White evangelicalism, 1975: Before the change (3.1)

Norman Geisler’s use of the term “therapeutic” in this section turned out to be unfortunate. Back in the early 1970s, when he was writing this summary of the common accepted “stance” for conservative white evangelicals on “When Abortion Is Justified,” that term was entirely benign. He had no way of knowing that, decades later, it would become something of an epithet.

That was a strange and unforeseeable development. “Therapeutic,” after all, was then a word with only positive connotations. It had to do with healing. These days, however, it carries strange new weight when it gets tossed around in conservative evangelical circles. It has come to substitute for their once common mocking caricature of Everybody Who Isn’t Them, whom they portrayed as guided by no beliefs or principles other than “If it feels good, do it.” This dismissal of EWIT didn’t go over well. People didn’t like being told that they had no morals — that they were all thoroughly unprincipled “relativists” and/or nihilists — and they pushed back against that refrain, not because it offended them, but because it simply wasn’t true.

That push-back sent the conversation in a direction that the evangelical defenders of Moral Absolutes vs. Relativism weren’t eager to go. “The rest of the world isn’t just saying ‘If it feels good, do it,'” they were told. “We also have principles and standards and values and, yes, even absolutes, but we also need to be able to know what to do when two or more of those absolutes are in conflict.” And the evangelicals, after a bit of furiously flipping through the dog-eared pages of their Francis Schaeffer books — because he had convinced them that it was always all about Moral Absolutes (Us) vs. Relativism (Them), and so they were sure there must be something in there to address this — they eventually stopped accusing everyone else of being relativistic relativists who just went around saying “La-ti-da, if it feels good, do it.” I mean, they kept making the accusation, but they learned to rephrase it with a new euphemism.

And that is, more or less, why the word “therapeutic” isn’t one that Geisler would use nowadays, unless he was getting lathered up railing against mainline Protestants and atheists and Millennial Nones and the like.

Back in 1975, “therapeutic” still meant mostly positive things. His discussion of justified abortions “For Therapeutic Reasons” referred mainly to abortion performed in order to save the life and health of the mother. It’s somewhat fascinating that white evangelicals in 1975 referred to such a procedure for such a reason as “therapeutic,” then meaning that it was a proper, moral step in the direction of healing, while today they might still use the word “therapeutic” to describe the same situation, only now that word would be an accusation — dismissing the decision to value the life and health of the mother as little more than an expression of the “therapeutic spirituality” that means nothing more than “If it feels good, do it.”

I would say they were correct about both the word and the morality of the procedure in 1975. And I would say they’re wrong about both of those things today.

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