Did Evangelicals Used to Support Abortion?

Did Evangelicals Used to Support Abortion? May 26, 2022

Supporters of abortion, marshaling their arguments in the event that Roe v. Wade gets overturned, are maintaining that evangelicals used to believe in abortion.

Randall Balmer, in his Politico article The Religious Right and the Abortion Myth, says that Christian conservatives only adopted the pro-life cause as a cynical cover for their true agenda of racism, defending “segregation academies” from civil rights laws.

It is true, as he says, that Christianity Today, the flagship publication of the evangelical movement, and the Christian Medical Society sponsored a forum on the issue in 1968, in which 26 evangelical theologians participated.  Their final report acknowledged the ambiguities and different positions, but came to this conclusion:  “Whether the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity of it and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord.”

Two early editors of Christianity Today, both of whom were important evangelical thinkers, believed that abortion was morally permissible.  Evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry said that “a woman’s body is not the domain and property of others.” Harold Lindsell, author of the inerrancy manifesto The Battle for the Bible, said, “if there are compelling psychiatric reasons from a Christian point of view, mercy and prudence may favor a therapeutic abortion.”

In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for the legalization of abortion.  After Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the Baptists reaffirmed that position in 1974 and again in 1976.  After the ruling, W. A. Criswell, president of the church body and leader of the “conservative resurgence” among Baptists, said, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”  (According to his Wikipedia article, Criswell later changed his position and opposed abortion.)

But, as Dale M. Coulter has pointed out, in the words of the title of his  First Things article,  Evangelicals Opposed Abortion Much Earlier Than You Think.  He shows that the 19th century social reform movements that evangelicals led–best known for the abolition of slavery, advocating women’s rights, promoting temperance, and working to improve conditions for the poor–included opposition to abortion among their causes.

He also cites the consistent opposition to abortion–including the lead-in to Roe v. Wade–among Lutherans, Wesleyans, and  Methodists.

Notice that those theological traditions, like Catholicism, practice infant baptism.  Perhaps that led to a higher consideration of the spiritual status of the very youngest children, as opposed to traditions that teach that children cannot be Christians until they reach “the age of accountability.”  Conversely, anti-Catholicism almost certainly accounted for the Baptists’ hostility to Rome’s opposition to abortion.

And yet, the Baptists and other evangelicals soon came around to the pro-life position.  A catalyst was Reformed theologian Francis Schaeffer, whose books and perhaps more popularly the films made from them, raised the consciousness of evangelicals about the evil of abortion.  How Should We Then Live?  (1976) and Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (1979) were discussed in Bible studies and the films were screened in church basements in thousands of evangelical congregations.

Soon evangelicals and other conservative Protestants were allying with Catholics on the issue, forming not so much “the Christian right” but the modern pro-life movement.

And the failure of certain evangelicals in the past to recognize the sanctity of life in the womb should in no way cast doubt on the sincerity of pro-life Christians today, nor is it anything but a libel to accuse them of racism, nor does it touch the truth of their convictions.



Photograph:  Francis Schaeffer by http://www.pcahistory.org/images/schaeffer01.jpg this site, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2093465

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