Abortion and the Emerging Evangelical Conscience

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It was early in 1975 when my girlfriend of four years met me for lunch at a Wendy’s just down the street from the bank where she worked as a teller. Over a Frosty and fries, she confirmed what both of us had already deeply suspected: she was pregnant. We were eighteen. Just a few months earlier, I had dropped out of high school and, though it sounds like some bad literary cliché or a line from a Jim Croce tune, I was earning minimum wage working at a car wash.

At the time, the ink from Harry Blackmun’s pen was barely dry, as it had been just two years since Roe v. Wade. The highest court in the land had thus ruled that people like us had a right to terminate the pregnancy, and both of us had friends and acquaintances that urged abortion as the only feasible option. Indeed, my immediate supervisor at the car wash, a Black Sabbath devotee whose chosen nick name was “Scratch”—after Old Scratch himself (the cliché worsens)—argued strenuously that this was our only option. Scratch and his girlfriend Cruella (Okay, I made that one up) had recently been in the same predicament, and he testified that her abortion had been a simple and relatively inexpensive solution.

Scratch’s hearse-like black custom van included a plush bed of casket cloth in the back where children might be conceived, but no back seats where they might be carried. And so the fetus that might have become a burdensome child was now a mere blip on Scratch’s radar screen. He did, however, insist that I had a duty to pay for the abortion. Evidently the side of the angels has no monopoly on chivalry.

While we had no shortage of counselors urging abortion, there were precious few resources for thinking through the case for a pro-life viewpoint. She and I were left largely to our own resources.

We reasoned that we were the same individuals that our own mothers had carried, and, had some earlier incarnation of Scratch somehow persuaded them to abort, we would have been the ones to suffer an intended “fetal demise.” Didn’t the same logic apply to whoever was growing inside the girl across the table from me?

And then, of course, both of us were deeply influenced by the message of a pop song then current on the charts. The duo Seals and Crofts had just released their 1974 album Unborn Child, the title cut of which carried a strong pro-life message with the opening line, “Oh little baby, you’ll never cry, nor will you hear a sweet lullabye.” (Our son, now 33, asked me as I began this article whether I planned on mentioning the role that the Seals and Crofts album had in preserving his own life. It has been meaningful to him over the years, and, as a teen, he even shared a copy with a friend in the throes of the same decision. My wife and I still have that original 1974 LP that spun our pro-life convictions as it spun on our turntable.)

Evangelicals Awakened

No help was to be had from the church where both of our families were active. This was due, in part, to features unique to that assembly. People there were not thinking of the implications that a Christian worldview has regarding abortion largely because they were not really thinking about its implications for much of anything at all. Even on high beam, their lights illuminated little more than the manifest wrongness of alcohol and tobacco consumption, and, of course, the sort of scandalous activity that had gotten the two of us into our predicament. There, “theology” was reducible to “doctrine,” which, in turn, was reduced to an easily memorized “plan of salvation” that could be ticked off on four fingers and a thumb. No one was discussing the notion of the imago dei and its role in grounding that of human dignity.

But evangelicals in general had yet to be awakened to the issue. In fact, Frank Schaeffer recently observed in a Huffington Post piece, “Evangelicals weren't politicized … until after Roe v. Wade and after my late father Francis Schaeffer, Dr. C Everett Koop and I stirred them up over the issue of abortion in the mid to late 1970s through our books and ‘Whatever Happened To the Human Race’ film series.” I think he is right about this.

Dr. Koop attests in his memoirs that one day in 1977 he sat down with Francis and “Frankie” at Huèmoz and sketched out the outline for the Whatever Happened? book and film. “Together, the Schaeffers—-father and son—-and I determined to awaken the evangelical world—-and anyone else who would listen—-to the Christian imperative to do something to reverse the perilous realignment of American values on these life-and-death issues.” They succeeded.

Koop and the Schaeffers toured America in 1979, showing the film, with accompanying lectures, and churches across America woke from their dogmatic slumbers. The so-called “Religious Right” emerged, and abortion was at the heart of its concerns. Indeed, William Martin observes in his With God on Our Side (a companion volume to a PBS series of that title) that the film, book and lecture tour are "often credited with having been the single most important factor in bringing evangelicals into the fight against abortion."

Crazy for God?

But the junior Schaeffer has had a change of heart. With his next breath, after the quote above, he adds, “More than thirty years after helping to launch the evangelical pro-life movement I am filled with bitter regret for the unintended consequences. Mea culpa!” One wonders whatever happened to Frankie Schaeffer? The simple answer is right there in his article: “I was once a militant anti-abortion advocate. I changed my mind.” The “Mea culpa” is probably unnecessary, as Schaeffer might instead cop an insanity plea: like his parents, he was “Crazy for God.” Now he is cured.

