Evangelical Activism (pt. I): From abolition to abortion

What do you think of when you think of evangelicals?

Almost none of us think of the group Donald Dayton describes. He tells of 19th century evangelicals who were “heavily involved in the abolition of slavery, fighting for the poor, and women’s rights.”

“Evangelical revivals called people not only to personal atonement but to putting faith into action. At their ‘altar calls’ people would come to Christ and immediately sign up for the anti-slavery campaign!”[note]That’s Jim Wallis’s summary of Dayton’s book in the foreword to Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage.[/note]

You probably don’t associate evangelical with these great social justice causes, do you? Of the people I know, those who would identify as strong advocates for social justice would be the least inclined to identify as evangelical. But Dayton paints this picture of activist evangelicalism in Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage (I highly recommend it).

Above all, he depicts them as devoted abolitionists. Others at the time may have considered them rabid abolitionists –– abolition-at-all-costs abolitionists.[note]Jonathan Blanchard, founder of Wheaton College –– “the Harvard of evangelicalism” –– is a good example of one of those radical abolitionists. He called slave-holding “not a solitary, but a social sin” and would not tolerate advocacy for anything less than quick and total abolition.[/note] They constituted a sizable voting bloc, with heavy support for and leadership in the Liberty Party––a party devoted above all else to abolishing slavery.

How closely aligned were the Liberty Party and evangelicalism? Dayton says “the party functioned almost like an evangelical institution in which antislavery votes served as evidence of sanctified living […] An antislavery ballot provided proof of a person’s unqualified allegiance to God.“[note]pp. 131-132, emphasis mine[/note]

If Dayton’s picture is accurate, those 19th century evangelicals were one-issue voters. I wonder if I would have been (acknowledging the impossibility of that hypothetical). Was this one issue so important that any like-minded politician would be considered an ally and everyone else a foe, regardless of all the rest? Living in the early 19th century, could I have ever voted for a politician who would not advance the cause of abolition?

Another definition of evangelicalism names activism as one of its four distinctive marks.[note]See David W. Bebbington’s The Dominance of Evangelicalism. This activism includes both evangelism and social work. “[S]ocial work that carried over into pressure for reform was equally characteristic for this period,” he writes (p. 38).[/note] Evangelicals are, by nature, activists, pushing for reform. The U.S. has never seen such an important cause for activism as slavery. And so the cause united evangelicals politically like few others could.

Evangelicals and activism today

For the past half-century, the large majority of those who identify as evangelical have again united around one political cause: the cause to abolish abortion.

If you don’t like that statement, stick with me.

[If you have have had an abortion, assisted, or insisted in one, a much better starting place: “A pastor’s note to women who have had abortions––and to those who assisted or insisted.”]

Abortion is a complicated and nuanced issue. Anyone treating it as black-and-white hasn’t had enough honest conversations or sought out enough information.[note]Though we treat it as clear-cut in retrospect, the abolition debate also dealt with many nuances. To the point that Abraham Lincoln’s stance opposed the kind of quick abolition those early evangelicals called for. It could be catastrophic to the lives and futures of many slave-owners and slaves alike. He wrote, “the promulgation of abolition doctrines tends rather to increase than abate its evils.” (see Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, volume 1, p. 75.) This isn’t to equate the two. After the abolition of slavery, there would now be no nuance in a debate about reinstituting it. If abortion were entirely abolished, we would forever face the complexities that would come with that decision.[/note] Many pro-life evangelicals recognize those nuances and know they require compassion and careful thought. We would benefit from more pro-life evangelicals recognizing these nuances.

The vast majority of those who call themselves evangelical agree on this: The abortion statistics in the U.S. are tragic. Of the more than 600,000 abortions likely to take place in the U.S. this year, less than 8% are likely to be because of rape, incest, or health concerns. Many in the pro-life cause would like to consider how abortion can remain safe and legal in those rare cases.

