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It was early in 1975 when my girlfriend of four years met me for lunch at a Wendy's just down the street from the bank where she worked as a teller. Over a Frosty and fries, she confirmed what both of us had already suspected: She was pregnant. We were eighteen. A few months earlier, I had dropped out of high school and, though it sounds like a bad literary cliché or a line from a Jim Croce tune, I was earning minimum wage working at a car wash.
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At the time, the ink from Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun's pen was only two years dry on Roe v. Wade. The highest court in the land had ruled that people like us had a right to "terminate the pregnancy," and both of us had friends and acquaintances who urged abortion.
My immediate supervisor at the car wash, a Black Sabbath devotee whose chosen nickname was "Scratch"—after Old Scratch himself (the cliché worsens)—argued strenuously that this was our only option. Scratch and his girlfriend Cruella (okay, I made that up) had recently been in the same predicament, and he testified that her abortion had been a simple and relatively inexpensive solution.
Scratch's hearse-like black custom van included a plush bed of casket cloth in the back where children might be conceived, but no back seats where they might be carried. And so the fetus that might have become a burdensome child was now a fading blip on Scratch's radar screen. He did, however, insist that I had a duty to pay for the abortion. Evidently the side of the angels has no monopoly on chivalry.
While we had no shortage of -counselors urging abortion, when it came to thinking through the case for a pro-life viewpoint, my girlfriend and I were left largely to our own resources. We reasoned that we were the same individuals that our own mothers had carried, and, had some earlier incarnation of Scratch somehow persuaded them to abort, we would have been the ones to suffer an intended "fetal demise." Didn't the same logic apply to whomever was growing inside the girl across the table from me?
Moreover, we were deeply influenced by the message of a pop song then current on the charts. Seals and Crofts had just released their 1974 album Unborn Child, the title cut of which carried a strong pro-life message, with the opening line, "Oh little baby, you'll never cry, nor will you hear a sweet lullaby." Our son, now 33, asked me as I began this article whether I planned on mentioning the role that the Seals and Crofts album had played in preserving his own life. It has been meaningful to him over the years, and, as a teen, he even shared a copy with a friend in the throes of making the same decision. My wife and I still have that original 1974 LP that spun our pro-life -convictions as it spun on our turntable.
No help was to be had from the church where both of our families were active. People there were not thinking of the implications that a Christian worldview has regarding abortion, largely because they were not really thinking about its implications for much of anything at all. Even on high beam, their lights illuminated little more than the manifest wrongness of alcohol and tobacco consumption, and, of course, the sort of scandalous activity that had gotten the two of us into our predicament. There, "theology" was reducible to a "plan of salvation" that could be ticked off on four fingers and a thumb. No one was discussing the notion of the imago dei and its role in grounding that of the sanctity of human life.
But Evangelicals in general had yet to be awakened to the issue. Frank Schaeffer recently observed in a Huffington Post piece, "Evangelicals weren't -politicized . . . until after Roe v. Wade and after my late father Francis Schaeffer, Dr. C. Everett Koop and I stirred them up over the issue of abortion in the mid to late 1970s through our books and 'Whatever Happened to the Human Race' film series." I think he is right about this.
Dr. Koop attests in his memoirs that one day in 1977 he sat down with Francis and "Frankie" at Huèmoz and sketched out the outline for the Whatever Happened? book and film. "Together, the Schaeffers—father and son—and I determined to awaken the evangelical world—and anyone else who would listen—to the Christian imperative to do something to reverse the perilous realignment of American values on these life-and-death issues."
They succeeded. Koop and the Schaeffers toured America in 1979, showing the film, with accompanying lectures, and churches across America woke from their dogmatic slumbers. The so-called Religious Right emerged, and abortion was at the heart of its concerns. Indeed, William Martin observes in his With God on Our Side (a companion volume to a PBS series of that title) that the film, book, and lecture tour are "often credited with having been the single most important factor in bringing evangelicals into the fight against abortion."
Nuanced for God
But the junior Schaeffer has had a change of heart. With his next breath, after the quote above from the Huffington Post, he adds, "More than thirty years after helping to launch the evangelical pro-life movement I am filled with bitter regret for the unintended consequences. Mea culpa!" So: "I was once a militant anti-abortion advocate. I changed my mind." Like his parents, earlier he was "Crazy for God." Now he is cured.
The point of his article is to urge a more "nuanced" position on abortion. On the one hand, he thinks, it is self-evident that a fertilized egg is not a person. (This assumes that to be a person is to be possessed of a certain set of properties or characteristics. Different results emerge if personhood is thought to be a matter of kind membership. But this is another argument.) On the other, it is equally self-evident "that an unborn baby is mighty like one of us, and that a lot of fast talking about reproductive rights and choice or a woman's mental well being, doesn't answer the horror of a three-pound child with her head deliberately caved in lying in a medical waste receptacle."