In fact, the point of his article is to urge a more “nuanced” position on abortion. On the one hand, he thinks, it is self-evident that a fertilized egg is not a person. (This assumes that to be a person is to be possessed of a certain set of properties or characteristics. Different results emerge if personhood is thought to be a matter of kind membership. But this is another argument.) On the other, it is equally self-evident “that an unborn baby is mighty like one of us, and that a lot of fast talking about reproductive rights and choice or a woman's mental well being, doesn't answer the horror of a three-pound child with her head deliberately caved in lying in a medical waste receptacle.”

As Schaeffer sees it, the abortion debate has settled into a battle between extremists and ideologues, with the Sarah Palin and James Dobson types at one end, and the NARAL and Planned Parenthood militants at the other. As he interprets the relevant polls, most Americans reject both extremes in the abortion debate and share that nuanced view that abortion should remain legal “up to a point.” Writing as a card-carrying democrat and zealous supporter of Obama, he suggests that the democrats might win over that “large middle ground majority who may be summed up as those who are pro-choice but against abortion-on-demand later in pregnancy.” And he assures his readers that this same nuanced position, rather than that “favored by the ideologues at Planned Parenthood and NARAL,” is the one that Obama himself happens to hold. And so Frank Schaeffer thinks it unproblematic to assert, “I consider myself pro-life… and yet I am an avid supporter of Senator Obama.”

But “nuanced” is not the first word to come to my mind in describing the position of this candidate who was given a 100% pro-choice rating by NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Apparently, Frank Schaeffer knows something about Obama’s actual views that these “ideologues” do not. Arguably, our new president is the most pro-abortion person ever to hold that office. Speaking to a room full of Planned Parenthood supporters in July 2007, Senator Barack Obama pledged allegiance to the pro-choice cause. "The first thing I'd do as President is sign the Freedom of Choice Act,” he said to much applause.

Obama was referring to a bill first introduced three months earlier by Senator Barbara Boxer and co-sponsored by Schaeffer’s candidate on the day after—-and clearly as a reaction to—the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the federal ban on partial birth abortion in Gonzalez v. Carhart. The Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), if passed, would establish abortion as a “fundamental right” on a par with those of free speech and the right to bear arms. It would effectively sweep away all standing restrictions on abortion at every governmental level, including and especially the ban on partial birth abortion, as well as laws requiring parental consent for minors and restrictions on tax-funded abortions.

The bill would make a woman’s right to choose absolute prior to the “viability” of the fetus, and thereafter conditioned only by the requirement that the abortion is necessary to preserve her life or health. Of particular concern to those opposed to the bill is that two critical terms—“viability” and “health” are left undefined, so that the fate of that “three-pound child,” who is yet of moral concern to Francis Schaeffer’s son, may be determined by the subjective judgment of an abortionist.

An Emerging Evangelical Conscience?

It appears that not a few people of otherwise pro-life conviction cast their lots with the staunchly pro-choice candidate. In another Huffington Post piece, Frank Schaeffer gleefully observes that many young evangelicals voted democratic, and that the student newspaper at Gordon College—a traditionally evangelical liberal arts college—officially endorsed Obama. The New York Times reported just days after the election that Obama managed to double his support among young evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29. This was partly by design, as the Obama campaign specifically targeted this group, visiting a decade of Christian colleges, and even teaming up with the likes of emergent church author, Don Miller—-an avid Obama supporter whose work is popular among college aged evangelicals.

But those fields were already white unto harvest. Late in 2006, Venessa Mendenhall posted a report on the PBS “Generation Next” website titled, “Are Young Evangelicals Leaning Left?” It cites a rally at Calvin College protesting President Bush’s policies, and observes that young evangelicals appear to have “cooled” on “hot-button” issues, such as abortion and homosexuality. Last May, the Seattle Times used interviews with students at Seattle Pacific University as a springboard for discussing an apparently broader trend, noting that an informal poll of students at SPU showed a majority supporting Obama.

Last August, the Washington Post reported, “GOP Loyalty Not a Given for Young Evangelicals.” The Post bothers to mention the influence of leaders in the so-called “emerging church” in calling old assumptions into question. On the same day, the Washington Times reported, “Obama Attracts Younger Evangelicals.” That story quotes Christian philosopher Douglas Groothuis as suggesting that they were suffering from “fetus fatigue” and were ready to “give up.”

