When evangelical Christians first began debating the issue of abortion, they were nowhere near as unified about the topic as they appear to be today. Shortly after the Supreme Court made their landmark decision on the issue in Roe v. Wade (1973), influential Baptist minister W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist in Dallas, TX, and predecessor to FOX News darling Robert Jeffress, 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.
As late as five years after the legalization of abortion, Southern Baptists were still listed among the denominations officially affirming the decision. Richard Land, who formerly headed up the SBC’s political action division, points out that in those days there was a clear divide between what Baptists and Catholics believed about the matter:
They pretty much bought into the idea that life begins when breath begins, and they just thought of [abortion] as a Catholic issue.
In November of 1968, Christianity Today devoted an entire issue to debating the subject, including an article written by conservative biblical scholar Bruce Waltke (Dallas Seminary) who argues that the Bible gives no clear answer on the matter.
In that article, Waltke explains that “in the absence of any biblical text forbidding abortion,” we are forced to look at the literature of nearby cultures at the time of the Old Testament to compare their laws with those of the people of Israel. He notes that while neighboring Assyria exacted punishment for performing abortions, no such prohibition existed among the ancient Hebrews.
The fact that God did not set forth a similar law becomes even more significant when one realizes that in sexual matters the Mosaic Code is normally more extensive and more severe than other codes.
In Assyrian law, when a fight between two people resulted in a miscarriage, a life was demanded in return for a life. But no such reckoning was present in the Old Testament. If the mother’s life was lost, that would be a much more serious offense. But the termination of the pregnancy itself would only incur a fine, since an unborn child wasn’t yet considered a separate person from the mother (see Exodus 21:22-25, also see note about translation at the end of this article).
The closest thing to a biblical definition of “when life begins” would most likely be found in Genesis 2, where it says that God breathed into the nostrils of the first man, at which point “he became a living being.” This kind of language is repeated in multiple places throughout the Bible, equating “breath” with “life” in a fairly unambiguous way (e.g. Ezekiel 37:4-10).
Evangelical Christians today (who seem to have settled on a much more uniform opinion on the issue) often quote Psalm 139 as if it answers a question it wasn’t even being asked:
For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks to You,
For I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
As Waltke points out, the writer here isn’t really spelling out at what time or place “life begins” (which is a misleading way to frame the personhood question in the first place). Taken in context, the writer of the psalm was marveling at the omniscience of Yahweh, who he believed could see everyone and everything before they even come into being. Reading the verses around it makes clear what he means to say. It is a poetic expression, as are the lines which follow:
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.
No Christian interpreter today would be so literal as to argue this passage teaches that babies are built “in the depths of the earth,” since the language is clearly poetic. The purpose of the imagery is to express wonder at the omniscience of God, who sees what happens everywhere and to everyone before it even happens. Time would mean nothing for such a being. For Waltke, and for most Protestant thinkers at the time, the literary genre at play here made this passage the wrong place to look in order to answer the question of “when life begins.”
One more passage about abortion in the Bible must be noted before we can move on. In Numbers 5 we are told there are circumstances under which Yahweh actually instructed his people to perform an abortion. If a man suspected his wife of having slept with another man, he could take her to a priest, who would give her “bitter water” to drink and then perform a curse over her in order to induce a miscarriage. Whether or not this ritual ever accomplished its purpose is difficult to say, since the only ingredients spelled out in the text are water, dirt, and ink (and of course “a curse”). But the intent of the punishment is clear: For her alleged infidelity, the Bible says her pregnancy should be terminated.
As it turns out, this is all the Bible has to say about abortion. I must say, it’s not at all what I expected to find when I first set out to discover what it says. It’s not at all what people around me think the Bible says about abortion.
The Origins of the Pro-Life Movement
So what changed? Absent a clear biblical prohibition of abortion, and in light of the ancient definition of life beginning at first breath, how did evangelical Christianity come to embrace the Catholic denunciation of abortion?
