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. Charlie

    The Bible does not treat the baby in the womb different and it never uses the term fetus – it says if a woman in injured but no harm comes to her and the baby the fine is reduced but if death comes to either it appears to warrant a like response.

    October 31, 2012 at 2:10 am |
    • Observer

      God killed fetuses all the time according to the Bible.

      October 31, 2012 at 2:12 am |
  2. Truth

    The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. We need to learn how lungs, heart, and other body parts are grown from a few cells to a fetus. That is the first steps of preventing the disease called death and help us to become a space fairing species. Instead we are following a book that is telling us to kill each other simply because we don't agree or follow the same God. Think of it this way; if God exists and saw what man wrote on paper about him and what they guessed he he wants... yea. Who is going to hell? =-) Ohh and Pisces is a group of stars, not Jesus, or the 100 other "exact same" stories that came before his story. Wake up, ask questions.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:56 am |
    • thecollegeadmissionsguru

      Well said, reasonable and fair.

      October 31, 2012 at 2:00 am |
    • realbuckyball

      Read Ray Kurzweil.
      We have 1 % difference in our DNA than Chimps.
      1% better than us in bio-machine intelligence will produce VAST improvements, and changes.
      100 years from now the earth as it is now, will be a distant memory.

      October 31, 2012 at 2:00 am |
    • realbuckyball

      "The needs of the many" ? Maybe.
      A long as it's not the "needs" of the MANY Christian nut cases.
      The tyranny of the majority is a slippery slope.

      October 31, 2012 at 2:02 am |
  3. Sam Strasbaugh

    OATH! OATH! Stupid Spell Check.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:50 am |
    • realbuckyball

      You can say fvck dear. Jeebus won't smite you.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:57 am |
  4. tallulah13

    If god does exist, he must approve of abortion. After all, he is the most prolific abortionist on the planet, by far.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:49 am |
  5. Sam Strasbaugh

    The NT teaches that the OT was a measuring stick to show us our sinfulness and our need for a Savior since God's standard is perfection. Jesus said Himself that He did not come to end the Law but to complete it. The NT also tells us that violating the smallest element of the Law makes you guilty of the whole Law. As to abortion even the decadent Greeks knew that abortion was wrong. The Hippocratic Oat pledged to never assist a woman in aborting a pregnancy. Apparently doctors take a different oat today.

    As to whether our beliefs should influence our political views I would point out simply that the Bible commands us to oppose evil. Period.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:49 am |
    • Observer

      Isn't it fun to pretend that the Bible actually mentions abortion?

      October 31, 2012 at 2:06 am |
  6. J-pap

    If it were God's plan for there to be no abortions, how come there are still abortions happening? Therefore if there are still abortions happening, it must be God's plan for that to be so.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:39 am |
    • Rev Jack

      It's like I said. Each person has their own view and interprettation of what we think God wants, and who He is. We try to use the words. Well, if God did not want he He would not allow it to occur? Hmmmm, maybe it has something to do with freedom of choice that God gave us??? Then maybe you will disagree with me. But that's life. Either way, don't blame God for this, take a look at yourselves first, for ye who hath not sinned let him throw the first stone. No, what about sin, That's another story RIGHT?.

      October 31, 2012 at 2:00 am |
  7. gian

    It's not a religious issue. For science, life starts at conception, no doubt about this. So, why the law legalized such killings? The law protects most animals. You cannot kill a dog, but you can kill a fetus? Don't you see the contradiction? This is legalized omicide, nothing to do with religion. So, it should not be allowed. Full stop! Is the fetus less worthy as many people supporting aborption say? Then, law should provide a lower penalty. But no penalty is nonsense. I am afraid of dogs. Dogs get me anxious (see the comment about the mental health of the woman as a reason to kill the fetus). So, why I am not allowed to kill a dog without penalty if it crosses my path and I get anxious?

    October 31, 2012 at 1:37 am |
    • J-pap

      You can kill a dog. Who's stopping you? When your dog becomes too costly and old you put it down. When the SPCA has too many cats and dogs up for adoption, they put them down. Likewise, if you stop people from aborting unwanted children you'll have a state of affairs where they are too many unwanted kids. What do you think happens to unwanted kids? Nothing good, that's for sure. More welfare for the welfare families.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:44 am |
    • tallulah13

      There are over half a million kids in foster care in this country. Most of them won't be adopted, many of them will end up with unwanted children of their own, some will end up in jails, some will be abused, and some will be killed. Why not address those issues before you blithely add to their numbers?

