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. Bible IS unambiguous

    Out of curiosity, I found that Exodus text in a few different English versions of the BIble (you can search various editions online) and scripture is not "unambiguous". That passage doesn't indicate if the fetus dies- losing fruit, giving premature birth.... I'm not a Bible Scholar but it sure looks to me like they're differentiating between premature birth caused by personal injury and subsequent death by personal injury. Like, if you pushed me down the stairs and caused me to go into labor and my baby survived, that's punishable by fine or whatever my husband deems appropriate. If you push me down the stairs, and I die and/or my fetus dies, that's punishable by death (eye for eye, tooth for tooth). Look up Exodus and decide for yourself. Besides, Christians go by Jesus and the New Testament, not really the old. The Old comes in handy when people are trying to defend against something they don't like.

    October 31, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      So you're already pleading for mercy for a person that could enjoy his killin'? I've heard women JOKE about having an abortion, actually more than one. You get hard fast.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      BTW, her ex was an MD.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Bible IS unambiguous,

      yes it unambiguously means still born. Here's Wycliffe:

      22 If men chide, and a man smiteth a woman with child, and soothly he maketh the child dead-born, but the woman liveth over that smiting, he shall be subject to the harm (he shall be subject to a fine), as much as the woman’s husband asketh (for), and as the judges deem (appropriate).

      THe older the translation, the clearer the message is that this passage refers to miscarriage, not premature birth.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  2. Mark

    Couldn't put it any better than Russ Lee did in his song "Living Life Upside Down":

    John has a new way of looking at life
    He’s tired of his job, his kids and his wife
    He says the secret to his success
    Was in leaving and finding himself
    Now he’s someone to somebody else.
    And you say we’ve risen to a new age of truth
    You’re calling it a spiritual Godly pursuit
    But I say, I say,

    What if we’ve fallen to the bottom of a well
    Thinking we’ve risen to the top of a mountain
    What if we’re knocking at the gates of hell
    Thinking we’re heaven bound
    What if we spend our lives thinking of ourselves
    When we should have been thinking of each other
    What if we reach up and touch the ground
    To find we’re living life upside down.

    We’ve got a program for saving the earth
    While unborn children are denied their right to birth
    One baby’s blessed, another cursed
    Have we made this world better or worse
    Now that the life of a tree comes first
    And you say we’ve risen to a new age of light
    You’re telling me what used to be wrong is now right
    But I say, I say,

    What if we’re living, what if we’re living,
    What if we’re living life upside down.

    October 31, 2012 at 12:03 pm |


    October 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Sawber

      That is stupid.

      That is like saying those without kids have no business interfering in cases of child abuse.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • ProLife

      Don't forget that men participated in the pregnancies and have a responsibility in it. Unless you remove fatherhood from pregnancy, it is an issue that concerns both men and women, Evelyn.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      You been an antichrist long? The two are one flesh and the one child(normally) is the result.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • Geoff


      Who told you this was a woman's choice or a man's choice? We certainly have a right to choose what we do with our own bodies but who told you the choice you're making is pertaining to your body? Your "choice" is being made over another person's body. True enough, that body is growing and developing inside you and, up to a certain point it could not survive without you, but it is not you. It is a distinct being; a child. It won't be able to clearly articulate it's own will for quite some time but rest assured, it has one.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  4. Pete Clarke

    Peoples beliefs are a matter of personal choice and my belief is that the woman and her doctor should choose. Not the evangelical right, or any religion who want to project their values into government. If you believe birth starts at conception that is your right and if you don't that is also your right. Just one of many issues that divide us as a nation. At the end of the day as a nation we are still free to choose. I would hate to have my life ruled by the Jerry Falwells's of the world.

    October 31, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Sawber

      i know a guy who does not believe a baby achieve human status until it is

      A) wanted/loved
      B) has self awareness.

      He honestly believes it is not a big deal to kill a kid even up to one year after birth. So are you comfortable allowing him to act on that or are you going to be judgmental of his beliefs and try to control him?