Evangelical opposition to abortion was crafted by political operatives as a way to co-opt the Christian church into the Republican party in order to save it from extinction after its landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson in 1964 (see map above).
Far too few people realize that the pro-life movement was essentially cobbled together by opportunists seizing upon a sudden voter vacuum in the Republican Party following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the summer of 1964. They needed something to unify a group of people under one banner, and it took a decade and a half to make it happen, but they were eventually very successful.
At first, they were stuck with appealing to the white Southern disgust toward federally mandated racial equality (“It should be decided by the states,” they argued). But shifts in U.S. population demanded a more broadly acceptable issue, something more noble and universally appealing to an increasingly diverse demographic landscape.
Randall Balmer explains how Paul Weyrich, founder of both the Heritage Foundation and ALEC, initially struggled to find a unifying issue around which he could piece together a coalition of both Protestants and Catholics, who traditionally were at odds with one another on numerous issues, into a single monolithic political force.
…this hypothetical “moral majority” needed a catalyst—a standard around which to rally. For nearly two decades, Weyrich, by his own account, had been trying out different issues, hoping one might pique evangelical interest: pornography, prayer in schools, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, even abortion. “I was trying to get these people interested in those issues and I utterly failed,” Weyrich recalled at a conference in 1990.
His big break finally came in 1975 when the IRS moved to rescind the tax-exempt status of fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC, for failing to maintain racially equitable admissions policies. Both Catholic and Protestant schools alike were alarmed at the threat to their financial status this move represented, and out of that panic grew a more unified coalition of political operatives ready to declare this an infringement on their religious freedoms.
Weyrich at that time tapped Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell to head up his new “Moral Majority” movement. Falwell’s associate, Ed Dobson, would later corroborate Balmer’s reasoning for the formation of this new political entity:
The Religious New Right did not start because of a concern about abortion,” Dobson said. “I sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority, and I frankly do not remember abortion ever being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something.”
Perhaps after accepting the regional limitations of his own Southern Strategy, Weyrich proposed the abortion issue again a few years later. Given the growing Southern Baptist disdain for feminism and the sexual revolution, Weyrich sensed an opportunity to use opposition to Roe v. Wade as a rallying cry to unify Catholics and Protestants into a single powerful coalition.
Incidentally, Bob Jones University would go on to lose their “religious freedom” case in the Supreme Court in 1983 in an 8-to-1 decision against them. The court’s lone dissenter, Justice William Rehnquist, would later be elevated to Chief Justice by President Ronald Reagan, who was propelled to electoral victory in the South twice thanks to the support of Falwell’s Moral Majority, despite having passed the nation’s most liberal abortion bill in 1967 while he was still governor of California.
Abortion wasn’t always what the Religious Right was about, but it certainly is today.
Pawns in a Political Game
In this year’s presidential election, American evangelicals who naturally detest virtually everything about Donald Trump have declared they are reluctantly willing to elect the reality TV star to the greatest position of civic responsibility in the country despite his never having held public office of any kind. Why? Because he has promised them he will appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade.
Evangelical Christians today are willing to overlook Trump’s “foibles, peccadilloes, and metaphorical warts” because they have become deeply convinced that “life begins at conception,” and that abortion is murder. It has become a black-and-white issue for them, a clear case of right versus wrong. Anyone who would appoint SCOTUS justices who uphold Roe v. Wade must be “worse than Hitler” since he or she would then be responsible for the taking of millions of lives.
It’s an issue so central to the way they view their mission in the world today that some of their most outspoken representatives (e.g. James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffress, and Eric Metaxas, who has taken to calling Secretary Clinton “Hitlery”) have been unwavering in their support for the “thrice married owner of casinos with strip joints” who has lately come under fire for allegations of sexually assaulting more than a dozen women in precisely the manner in which he himself boasted on a hot mic before the filming of an Access Hollywood segment.
Leaving aside the biblical and historical problems of this argument, there are at least three significant semantic problems inherent in this contention that abortion is murder, and that life begins at conception.