      October 31, 2012 at 1:47 am |
    • gian

      See our society? You are right, plenty of excuses to kill! But they are only excuses... so admit that aborption is killing... just legalized killing!

      October 31, 2012 at 1:48 am |
    • gian

      By the way, ever heard about eugenetic? Read a history book so that you know what it lead to... you are thinking exactly in the same way...

      October 31, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • jimbo

      Technically speaking, your comparison of killing a dog a crime and killing a fetus is not a crime is apples and oranges. I do not believe it is a crime under current animal law that you abort unborn puppies. If abortion is a crime, what do you suggest is the penalty, put the woman in jail for the rest of her life, you want to take care of unwanted children, you want see people go welfare for having too many children. You should work on helping the living and reduce the conditions for abortion, otherwise, your moral view is simply pointless. If you are for no gun control, death penalty, no national health insurance, etc. you are full of contradictions.

      October 31, 2012 at 2:07 am |
  8. Rev Jack

    What the hell are these people on about. God is the almighty, we can only assume we know what he wants, but then, anyone trying to tell me that God is against this, and for that, needs their head testing. It is our own discription of what we think God wants and does. Get real with life. Who says an unborn child has a soul or not??? How can be both prove it or disprove it. Only idiots who have a one way think tank will try to answer this. Egotistical, Delusional, and Grandeur. Blessings anyway, you need it.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:35 am |
  9. RBSG

    Another example that morality does not come from scripture, but from culture.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:33 am |
  10. JK

    Citing the Old Testament to define Christian thinking is a little backward. There's a reason Christians call it the OLD Testament in contrast to the NEW one.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:26 am |
    • Observer

      It's the SAME God in both. Just a bad excuse for the nonsense in the OT.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:30 am |
    • Truth

      You can't pick and choose Gods laws. Its either all or none (in the Bible). Get ready to stone people and sell your daughters when you need money. That is law in the Bible. Or we can drop all this nonsense and follow Science. At least it can be proved wrong.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:41 am |
  11. Brian

    The best support biblically for life beginning at conception is Psalm 139 –

    For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me togetherw in my mother’s womb.
    I praise youy because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
    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.
    Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:13-16).

    A beautiful poem, and a beautiful picture of God's careful work to bring together a human being. Sure, we understand the biology of it, but the path from conception to birth is a miracle to be celebrated. I know there are people who don't believe the Bible, and therefore don't consider anything in it to be authoritative, but I don't think the idea of abortion being wrong is only 30 years old. There is very little in the Bible that indicates it one way or another, because purposeful abortion was not a moral question when the Bible was written. What we must do as Christians is discern based on principles in the Bible what is right.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:19 am |
    • 24HCC

      Uh....ok. So? What does the bible have to do with this issue? If the women in your cult don't want to have abortions then don't. Matters not to me.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • Truth

      If we follow one law/rule in the Bible we must follow them all.
      Deuteronomy 17:2-7
      Exodus 21:7
      Corinthians 11:6
      Jerimiah 10:2-5
      Leviticus 20:27
      Leviticus 11:9-1
      Leviticus 19:19
      it goes on and on and on...

      October 31, 2012 at 1:46 am |
    • realbuckyball

      Keep your fvcking poems to yourself.
      This is not a Theocracy.
      If that's what you want, try Iran.
      We'll see how that works out for ya.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:48 am |
    • realbuckyball

      What "principles" ?
      You mean the liars of the New Testament. You do know Paul was a self admitted liar.
      Why is there no resurrection in the 1st version of Mark ? Did the others make it up ?
      All of the Pentateuch was created for political cohesion, during the Exile. THOSE principles ? Political expediency ?
      Yeah right.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:55 am |
  12. DJ

    What have we learned here today? It is ok to kill the little unborn bastards as long as we argue about it a lot. And if don't kill them now, we can always put them in prison later. Case closed I guess.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:15 am |
  13. Robert

    Fascinating how Ex 21:22 is applied to speak of miscarriage yet all major translations AND the Hebrew speak of premature birth. If, in the hitting of the woman, she gives birth prematurely and there is no harm then a fine must be paid, else a eye for and eye, tooth for a tooth, etc. When does the author of this article get the erroneous idea of miscarriage? Obviously a preset agenda. If you're going to quote ANYTHING then make sure you quote it correctly and not your personal interpretation.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:15 am |
    • Observer

      CEB (Common English Bible) and Contemporary English Version Bibles as shown on the Gateway site say MISCARRIAGE.

