start the subject, you better be prepared toi deal with the consequences. Obviously you don't have the science background to discuss the PROCESS of fertilization. Where EXACTLY in the DNA replication PROCESS are you saying it becomes human life, and STOPS being "potential". Where EXACTLY did it BECOME "potential". Idiot.

      October 31, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • realbuckyball

      Clones will never be the same. More ignorance. Quantum Mechanics, and random motion will always make different outcomes from the EXACT same DNA. This dude knows no Genetics, Probability of Biology.

      October 31, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  2. The Master

    I think most humans should have been aborted.

    October 31, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  3. vtguy

    I wonder how it feels being on your death bed knowing you were a baby killer?

    October 31, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • want2believe

      Well if that's how you feel I hope you consider it every time you have "vtguy's happy time"...

      October 31, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  4. steve

    Intelligent article. Good job. Thank you for explaining how people have changed the meaning of the Bible for political purposes.

    October 31, 2012 at 8:36 am |
  5. Louis

    Are the evangelicals of today active in blood drives and organ donation too? Those save lives as well, and churches may hold the occasional blood drive, but are Christians as politically active in making blood and organ donation mandatory? If it's all about "saving lives" then who amongst them would hesitate to have their organs harvested, even their spare kidneys and bone marrow while they're alive?

    There may be a slight chance of complications setting in, but not much more than a woman has in carrying a pregnancy to term and giving birth. Women die doing this every year, yet these Christians don't think they ought to have the right to choose this risk for themselves. Would they all be willing to give up control of their organs and tissues?

    October 31, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • Anthony T

      2 of the 3 biggest US disaster relief efforts are run by Evangelicals; so yes they are

      October 31, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • Anthony T

      I'm assuming that like the Red Cross that the NAMB and Salavation Army have a large part in collecting blood for these disasters of course

      October 31, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • ialsoagree

      Anthony T, if the Catholic Church sold the Vatican, they would raise enough money to feed, cloth, house, and teach to read/write every human being on the planet. In addition, they'd have enough money left over to remain the richest organization on the face of the planet.

      Sorry, but the comparatively insignificant charity they provide is insulting to humanity, not helpful. Religious organizations should be ashamed.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Anthony T

      According to Barna reports, Born Again Evangelicals make up 7% of the US population. 7% of the country donating 60% of the aid work isn't half bad wouldn't you say? I would agree about Catholicism though

      October 31, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Joe conic

      you need to go back to finance class brutha from another mutha.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:23 am |
    • Louis

      Anthony T
      Disaster relief offers an opportunity to for evangelical organizations to proselytize, and I question how many would bother to help out if they didn't have this opportunity. I have the highest respect for the Salvation Army, but then again they aren't all hard line evangelicals. The Red Cross would be an example of a secular charity.

      Now, what is your opinion regarding the Christian obligation to save as many lives as they can by donating as much blood and organs as they are capable?

      October 31, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  6. Montrose

    There is no way to get the writer's interpretation to Exodus 21: 22-24 (NIV): 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" Clearly the Bible states that during an altercation if a pregnant women is seriously injured and the life of the unborn baby is lost then the penalty is life for life. The unborn child is considered a life. Irregardless of how one feels about abortion the writers idea that there view isn't Biblical is defeated by the very scripture he gives but conveniently doesnt give the actual verse to.

    October 31, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • realbuckyball

      Have you ever considered an English class ?

      October 31, 2012 at 8:34 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.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • want2believe

      So you're going to refute the author's "interpretation" of this verse with your own interpretation? Which depending on what translation of the bible you read it does not explicitly say if that serious injury is in regards to the fetus or the mother? Regardless of whatever interpretation you take away from it, the bible is saying take a life for a life. No one seems to have an issue with the bible yet again instructing to kill...

      October 31, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • realbuckyball

      The Bible is irrelevant. This is not a Theocracy.
      The ONLY reason the laws are in the Bible is because the authors appropriated them from their culture. There is no reason 2500 year old non-scientific culture has to drive human decision now.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  7. Exodus 21:22–24??????

    It doesnt say anything like what you interpreted in Exodus 21:22–24
    maybe you should research your facts first........................................

    October 31, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  8. Eric

    A very interesting article.

    October 31, 2012 at 8:25 am |
  9. oldbones24

    That's right keep us barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen.. and of course, submissive to men. Jerks!

    October 31, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  10. Tim

    The real evil is inherent in these religious zealot's desire to control the actions of others. You must regard with skepticism, anyone who believes in a mythical being with superpowers who lives in the sky

    October 31, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  11. Bob

    This is a religious discussion and does not belong in political discussion at all – unless you are the Taliban

    October 31, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  12. jungleboo

    Think: A miscarried fetus is not given a funeral, nor an obituary, nor a procession, nor a tomb, nor a grave marker by ANY society or culture on Earth. Those who wish to force their politico-religious beliefs would do well to look at these facts and draw the more rational conclusion. Pre-birth issues are solely the responsibility of the woman who is carrying the fetus and the doctor who is guiding her treatment. Everyone else, STAY OUT OF IT. There are more pressing ways to spend your own life, and I suggest you get on with it.

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

      Jungleboo- not all you state is true. My mother miscarried a child early in her pregnancy (not aborted, but miscarried, as you've stated) and the little one was buried with a short funeral. I know of many others who've lost their child during pregnancy and had a funeral, a gravemarker etc.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Anthony T

      First of all, we don't have funerals because we don't personally have a relationship with the child. Funerals actually though are not only common but sometimes obligatory for still births or other late term deaths; here in Kentucky a stillborn is leggally pronounced dead. Secondly, your response begs the question; perhaps we should. My wife and I actually had a memorial for a child we lost in the womb and probably 50 people from our church and my grad school attended the service.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:35 am |
    • jungleboo

      Sorry folks, I had edited out the most important part for the sake of brevity, which is a miscarriage of a first trimester , early second trimester, when the fetus is too small to be collected. I was wrong not to have included that. The point being that early miscarriages and early abortions are to be expected on equal terms. I was not referring to miscarriages when the fetus is fully formed. My bad, but I still would never dream of interfering with a mother's private (and very emotional) life.

