The modern person would scarcely recognize the political landscape of 1979, the year when Paul Weyrich is said to have first met with Jerry Falwell.
Polling in the 1960s consistently revealed that most Americans believed abortion should be legal in most cases and that the issue, if anything, was a women’s health issue. This was true among people you wouldn’t expect. Abortion access was liberalized in such conservative states as North Carolina in 1967, Georgia in 1968, Kansas in 1969, Arkansas in 1969, Virginia in 1970, and South Carolina in 1970.
This was consistent with the conservative faith institutions that constituted the majority of these states. In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” Two years later, a 7-2 majority of the United States Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade held that a woman has a right to an abortion until the third trimester of her pregnancy. The decision went mostly unnoticed. In fact, after Roe was decided the Southern Baptist Convention in 1974 reaffirmed its 1971 position and reaffirmed it again in 1976. W. A. Criswell, the Southern Baptist Convention’s president, went on the record saying, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person, and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.”
This probably strikes you as complete bonkers.
There was a time when the issue was not so atomic. In fact, and perhaps even more surprising, the states that most resisted liberalizing abortion access were the northeastern states—those same states that today overwhelmingly elect pro-choice candidates. What held these states back in that time was that they were overwhelmingly Catholic.
Obviously the political landscape is different today, but you as a modern citizen need to understand why. There’s a lot of history and a lot of money and a lot of cynicism behind why this issue went from mildly controversial at best to the single defining issue in American politics. I find the story nothing short of disturbing.
First, I’m going to explain what happened. The story is well-documented in the historical record. Second, I’m going to talk about how Jesus probably* viewed the issue. I think both parts of this essay are going to surprise you.
A Cynical Beginning
Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which held that racial segregation of public schools violates the United States Constitution, and following President Eisenhower’s enlistment of the National Guard to enforce the decision, church-run schools proliferated throughout the American South in the 1960s. These schools ensured that white families would not have to send their children to schools that admitted non-white children. The practice was so pervasive that they earned the name “segregation academies.”
The 1960s was also a time when most of the think tanks and advocacy organizations that made up Washington D.C. leaned liberal—think school desegregation. But the ethos of the American South really began its systematic infiltration of Washington in 1970, when the IRS issued Revenue Rule 71-447, which revoked exempt status for private schools that discriminated on the basis of race. Major funding for conservative causes and organizations skyrocketed after this decision. In this new environment that was suddenly flush with interested conservative cash, Paul Weyrich in 1973 co-founded the Heritage Foundation, which devoted itself to free enterprise, limited government, and a strong national defense. While its backers were almost entirely large commercial interests, Weyrich had an idea that would distinguish his organization from the few other conservative organizations.
Even though, as I said earlier, liberal organizations far outnumbered conservative organizations at this time, the Heritage Foundation was not completely alone. By 1973, the American Enterprise Institute had been around for more than three decades and had fiercely, but with little to show for it, opposed FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s and 40s, Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s, and Nixon’s Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act of 1970.
Where Paul Weyrich and his the Heritage Foundation differed from other anti-government organizations was their targeting of the long politically dormant evangelical Christian community to form a voting bloc with whom they could shoehorn conservative social issues with their otherwise unpopular pro-big-business causes. At first these efforts were unsuccessful. Weyrich tried a whole host of issues—pornography was one—but nothing seemed to fire them up enough to consolidate a voting bloc.
That is until the Catholic, Paul Weyrich, met with the megachurch Baptist preacher, Jerry Falwell, and convinced Falwell to steer evangelicals to politics and specifically to the issue of abortion.
The idea was that if, instead of framing the issue as when does science tell us that life begins, the issue could be framed as godless liberal feminists just want to be able to kill babies so they can have more sex and we have to stop them, ordinary people could be manipulated to support any politician as long as they prayed to God and saluted the flag and were on the right side of the should-we-be-able-to-kill-babies question.
And it worked brilliantly.
