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.

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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. Bryan Kirchoff

    Mr. Dudley makes a misleading case at best. Exodus 21:22-24 states that if two men are fighting and strike a pregnant woman, inducing miscarriage, then the offender is to be fined for the miscarriage, and if the woman herself suffered injury, it is to be "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,..."etc. In short, inducing a miscarriage unintentionally is considered wrong (thus, the fine) in Exodus, so one could imagine that the deliberate destruction of an unborn child would be considered at least as bad. Furthermore, one recalls Jeremiah's paraphrased words "in the womb I formed you, I knew you before you were born", the fact that Mary was described as "with child" in Matthew's Gospel, and that in Luke, Elizabeth says the "infant" in her womb leaped at Mary's approach. In short, it is the mid-1970s pro-choice interpretations by some evangelicals that are the novelty.

    It is remarkable that the liberal Christian tradition of Mr. Dudley considers various environmental sins to be an offense to God's creation, but somehow fetal human life never seems to qualify as part of that protected creation.

    Bryan Kirchoff
    St. Louis

    October 30, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
    • Towelie

      If you are going to be inducing a miscarriage, don't forget to bring a towel!

      October 30, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
    • Observer

      The Bible DOESN'T say TWO men, it says someone who is fighting. That could be someone fighting with her.

      October 30, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • David

      Miscarry at the time of the translation simply meant prematre birth, live or dead.
      see http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29765/29765-8.txt

      The marginal notes interpreting this passage clearly state the the "no harm" applies to both the mother and child, not just the mother. see Geneva Bible (1611).

      October 31, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  2. sTanzi

    Anyone who has held a "pre-term" infant in their arms (hands)–dead or alive– knows what they know. Let's talk about the "human" and not Evangelical or Catholic to get to the center of our awareness on this. There seems to be so much denial and theologizing and anti-theologizing going on. Experience speaks for itself.

    October 30, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • Meatwad

      I could sure go for some flapjacks right about now!

      October 30, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  3. Sad Truth

    He misquotes Exodus. It didn't say aborting a fetus is "ok". It says:
    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

    October 30, 2012 at 11:18 pm |
    • Fact Check Needed

      It also says (vs. 23-24) that if there is "fatal accident" (the "fetus", "baby", "child") comes out and dies ("fatal") then the law of eye-for-eye, life-for-life applies. So a LIVE miscarriage is fined – a penalty is still paid. A DEATH in miscarriage / "fatal" accident is paid with a life. So, yes, that UNborn child was important to God.

      October 30, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  4. Prophet of Framingham

    Send your wish

    October 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  5. Prophet of Framingham

    if they already have signed, send for the angel who will send the killer angel

    October 30, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
  6. Prophet of Framingham

    Anyone thinking about signing will die before they even breathe

    October 30, 2012 at 11:14 pm |
  7. Prophet of Framingham

    Some people will find were they live! That is what I saw

    October 30, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
  8. Prophet of Framingham

    Some people will go out to break cars of police officers to warn,

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

    Some people will go out to brake cars of police officers to warn,

    October 30, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
  10. Scott

    Amendment 1 of the Bill of Rights starts by saying "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" That being said the abortion issue should be left up to the individual who is considering it. The government and religous freaks who try to shove their opinion down others throats need to learn tolerance of other religions and cultures. Your "God" is not the same as others "God". Once upon a time there was Zeus. Years down the road Jesus might be looked upon in the same fashion.

    October 30, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
  11. TRose

    I still find it interesting, then, if you accept the premise that a child must be born to be a human being, that President Obama feels it's perfectly fine to kill a child accidentally born alive during a late-term abortion attempt. (Check his voting records.) When a child is lying there, alive and breathing and viable, the abortionist is supposed to kill it or just leave on the table to die. It's not wanted, and therefore not perceived to be human. Funny how the only difference between a preemie and a fetus is being wanted or not wanted.

    October 30, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
    • momofmany

      I agree!

      October 30, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
  12. Prophet of Framingham

    And maybe He will die tonight

    October 30, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
  13. Prophet of Framingham

    We have family and kids we want they to see the good face of our country! They will say

    October 30, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
  14. Prophet of Framingham

    The stones will be to warn

    October 30, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
  15. Prophet of Framingham

    I thin they will have to careful with the face of their countries, special that feelings come and goes sometimes

    October 30, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
  16. Prophet of Framingham

    I also see that someone will send letter to Obama, saying that they will throw stones at him

    October 30, 2012 at 11:03 pm |
  17. Prophet of Framingham

    the people of family will kill in their land for help their ways to think if they starts to lose, I say in name of God

    October 30, 2012 at 11:02 pm |
  18. Prophet of Framingham

    Also they will think in kill people and fight if necessary to protect the good face of the USA, will be police officers

    October 30, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
  19. Sung

    Interesting. If you're willing to be open minded on this, I present a Catholic blogger looking back 1-1/2 years ago:
    and a Protestant looking back on this, far further than last century:

    October 30, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
  20. Prophet of Framingham

    I want to predict they the face of their heroes will be the shirts, and God will bless USA

    October 30, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
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