The Real Story of the Religious Right -- A Movement Born to Defend Racial Segregation
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Just as influential, however, was pressure from Republican party operatives to form a movement that could steal socially conservative voters from Democrats. As Linda Greenhouse and Reva B. Siegel have written:
[F]eminist support for abortion rights had imbued the abortion issue with associations that could be tapped to mobilize a wide array of cultural conservatives... Strategists for the Republican Party approached Falwell and encouraged him to organize evangelicals as a ‘Moral Majority’ that would promote a ‘pro-family’ politics.
Once formed, the Moral Majority and its allies mobilized evangelicals to join Catholics in the fight against abortion by advancing a novel and tendentious interpretation of the Bible.
“The Bible clearly states that life begins at conception,” Falwell declared, referencing Luke 1:39–44 and Psalm 139:13–16.
“Abortion is not birth control nor family planning. It is murder according to the Word of God… It is time that medical students as well as every other person in our United States put those words ‘from the time of conception’ back into their thinking.”
Falwell and his array of allies disseminated this interpretation of the Bible, in a top-down political campaign, to millions of evangelicals across America, with mailers sporting titles like “Scriptures for Life.”
Given that the Bible, does not, in fact, teach that life begins at conception, evangelical scholars understandably emerged to challenge these views. The evangelical pro-life movement maintained momentum by actively suppressing such scholarship.
David Gareth Jones’ Brave New People was published by InterVarsity Press in 1984. The book, subtitled “Ethical Issues at the Commencement of Life,” argued for a moderate position on abortion, seeing embryos as morally valuable but not equivalent to children. Popular evangelical leaders across the country condemned the publication as a “monstrous book,” describing its author as on a “bandwagon bound for hell.” Evangelical outrage forced InterVarsity Press to withdraw a book for the first time in its history.
In 1989, Hessel Bouma III of the evangelical Calvin College teamed with several other Christian scholars to write Christian Faith, Health, and Medical Practice. They argued that the Bible does not actually teach that life begins at conception and that the new anti-abortion advocacy was unsupported by science, concluding while abortion may be morally wrong, “We should not support a right-to-life amendment that would grant personhood to fetuses from conception... personhood should be morally and legally granted to fetuses at the end of the second trimester.”
After the publication, Bouma was tarred a “pro-abortion” professor and Calvin College received a stream of demands that he resign. He later noted that many other evangelical scholars shared his view but were afraid to speak publicly about it in light of such reactions.
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.
Although it may be tempting to conclude with Mark Galli that “God uses the messiness of history to accomplish his will,” just because these strategies worked does not mean the movement has God’s endorsement.