Indeed, were there some group out there advocating to kill babies, I would agree that a political movement would need to consolidate against them. It would dramatically change my priorities. It would influence which sources I trusted. If the smart people in the we-shouldn’t-kill-babies group advocated tax cuts for the wealthy, I would support tax cuts for the wealthy. If they told me that climate change is a hoax, I would believe it was a hoax. If they delivered an alert to my television screen every time some non-white person committed a crime in a downtown setting, I would live far away in the suburbs and put my children in private schools. There are many reasons why fetuses should be deemed a human life sometime after conception, but because conservatives have been trained for so long to equate pro choice with anti life, our society is divided into two groups who increasingly cannot speak to each other. No matter how much science and data and decency might be found in some good idea, if it comes from the baby killing group, it would be inherently suspect.
What you’ve just read was the impetus behind the Moral Majority, the 1979 brainchild of Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell, the key mobilizing force of evangelical Christians beginning in the 1980s, and almost everything you hate about politics in 2018. If you want to understand why 81% of white evangelical Christians cast their vote for the President of the United States of America on a guy who bragged about regularly sexually assaulting women, you need to understand that most of them believe they are the last humans on earth who care about human life. Donald Trump, however flawed, had promised them early and often that he would give them their long-sought fifth anti-Roe vote on the United States Supreme Court.
And he delivered.
Just because the modern pro-life movement owes its beginning to such cynicism does not per se make it wrong. I too cast my party-line votes each election cycle for candidates whose true motivations I will never know. I do this because they vote for policies that I believe further my values. My values are formed from many sources, but chief among them is my confession that Jesus is Lord.
So, what did Jesus think?
Can we know that?
Actually, we can—and with more certainty than you might think.
But first we need to untangle a few things, starting with the Bible. When modern Christians gird themselves in the armor of God and unsheathe their sword of the word, the scriptures they usually fling around are Psalm c139 v13, Jeremiah c1 v5, or Isaiah c44 v24. Each of these verses have in common the idea of Yahweh knowing humans so intimately that they are known even before they are born. To express this idea, each writer uses language that can be translated from the Hebrew as having been known “in the womb.”
Which is why I find it so interesting that 83% of Jews—who for thousands of years have shared these biblical sources along with Christian believers in Yahweh—believe that in all or most cases abortion should be legal. No doubt, that most modern Jews disagree on an issue with modern evangelicals doesn’t prove anything, but it certainly demands interest. Jews and modern evangelical Christians share so much scripture and yet disagree so profoundly on this issue. Considering that Christians go to the Old Testament for 100% of their proof texts against abortion, I think it intellectually dishonest not to wonder why Jews see the issue so differently.
For one thing, Jewish people have always had a very different relationship to the Bible than modern evangelical Christians. They view each part of the Bible with far more nuance. The Bible for them, rightly, is not an instruction manual for how to avoid burning in fire for eternity after you die. Its parts are not equals, are in conversation with each other, and sometimes disagree. Specifically, they don’t go to psalms for ethical and legal authority. The psalmists and the prophets are sought after for their poetry, their advocacy for justice, and their worship liturgy—but not as legal authorities.
On the legal question of when life begins, the Jewish rabbis do their work through the Torah, specifically the laws of compensation in the Old Testament book of Exodus. According to the Old Testament book of Exodus, one who deliberately kills someone is guilty of murder, so it would seem then that if a fetus was considered a life, a person who for some culpable reason killed a fetus would also be guilty of murder. But the Torah doesn’t do this.
Instead, the rabbis do their interpretative work through a scenario described in this same section of Exodus in which two men are in a fight and one of them strikes a nearby pregnant woman and the blow causes her to miscarry. What the rabbis note about that passage is that the offender is guilty of a capital offense if the mother dies, but if her only harm is the loss of the fetus, the case is treated as one of property damage. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, an ultra-Orthodox Jew wrote in his legal treatise, the Tzitz Eliezer, “It is clear that in Jewish law an Israelite is not liable to capital punishment for feticide. . . . An Israelite woman was permitted to undergo a therapeutic abortion, even though her life was not at stake. . . . This permissive ruling applies even when there is no direct threat to the life of the mother, but merely a need to save her from great pain, which falls within the rubric of ‘great need.’”