      October 31, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • ProLife

      Laws are governed by reason and social justice. You would want to maintain laws preventing me from taking your life. Similarly, there are (now) fully grown men and women who actually survived their mothers' attempt to abort them when they were in their womb. I've met two of them. You can imagine how they feel about abortion and their rights.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  5. Blanchjoe

    The Elephant in the Room on this issue of Abortion is that it implies a specfic status to Human Life ( as opposed to all other Life ), which is not supported in the Second Testament. While the First Testament Genisis 1:26 "...and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground...", does No imply or state a higher Valuaion, just a great level of responsibility. Indeed the same individuals who argue about the rights of one developing Zygote or Fetus, has No moral problems supporting policies of wars and the death on a vast scale. Additioanly such individuals have No moral issues with the death and destruction of significant other Living Beings we share this God Given planet with. If one assumes that a Human life is worth more than any other life, then it creates a philosophical postion where the entire destruction of species and ecosystems is acceptable based upon a Moral distinction that may not be supportable.

    October 31, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  6. Liz

    The focus should be on ending poverty, not bringing more children to suffer from it.

    October 31, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      LBJ had your ideas with his war on poverty, but he's dead and I wonder who is enjoying his BIG Mexican ranch.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • ProLife

      Thus, any time someone suffers is a justification for eliminating or preventing life. In this case taking a (preborn) life. If we stretch your reasoning a little bit, you also support euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Some have taken your argument and justified genocide.

      Poverty or any suffering is never justification for taking or ending life. Unfortunately, our culture has become more and more materialist (and not in a shopping mall-sense) that people can only see what is in front of them and not what is beyond.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Liz

      @ProLife – Similarly, I could "stretch" your argument to mean every month when a woman bleeds she's killing children. But that would be rediculous, wouldn't it? When the religious right is out there with signs and chants in a political movement supporting children – their health, education, and wellbeing – I'll respect their arguments. Until then, all I see is the hypocrisy of caring about children only until birth.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Sawber

      @ Liz

      You could make that argument only if you ignore science and the definition of life. Eggs cells do not reproduce and grow without fertilization.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
  7. Sawber

    The only biological difference between a 26-week preemie and a 26-week fetus in the womb is its life-support system.

    If we start basing humanity or personhood on life support systems, we can suddenly start declaring those with pacemakers to be non-human.

    The real test of humanity is to take the life-support system out of the picture. Eventually, technology will allow us to grow a human entirely outside the womb. At what point does that human life get rights as a human? That same time for granting rights and protections should be being used now.

    If we are relying on the Bible for science issues, we need to us 3, not 3.14159...., as the value for pi.

    October 31, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  8. Geoff

    I would like to point out that the following assertion is not entirely accurate:

    "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."

    The Church most certainly stands opposed to abortion and always has but citing "mid-19th century Church doctrines" makes it sound like the Church's opposition is a relatively recent development. I'd like to point out that Christian opposition to abortion is as old as Christianity itself. Here are some examples:

    The author of the Didache gives us an excellent example of how early Christians understood the commandment against murder: "The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child" (Didache 2:1–2 [A.D. 70]).

    Furthermore, the early Church father, Tertullian writes: ""In our case, a murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from the other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed" (Apology 9:8 [A.D. 197])."

    Note well that both of these examples date from the 1st and 2nd century AD. There are many more that I could cite throughout history. To couch Christian opposition (even Roman Catholic Christian's opposition) to abortion in terms of relatively recent developments is to make the same mistake that many Protestant Christian's made in the cherry picked examples quoted in this opinion. Reasonable people (the evangelical Christians you're discussing) who were not aware of the consistent historical opposition to abortion learned the fullness of the truth of God's teaching against murder and they correctly revised their views.

    October 31, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      where does it say that Catholic teachings on abortion are recent?

      October 31, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Geoff

      @I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      The author says: "Drawing on mid-19th century Church doctrines". True enough that the subject of that sentence is "organizations like the National Right to Life Committee" but my point is that it makes it sound like the Church had only begun teaching opposition to abortion in the mid-19th century... That's about 1800 years off...

      October 31, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      it merely says that the "National Right to Life Committee" drew on on 19th century doctrines, which may well be perfectly accurate.

