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.

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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. Prophet of Framingham

    Some of this people cant even take the choice for find the man of their lives

    October 30, 2012 at 10:24 pm |
  2. Prophet of Framingham

    The other will have their space but not in ways they will disrespect what is here for make the planet better every day

    October 30, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
  3. Prophet of Framingham

    The other will have their space but not in ways they will not disrespect what is here for make the planet better every day

    October 30, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
  4. Where is your God now?

    An arrest was made at a Kansas Walmart Wednesday after a passerby noticed a young child sitting outside an SUV in the Walmart parking lot, with their hands tied behind them and blindfolded. Police arrived to find a 5-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl with their hands tied behind them, feet tied up and blindfolded.

    The windows of the SUV had been covered with clothing, so when police finally entered the vehicle, they found three other children between the ages of 12 and 15. Police untied the two bound children and called an ambulance for all 5 children.

    October 30, 2012 at 10:21 pm |
  5. Prophet of Framingham

    The eath is for good people

    October 30, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  6. Lars J

    The fact that everyone believes they are right on this issue, that there is no meekness and humility shown by either side illustrates the cage of subjectivity that we are all in. To evangelicals, it doesn't matter what the Bible states, they've already made up their minds. To pro choice proponents it does not matter what science reveals, they've already made up their minds. No one is teachable. So we never get to the broader questions of what can we do about it. And even if abortion is wrong, what is the appropriate involvement of the government. I've long believed that adultery devastates and destroys more American families than anything else. But since both Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals both engage in it, we don't have a discussion about whether it should be illegal in the USA. Yet, unlike abortion, it's one of the ten commandments: "Thou shalt not commit adultery". Poor humanity. Poor subjective humanity.

    October 30, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  7. Prophet of Framingham

    And the Lord have their special work for the angels

    October 30, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
  8. Prophet of Framingham

    will die before they start to think in do something

    October 30, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  9. No Romney

    The bible is a fairy tale. A collection of stories and fables from ancient ignorant people who didnt know what a virus was, didn't know what an earth quake was cacused from,

    October 30, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  10. Prophet of Framingham

    we want to predict that those speak in helping these people will be in danger of life

    October 30, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  11. Bob

    Elective abortion is wrong by common sense – just examine the remains of a healthy 4-month-old fetus. The Bible speaks of slavery in positive terms too – but we know it to be wrong nonetheless.

    October 30, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      How many women are terminating pregnancies at 4 months, you fvcking moron?

      Most abortions occur before the end of the first trimester, idiot.

      October 30, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
    • No Religion

      Bob, your opinion is unimportant. It is none of your business.

      October 30, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • realbuckyball

      "Common sense" is relative to the situation. Non-human fetuses resemble human fetuses. Is THAT immoral ?

      October 30, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      The day Bob grows a uterus is the day he'll have common sense that matters in the issue of abortion.

      October 30, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
    • Viper

      "Life" now starts when you tell your buddy: "Dude! See that blond on the dance floor? I SO wanna do her!"

      October 30, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
  12. Where is your God now?

    A father, John DeBlase and his current wife whom he has a baby with, Heather Leavell-Keaton inflected cruel and sadistic torture upon their children. Court docu.ments reveal that the couple repeatedly abused and tortured 3 year old Chase and 4 year old Natalie for years.

    The step-mother reportedly tape ducted the children’s hands and arms to their body and would often tape duct Natalie’s arms and legs to her body, tape her mouth closed with a sock in it and but her in a suitcase from 8am in the morning until 10pm at night. She would also duct tape a broom stick to toddler, Chase’s back, and make him stand for hours in a corner.

    October 30, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
  13. waltsp

    Lots of hip sounding people here making really hip comments. Keep in mind the bottom line is we are killing our children, our future in this process.
    Now that is hip.

    October 30, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • Jazzman

      Yeah, baby it's cool. I'm pickin' up what your puttin' down brother. I am ready to chill with those young lions and check out the vibe you dig?

      October 30, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Hey, Walt, how many unwanted kids have you offered to adopt?

      October 30, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • End Religion

      if peeing your pants is cool, consider me Miles Davis


      October 30, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
  14. northern light

    The face of that man holding the anti abortion sign in the photo tells you all you need to know about religion.

    October 30, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  15. Prophet of Framingham

    Respct for their side of life

    October 30, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • northern light

      You might want to sign up for a few, "English as a second language courses", before you blog any more.

      October 30, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  16. Prophet of Framingham

    special if the good people starts to lose respect

    October 30, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  17. Prophet of Framingham

    If they start to play with lifes we going to have to help with civil war

    October 30, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
  18. Prophet of Framingham

    And not permit this for the respect of good people!

    October 30, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
  19. Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

    word hindu is based on Latin word hindered, negative, Hun, great, Han, to be in greatness, hin, to be negative to both of them, hindu, a noun in negativity, hinduism, way of negativity.
    Visit limitisthetruth.com to learn about hinduism, criminality of hindu's, criminals to impose hinduism, racism on humanity by hinduism, corruption of truth absolute by force.

    October 30, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
    • Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

      word fondu is based on Latin word dippity doo, hot gooey, chips, great, chip dip, to be in greatness, pita chip, to be creamy to both of them, fondu, a noun in yummy, fonduism, way of yumminess.

      Visit dippingisfun.com to learn about fonduism, deliciousnessity of fondu's, deliciousness to impose fonduism, veggie dipping on humanity by fonduism, cheese skin of truth absolute by dipper. Be a dipper, not a fondu, lactose intolerant like a fondu, double dipper

      October 30, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  20. Prophet of Framingham

    I and the brothers there, we want to say the Washington will see the earthquake from the Lord.

    October 30, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
    • End Religion

      lol, please give us the date and time. The entire fucking world will see an earthquake one day, idiot.

      October 30, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
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About this blog

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.