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. Lamb of dog

    How interesting it is, that people who believe in God, will work so hard to pervert God’s Word for their own purposes.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  2. notea4me

    Wouldn't vasectomies be a major evangelical sin? We will have to stop medical coverage for them also. And boycott hospitals that do the procedure so men can only get then from planned parenthood....

    October 31, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  3. lostisland

    Let me put this in perspective for you. A woman can choose to have birth – or not – it's that simple. It's her body, it's her choice. It doesn't matter when life starts. It just doesn't. What does matter is what the woman chooses – and she should be free to choose. The end. Got it?

    October 31, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
    • lostisland

      And one other thing to those of you struggling to understand when 'life' starts – it starts the moment sperm delivers it's genetic payload to the egg and if all the biologics are working properly – the egg performs it first division. Understood? And – it's still the woman's choice as to whether or not she should give birth or have an abortion. It's her call – the end.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
    • Fred

      The woman is not deciding to end her own life. She is deciding to end someone else's life.
      That's the part that the Pro-Death people just don't get.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      It's true, it's true! Big Daddy usurper sayz so.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • little timmy

      Yes they are tough decisions to make for a mother, Fred. But that's all part of being a complete woman – that's what my mom says. You don't want to leave those types of decisions to the government or some crazy religious person – they would sell you a goat if they could.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  4. Innerspace is God's place while outerspace is for the human race.

    Dumb buildings are dimly lit structures,,,

    1Cr 3:9 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, [ye are] God's building..

    October 31, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  5. JS

    Many biologists, geneticists, and physicians agree that biological life begins at conception.4 The Scriptures clearly add to that foundation by teaching that God places value on unborn life a sacred (see for instance Exod. 4:11; Job 10:8-12; Ps. 139:13-16; Jer. 1:5; Matt. 1:18; and Luke 1:39-44). Waltke summarizes an insightful study of the Scriptures relating to the nature of fetal life by concluding that "on both theological and exegetical grounds. . . the body, the life, and the moral faculty of man originate simultaneously at conception."5

    October 31, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • NoTheism

      None of that proves the validity of the claims of scripture... and even less so the existence of a god

      October 31, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  6. ug

    When life starts at conception you mean.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  7. Robert Samuels

    If we are really going to get serious about the abortion debate as the author suggests, I suggest he stop promoting the fiction that only evangelical Christians oppose abortion. The fact is that a significant majority of Americans oppose abortion regardless of their religious beliefs or even if they aren't religious. You do not have to be an evangelical Christian, or even a Christian of any stripe to oppose abortion.

    October 31, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
    • pam

      I agree, they keep trying to spin this into a women's rights issue and how republicans don't care about women. The truth is that most women are against abortion anyway.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • lostisland

      Regarding "The fact is that a significant majority of Americans oppose abortion" – well, a significant number of Americans are fairly stupid in case you hadn't noticed.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Jeff

      Roberty, you are wrong. Yes, I'm sure there are many non "evangelical" christians that don't believe in abortion, however for the apst 30 years, the numbers have remained the same. 2/3 of the american public believe that abortion should be legal and safe. You are wrong.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • Fred

      If you are so sure that Robert is wrong, why is it that the Pro-Death people are trying to avoid a Supreme Court showdown on the subject? It's because they know they will lose and Roe vs. Wade will be overturned.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • little timmy

      Fred said " Pro-Death people " That's a laugh. Fred likes to scare people just like Fox News. You can't trust someone who labels another view incorrectly. Bull is pretty obvious.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  8. Ordinary Average American

    I’m sitting here reading the writings of a kid who knows how to research on Google and knows how to write essays well. The real Bible experts are going to have a field day with this Mr. Dudley and this article.
    How interesting it is, that people who do not believe in God, will work so hard to pervert God’s Word for their own purposes.
    Try THIS scripture on for size, and see if it fits.
    (Psalm 139) :
    13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, 16 your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. 17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you. 19 If only you would slay the wicked, O God! Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!

    There certainly are a lot of bloodthirsty men out there, aren’t there? They just don’t seem to be able to kill enough babies fast enough.

