The most cherished and enduring myth of the religious right is its myth of origins. According to this well-rehearsed narrative, articulated by Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and countless others, evangelical leaders were shaken from their political complacency by the US Supreme Court decision. Roe vs. Wade decision of January 22, 1973. Falwell even recounted, although fourteen years later, his horror at reading the story in the January 23, 1973 edition of the Lynchburg News. “The Supreme Court had just ruled by a margin of seven to two that would legalize the killing of millions of unborn children,” Falwell wrote. “I was sitting there watching the Roe vs. Wade story increasingly frightened by the consequences of the Supreme Court’s action and wondering why so few voices were raised against it.
This origin myth coaxed Falwell and other evangelical leaders out of their apolitical stupor like molluscs to fight the moral outrage over legalized abortion. Some even went so far as to invoke the nickname “new abolitionists” in an apparent effort to ally themselves with their pre-war evangelical predecessors who sought to eradicate the scourge of slavery.
The rhetoric that abortion is the catalyst for the rise of the religious right, however, crumbles under scrutiny. Evangelicals considered abortion a “Catholic issue” until the late 1970s. In 1968, the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today called a conference with another evangelical organization, the Christian Medical Society, to discuss the ethics of abortion. After several days of deliberation, twenty-six evangelical theologians issued a statement acknowledging that they could not agree on any position, that the ambiguities of the issue allowed for many different approaches. “We disagree on whether the practice of induced abortion is a sin,” the statement read, “but on its necessity and admissibility in certain circumstances, we agree “. The statement cited “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as possible justifications for abortion and allowed for instances where fetal life “may have to be abandoned to maintain a full and safe family life.”
Evangelicals in the late 1960s and through most of the 1970s generally refused to see abortion as a defining issue, let alone one that would summon them to the front lines of political activism. Abortion has simply failed to gain traction among evangelicals, and some groups with historical ties to evangelicalism have pushed for legalization. In 1970, for example, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church called on state legislatures to repeal laws restricting abortion, and in 1972, at a rally Jimmy Carter addressed as he was governor of Georgia, Methodists recognized “the sanctity of unborn human life” but also stated that “we are equally bound to respect the sanctity of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom Devastating harm can result from an unacceptable pregnancy”.
Gathered in St. Louis, Missouri, in the summer of 1971, messengers (delegates) to the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution which stated, “We call on Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility to abort in such conditions. such as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal malformation, and carefully determined evidence of the likelihood of damage to the mother’s emotional, mental, and physical health. The Southern Baptist Convention, hardly a redoubt of liberalism, reaffirmed this position in 1974, the year after the deer decision, and again in 1976.
When the deer decision was made on January 22, 1973, W. A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, expressed satisfaction with the decision. “I have always thought that only after a child was born and had a life separated from its mother did it become an individual person,” said one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century, “ and he always has, therefore, it seemed to me that one should allow what is best for the mother and for the future.
The Baptists, in particular, applauded deer decision as an appropriate articulation of the dividing line between church and state, between personal morality and state regulation of individual behavior. “Religious freedom, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion”, W. Barry Garrett of Baptist Press wrote. Floyd Robertson of the National Association of Evangelicals disagreed with the deer decision, but he believed that legal redress should not be a priority for evangelicals. “The issue of abortion should also remind evangelicals that the church should never rely on the state to support its mission or uphold its moral standards,” he wrote in the summer 1973 issue of the newsletter. organization, United Gospel Action. “Church and State must be separated. The actions and conduct of Christians transcend the secular community for which the state is responsible.
Some evangelical voices, including Christianity todayquestioned the decision, although the magazine published an editorial three years later entitled “Is Abortion, a Catholic issue? This editorial asserted the general principle of the right to life but concluded: “There are of course other considerations, such as that parents’ rights and the highly controversial question of when life begins.
The overwhelming response to Roe vs. Wade on the part of evangelicals was silence, and the voices that spoke about it were ambivalent. Two successive editors of Christianity today, Carl FH Henry and Harold Lindsell, procrastinating on abortion. Henry asserted that “a woman’s body is not the domain and property of another”; Lindsell admitted that “if there are compelling psychiatric reasons from a Christian perspective, mercy and caution may favor therapeutic abortion.” Even James Dobson, who later became a staunch enemy of abortion, acknowledged in 1973 that the Bible was silent on the matter and therefore it was plausible for an evangelical to believe that “a developing embryo or fetus was not considered a full human being. ”
In 1977, another voice, highly respected in evangelical circles, joined the conversation. Calling himself “a Christian, a father, a minister of the gospel and a professor of theology”, Walter Martin, a Baptist pastor, founder of the Christian Research Institute and longtime columnist for Eternity magazine, addressed the issue in a small book titled Abortion: is it still murder? Martin determined that abortion was prohibited as a form of contraception, but he added that it should be allowed in cases of rape and incest or to protect the health of the mother. “I think people who are against abortion in any form have presumed to be instructing divinity,” Martin wrote. “But you can’t say abortion is always murder.” He admitted that Christians had a right to challenge the law of the land – “It is better to obey God than men” – but he concluded: “For the love of God, we must stop making dogmatic statements in all areas of abortion”.
Opposition to abortion has been slow to take hold among evangelicals. Falwell did not issue any public statements on abortion until 1975 and, by his own admission, did not preach against abortion until February 26, 1978, more than five years after the Roe vs. Wade decision. In 2011, an early anti-abortion activist reflected on his reception among evangelicals in the 1970s. “While we evangelicals wavered,” Robert Case recalls, “Roman Catholics carried the torch of salvation for the ‘unborn America’. He described his “lukewarm” reception at an Evangelical Theological Society meeting and lamented: “We were four years after deer c. Wade and evangelical Christians were still ambivalent about abortion.
Despite the persistence of the abortion myth, endlessly propagated by leaders of the religious right, evangelicals viewed abortion as a “Catholic issue” until the late 1970s, and even then opposition to abortion was slow to set in.
This excerpt was published with permission from Eerdmans.