      It in no way misleads or rejects the idea that Catholic teachings on the matter can be drawn back to perhaps the 3rd century.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
    • getbent

      So your argument is that the validity of Religious Dogma is determined by how long it's been codified?

      By that logic, Snow White is more real than Snoopy.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  9. ReDUMBplicans

    And yet these "pro-lifers," who by the way should be renamed "anti-intellectuals," will be the first in line to vote for the death penalty. Hypocrites!!!! I am for a woman’s right to choose and I am in favor of the death penalty because I believe we should be able to get rid of future and current republicans LoL

    October 31, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Sawber

      It is sad that some people cannot comprehend the difference between INNOCENT life versus those who have demonstrated they have lost their humanity via their actions.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • um...

      The only problem with that notion is that the person on deathrow already made a choice to be there... nice one by try again.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  10. Pliny

    Dear god. Help me to find the truth and protect me from those that believe they have.

    October 31, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Eric G

      It's called verifiiable evidence, and it does not require a god to obtain it. If you seek truth, you need verifiable evidence. If you do not require verifiable evidence, you do not seek truth, you seek opinion.

      October 31, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  11. dd

    Alligators protect their fertilized eggs with their lives. Human beings can be jailed for destroying Sea Turtle Eggs! Liberals want to indiscriminately kill their own offspring in the womb. That puts liberals below alligators and turtles on the evolutionary scale. An alien life form would probably hunt liberals as food. They probably would taste like chicken.

    October 31, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      No. Liberals do not want to kill the unborn. They want women to have the freedom to decide when they will reproduce.

      October 31, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • ReligionIsBS

      If alligators and turtles are further up the evolutionary scale than me, then why do I wear crock-skin loafers and eat turtle soup? And why would a conservative use evolution as an argument? Thanks for the LOL.

      October 31, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • whitepine

      100,000 people have been killed by guns in the USA this year. What about mourning for those lives? For a country who loves their guns and is willing to send their soldiers into any country having a conflict to kill and destory people and towns, this conversation about abortion and importance of human life is absurd.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • Merry Prankster

      Like chicken, but not an egg?? : )

      October 31, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Sawber


      85% of statistics on the Internet are made up. Including yours.
      It is far less than that. About 40K die in automobile accidents each year and guns deaths is well below that. Check the CDC and get yourself informed.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Merry Prankster

      ReligionIsBS you crack me up!

      October 31, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  12. Donna

    I agree that the organized movement for this is only ~ 30 years old. However, I disagree with the the authors' intrepretation of the passage is Exodus 21:22-24. It clearly states that if the child born prematurely lives then no harm should come to the one who caused it. The last part of it says that it that is not the case, then the one who caused it is to be treated the same. A life for a life, an eye for an eye etc.

    October 31, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      only in very modern translations (since 1974). Look at any translation made before the 1970s and you will see that the passage refers to 'miscarriage' not "premature birth".

      A little biblical revisionism in your absolute and inerrant word of God.

      October 31, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  13. s~

    Weren't we told that men shouldn't have opinions about abortion?
    I guess Jonathan Dudley missed the memo.

    October 31, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  14. san

    Weird article. Is a Christian expected to follow the Jewish texts? I know I don't.

    October 31, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      show me a serious Evangelical Protestant who doesn't cleave to the old testament.

      October 31, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • why2

      So you ignore everything not in the New Testament? That's weird. So you don't follow the Ten Commandments? You don't read Psalms or Proverbs?

      October 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Joseph Galia

      Yes. Our Lord Jesus Christ clearly said, in Matthew 5: "18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
      19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

      October 31, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  15. Doc Vestibule

    One question for you, yes or no:

    Is a blastocyst a fetus?

    October 31, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      Three questions for you, docster. You start.

      October 31, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  16. tkindsm

    Killing fully formed child in the womb is just sick. It doesn't have anything to do with religion either. I'm not religious and i still believe in things like not killing another human. Anyone who thinks the baby isn't feeling things is way off. The baby can hear and feel pain well before they come out into the harsh world.