Has this younger generation tired of the abortion debate or, like Frank Schaeffer, “changed their minds” and thrown their pro-life parents under the bus? Polls conducted by the Pew Trust, the Barna Group, and others do not support this suggestion, as this group tends to be conservative on the abortion issue. So why have a significant number run to Obama “as fast as our legs could carry us,” as Schaeffer put it?

A part of the explanation, I believe, is a healthy skepticism regarding political allegiances among Christians. As one SPU student put it, "I just keep thinking, if Jesus were alive now, he wouldn't necessarily be voting Republican.” “Most of us would never blindly follow the old Christian Right anymore,” said another. The Washington Post article quotes a Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary student as saying, “If you are an evangelical Christian, no political party should be able to fully represent you because you are doing something counter-cultural.”

Along these lines, there are those who believe the GOP has played the Christian Right like a calliope, drawing their support with furious pro-life rhetoric, ultimately signifying nothing. "The pro-life platform is total lip-service from the Republicans. Evangelicals are starting to realize this, and that should scare the hell out of every Republican in office," said a Multnomah Biblical Seminary student. A disenchanted Tony Jones of Emergent Village said, “We did what they said to do. We elected all these people, we got conservative justices appointed at the bench, and nothing happened.” (One wonders where Jones was when news of Gonzalez v. Carhart broke, or where he will be if FOCA ever makes it to the new president’s desk.)

And it may be that the younger generation is reacting to an unattractive stridency and extremism that has often characterized the so-called Religious Right. Recall Philip Yancey’s observation in What’s So Amazing About Grace? that the word “evangelical” has turned putrid in the mouths of many as it conjures images of militant, intolerant, overly-political fanatics with a narrow agenda, who are quick to condemn but slow to show compassion. If the severity and austerity of the earlier fire-and-brimstone version of faith moved baby boomers to don Hawaiian print shirts and brandish Fender guitars in their services, perhaps we are witnessing a similar reactive phenomenon in the political thought and activism of the emerging church.

Politically Ambidextrous

But, more than anything, the trend is explained by a growing awareness of a wider set of issues, beyond those with which the Christian Right has traditionally been concerned. “Young evangelicals are attracted to a broader agenda beyond abortion and homosexuality, that includes the environment, poverty, human rights and torture,” Professor David Gushee of Mercer University told the New York Times. “I don't think any young evangelical is ignoring the traditional values issues, but they are adding other issues, including poverty and war, and they are also looking at integrity and family,” said Joshua DuBois, a young evangelical who served as Obama’s “Religious Affairs Director.” A Multnomah student told PBS, "We are becoming politically ambidextrous,” an apparent reference to language used by emergent church leader and author Brian McLaren. "We'll be pro-life, but we'll be pro-circle-of-life as well. ... After all, family values means taking care of future generations."

Eugene Cho, pastor of Seattle’s Quest Church, described on their website as an “emerging church,” wrote in his blog, “While the issue of abortion—the sanctity of life—must always be a hugely important issue, we must juxtapose that with other issues that are also very important.” Following such advice, an SPU student observes, “A lot of us are taking apart the issues, and thinking, 'OK, well, [none of the candidates] fits what I'm looking for exactly.' But if you're going to vote, you've got to take your pros with your cons."

Thus, Brian McLaren offers evangelicals a choice. “We could stay stuck in simplistic, single-issue morality, or we could mature in our integration of faith and public life.” Elsewhere, he speaks disparagingly of a “single-issue voting block” and those accustomed to “binary thinking,” who are driven by “one or two wedge issues.” In explaining his endorsement of Obama, McLaren writes, “Does that mean that every one of us is in full agreement with every detail of Senator Obama’s campaign? Of course not: we’re electing a president, not a Messiah! Blind, uncritical support is part of the misuse that we’re trying to move beyond.”

And so, those of us who have cultivated a more mature perspective on faith and public life will come to appreciate the broader spectrum of morally significant issues and thus transcend the simplistic, single-issue approach. And, since it is highly unlikely that any particular candidate or party platform will align perfectly with our views, we must settle for some approximation. Some issues must inevitably take a back seat to others in this process.

It’s the Imago Dei, Stupid

As an early signer of “An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation,” I have been disappointed in my less than warm reception among fellow evangelicals when I have expressed my views on environmental ethics. Some seem to suppose that, because some issues are very important others are not important at all. And so, all else equal, I applaud such measures to broaden the scope of moral concern to include certain other issues as having legitimate claim upon the evangelical conscience. And it is simply true that we are forced to prioritize and seek the best equilibrium among our values as we cast our ballots or choose our political and cultural battles.

But there is more to the story than just that.

