Thursday, November 1, 2012

Humanism's Role in the Evolution of Christian Attitudes towards Abortion

Theologian Francis Schaeffer
Jonathan Dudley, author of Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics has a piece on CNN's Belief Blog entitled "My Take: When Evangelicals were pro-choice." In it, Dudley points to a 1968 issue of Christianity Today that attempted to encapsulate "the consensus among evangelical thinkers at the time" concerning the issue of abortion.
In the leading article, professor Bruce Waltke, of the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, explained the Bible plainly teaches that life begins at birth:

“God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: 'If a man kills any human life he will be put to death' (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense… Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”
The magazine Christian Life agreed, insisting, “The Bible definitely pinpoints a difference in the value of a fetus and an adult.” And the Southern Baptist Convention passed a 1971 resolution affirming abortion should be legal not only to protect the life of the mother, but to protect her emotional health as well."
Dudley then goes on to identity televangelist and founder of the Moral Majority Jerry Falwell as instrumental in not only changing evangelical attitudes about abortion, but with using the issue to political advantage.
Falwell’s first major treatment of the issue, in a 1980 book chapter called, significantly, "The Right to Life," declared, “The Bible clearly states that life begins at conception… (Abortion) is murder according to the Word of God.”
With the power of television, and his inordinate influence on politics throughout the years of the Reagan administration, Falwell was able to shift the evangelical opinion on abortion almost completely. 
During the 2008 presidential election, Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren demonstrated the depth of this shift when he proclaimed: “The reason I believe life begins at conception is ‘cause the Bible says it.”
Christianity Today issued a response that pretends to be a rebuttal but actually confirms Dudley's analysis. This rebuttal to Dudley is entitled "When Evangelicals Were Pro-Choice'—Another Fake History" so I expected to find some evidence suggesting that Dudley's analysis was flawed and purposefully skewed but instead I find lines such as "He (Dudley) [is] certainly right," and "Dudley is formally right."

The piece then goes on to describe how Dudley's accurate analysis ignores the fact that Evangelical positions have shifted, though in fact that's the entire point of Dudley's piece. Arguments for or against abortion aside, this rebuttal is anything but, and therefore the title is not only misleading, but a calculated falsehood.

Of interest to me was the origin of Falwell's position on the matter of abortion. Falwell is certainly a great public speaker and self-promoter, but theologically he's not known as an original thinker. It was pretty simple to find Falwell's mentor on the subject, theologian Francis Schaeffer.

Texan Southern Baptist ran an piece back in May entitled "Schaeffer's influence persuaded Falwell"  that gives a quick rundown on the subject. This piece, by Jerry Pierce, is written from the so-called "Pro-Life" perspective. Pierce supports Dudley's analysis of the evangelical position on abortion:
In the 1970s, Schaeffer, a knickers-wearing Presbyterian minister, intellectual giant and prolific writer, and C. Everett Koop, a physician who later would become U.S. surgeon general, produced a book and video series called "Whatever Happened to the Human Race?"

In it, they examined how the rejection of the doctrine of man made in God's image resulted in a devaluing of human life.

The effect of their work, lamenting modernism's ruinous effects, challenged a few evangelicals, but not most -- at least not immediately.

Southern Baptists, for example, were on record supporting abortion rights as late as 1976. Our ethics agency presented abortion as a sometimes necessary evil. Thankfully, the SBC officially reversed itself in the 1980s.
Pierce continues that Falwell,
...noted Schaeffer's influence on him when asked about it during a brief interview at the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention's evangelism conference.

He told about visiting with Schaeffer and Koop in Virginia and coming away with a fresh view of how Christians could positively engage the world in various arenas.

A few years later, Falwell founded the Moral Majority, an organization whose cause resonated with most evangelicals and even some Roman Catholics, as social issues -- most prominently abortion but also encompassing extreme secularism and fallout issues from the so-called sexual revolution -- drew religious conservatives in from the political margins.

At the least, Reagan's election in 1980 and his socially conservative agenda were aided by Falwell and the millions his movement helped mobilize.
Francis Schaeffer's biography on Wikipedia notes his catastrophic influence on American society:
A number of Christian leaders, authors, and evangelists credit Schaeffer's ideas with helping spark the rise of the Christian Right in the United States and were strongly influenced by him. Among them are Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, Focus on the Family's James Dobson, the 700 Club's Pat Robertson, Prison Fellowship's Charles Colson, columnist Cal Thomas, preacher and author Tim LaHaye, former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, and Liberty University and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell.
To paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, "You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."

Schaeffer was primarily concerned with standing up to what he considered the deleterious effects of secular humanism, and his 1981 book A Christian Manifesto was written in opposition to the various Humanist Manifestos. In a 1982 sermon, Schaeffer says,
The word Humanism should be carefully defined. We should not just use it as a flag, or what younger people might call a "buzz" word. We must understand what we are talking about when we use the word Humanism. Humanism means that the man is the measure of all things. Man is the measure of all things. If this other final reality of material or energy shaped by pure chance is the final reality, it gives no meaning to life. It gives no value system. It gives no basis for law, and therefore, in this case, man must be the measure of all things. So, Humanism properly defined, in contrast, let us say, to the humanities or humanitarianism, (which is something entirely different and which Christians should be in favor of) being the measure of all things, comes naturally, mathematically, inevitably, certainly. If indeed the final reality is silent about these values, then man must generate them from himself.
In a sense, this is an argument for the necessity of God. Not a proof of God's existence in any way, it is simply a restatement of Doestoevsky's observation in The Brothers Karamazov that without God anything is permitted. It's a very flawed argument, of course, and Socrates dealt with the issue in his own way while debating Euthyphro, giving rise to the Euthyphro dilemma. But I'm digressing here.

What I learned in researching and writing this piece is that the rise of the Evangelical Right came about as a direct response to the efforts of Secular Humanists to make the world a better place. In advancing a philosophy that stressed the equal worth and dignity of every human being in a society free from baseless superstition Humanists have riled the opposition into political action. In not taking the other side seriously Humanists have allowed their cultural opponents to go virtually unchallenged for thirty years.

The religious right in this country is our mess, and Humanists have an obligation to help clean it up.

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