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Does It Matter that Evangelicals Became Pro-life Recently?
Image: AP
Ring of Life: Minnesotans protest the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision on January 22, 1973.

Evangelicals came to their current views on abortion through a combination of ethical reasoning, biblical hermeneutics, historical research, theological reflection, and contemporary American politics. That was my argument in a recent post, which was a response to a post by Jonathan Dudley at CNN. Dudley has just published a well-researched response in The Huffington Post that deserves a response, though I'd like to raise issues that underlie this conversation.

But let me admit that Dudley did catch me committing hyperbole. The title of my response referred to his CNN post as a "fake history." It's certainly not "fake" in this respect: Evangelicals were in fact divided, and many if not most of our leaders were formally "pro-choice" in the 1960s and 1970s. I do not mean to suggest that Dudley's argument in this respect is wrong.

I do think it is misleading in some respects, but that is to be expected when one is trying to do history in a column-length format. To call early evangelicals "pro-choice" in today's context implies that they held pro-choice views in the same spirit as many pro-choice advocates do today. Dudley is correct is suggesting that some pro-choice advocates do indeed believe that the fetus has moral value, and that they don't necessarily think abortion is the principal answer to the control of human reproduction—my apologies if I implied otherwise. The problem is that a large part of the pro-choice community—which includes millions beyond the United States—do indeed fail to see that the fetus has moral value, and do indeed champion abortion as just another method of birth control. This must be the subject of another essay, but the astonishing rate at which girls are aborted merely because of their gender (the United Nations estimates that as many as 200 million girls are missing because of this) suggests that entire nations are turning a blind eye to moral value of these lives. 1960s evangelicals were often pro-choice, yes, but the framework in which they held that position—when abortion was rare and exceptional—no longer pertains. Today pro-choice advocates stubbornly hold on to their views when abortion is no longer rare (over a million children are aborted every year in the United States alone) or exceptional (and practically government policy in some places), and the practice has led to a brutal gendercide.

As I noted in my last essay, only when Northern Christians discovered how absolutely horrific slavery was did they change or harden their views about slavery. Likewise to say evangelicals were pro-choice at a different time and different historical setting, while true, does not convey accurately the context in which those beliefs were held. One reason many evangelicals converted to the pro-life camp is because they finally recognized the terrible and inevitable consequences of pro-choice policy.

That being said, one part of Dudley's argument feels "fake," to me because, as a fully accurate title would have it, "it is incomplete to such a degree as to seriously misunderstand the reality." (But that makes for very bad title copy, no?). Seriously: Dudley's argument is grounded in a worldview that is reductionistic—that is, he argues that it was politics and really nothing else that tipped the scales for evangelical beliefs about abortion, and for their interpretation of Scripture. As I've suggested: Who can quarrel with the simple fact that abortion politics helped shape evangelical opinion and biblical exegesis?

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Does It Matter that Evangelicals Became Pro-life Recently?