First, when opponents of war or capital punishment cite the 6th Commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”) in order to support their causes, hawkish conservatives are quick to call out the absence of nuance in the translation of the word for “kill.” Because there are many different contexts and motives for the taking of a life, better translations render the commandment as saying “You shall not murder.”
Why is a different word for killing selected in this case? Quite obviously it is because in the larger context of biblical ethics there are circumstances under which the taking of a life, even a human life, is morally acceptable (e.g. war, self-defense, capital punishment). In order to distinguish this kind of “taking of a life” from other kinds, the word “murder” is chosen, as it denotes a more brutally violent and life-devaluing choice.
For some reason, when war or capital punishment is being discussed, evangelical Christians demand context-sensitive interpretations for words that signify the taking of human life, but whenever the subject of abortion comes up, they drop every form of nuance and lurch directly into calling it murder.
Why would they do this? They certainly aren’t deriving their positions from the biblical passages that relate to the topic, as we’ve seen above.
Second, they stack the deck in favor of their desired outcome whenever they frame the discussion by asking: “When does life begin?” Is that really the appropriate question? Exactly what kind of “life” are we talking about? Conscious life? Intelligent life? Self-aware life? Even plants and trees have life, as do bacteria. Other animals have not only organic life but also consciousness, thanks to brains that look and function in ways virtually identical to ours.
Once again, nuance and clarification fly out the window whenever this exceedingly complex topic is oversimplified into a matter of “protecting the unborn.” The reality isn’t nearly so simple as that.
Third, whenever we talk about the morality of abortion, the most passionate opponents of the procedure tend to lump every form of terminating a pregnancy into the same category, again jettisoning any trace of nuance. But should we really be using the same word for terminating a pregnancy at six weeks that we use for week thirty? Is any effort being made to understand that virtually anyone who elects to terminate a pregnancy in the third trimester (which is extremely rare) would only do so because of an imminent threat either to the health of the mother or to the viability of the child?
Related: “There Are No Nine Month Abortions“
These oversimplifications are unfortunately effective tactics of emotional manipulation employed by well-funded political operatives intent on preserving the national dominance of a political party with very deep pockets, and frankly they don’t care at all about abortion, gay marriage, or fighting pornography (Do you suppose Trump cares?). These are all handles on the church which they have seized upon in order to steer a large group of potential voters wherever they choose, even to the electing of the least qualified presidential candidate ever to the highest office in the land.
Evangelicals are being played. They have fallen for a strategy devised by desperate people with money to spare who were looking to stitch together a coalition of trusting people who would go on to serve as a reliable voting base for a half a century, right up until this election. It is the last gasp of the Southern Strategy finally playing itself out on a national stage.
The Overdue Death of the Southern Strategy
In continuing to support Donald Trump simply because he says he will outlaw abortion, evangelical Christians have effectively given up their right to speak to moral issues in American life. Five decades of well-coordinated political action has programmed them to draw a line in the sand over issues about which the Bible says virtually nothing, even while turning a deaf ear to the cries of the less fortunate, the marginalized poor and the socially disadvantaged in our country (something the Bible speaks about voluminously).
In so doing, as Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe so aptly put it, they have forfeited their right to claim moral authority over matters of public life.
The rest of us will never forget this. And we won’t be letting them, either.
- The “Biblical View” That’s Younger Than the Happy Meal
- Abortion: What the Bible Says (and Doesn’t Say)
- Abortion: How It Became the Issue that Will Sink Clinton for Evangelicals
[Featured image derived from the Elephant Fetus Project]
Note: Translators of multiple modern versions of the Bible have taken liberties in interpreting the language of Exodus 21 to obfuscate the meaning of the miscarriage in the passage. The NRSV preserves the more accurate rendering of the phrase by paying attention to the context of the issue the law was written to address, which was miscarriage, not “premature birth,” for which it would make little sense to be discussing punishment.
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