Political Animal


February 11, 2013 11:59 AM Protestants and Abortion

By Ed Kilgore

While the election of a new Pope will likely rekindle (at least in this country and in Europe) arguments over the retrograde position of the Vatican on reproductive rights, it’s important to note the very different history of those forming today’s religiously-based anti-choice coalition in the United States. While the Catholic hierarchy’s current stance is historically and theologically problematic, and is out of alignment with lay opinion in America (embarassingly so on abortion, and insanely so on contraception), there is at least a credible argument to be made for it based on Church tradition, Aristotelian bioethics, and a highly authoritarian sense of the Vatican’s “teaching” function.

It’s always fascinated me that by contrast American conservative evangelical Protestants have come to be if anything more extremist on abortion than Catholics (certainly in terms of rank-and-file opinion) without any of these factors: they do not regard Church traditions as dispositive, have been lukewarm or hostile to “natural law” as a foundation for doctrine, and have no centralized source of doctrinal authority other than the Bible, which is all but silent on the subject (no, Christian Right types don’t admit that, but it’s true nonetheless aside from entirely circular arguments that proscription of homicide includes abortion). And it’s all happened quite recently.

If this subject interests you as well, I urge you to read Jonathan Dudley’s succinct but thorough analysis for Religion Dispatches of the actual origins of the conservative evangelical anti-choice obsession. He explodes two myths in particular: that the entire Christian Right sprang up largely as a spontaneous response to Roe v. Wade, and that sola scriptura fundamentalists can plausibly claim explicit biblical sanction for making opposition to legalized abortion one of the top two or three moral commandments for Christians engaged in civic or political life. Here’s the key graph summarizing Dudley’s argument:

As the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade passes, it’s important to remember the both sides of the evangelical anti-abortion movement’s history. Yes, it did involve legitimate moral concerns about abortion, it did occasion serious reflection on the issue by evangelical scholars and pastors, and it did bring a formerly apolitical segment of America into the political process.
But its founding moral outrage stemmed not from Roe v. Wade, but from the prospect of government-imposed desegregation; it rest its intellectual foundation on highly dubious, non-scholarly arguments advanced by Francis Schaeffer; it mobilized lay evangelicals to action by telling them the Bible teaches something it does not actually teach; and it actively suppressed the scholarship of evangelicals who held alternative viewpoints.

It’s ironic that debate over reproductive rights is vastly more robust among the American members of a supposedly monolithic Catholic Church that has been examining the subject for centuries than among conservative evangelical Protestants who have little sense of tradition or history and just discovered the abortion issue very recently. There’s little doubt Dudley is right that much of the organized Christian Right’s antichoice fervor is an effect rather than a cause of a more general alignment of conservative evangelicals with the Republican Party and the conservative movement’s conviction that the cultural and economic practices of pre-New Deal Era were handed down by the Founders, or by God Almighty, or (most often) by the latter through the former.

When progressives talk optimistically about “the fever” of the Tea Party Movement breaking in a healthy outburst of political realism, it’s this background of divinized self-delusion that must be taken more fully into account.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on February 11, 2013 12:21 PM:

    After Lincoln freed the slaves, the next big change didn't come until Harry Truman integrated the military - and that led to the Dixicrat Party, headed by Strom Thurmond.

    And then, in what finally was the straw that broke the camel's back, LBJ started to push for the Civil Rights Act(s).

    That led these religious people to go for Goldwater.

    And, after he lost, they decided to organize themselves from the ground up, in order to start to seed the political system with some good-old Jesus-freaky goodness.

    And Roe v. Wade was their way of lashing back at both the Civil Rights, and Women's Rights, movements.

    After centuries of being on the wrong end of civil and human rights, they took up the unborn fetus as the focus to their movement - even if they really didn't care if any non-white women had abortions, or died from having or not having them.

    Their focus was really on WHITE women, because anyone with even the dimmest Christian-addled brain could see that the countries demographics were changing.

    Reagan welcomed the Manichean Evangelicas into the Republican Party, and, good little worker bees that they are, they are now in control of that party.

    And they're not going away any time soon.
    How can they?
    To give up their blessed work, is to give up on God and Jesus, and to side with the Devil.

  • Josef K on February 11, 2013 12:47 PM:

    itís this background of divinized self-delusion that must be taken more fully into account.

    I've never heard it phrased quite this way, nor do I expect the mainstream press to pick it up (despite its complete applicability).

    Nevertheless, its a good descriptor of what we're dealing with, and why its all but impossible to overcome it for any length.

  • Ted Frier on February 11, 2013 1:01 PM:

    The Tea Party will not, and cannot, change because it is not a "political" movement as that term is commonly understood, governed by the usual political laws of nature. Its goal is not winning. It does not seek political office so that it can govern the country we have. It wants a whole new country, a whole different society, and it will keep at it, tightly gripping its "conservative Principles," until it gets what it wants, no matter how long it must spend in the political wilderness -- Moses-like in the desert -- before it reaches the promised land.