      If these are FALSE Bibles, please spread the word since people think they are REAL Bibles.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:56 am |
    • David

      Miscarry was used in 17th century translations. At the time, miscarry meant and premature birth, live or dead. This particular passage has notes in the translations stating that "no harm" applies to both the mother and child. This is why modern translations use the term "premature" rather than "miscarry", because today "miscarry" no longer has the potential to mean a live birth.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  14. Peter Metz

    Arguments about when human life is defined using religious references should not be used in our secular society. If someone wants to practice their religion by denying their adherents abortions, then that is another story.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:13 am |
  15. realbuckyball

    Why "pray" to end abortion. Is the god so dumb, she doesn't know what she wants to do ?
    If prayer CHANGES her mind, she is not omniscient.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:11 am |
  16. realbuckyball

    Fallacy #1 ; Without first establishing the authority of scripture all the rest is baloney. Scripture was written by humans, who appropriated the HUMAN law and customs of the day and religion LATER sanctioned it. Religion RECEIVED the law, it did not give the law.
    Fallacy #2 : There is not one person here who can define for us what exactly what the "moment of conception " actually is.

    October 31, 2012 at 1:08 am |
    • mama k

      And if people want to push the issue to overturn Roe v Wade, if the determination of "moment of conception" can only be argued as a religious conviction (for those wanting to overturn), then I would think the issue would then include separation of church and state for the first time. So I'm guessing the anti-abortionists will have to prove on the original grounds that the 1973 decision ( 7 to 2 ) was wrong.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:25 am |
    • realbuckyball

      It's not going to be overturned. It's settled law.
      If they overturn it, it will not stop abortion.
      Antonin Scalia and John Roberts cannot be counted on to overturn.
      Plan B is here to stay.
      It's a non-issue.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:52 am |
  17. Sam Strasbaugh

    Jeremiah 1:5

    October 31, 2012 at 1:03 am |
    • (Jeremiah: Gullible's Travels, Part 1)
      October 31, 2012 at 1:09 am |
    • realbuckyball

      The Sorcerer's Stone 1:17

      October 31, 2012 at 1:09 am |
    • DJ

      My ingrown toe nail. Right foot, third digit.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:17 am |
  18. svann

    "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… "

    How did you read exodus 21:22-24 to mean that? It says if a man hit a pregnant woman.... eye for an eye. Clearly it is saying if someone hits a pregnant woman and kills the embryo then he should be killed. That is the exact opposite of what you claimed. It doesnt speak directly to the abortion issue, but if you are going to use the bible as authority please dont try to lie about what it says.

    October 31, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • GlendaK

      Abortion is not murder. A fetus is not considered a human life.
      "If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life." - Exodus 21:22-23

      The "fruit" has already been miscarried therefore "mischief" doesn't refer to the death of the fetus, right?

      October 31, 2012 at 12:57 am |
    • Observer


      The Bible says that if the woman MISCARRIES, all that happens is a FINE paid to the father if she isn't hurt seriously. Typical discrimination against women in the Bible.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:58 am |
    • Truth

      God also commands you to kill anyone following a different religion. Should we do that too?
      Deuteronomy 17:2-7

      October 31, 2012 at 1:49 am |
    • Michael

      @GlendaK – You are misreading or using a bad translation. If you read the passage in context, it is talking about an eye for an eye, life for life. Just before, it was requiring it if a slave was injured or killed. Just after, if an animal injures or kills a human.
      Here, it is obvious, if the baby is born prematurely and neither the woman nor the child are injured, it is just a fine. But if there is harm to either the woman or the child, it is an eye for an eye, life for life punishment.

      October 31, 2012 at 2:51 am |
  19. Sam Strasbaugh

    I don't care what any theologian said or says or what any "Christian" publication said or says, I knew as soon as I read the Bible that abortion is murder.

    October 31, 2012 at 12:53 am |
    • Athy

      Where in the bible is abortion covered?

      October 31, 2012 at 12:54 am |
    • GlendaK

      You took that meaning from the Bible just like slave owners took justification from their reading of the Bible. The Bible is so ambiguous that it can be used to justify just about anything.

      October 31, 2012 at 12:59 am |
    • Athy

      And is often so used, GlendaK.

      October 31, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  20. neil

    A LIFE IS A LIFE IS A LIFE. You are sadly deceived. CNN, Why do you posts these Opinions that ultimately represent you?

    October 31, 2012 at 12:50 am |
    • realbuckyball

      Do you kill your plants ?

      October 31, 2012 at 1:00 am |
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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.