      October 31, 2012 at 9:01 am |

    Someone should have aborted the author.

    October 31, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • MaryJ

      What are you, 12?

      October 31, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  14. bcooper

    people that have no comprehension of Christianity and have no idea what Christians actually think and get their thinking from the newsrooms should never attempt to write on these type of subjects.

    October 31, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • jungleboo


      October 31, 2012 at 8:15 am |
    • want2believe

      Oh so someone who grew up in an evangelical family and who then attended Yale Divinity School isn't Christian enough for ya? Yeah that took all of 5 seconds to find about the author.

      I love people who question the comprehension of someone else's faith before they have likely ever questioned their own...

      October 31, 2012 at 8:24 am |
  15. Betty

    First, evangelicals are so heterogeneous that you could find any kind of statement about anything by some scholar or church leader in the past–that's a long way from proving that ordinary evangelicals believed it en masse. Secondly, even if a majority of evangelicals ever believed that life begins only at birth, that all changed with ultra-sound technology.

    Also for people who say that Christians don't take in foster kids or adopt...well, they could always do better, I guess, but in my experience there are lots of Christian families involved with organizations like Lifeline and Sav A Life, which do just that. I have friends who have taken in ten children or more.

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

      Are they active in blood drives and organ donation too? Those save lives as well. Are Christians as politically active in making blood and organ donation mandatory? They are supposedly "pro-life", right?

      October 31, 2012 at 8:23 am |
  16. richunix

    I do agree that abortion used as a form of birth control is wrong. However the religious whack-jobs do need to stay out “women’s” lives. This is a hard and personal choice they have to make and they DO NOT need some Shaman from some make-believe deity to tell them want to do. With all the pain and suffering that goes on in this world, we need to focus our energies on making this a better place.

    October 31, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  17. Reality

    Leaving god (or the gods) out of it:-->>>>


    The reality of se-x, contraception, abortion and STD/HIV control: – from a guy who enjoys intelligent se-x-
    Note: Some words hyphenated to defeat an obvious word filter. ...


    The failures of the widely used birth "control" methods i.e. the Pill (8.7% actual failure rate) and male con-dom (17.4% actual failure rate) have led to the large rate of abortions and S-TDs in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the Pill or co-ndoms properly and/or use safer methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs.- Failure rate statistics provided by the Gut-tmacher Inst-itute. Unfortunately they do not give the statistics for doubling up i.e. using a combination of the Pill and a condom.

    Added information before making your next move:

    from the CDC-2006

    "Se-xually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain S-TDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psy-ch-ological consequences of S-TDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs as-sociated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars."

    And from:

    Consumer Reports, January, 2012

    "Yes, or-al se-x is se-x, and it can boost cancer risk-

    Here's a crucial message for teens (and all se-xually active "post-teeners": Or-al se-x carries many of the same risks as va-ginal se-x, including human papilloma virus, or HPV. And HPV may now be overtaking tobacco as the leading cause of or-al cancers in America in people under age 50.

    "Adolescents don’t think or-al se-x is something to worry about," said Bonnie Halpern-Felsher professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. "They view it as a way to have intimacy without having 's-ex.'" (It should be called the Bill Clinton Syndrome !!)

    Obviously, political leaders in both parties, Planned Parenthood, parents, the "stupid part of the USA" and the educational system have failed miserably on many fronts.

    The most effective forms of contraception, ranked by "Perfect use":

    – (Abstinence, 0% failure rate)
    – (Masturbation, mono or mutual, 0% failure rate)

    Followed by:

    One-month injectable and Implant (both at 0.05 percent)
    Vasectomy and IUD (Mirena) (both at 0.1 percent)
    The Pill, Three-month injectable, and the Patch (all at 0.3 percent)
    Tubal sterilization (at 0.5 percent)
    IUD (Copper-T) (0.6 percent)
    Periodic abstinence (Post-ovulation) (1.0 percent)
    Periodic abstinence (Symptothermal) and Male condom (both at 2.0 percent)
    Periodic abstinence (Ovulation method) (3.0 percent)

    October 31, 2012 at 8:00 am |
    • richunix

      I do enjoy reading your comments.....the plot thickens...

      October 31, 2012 at 8:04 am |
  18. Johnni

    Right on, Oakspar!

    October 31, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  19. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    Mr. Dudely "thu-mpted" Exodus 21: 22-24 as "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.”

    Hmmm ???

    Injuring a pregnant woman (and her womb-baby) as per Exodus 21: 22-24 does not warrant significant punishment???

    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 7:58 am |
  20. dave

    Strange that some are able to see that we are all so tightly bound to one another, yet there is a belief that one individuals actions do not affect another. What wicked beliefs we hold when we want to retain our own selfish desires. Justification at any cost is still detrimental to society as a whole.

    October 31, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • oldbones24

      and God gave us free will to chose for ourselves, who are you to deny God gift?

      October 31, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • Mark

      Your god doesn't exist oldbones24.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:26 am |
    • Louis

      Yes, it's amazing the number of people Christians are willing to step over, and the weird things they are willing to accept, just to get that selfish desire they call "Salvation".

      October 31, 2012 at 8:27 am |
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