Jonathan Dudley sent me a copy of his Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics over a month ago, and I have been remiss in my promise to review it. But now that I’ve read it, let me put it this way: This is the book you need to read so that you can effectively counter evangelical Christians’ opposition to abortion, marriage equality, and evolution. This is the book you need to give to every one of your evangelical friends and relatives.
Jonathan Dudley and I have a lot in common. We were both raised evangelical, both grew up to find the world more complicated than we had thought, and both realized that the simplistic explanations we’d been given as children were both flawed and ahistorical. The difference between us is that I turned my journey into a blog while he turned his into a book. This is how his book begins:
I learned a few things growing up as an evangelical Christian: that abortion is murder; homosexuality, sin; evolution, nonsense; and environmentalism, a farce. I learned to accept these ideas — the “big four — as part of the package deal of Christianity. In some circles, I learned that my salvation hinged on it. Those who denied them were outsiders, liberals, and legitimate targets for evangelism. If they didn’t change their minds after being “witnessed to,” they became legitimate targets for hell.
In his introduction, Dudley writes about growing up in an evangelical family and community, and then heading off to a Christian college, a mainline seminary, and a prestigious medical school. Dudley uses his theological and scientific knowledge to examine evangelical positions on abortion, marriage equality, environmentalism, and evolution, and what he reveals is fascinating. Here’s an interesting nugget from his introduction:
During my last year of college, a bioethics professor argued against popular evangelical thought on abortion. I was surprised to find out during an office visit that many other evangelical scholars shared his view, though not surprised when he said they would rather not speak up about it due to the avalanche of protests it would generate from college donors. …
My bioethics professor reinforced a conclusion I had drawn from my undergrad and seminary years: There is a significant gap between the opinions that dominate the popular evangelical culture (which is the only part of evangelicalism with political muscle) and the opinions that prevail among leading evangelical scholars.
At the end of his introductory chapter, Dudley outlines his basic thesis:
The thesis of the book is simple: Evangelicalism has defined itself by weakly supported boundary markers, which are justified by a flawed understanding of biblical interpretation and maintained by suppressing those who disagree. Further, this fact has significant implications for American politics.
Dudley moves first to a chapter on abortion, in which he reveals quite convincingly that the idea that the soul is implanted at the moment of conception is an extremely recent invention. After looking at Jewish thought, he explains that established Christian thought during the middle ages was that the soul entered the fetus once it had “both the shape of a human body and the organs necessary for spiritual activities, such as the brain and nervous system.” Dudley employs a wide variety of quotes from theologians and theological treatises, carefully explaining the views of a variety of Catholic and, later, Protestant intellects. Here, for example, is a quote from St. Anselm, who lived from 1033 to 1109:
No human intellect accepts the view that an infant has a rational soul from the moment of conception.
Dudley explains that this view – the idea that the fetus gains a soul at some point mid-pregnancy – was the dominant view in all sects of Christianity until the mid-nineteenth century, when the Catholic position changed
due to revisions in teaching about Mary; widespread belief among scientists and theologians that the human sperm contains a fully developed, miniature human (called a “homonculus”), with a brain equipped to receive a soul at conception; and a resurgence of Platonism in Christian understandings of human identity.
As Dudley explains, the evangelical position did not shift until much, much later. Dudley explains that abortion until the moment of quickening was legal in early America, and was not banned until the late 1800s when the medical establishment and prominent political leaders became concerned that the declining birth rate among Protestants meant the country was at risk of pending political takeover by prolific Catholic immigrants. Indeed, evangelical Christians were conspicuously absent from this campaign to criminalize abortion, preferring instead to devote themselves to the temperance movement with its desire to ban alcohol.
Beyond all this, Dudley reveals that in the late 1960s and early 1970s leading evangelical theologians were still arguing (in leading evangelical publications, no less) that, based on what the Bible says, the fetus was not a person with a soul. In fact, in 1968 an evangelical gathering hosted by leading evangelical publication Christianity Today called for the legality of abortion and in 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention formally called for abortion laws to be loosened so as to allow for abortion in the case of rape, incest, fetal deformity, and emotional, mental, or physical duress of the mother.
As Dudley carefully explicates, evangelicals argued that the fetus was not without value, and that its life should not be terminated without good reason, but they were unanimous in concluding that the fetus was not a person with a soul and that abortion was not murder. All of this changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By 1984, the previous accepted evangelical position that the fetus was not a person had become heretical and evangelicals began insisting that the Bible says that the soul is imparted at conception.
Dudley’s book is worth purchasing for his chapter on abortion alone. I intend to read this chapter through several more times with highlighter and pen in hand.
Dudley next turns to marriage equality. This passage is key:
In assessing evangelical thought on homosexuality, it is helpful to compare it to evangelicals’ thought on abortion, the other issue at the heart of their social agenda. The comparison reveals two different standards for deciding upon “the Christian position.” In the case of abortion, as we saw in the previous chapter, evangelicals have happily abandoned more traditional interpretations of the Bible and embraced creative reinterpretations of all kinds to claim the Bible teaches that life begins at the moment of conception. Even while evangelicals object to appeals made to broad themes in the bible to override the passages taken as condemning same-sex relations, they have appealed to broad themes in the Bible to override a strict construal of Exodus 21. Even while they have welcomed fallacious arguments from science to support new views on the beginning of life (claiming science proves life begins at conception, for example), they have objected to such arguments to support new views on homosexuality. Even while they object to emotional arguments from experience in the case of homosexuality, they have welcomed such arguments in the case of abortion.