J.S. Mill recognized that a moral principle may generate moral rules that occasionally come into mutual conflict in this messy world of ours. What do you do when you discover that, no matter which action you choose, you violate a moral rule that has a valid claim upon you? Clearly, you have to determine which of the two has the greater moral gravity and follow that one at the sacrifice of the other. The relative importance of the rules is determined by the ultimate moral principle itself. Many—perhaps most—rules are such that there is a standing possibility that they may be “trumped” by weightier rules in cases of conflict.

But some concern “the essentials of human well-being more nearly” so that it is difficult to conceive a rule of greater weight that could trump them. There is much to criticize in Mill’s overall account of things, but this much is, I think, a useful insight applicable to our present discussion.

It is in principle possible for some issues to be so much to the heart of all moral concern that they trump nearly any and every issue with which they compete. And there can be nothing irrational or unworthy of an intelligent and responsible citizen to recognize what is at stake and thus believe and behave accordingly. To take an obvious and extreme example, were we faced with a choice between a “pro-genocide” or “pro-slavery” candidate and his opponent who believes these to be moral atrocities, we should not give weight to the former because he has a great economic or energy plan, will lower taxes, or is the “greener” of the two.

In a recent interview, Baylor philosophy professor Francis Beckwith observed what he described as a “disturbing trend among some Evangelical leaders.” He describes watching a video of Brian McLaren, in which McLaren urges resistance to “single-issue” voting, obviously with abortion in mind. “I sat through this video with my mouth hanging open in utter amazement that this pastor would present the profundity of the sanctity of life by disguising it (calling it "one issue") and then dismissing it by characterizing in an uncharitable way fellow Christians who are deeply committed to human life's intrinsic dignity from conception to natural death.” Beckwith concludes,

"The view that human beings are made in the image of God and ought to be protected by our laws and the wider community is not "one issue." It is the principle that is the point of justice itself: to love our neighbors as ourselves; to exercise charity; to help the vulnerable and the weak."

Tell me that you simply do not believe that abortion kills human beings. I shall disagree with you, but I will understand why you find it reasonable to allow the abortion issue to be eclipsed by other concerns.

Tell me that you do not believe in the imago dei or the notion of human dignity. I’ll understand, but wonder what grounds you wish to offer me for any moral concern—-such as AIDS or poverty—-whatever.

Tell me that political affiliation is inconsequential for the abortion issue. I’ll assess the claim, but might suggest that you underestimate the importance of such things as Supreme Court appointments and veto power.

But please do not tell me that, even though we have thus far killed fifty million bearers of the imago dei in this nation since Roe v. Wade, this fact must be “juxtaposed” against other important issues. For then I shall fear that you are at risk of losing touch with all that is sacred. One might as well “juxtapose” Russian roulette with Monopoly, Risk and Gin Rummy when deciding how to pass a rainy afternoon.

Shall we look the other way when that “three-pound child” has “her head deliberately caved in” and is discarded because our more mature view of the “integration of faith and public life” has, unfortunately, demanded our attention?

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Submitted by shoun4life on Tue, 01/27/2009 - 10:30am.

Your post is the best thing I've read on the subject of evangelicals for Obama. Thank you very much.

One thing I'd would have expected post-modernists such Schaeffer and McLaren to talk about is the success-story of the thousands of pregnancy care centers across the country that are showing Christ to abortion-bound women on a daily basis, and have been for decades. (I would have thought Frank would talk about them since he and his dad were, to a large degree, responsible for recharging the movement back in the 80s.) We also should talk about them every time we critique these leaders.

PCCs quietly go about the work of stopping abortions one by one, providing material goods, emotional support, education on pregnancy and abstinence, and more. Some centers offer medical services such as ultrasound and STD testing. They do all this free of charge, enlisting a vast army of volunteers, working within miniscule budgets, with little fanfare and no government help.

Many centers are also committed to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, offering true and lasting transformation. To my way of thinking, they are the stars of the pro-life movement. When "right-wing fundamentalists" are critiqued without the caveat that they've done well to provide alternatives in the form of pregnancy care centers, then PCCs are unjustifiably denigrated.

Now, more than ever, we need to support PCCs. Times are hard for families, which means there will be a greater demand for the support centers offer. Meanwhile, the economy is drying up their funding sources, and the Obama administration and the new Congress are threatening to create an even more hostile environment for pro-life ministries. Thank you for allowing me this space to show my support.

Submitted by Davids mom on Tue, 01/27/2009 - 4:43pm.

. and thought provoking. (I printed the work - 9 pages) I hope others take the time to read this. I haven't finished it yet - but will return with my comments. This is not an easy subject for discussion - but one that is needed so that all understand the other's point of view. Thanks for using you expertise in organizing the work. It is appreciated.

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