May 8, 2009
Any Lessons from History?
A prominent evangelical theologian and apologist at a prominent evangelical seminary published a book with a prominent evangelical press proposing that abortion is ethically acceptable in certain cases, such as “mongolism,” or Down Syndrome. Among other things, he says “Artificial abortion … results in the taking of a potential [emphasis his] human life. Such abortion is not murder, because the embryo is not fully human—it is an undeveloped person… . If a life must be stopped, it is obviously better to stop it before it ever really gets started.” I am not making this up.
Okay, this took place in the early 1970s (and prior to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision). Those who have been around for a few decades probably know who I’m talking about. I have no intention of exposing him. And I have little doubt that he rejects this view today. But at the time he was not alone among evangelicals in holding this view. Even from my own personal experience, I can recall other evangelicals who said very similar things. As Randall Balmer has pointed out, many evangelicals today live under the spell of the “abortion myth,” which fancies evangelicals as having been united in strictly opposing abortion all along and propelled into the public square by moral outrage over Roe v. Wade. But that is not the way it was.
Balmer offers convincing evidence that the abortion issue was chosen as a galvanizing issue for the Religious Right perhaps as late as a decade after Roe v. Wade. It does not seem to have been a deeply troubling issue prior to that. In fact, one or two surprising voices (such as W. A. Criswell) apparently welcomed the Supreme Court decision (Balmer, 12-13). On the other hand, Roman Catholics denounced it and, to Christianity Today’s credit, it said that it “runs counter to the moral teachings of Christianity through the ages” (Balmer 12). But there was no surge of moral outrage from the “Religious Right.”
Lately I have been meditating on this publishing fact for the very simple reason that it says something about the potential directions ethical or theological thought might take: things do not always and inevitably move from “conservative” to “liberal”; sometimes they move from “liberal” to “conservative.” One might have looked at the view of this particular theologian and concluded that if he has said this about abortion, then there’s no stopping him from saying X. If his seminary “allows” him to say this, very soon they will be permissive of Y or Z. If his publisher (and it wasn’t IVP) is printing these views, we can be sure they too are headed into an ethical wilderness. But none of that happened.
One thing I take from this is that on so many issues we are caught in a moment beyond which we have difficulty achieving perspective. We run the risk of thinking things, advising things, teaching things and printing things that later we might regret. None of us are immune to this. Perhaps, then, we should pause before we snap into condemning the considered views of others. Perhaps on this or that issue there is more light to be had, a broader discussion that is necessary, and a new context to be sought or awaited in which further clarity might emerge. Is this too much to ask?
Don’t mistake it for intellectual cowardice. For it often takes courage to say, “Hold it! Let’s make room to talk and think about this more thoroughly.” In publishing-speak, it might take quite a few more books to explore and resolve this question. Let the voices be heard and weighed. True lovers of truth do not fear this process.
Unfortunately, this is not what happened in the case of the abortion question. Political pressures were brought to bear. Even though I think that on the main issue we ended up on the right side, the price of polarization was high. So another thing I take from this reflection is that when ethicists or theologians or biblical scholars or other thought leaders are not out in front on an issue (and sometimes even when they are!), they run the risk of having their deliberations short-circuited by political and populist pressures. The evangelical mind is particularly vulnerable to this. So we shouldn’t be surprised when it happens again.