    (John 10:10) The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. Jesus was really into LIFE. –And how are the pre-born going to have life and have it more abundantly if the mother’s boyfriend tricks her into aborting it?

    October 31, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • lostisland

      Are you trying to say that more experienced kooks can come to different conclusions? How comforting is THAT?

      October 31, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • heliocracy

      Your example in Psalm 39 does not prove that life begins at conception. It's a belief that God created the person speaking...the creation of a person includes the time in the womb, but that does not mean that it's a person before that process is complete, at birth.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • heliocracy

      Sorry, Psalm 139. The fact is that if this were 1970, you'd be arguing just as hard that a fetus is not a person. People like you, and most of the religious, simply refuse to think for yourselves, and believe any nonsense that others tell you, nonsense that (surprise surprise) happens to support their economic well-being to have you believe it.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Fred

      What this kid got wrong is the concept that Christians in 1970 were in favor of abortion and didn't consider fetuses as
      living humans.
      Wrong! The vast majority of evangelicals were opposed to abortion then and now. He's just wrong.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
    • little timmy

      sorry to tell your Fred, but fetuses are not yet people. they are completely at the mercy of their mother anyway and whatever she chooses to do with her pregnancy. that's how it should be.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  9. Lamb of dog

    My prayer to God.
    "God if you do exist can you please smite down the blasphemous followers of yours who would attempt to speak on your behalf. Thanks god".

    October 31, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  10. Sane Person

    Lets just do abortions god's way, straight from the bible;

    Psalm 137:9. Happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

    Who needs a doctor when you can bash their head on a rock and call it a day?

    October 31, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  11. kevin

    Jonathan Dudley takes a couple of articles from old magazines and extrapolates that the Christian dogma on abortion to that point was life begin at birth. Really? This is the bane of the internet – any yahoo with a computer can type any opinion they want, post it, and no matter how obscure the writer is or flawed their logic, if the opinion has an agenda, it will be picked up by a "news" organization with the same agenda (like CNN, MSNBC, or FOX) and touted it as "the truth".

    October 31, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
    • Kevin

      But what about the opinions of those who are old enough to know this is true? Having grown up in a very conservative Mississippi southern Baptist church in the 60s and 70s, I can tell you that abortion wasn't even remotely an issue. No one protested outside the abortion clinic. Heck, we had witches and devils at our church Halloween party. Religion has been hijacked by fundamentalists who have a very twisted view on Biblical teachings. Should we work to reduce abortion? Absolutely. Should we criminalize late term abortions? Probably not but it should at least be a discussion. Should an egg and sperm be granted full human rights the moment they join? Have you completely lost your mind?

      October 31, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
    • Fred

      Kevin, I'm one of those people old enough to know that it is NOT true.
      Abortion was not acceptable then or now to evangelicals.
      Your church may have been different, but it would be the exception by a mile.

      October 31, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  12. Reasonably

    Happy Halloween, everybody!

    October 31, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  13. Marnie Bryson

    Jeremiah 1:5 "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart..." i don't care what you believe but the author is incorrect that it doesn't say anything about this in the bible. obviously if god already knew you then you are "alive" and "a soul" . I'm not leaning either way...just showing in print something that negates what he said. i like for my articles to be fact-checked.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      If your sky fairy is omnipotent then he knows the future right. So he knows people if they have been born yet or not.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Reasonably

      You should pop on over to Fox News then. Fair and balanced – they report and you decide!

      October 31, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Also maybe god wants those babies to die. Who are we to decide gods will?

      October 31, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
    • Katie

      That doesn't say anything about having a soul...

      October 31, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
    • Snow

      jeramiah.. the crazier one even in those crazy days when people believed in anything from rain being god's pee to earth being flat .. and you want to base your belief and morality on that dude?

      Also, he was talking about himself then.. as a prophet.. not regular folks..

      thirdly, are you saying that bible says the life begins BEFORE conception? who is the kooky one now?