From a 2004 Guttmacher Institute survey, shared on http://abort73.com/abortion_facts/us_abortion_statistics/

For the other cases––whether you agree with them or not, most evangelicals hear “can’t afford a baby” as a reason for abortion the same way abolitionists heard “can’t afford to lose my slaves” as a reason to keep the institution of slavery. It is a significant concern––and at our best, one that we rally to support someone through––but not a reason to take a life.

For American evangelicals, the pro-life cause over the past 50 years may have been the most galvanizing political issue since slavery. (Aside: We have plenty of reason to ask why this would be the case. Why not anti-lynching campaigns or other civil rights causes? That the American Church did not speak with one voice on these issues is a tragic failure.)

Many evangelicals are likely to say they could never cast a vote for someone who will not fight for the ~540,000 unborn children who will be aborted this year when rape, incest, the health of the mother, and other extreme cases, are not at root. Though they see many other tragedies in the world, this is the one that has caught their attention and seems to them the worst.

For all the rhetoric about abortion being legal, healthy, and rare, many are heartbroken and appalled that abortion is currently the leading cause of death in the United States.[note]It just edges out heart disease and cancer. You usually won’t see it listed this way, since most people reporting these statistics don’t consider abortion a “cause of death.”[/note] Abortion in the U.S. is not rare.

So for many evangelicals, I wonder if an anti-abortion vote today would be similar to an anti-slavery vote in the 1800s: evidence of sanctified living, proof of a person’s unqualified allegiance to God, an attempt to set at right the most wrong of all wrongs in our society today.[note]”Most wrong of all wrongs” as they perceive it. I’m not making the absolute claim that abortion is, in fact, the “most wrong of all wrongs” today. But I think we can make a strong case for it.[/note] For many evangelicals, I wonder if the connection between faith and this one issue is just as strong––hard to imagine that any real Christian could support a politician on the other side of this issue. (To be clear: This is not my position. Just as I also don’t hold the position that no real Christian could possibly vote for Trump.)

At a conference earlier this year, I attended several sessions on the state of evangelicalism. At least among this group, there were no #MAGA celebrations going on. These crowds were generally aghast about our President’s contempt toward people who weren’t born in the U.S. or Western Europe. (I think it was the week of his “shithole countries” comment.) But also in every one of those sessions, someone from the audience asked, “But what do we do about abortion?” It wasn’t a rally cry to the GOP. It was a morally conflicted question. These people couldn’t imagine voting for someone whose Supreme Court nominees would uphold more progressive standards regarding abortion––not just preserving the status quo, but likely to advance a more progressive standard––and for decades.[note]For instance, if Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy had been replaced by more progressive judges, the Court would be expected to rule against pro-life pregnancy crisis centers that do not want to be required to post notices about state programs providing free or low-cost abortions.[/note]

The evangelical position here is no deluded extremist position. People like Ross Douthat––a columnist for the New York Times, a #NeverTrumper and ongoing Trump critic… hardly a FOX News contributor––have called for “judicial action, not restraint [in] Overturning our inhumane abortion settlement.” I don’t know that Douthat could be identified as an evangelical (he’s Roman Catholic), but he names the position held by many evangelicals. They want to see change to how our country views and uses abortion. For many, it’s enough to make any like-minded politician an ally and all others foes.

You may or may not agree with this stance on abortion. You should know it is there. If you disagree because of the nuance and complexity of the situation, that is understandable. Not that we can simply shrug at inhumane practices because they’re nuanced and complex. (See also: current immigration and refugee crises.) If you disagree because you don’t find abortion to be that morally problematic, I admit I don’t understand you at all. I’d love to know more. If you disagree because you say, “But what about [insert other issue]?”… let’s talk about that. Next week.

This is part I. Part II: “How evangelicals became Republicans, and the dangers of good activism” will post next week. To be sure you don’t miss it, click here to subscribe.

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