As Schaeffer sees it, the abortion debate has settled into a battle between extremists and ideologues, with the Sarah Palin and James Dobson types at one end, and the NARAL and Planned Parenthood militants at the other. As he interprets the relevant polls, most Americans reject both extremes in the abortion debate and share that nuanced view that abortion should remain legal "up to a point."
Writing as a card-carrying Democrat and zealous supporter of Obama, Schaeffer suggests that the Democrats might win over that "large middle ground majority who may be summed up as those who are pro-choice but against abortion-on-demand later in pregnancy." And he assures his readers that this same nuanced position, rather than that "favored by the ideologues at Planned Parenthood and NARAL," is the one that Obama himself happens to hold. And so Frank Schaeffer thinks it reasonable to assert, "I consider myself pro-life . . . and yet I am an avidsupporter of Senator Obama."
Apparently, Frank Schaeffer knows something about Obama's views that no one else, including these "ideologues, knows. For "nuanced" is not the first word to come to mind in describing the position of Obama: He was, after all, given a 100% "pro-choice" rating by NARAL and Planned Parenthood.
Speaking to a room full of Planned Parenthood supporters in July 2007, Senator Obama pledged allegiance to the pro-choice cause. "The first thing I'd do as President is sign the Freedom of Choice Act," he said, to much applause.
The Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) would establish abortion as a "fundamental right" on a par with those of free speech and the right to bear arms. It would effectively sweep away all current restrictions on abortion at every governmental level, including and especially the ban on partial-birth abortion, as well as laws requiring parental consent for minors and restrictions on tax-funded abortions.
Arguably, our new president is the most pro-abortion person ever to hold that office.
An Emerging Conscience?
And yet, many people claiming pro-life convictions cast their votes for Obama. In another Huffington Post piece, Frank Schaeffer observed that many young Evangelicals voted for Obama, and that the student newspaper at Gordon College—a traditionally Evangelical liberal arts college—officially endorsed him.
The New York Times reported just days after the election that Obama managed to double his support among young Evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29. This was partly by design, as the Obama campaign specifically targeted this group, visiting ten Christian colleges, and even teaming up with the likes of emergent church author Don Miller—an avid Obama supporter whose work is popular among college-age Evangelicals.
But those fields were already white unto harvest. Late in 2006, Venessa Mendenhall posted a report on the PBS Generation Next website titled, "Are Young Evangelicals Leaning Left?" It cited a rally at Calvin College protesting President Bush's policies, and observed that young Evangelicals appear to have "cooled" on "hot-button" issues, such as abortion and homosexuality. Last May, the Seattle Times used interviews with students at Seattle Pacific University as a springboard for discussing an apparently broader trend, noting that an informal poll of students at SPU showed a majority supporting Obama.
Last August, the Washington Post reported, "GOP Loyalty Not a Given for Young Evangelicals." The Post mentioned the influence of leaders in the so-called "emerging church" in calling old assumptions into question. On the same day, the Washington Times reported, "Obama Attracts Younger Evangelicals." That story quoted Christian philosopher Douglas Groothuis as suggesting that they were suffering from "fetus fatigue" and were ready to "give up."
Have younger Evangelicals simply tired of the abortion debate and, like Frank Schaeffer, "changed their minds" and thrown their pro-life parents under the bus? Polls conducted by the Pew Trust, the Barna Group, and others do not support this suggestion, showing instead that they tend to be conservative on the abortion issue. So why have a significant number of them run to Obama "as fast as our legs could carry us," as Schaeffer put it?
A part of the explanation, I believe, is a healthy skepticism regarding political allegiances among Christians. As one SPU student put it, "I just keep thinking, if Jesus were alive now, he wouldn't necessarily be voting Republican." "Most of us would never blindly follow the old Christian Right anymore," said another. The Washington Post article quotes a Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary student as saying, "If you are an evangelical Christian, no political party should be able to fully represent you because you are doing something counter-cultural."
Along these lines, there are those who believe that the GOP has played the Christian Right like a calliope, drawing its support with furious pro-life rhetoric ultimately signifying nothing. "The pro-life platform is total lip-service from the Republicans. Evangelicals are starting to realize this, and that should scare the hell out of every Republican in office," said a Multnomah Biblical Seminary student. A disenchanted Tony Jones of Emergent Village said, "We did what they said to do. We elected all these people, we got conservative justices appointed at the bench, and nothing happened." (One wonders where Jones was when news of Gonzalez v. Carhart broke, or where he will be if FOCA ever makes it to the new president's desk.)