I find the Jewish commentary on abortion remarkable for two reasons. First, Jesus, from his birth to his ascension, was an observant rabbinic Jew, and so was every single person who wrote every single letter of your Bible. Second, this interpretation goes way back. Based on the writings we have in the Talmud (a collection of rabbinic interpretations of Torah that existed during Jesus’s time and even earlier) this was almost certainly the view of Jewish people when Jesus was alive.
These two points are remarkable to me because, if in fact Jesus disagreed with the Jewish authorities on the question on when life begins, the fact that the gospel writers included none of it would have been an incredible miss. Jesus was not afraid to disagree with the Pharisees and Sadducees on points of the law, and the gospel writers were not afraid to tell you about it.
*When I say that Jesus “probably” wasn’t pro-life**, I mean that Jesus almost certainly wasn’t pro-life. I simply cannot imagine that he believed life began at conception. It would defy everything I know.
**(as conservatives define the term)
Now, I want to be careful, lest this essay unleash a torrent of well-deserved backlash. First, while the Jewish authorities have never viewed fetuses as fully human and while they overwhelmingly support the public legalization of abortion, their views differ on what harm to the mother that must be substantiated before permitting an abortion. Virtually all hold that abortion is not just permitted but demanded when the mother’s life is at stake. They also virtually hold that abortion is never a capital offense. The rabbis differ on what harm is required to the mother for the act to be considered not sinful. For these reasons, I want to be very clear about my purposes behind this essay.
My purpose here is to cool the room down.
I want you to question what you have always thought absolutely certain.
I want to open you up to asking more questions.
I want to open you up to people whose opinions you never found worth hearing.
I want to kindle your interest in scientists and feminists and ancient Jewish rabbis and modern Jewish rabbis and the Jewish rabbi named Jesus.
I want to free you from being a single-issue voter.
I want you to understand that the modern movement against abortion is mostly a manufactured one.
Because right now I think most of you are just getting played with junk theology and junk science.
Despite the manufactured frenzy around “late-term” abortions, they are not legal and never have been. 92% of abortions take place in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy. Of the 1.2% of abortions that take place at or after 21 weeks, almost all of them are performed to protect the life of the mother. And as for the fetus feeling pain? Neurons in the spinal cord do not form until week 23, which is about the point when the third trimester begins and abortions are no longer legal. The nerve fibers that connect to pain receptors in the cerebral cortex don’t form until, at earliest, 26 weeks. And the brain does not activate until about week 30.
Finally, while we are apt to demonize women who have an abortion for “financial reasons,” we usually miss the fact that most women who terminate a pregnancy live below the federal poverty line. We are talking in large part about women who have virtually no way to raise a child.
I don’t blame conservative evangelicals for their unwavering single-issue voting stance. I don’t blame them for their aversion to people who differ in this way. I too was a conservative evangelical and for most of my life their views were my views. If this describes you, I believe you are wrong, but I also believe you mean well. I am not angry at you.
But I am angry.
Because we are systematically manipulated to scapegoat our most vulnerable women and force them to carry a yolk they cannot bear—in the name of the Lord.
Because an elected group of overwhelmingly white men will on one day vote to restrict abortion access and on the next day vote to cut benefits to poor single mothers—in the name of the Lord.
Because on one day they will vote to protect life and on the next day all but ensure that life will consist of bitter misery—in the name of the Lord.
Because they will show up to the National Prayer Breakfast and bow in prayer and quote some Bible and salute the flag and proclaim some imaginary nonsense about the Founders and run ads in your district with promises to protect this country from terrorists and from all others who have no value for human life and we all know that means women who make the choice to terminate a pregnancy.
Because this little pious routine guarantees them success every election cycle.
And once elected they are free to do whatever they want and without consequence.
And cloaked in the protection of the Almighty (and their wealthy donors), they do.
They go to work every day and protect the extravagantly wealthy from anything that might possibly require contributing more to the poor mothers who must now endure even more pressure than the pressure they already did not know how to endure.
I am angry, but it is not with you that I am angry.
I am angry at the greedy and cowardly people in power who in the name of God protect themselves and their positions at the expense of poor single mothers and everyone else.
I have no doubt it will continue long after I’ve published this insignificant essay from this insignificant blog. I’m not the first or the smartest person to share these ideas. But now you know where I stand and why.