    October 31, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • s~

      You should know by now that everything is blamed on religion.
      If you're for life it's because you're a stupid religious person
      If you're for home schooling it's because you're a stupid religious person.
      If you're against gay marriage it's because you're a stupid religious person.
      If you think that maybe there is a higher being it's because you're a stupid religious person.

      See.? simple.

      October 31, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • why2

      Killing a fully formed baby is sick, but fully formed doesn't happen until later in the third trimester. I agree that unless there is a serious health concern, abortion should not occur past the first trimester, but rarely is a woman who is pregnant with a child with a serious health concern allowed to go into the third trimester without being told this (I am saying serious like trisomy 13 serious). Further, if a woman's life is at risk and she is in the third trimester, they will deliver the baby. My daughter went through a serious health scare and they delivered my granddaughter prematurely so that my daughter could have a life saving operation. All are fine, but if she had been in her first trimester, the baby could not have survived outside the womb nor through the surgery. Do you allow both to die?

      October 31, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  17. John

    The United Nations Convention on the Right of a Child have put forth laws that protect the rights of an unborn child against a mother who denies the rights of that child from her abusing alcohol and or drugs while she is pregnant. We have laws that protect the rights of unborn Eagles from being destroyed. What value does an eagle have over a human? If we do not protect the unborn, which will protect us when our citizens pass laws in our later years that say because we are old we have no value any more so we can be put to death. It might be that if we are a Jew, Christian, Muslim, or even an atheist, we do not have any value and we can be eliminated. It might be that we are black, white, or any other race that some deem us to be of no value and can be eliminated.
    If an unborn child can be protected from an alcohol or drug-abusing mother, why can a unborn child be protected from a mother that wants to kill it or even a society that wants it dead.
    Is abortion just birth control; if so then elimination of the unwanted, aged, poor, those of different race or religion is population control. (Adolph Hitler) Remember him?

    October 31, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  18. Henry Reitzug MD

    As evangelicals we are indeed submitting to the "dictates of timeless Biblical truths." A theologian's mis-interpretation of Exodus 21:22-24 in 1968 does not change what it said then, or now. Please read it again. It clearly includes the unborn child in the protection of life from injury by an offender.
    By the way, I witnessed a number of discussions on abortion in the mid-1960's, and the position espoused by Christianity Today in 1968 was far from the consensus view then. Making issues of private morality (i.e. abortion, marriage) a matter of public policy and sanctions, will without fail politicize and polarize the issue.

    October 31, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • tony

      It's a subsection of the various ways murdering your slave, vs. injuring him/her are legal, or require monetary compensation

      October 31, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  19. Janis

    Everyone is so angry. That is so sad, why is everyone always so angry on these things. Thank God for the love I felt for my children when they were conceived. (oops I said thank God). I was given the priviledge to carry them and protect them until the day they arrived. The world we live in is becoming so selfish, so sad. A youngster writing big stuff about things he has never experienced. Big words. You will write differently when you are older and realize how wise time makes you, the things you come to appreciate, the going beyond yourself. I am so sorry for all the sad, angry, "knowing" people in this world. I don't ever want to live as angry as the folks posting here. Out, now.

    October 31, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  20. Huebert

    Anti-choice proponents, seem to think that every child is wanted. Unfortunately this is untrue. Only unwanted, or medically untenable, pregnancies end with an abortion. If Roe v. Wade were over turned there would be a massive increase in the number of unwanted children. I don't understand how anyone could support bringing more unwanted children into the world.

    October 31, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • s~

      Anti-choice? nice term.....

      For the record abortion isn't a big issue for me. But Anti-choice....hmmm nice...

      October 31, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • s~

      Oh, and who else do we not want?

      October 31, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      Fallopian tube spigots for all girls under 18 who aren't married. That would give them the choice they pretend to have now.

      October 31, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Huebert


      I get where you are coming from. But the problem is that you are forcing someone to undergo a medical procedure, possibly against their will. To me, this is not morally acceptable. Abortion and birth control are decisions that should be made on an individual level, not a societal level.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      The culture doesn't mind when it involves circu msission.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Huebert


      The decision to circu.mcise is made by the parents, not the government.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
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