Are Evangelicals “Faltering” on the Sanctity of Life?

February 6, 2011

Read this article by David French. In it, French argues Evangelical Christians have “faltered” in our Christian obligation to decry abortion and protect the unborn. He starts by pointing to the fact that at the large protest – the Annual March for Life, Catholics and LDS seemed more prominent in numbers and passion than Evangelicals. French calls this timidity on the part of evangelicals and singles out two well known wishy washy pastors as evidence of the general trend: Evangelicals are afraid to talk about abortion.

I found myself disagreeing with almost every sentence of this article.

First, were evangelicals less prominent? For the sake of the rest of my argument I am going to concede this point – although, I don’t see any data to show this in his article and I have not seen any other polling data to confirm this. It is worth noting that perception might be misleading here because evangelicals are much less visible because we tend to be non sectarian in our self identification. We usually don’t call ourselves Baptists or Presbyterians we refer to ourselves as ‘Christians’. In contrast, Catholics usually self identify as Catholics; LDS usually do the same. So, I think more data is needed here. But I think there is probably some truth to the observation and I have observed similar trends in my personal experience at protests and in pro-life circles.

But the question at hand (that French attempts to answer) is ‘why’? French suggests that it is theological (life is an integral part of the Catholic gospel), cultural (Mormons are comfortable being outsiders), and a general rejection (or at least ignoring) of ‘church teaching’ (we don’t care about the historical position of the church). He concludes by saying that we are ‘desperate’ for acceptance by the broader culture.

It is hard to know whether to be angry or laugh at his reasons. With regards to his theological reasons, we may not think that it is integral to ‘how one is saved’ but we take our Bibles pretty seriously and the Bible is pretty clear on abortion. With regards to the cultural reasons, I have no response but, ‘huh’? There is no more maligned group of people in the American media than evangelicals. We are hated by academia and we generally perceive that the rest of the world is out to get us (even if that view is exaggerated). In short, if we are desperate to be popular (as his conclusion argues), we picked the wrong denomination. We would be better off being Catholic.  And as far as our attitude toward ‘church teaching’, he is again mischaracterizing our numbers. Every pastor who has been to seminary is taught to appreciate the saints who have gone in the past and evangelicals read CS Lewis, Chesterton, Spurgeon and the Puritans more than perhaps any other group. We do not consider them to be divinely inspired or necessary to salvation (only God’s revealed word has this sort of authority) but we can hardly be said to have a hatred of history.  So we must roundly reject French’s reasons. Before I offer an alternative answer, let me address the claim that we are ‘faltering’ on the issue of life.

Are Evangelicals leaders timid and faltering on life? Is the Evangelical body indifferent on life? I would argue that the answer to both of these questions is “no” and “no”. Let’s start with the first question. Evangelicals are almost of one voice on the issue of life. Let us keep in mind that some of the most vocal and well known proponents of the pro-life movement are evangelicals (e.g. Dr James Dobson, Chuck Coulson, Mark Driscoll and John Piper). Looking at some of the largest Evangelical denominations and you see them unequivocal on the issue of life. The Southern Baptist Convention is clear on its rejection of abortion and call for repeal of Roe v Wade. The Presbyterian Church in America is clear. The Lutheran Missouri Synod is crystal clear. Bible churches tend to be the clearest of all. In short, every major evangelical denomination is pretty clearly against abortion.

But what about the general population of the church? This is where it is really important. The whole point of church teaching is that it funnels down to the people for the purpose of action. You want your church to ‘act out’ the teachings you have in the books. It is not enough to ‘in theory’ be against abortion if your congregation votes pro-abortion or actually has abortions themselves. This should be the test of whether or not we are ‘faltering’ on the issue. Let’s look at these questions.

How do evangelicals vote? More than any other group evangelicals vote for pro-life and express their opinion that abortion should be illegal. Consider this study done by Pew that observes opinions on abortion. Observe that Evangelicals dwarf all the other subgroups on the issue and that in 2009 almost 80% of weekly church attending evangelicals affirmed a pro-life position!

So the pro-life position is being taught quite effectively to the congregation. And when it comes to actually having abortions, polling is difficult here and I had trouble finding data specific to evangelicals but sociologist Rodney Stark reports that Protestants (mainline and evangelical) that go to church every week are about half as likely as the unaffiliated and less likely than Catholics in general to have abortions (although slightly more likely than Catholics who attend weekly but that may have to do with the fact that the Protestant data includes mainline denominations that are not clear at all on abortion).

In short, the data is clear; Evangelicals are not ‘faltering’ on the sanctity of life. We are solid with our votes and our actions.

So, this brings the question. Why are evangelicals less prominent in the formal pro life movement (right to life, the marches, etc)? Assuming this is a true observation, I think I have a theory.

The answer is theological. Evangelicals are aware of the fact that you cannot fix sin with government. If you really want to end abortion in the US, preach the gospel regularly. Have the neighbors over. Be a part of the community. Raise your kids for Christ. Conversion to Christ has the double whammy of changing votes to pro life and changing individuals to be much less likely to have abortions. So, one could argue that evangelizing college students is much more effective to the cause of life than a protest in front of the National Mall. Cult defines culture. The god you worship impacts the way you vote. As a result, evangelicals tend to spend the little additional money in the church coffers (after salaries and expenses are paid) for evangelistic and missionary efforts.

Doing so is not a failure, falter, or timidity. It is faithful to the word of God. Abortion and infanticide were widespread in the first century Roman Empire that Jesus and the Apostles were born into and yet you do not see them organizing political movements to lobby the government. Instead, you see them preaching the gospel – telling people to kneel before the God of heaven. But this proclamation did have an effect on abortion and infanticide in the kingdom. As the kingdom became more Christian the practices of abortion and infanticide diminished. Soon leaders were being converted. When Caesar was converted in the 4th century, infanticide and abortion were made illegal. Cult defines culture.

One closing note: None of this is an argument against protests. I love protests. I think that they should continue. I encourage Christians in my realm of influence to participate when able. I would argue one thing though. I think we should move our protests from the steps of the National Mall to the steps of Mainline “Christian” denominations that are pro-abortion. The Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodists, and the Episcopalians should be ashamed of themselves and because Cult is so important to Culture we should, in one voice, make clear that their teachings are horrible and evil. I think that this would be more effective than protests to government.

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