      October 31, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • JohnC

      That passage says nothing about when the soul is joined with the body. It could just mean God always knew you would eventually be. Or maybe you existed as a soul awaiting to eventually be in a body. Exactly which body and when isn't stated. If it HAD to be exactly that body that was conceived then one could go further and say that a specific sperm and egg were sacred because they would eventually join to form that body with that soul.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  14. FloydZepp

    Next thing you know evangelicals will want to ban wart removers because they kill living cells.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Huebert

      Don't give them Ideas.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  15. FloydZepp

    Evangelicalism is not healthy for children and other living things

    October 31, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Reasonably

      Me? I don't believe in isms. Isms, in my opinion are not good. A man should not believe in isms, he should believe in himself.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Snow

      anti-ism-ism? 🙂

      October 31, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  16. Lamb of dog

    Brainwashing is not healthy for children

    October 31, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
  17. FloydZepp

    Evangelicals don't care what happens to the fetus once it hits fresh oxygen – as long as it doesn't end up on welfare.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    October 31, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • NoTheism

      I wouldn't know, I don't waste my time praying.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Mike

      Perhaps you could stay on topic? For once?

      October 31, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • Abortion is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things ,

      October 31, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Joel

      Prove it.

      October 31, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but your assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module, the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book can help you:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...
      by the Alzheimer's Disease Society

      October 31, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
    • George

      No it doesn't. Prayer has never helped.

      October 31, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  19. bergus

    if life begins at conception, then death begins at the first cancerous tumor. i'll be expecting my check from my life insurance shortly.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Dying begins at birth.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Huebert

      @lamb of dog

      No. Dying begins at conception.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • truth be told

      When you deny God your soul dies, your body will not be far behind, sadly both body and soul will spend an eternity knowing exactly what you threw away.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Reasonably

      True fact: The leading cause of death is life. Life is 100% fatal. So really, we should ban it along with DDT and BPAs in plastics.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  20. gf

    I'm not sure what this article is all about. To me it seems a bit out of context, just trying to stir up arguments between people. So what what some people believed back in the 60's, what do they believe now. That's the issue we currently face and the problems arising from that.

    Even if somebody mentioned it then that the fetus isn't a life until birth, even liberals generally don't agree with that today as many (all?) state laws would prosecute a man if he hit a woman causing the fetus to die, charging that as manslaughter, at least past the point of viability because the fetus would have survived outside the womb. Conservatives though would probably say the man should be prosecuted at any stage for the death of the fetus.

    I'm a little critical of Dudley who picks one guy from a seminary and quotes him, from a magazine of all things, and then puts that up almost as if that's the position of this famously conservative seminary. One guy does not speak for many, unless it's been agreed upon that the many agree with that one guy and allow him to speak for them ... and so an interview with a magazine? So the whole premise of this article was based on that one man, or something else? Come on, I was looking forward to reading this and see the change in views but I've seen nothing except a pre-determined conclusion that seemed to sway his "research".

    Please Dudley, do a follow-up article with something more substantial. I'd be interested in reading that.

    October 31, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      the point of the article is related to this comment:

      "So what what some people believed back in the 60's, what do they believe now."

      Evangelical Protestants claim absolute, immutable, unchanging biblically-based morality in a "this is what we believe and it was ever so" manner.

      The author points out that the Evangelical position on abortion has changed. This is irrefutably true.

      In 1971 the SBC decided:

      "Be it further RESOLVED, That we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as râpe, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother"

      This is not the position we hear evangelicals take today.

      Also the choice of Exodus 21:22–24 is very illustrative. You will find that modern translations (after the 1970s) reword the reference to miscarriage to premature birth, changing the entire meaning to one more sympatico with an anti-abortion stance.

      This is classic cultural relativism – meaning moral values that change over time – not an unchanging, immutable, biblically-based morality. That's the point of this article.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Fred

      Hate to tell you this, but the Southern Baptist Convention does not now nor has it ever spoken for the majority of fundamentalist Christians. ( My family, and many others, avoided SBC churches because of their liberal leaning.)
      EPIC FAIL by the twelve year old author of this so-called "article."

      October 31, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
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