This suggests that what has been the dominant evangelical social agenda for the past thirty years — with abortion and gay marriage at the center — has had less to do with defending the traditional interpretation of the Bible than with defending socially conservative cultural norms, especially those pertaining to sexuality. When more traditional interpretations of the Bible need to be abandoned to defend these norms, the necessary procedures are gladly undertaken. When more traditional interpretations of the Bible fit better with such norms, “the traditional interpretation of the Bible” is rigorously insisted upon. This suggestion receives further support from the fact that evangelicals lagged behind the broader culture on all the main social justice issues of the late twentieth century — civil rights, feminism, environmentalism — suggesting that the community has historically favored interpretations that counter social innovation.
There is ample room within the diverse interpretive practices of orthodox Christianity to justify an alternative approach to the Bible on gay marriage. Defending the exclusion of gays from marriage, therefore, is not ultimately about defending the Bible.
In his chapter on environmentalism, Dudley discusses the fundamental transformation that has taken place in evangelical environmental thought over the past decade. He concludes that
The fact that the Bible’s meaning is not simply lying in its pages waiting to be discovered, but rather, occurs at the intersection of scripture, theology, and culture, necessitates a change in the way evangelicals use and think about scripture. No longer can it be viewed as a receptacle of answers, waiting to be dragged out and applied to questions today. No longer can the Bible be understood as an active agent that dispenses its own interpretations — at least to those unbiased enough to listen. Biases and prior beliefs are not something that get in the way of interpretation, something that must be brushed aside; rather, biases and prior beliefs are behind every interpretation. They are necessary for interpretation to occur at all. In this light, the focus of debates over the Bible must shift to questions of how Christians should interpret, reflecting a realization that humans have a choice in the matter and the Bible can’t answer the question for us. Evangelicals should acknowledge that contemporary experiences are a legitimate guide to interpreting scripture, in sort, because contemporary experiences already undergrid how evangelicals interpret scripture.
Dudley’s argument here reminds me of things said by both Fred Clark (author of The Slacktivist) and Randall Balmer (author of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America). Even Mark Noll (author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind) has made similar arguments. These are evangelicals who are concerned about the incredibly anti-intellectual and ahistorical character of popular evangelicalism today. Their arguments are often framed in an effort to convince their fellow evangelicals. Theirs is a desire to reform evangelicalism and change the shape it takes today, a desire born not out of an antipathy to evangelicalism but rather out of a desire to correct its errors and revise its interpretations so as to better reflect reality and better serve the spiritual, intellectual, and physical needs of its constituents.
In his last chapter, Dudley explains the historical background of Christian views of creation and evolution more generally and evangelical views more specifically, revealing that young earth creationism is actually a relatively recent development, and that the fundamentalists of a century ago nearly universally rejected it in favor of an old earth. Dudley also explains the problems that result from evangelicals’ rejection of science, connecting evangelicals’ embrace of creationism to a widespread evangelical willingness to reject both science and past theological views.
Dudley finishes with a call to his fellow evangelicals, a call for either reform, if possible, or a split within evangelicalism not unlike evangelicalism’s own split from fundamentalism in the years surrounding World War II.
If neo-evangelicalism cannot be reformed, then disillusioned evangelicals should follow the model set by a previous generation of evangelicals. They should break ties with today’s evangelical culture, take cries from the old guard of “liberal” and “heresy” with a grain of salt, and start a new kind of evangelical Christianity. This would be an evangelical Christianity that embraces sound science, which requires ending the war against evolution. It would be an evangelical Christianity that recognizes the diverse expressions orthodox theology can take — from evangelicalism, to mainline Protestantism, to Catholicism and Greek Orthodox — but nonetheless carries on many distinctive features of the evangelical tradition. It would be an evangelical Christianity that realizes its reading of the Bible is always already governed by theology and politics, that cares more about the character of its adherents than whether or not they follow all the rules, that is more interested in the argument than the conclusion, and that puts more weight on the common beliefs that unite than the boundaries that divide.
While I no longer believe in God and Dudley still does, I found his book extremely important on two levels. First, Dudley provides the history and background to contextualize evangelicals’ modern interventions in science and politics. When I first began exploring the beliefs I had been taught growing up, it was this historicization I found most fascinating – and most challenging to my beliefs. There is nothing that removes the veneer of infallibility like learning where a belief came from, how it developed, when, and why. What I found opened my mind to questions, to rethinking the beliefs I had been so sure of, and to forming new beliefs. The information Dudley provides here, then, can be used to challenge popular evangelical positions and beliefs.
Second, I think people like Dudley, Balmer, Fred, and Noll have a better chance than I of reaching and influencing many evangelicals, and helping evangelical Christians bring their beliefs more in line with critical thinking, compassion, and reality is always a success. I applaud their efforts to reform their faith tradition, and I am confident that their success would contribute to both the decline of the Christian Right and an increase in human happiness. I especially applaud Dudley’s desire to challenge the heresy hunts so common in evangelical Christianity. As Dudley says,
I used to believe that evangelical Christians really were bringing light to a dark culture, representing the author of truth, love, and harmony to a hurting broken world. Now I believe evangelical Christianity has done more harm than good in the political sphere, that it has rallied behind beliefs that are untrue and supported policies that hurt others. My despair is deepened when I hear from other evangelicalism like me, who went off to college, studied hard and tried to embrace a more nuanced version of Christian faith, and found themselves returning home as outsiders, having failed too many of their culture’s litmus tests for true belief.
But these rejected evangelicals also give me hope.
In my opinion, if Dudley succeeds in his goal to reform evangelicalism, the results can only be positive.
Now buy the book: Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics