Protestants and Abortion

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.