  • RMcD on February 11, 2013 1:17 PM:

    A really good post. It seems to me that a key connection here is that "evangelical" Christianity has really become authoritarian in its leanings, a reaction against the tolerant liberalism of so many "mainliners" that began with the emergence of the fundamentalists about a century ago. They effectively replace the Pope's authority with that of biblical word--the Bible itself as the new "incarnation" of the divine rather than a prophecy of and witness to that incarnation. That begs the question of how you go about interpreting those texts, of course. But for the authoritarian, a reactive "primitivism" that simply accepts the preacher's word and demands obedience is instinctively attractive.

    The irony is that protestantism begins as a lefty protest against such authority. If you look back at the debates during the English Civil War in the 1640s, the more passionately protestant and individualistic groups tended also to be strongly democratic and tolerant (Baptists, Quakers, etc.).

  • esaud on February 11, 2013 1:29 PM:

    Abortion is a big issue for conservatives because it HAS to be a big issue.

    There is nothing else that fits the bill: It doesn't cost the big money boyz a cent, unlike social issues involving actual people, like our terrible childhood poverty levels.

    It also serves the purpose of letting conservatives feel good and moral about themselves without having to actually act morally in their own lives. By agrandizing the moral implications of abortion, they effectively minimize the importance of treating fellow citizens with dignity and respect.

    The fact that anti-abortion issue stemmed from (highly immoral) exposes how morally bankrupt is the entire right wing. Since there is literally nothing else (other than abortion) that they can claim any moral high ground, anti-abortion issues have to loom large, over and above anything in the Sermon on the Mount or anything else in Jesus' actual teachings.

    The hypocracy is seen in the fact that the most liberal societies ahve the lowest rates of abortion. If conservatives actually cared about abortion, they would have to accept liberal social policies, something impossible in their little pea brains.

  • Dan on February 11, 2013 1:33 PM:

    While Scriptural references to abortion are, at best, obscure, the Didache is fairly explicit in its objection to abortion. (The Didache being the first- and second-century guidebook on how Christians were to conduct themselves...)

  • Harris on February 11, 2013 1:49 PM:

    Speaking from the Evangelical side of the aisle, the article misses some of the major aspects of Evangelical support for anti-abortion. While Evangelicals of the South certainly framed it through their battles on civil rights (there's a long, long history their among the S Presbyterians especially, now in Presbyterian Church of America), in the Upper Midwest, the Evangelicals were often members of immigrant based churches. Their reaction was shaped far more by the cultural battles over the ERA. There is also within these communities a large consensus on the justice side of the issue -- these communions were one of the homes for the Pro-Life Democrats.

    Also, within these communions, Francis Schaeffer did have a pull, not because of this last film, but because of a generation of work in Europe. Many young Evangelicals found in him the first person who seemed to possess a cultural engagement. Whatever his flaws, at L'Abri he pioneered a vision of Evangelical thinking that inspired a number of evangelical and non-evangelical scholars. His film had impact because of his previous brand, as it were.

    Among northern Evangelicals (well, at least in here in Michigan), the decisive push to a more radical position takes place in 1988 and Pat Robertson's primary run. This was the contest that showed the political potency of the Right to Life, from that point on, that was the beat that the Evangelical Right had to move to (also note that the Evangelical Left, prominent in the late 70s had collapsed -- another story).

    Finally, we should probably also noted the impact of the change in abortion itself, from surgical to medical, and with it a shift to earlier abortions. The violence of the abortion methods in the 80s played a role in fueling the Evangelical stance. In that light, the Evangelical adoption of the metaphysical fundamentalism of the Catholics represents more a political alignment, and a lessening of the community's early horror at the practice and with it, a concern for justice.

  • Ken on February 11, 2013 11:47 PM:

    Mr Dudley is 99% correct in his history, but Jimmy Carter has been wrongly blamed (credited?) with the decision to deny tax exempt status to religiously affiliated institutions (Bob Jones University) that practiced racial discrimination. Carter was President from 1977 to 1981. The IRS decision on Bob Jones' tax status came out in 1970, and, after legal squabbling, put in place in January of 1976, a year before Carter took the oath of office. I don't think he even had the nomination in Jan. 1976. The Supreme Court final ruling (8-1) was in 1983.

  • gyrfalcon on February 12, 2013 12:47 AM:

    You can't take anti-abortion all by itself and make any sense of it. These same people also vehemently reject most forms of birth control and sex education and attempts to deal with AIDS.

    Culturally, this all stems from the same place, an intense fear of female sexuality and a desire to punish it, both in and out of marriage. Pregnancy and AIDs and other STDs are viewed as a punishment for sex, and therefore any attempts to prevent them must be fought tooth and nail.

  • gyrfalcon on February 12, 2013 1:03 AM:

    You can't take anti-abortion all by itself and make any sense of it. These same people also vehemently reject most forms of birth control and sex education and attempts to deal with AIDS.

    Culturally, this all stems from the same place, an intense fear of female sexuality and a desire to punish it, both in and out of marriage. Pregnancy and AIDs and other STDs are viewed as a punishment for sex, and therefore any attempts to prevent them must be fought tooth and nail.