Longhurst: Evangelical evolution

Oct 29, 2018 by

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An American friend asked me if Canadians were watching the Supreme Court nomination process Brett M. Kavanaugh in September.

John Longhurst

Longhurst

The answer was yes, I said. Partly because, living so close to the U.S., news about that country is impossible to avoid. But it’s also like when you see a good friend spiraling downward into anger, resentment and bad behavior. You want to avert your eyes but can’t look away.

There were many issues involved in Kavanaugh’s appointment. But for many Christians — especially evangelicals — abortion was a major consideration. After all, Donald Trump made dismantling Roe v. Wade a promise of his candidacy.

The focus on abortion by evangelicals in the U.S. got me thinking about how that became such a bedrock political issue for many in that country, and also in Canada. Where did it come from?

Interestingly, it turns out American evangelicals didn’t always oppose abortion. Their widespread opposition only traces back to the 1970s and 1980s, during the rise of the Moral Majority.

(American Catholic opposition goes back further, in a doctrinal way, to the later 19th century.)

As Jonathan Dudley noted in a blog post for CNN, “uncompromising opposition to abortion” is not “a timeless feature of evangelical Christianity. . . . What conservative Christians now say is the Bible’s clear teaching on the matter was not a widespread interpretation until the late 20th century.”

He notes that in 1968, Christianity Today — the flagship publication of U.S. evangelicalism — published a special issue on contraception and abortion where leading evangelical thinkers explained that the Bible “plainly teaches that life begins at birth.”

That same year, that magazine and the Christian Medical Society sponsored a symposium that declined to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy.

Three years later, in 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming abortion should be legal not only to protect the life of the mother but to protect her emotional health as well.

Today, opinions and resolutions like those would be considered heretical by many evangelicals.

What changed? In an article titled “The Real Origins of the Religious Right” in Politico, Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion, identifies conservative activist Paul Wey­rich, who co-founded the Moral Majority with Jerry Falwell, as a key figure. Weyrich was looking for a way to get evangelicals to support right-wing political candidates and issues.

For nearly two decades, Weyrich had been trying to find an issue to galvanize them. He tried pornography, prayer in schools and abortion. Abortion worked.

By tapping into a growing unease among some evangelicals following the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, Weyrich and Falwell were able to get many of them to oppose Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election.

“Leaders of the religious right hammered away at the issue, persuading many evangelicals to make support for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion a litmus test for their votes,” Balmer says.

Something similar happened in Canada, where evangelicals once also supported abortion rights. By the 1990s, perhaps due to influence from the U.S, that had changed. There may be many good reasons to oppose abortion, but for evangelicals, one of them isn’t because they always believed that way.

John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.


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