An Exploration into the Evangelical Obsession with the Unborn

An Exploration into the Evangelical Obsession with the Unborn June 22, 2015

By Kristen Syme.

On an April morning in 2008 during my brief stint at Bible college, a strange turn of events unfolded at one of the weekly chapel services. The college president stood sternly behind the pulpit in preparation for an exhortation as congregants entered. Like the prophet Jeremiah warning of the impending destruction of Jerusalem, he bellowed from behind the pulpit, “There is a great scourge that threatens the security of our nation—the time to act is at hand!” That terror that placed the future of the United States in jeopardy was, of course, the persistence of pro-choice legislation. If Christians don’t protect the unborn then the judgment of God will befall our once great “Christian nation.”

A few weeks later, the Pennsylvania Republican Primaries would take place. The embattled college president sought to thwart votes away from candidates with pro-choice sympathies, because in his mind, being anything but unambiguously pro-life is to condone legalized murder. Certainly other issues matter, but how can they compare to protecting innocent lives endowed by the Creator with full human rights? There is only one minor issue with this… the Bible is silent on the issue of elective abortion.

In fact, evangelicals—the heart of the Christian Right—as a whole did not initially protest Roe v. Wade. Early on, the primary religious coalition attacking pro-choice legislation was Catholicism, and only in the late 70’s did the Christian Right we know today begin mobilizing, uniting on the basis of patriotism, “family values”, and a desire to see the gap narrowed between church and state. The women’s liberation movement, the gay rights movement, and the sexual revolution incited anxiety in many within the conservative sects of society. Christian Americans watched as waves of liberal ideological change unfurled until the spearheads of the Christian Right called on “Bible-believing” Christians to take back America. For evangelists like Jerry Falwell, accomplishing this goal meant aligning with their fellow social conservatives i.e., Catholics with whom they had a mutual interest in subverting the rise of secularism. Persuading evangelicals to take up arms against abortion with their Catholic neighbors was a means of organizing conservatives to stimulate social and political change.

Frank Schaeffer, the son and collaborator of the pro-life evangelist Francis Schaeffer, contends that effecting change for the Christian cause required marrying politics and religion. Schaeffer accredits his father and other leaders with persuading the likes of Ronald Regan to change their positions on abortion in an exchange of social capital. He stated of their strategy:“…Republican leaders would affirm their anti-abortion commitment to evangelicals, and in turn we’d vote for them — by the tens of millions. Once Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, ‘we’ would reverse Roe…” According to Schaeffer, the leaders of the Right were driven by a desire to improve the moral climate of the U.S.

Though highly conspiratorial, this is not an implausible historical narrative. By the 1970’s, Christian bookstores and magazines were springing up as part of the counter counter-culture, and evangelicals were flocking to Christian colleges or joining campus groups like InterVarsity. Only several highly influential figures were needed to corral the masses. The structure of religion lends considerable influence to a relative few. Evangelists like Schaeffer traveled the country, preaching to thousands if not millions at churches and college campuses. The prestigious few who have the means to reach millions with their message can rapidly kick-start ideological movements; particularly when church leaders re-disseminate their message. Though evangelicals do not regard ministers as direct intercessors to God, they are still authorities to whom “believers” will readily defer. Congregants look to spiritual leaders to direct them in their lives, and an inherent goal of preaching is conviction. Churchgoers may quietly disagree with their minister on minor issues, but few would openly criticize a preacher outside of blatant heresy. If a preacher does, in fact, fear rebuttal, some resort to proclaiming that they speak “the Truth of God”, transforming any criticism into an affront to God himself. Thus, followers may be susceptible to vilifying acts that occupy morally ambiguous spaces.

To the evangelical, legalized abortion has become a symbol of the loss of “family values” and the social order of the rigid Christian patriarchal system; the unborn are the nameless, identity-less upon which the Christian Right can project their own anxieties. The Right is acutely aware of the waning relevance of Christianity in American culture, and thus must harness the forces of politics to re-exert their power.

Rationality and Justice in a Black and White World

A mistrust of ambiguity endemic to the realm of fundamentalism drives this crusade against an issue not outlawed in the Bible. Fundamentalists, whether Christian or otherwise tend to divide the world into the binary categories of black and white. Gray represents danger and the realm of the slippery slope. The question of when to assign “person” status to our species is not clear-cut. The unborn challenge our conceptions of “personhood” and highlights the shortcomings of our linguistic categories. For Christians, the unborn present a special problem. Unlike Islam, which designates “personhood” at 4 months into pregnancy, there are no equivalent revelations in the Christian scriptures. Thus, we have a matter that may be easily manipulated into placement in the black category as a consequence of uncertainty.

The danger of using simplistic dichotomies to determine legislation is the obliteration of a costs and benefits analysis. The Christian Right is undeterred by liberal sentiments that “pro-life” legislation is oppressive to women. From newly formed zygotes to fetuses on the cusp of birth, mammalian residents of the human uterus are regarded as independent persons whose development should not be stifled by the conflicting motivations of their bearers. At the point of conception, a woman’s body is a vessel for another. Men do not pay these biological costs, hence why potential fathers get less input in deciding the continuation of a pregnancy—a point often lost on the Right. The intention of “pro-lifers” is not to oppress women; for them, women are simply not a part of the equation. The host is subservient to the hosted, and the desires and motivations of the human organism that provides the environment and nutrients to the potential person are irrelevant. But, oppression is real even if it is not recognized, and oppression frequently hides in ideologies that cannot be questioned by adherents. The notion that the unborn are fully sanctified humans has become an unquestionable tenet of Christianity.


Kristen Syme is a PhD student in evolutionary anthropology at Washington State University. She specializes in the evolution of human psychology, which includes examining humans socially, culturally, and biologically. 











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