Does It Matter that Evangelicals Became Prolife Recently?
But after noting how hard it was for early evangelical abortion foes to get their fellow evangelicals to take abortion more seriously, Dudley says, "In 1980, Falwell used his unparalleled platform to change all that" [italics added]. He went on:
Declaring that "[t]he Bible clearly teaches that life begins at conception," he allied with like-minded evangelicals to disseminate that interpretation across America. Falwell's assertion that this position was the obvious one in Scripture necessarily implied that the host of intelligent, pious evangelicals who came before him just didn't read their Bibles closely enough. It also made the Bible say the same thing his Catholic political allies believed (though Catholics believed it for other reasons).Although this was politically convenient, Falwell's interpretations were just as much a product of his time as those of his evangelical predecessors.
To begin with, this paragraph imagines that evangelicals are mindless drones who blindly follow the lead of any charismatic figure in our midst: Falwell asserts that the Bible says X about abortion, and every evangelical falls into line. The assumption is laughable. If anything, if a charismatic leader declares the Bible says X, two new evangelical movements and four new denominations will form to refute that interpretation! In other words, to use an old analogy, it's as easy to get evangelicals to rally around a common biblical interpretation as it is to herd cats. When it happens, it's pretty much a miracle.
I can speak with personal knowledge of large swaths of evangelical leaders and groups who had little-to-no sympathy for Jerry Falwell—some of us were deeply hostile to him and his politics and many of his biblical views. Many of us were living in a parallel universe, coming to see the evils of abortion in our way.
Take the previous editor in chief of Christianity Today, David Neff. In an email, he writes,
I know that my own conversion on the abortion issue was not at all influenced by Jerry Falwell or by Franky Schaeffer. It was influenced by C. Everett Koop and by Michael Gorman's InterVarsity Press book, Abortion and the Early Church. Koop provided a cultural argument and Gorman grounded it firmly in the Christian tradition.
Dudley fails to realize how many key evangelical leaders were going through this same process of conversion as was Neff. It was not politics but ethics, history, and a fresh look at Scripture that tipped the scales.
Layers of Biblical Teaching
In saying that evangelical views on abortion are "a product of his time," Dudley implies that the new biblical teaching was and is utterly relative: "It's harder to argue the Bible clearly teaches something when the overwhelming majority of its past interpreters didn't read the Bible that way." Let's think about this assumption for a bit.
First, all interpretations of the Bible are products of their time. All ethical reasoning is a product of its time. This is such a truism as to be hardly worth stating. All ethical standards arise out of a particular time and place, and cannot be fully understood without understanding those circumstances. But the fact that the Bill of Rights, to take one example, is a product of its time does not have much bearing on whether the rights enshrined there have lasting or even eternal value. But it does say that it took a particular constellation of events for the lasting and eternal value of human rights to be recognized.