It may be that the younger generation is reacting to a perception of stridency and extremism that has often been used to characterize the so-called Religious Right. Recall Philip Yancey's observation in What's So Amazing About Grace? that the word "evangelical" has turned putrid in the mouths of many as it conjures images of militant, intolerant, overly political fanatics with a narrow agenda, who are quick to condemn but slow to show compassion. If the severity and austerity of the earlier fire-and-brimstone version of faith moved baby boomers to don Hawaiian print shirts and brandish Fender guitars in their services, perhaps we are witnessing a similar reactive phenomenon in the political thought and activism of the emerging generation.
But more than anything, the trend is explained by a growing awareness of a wider set of issues, beyond those with which the Christian Right has traditionally been concerned. "Young evangelicals are attracted to a broader agenda beyond abortion and homosexuality, that includes the environment, poverty, human rights and torture," Professor David Gushee of Mercer University told the New York Times. "I don't think any young evangelical is ignoring the traditional values issues, but they are adding other issues, including poverty and war, and they are also looking at integrity and family," said Joshua DuBois, a young Evangelical who served as Obama's "Religious Affairs Director."
A Multnomah student told PBS, "We are becoming politically ambidextrous," an apparent reference to language used by emergent church leader and author Brian McLaren. "We'll be pro-life, but we'll be pro-circle-of-life as well. . . . After all, family values means taking care of future generations." Eugene Cho, pastor of Seattle's Quest Church, described on its website as an "emerging church," wrote in his blog, "While the issue of -abortion—the sanctity of life—must always be a hugely important issue, we must juxtapose that with other issues that are also very important." Following such advice, an SPU student observes, "A lot of us are taking apart the issues, and thinking, 'OK, well, [none of the candidates] fits what I'm looking for exactly.' But if you're going to vote, you've got to take your pros with your cons."
Thus, Brian McLaren offers Evangelicals a choice. "We could stay stuck in simplistic, single-issue morality, or we could mature in our integration of faith and public life." Elsewhere, he speaks disparagingly of a "single-issue voting block" and those accustomed to "binary thinking," who are driven by "one or two wedge issues." In explaining his endorsement of Obama, McLaren writes, "Does that mean that every one of us is in full agreement with every detail of Senator Obama's campaign? Of course not: we're electing a president, not a Messiah! Blind, uncritical support is part of the misuse that we're trying to move -beyond."
And so, those of us who seek a mature perspective on faith and public life will come to appreciate the broader spectrum of morally significant issues. And, since it is highly unlikely that any particular candidate or party platform will align perfectly with our views, we must settle for some approximation. Some issues must inevitably take a back seat to others in this process.
As an early signer of "An Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation," I have been disappointed in my less than warm reception among fellow Evangelicals when I have expressed my views on environmental ethics. Some seem to suppose that, because some issues are very important, others are not important at all.
And so, all else being equal, I applaud measures to broaden the scope of moral concern to include certain other issues as having legitimate claim upon the Evangelical conscience. And it is true that we are forced to prioritize issues and seek the best equilibrium among our values as we cast our ballots or choose our political and cultural battles. But there is more to the story.
It's the Imago Dei,Stupid
John Stuart Mill recognized that a moral principle may generate moral rules that occasionally come into conflict with another one in this messy world. What do you do when you discover that no matter which action you choose, you violate a moral rule that has a valid claim upon you? Clearly, you have to determine which of the claims has the greatest moral gravity and follow that one at the expense of the others.
The relative importance of the rules is determined by the ultimate moral principle itself. Many—perhaps most—rules are such that there is a standing possibility that they may be "trumped" by weightier rules in cases of conflict. But some rules concern "the essentials of human well-being more nearly" so that it is difficult to conceive a rule of greater weight that could trump them. There is much to criticize in Mill's overall account of things, but this much is, I think, a useful insight applicable to our present confusion about the right to life.
It is, in principle, possible for some issues to be so much at the heart of all moral concern that they trump nearly every other issue with which they compete. And there can be nothing irrational or unworthy in an intelligent and responsible citizen recognizing what is at stake and believing and behaving accordingly.
To take an obvious and extreme example: Were we faced with a choice between a "pro-genocide" or "pro-slavery" candidate and an opponent who believed these to be moral atrocities, we would not give weight to the former because he had a great economic or energy plan, would lower taxes, or was the "greener" of the two.
In a recent interview, Baylor philosophy professor Francis Beckwith observed what he considers a "disturbing trend among some Evangelical leaders." He described watching a video of Brian McLaren, in which McLaren urged resistance to "single-issue" voting, obviously with abortion in mind. "I sat through this video with my mouth hanging open in utter amazement that this pastor would present the profundity of the sanctity of life by disguising it (calling it "one issue") and then dismissing it by -characterizing in an uncharitable way fellow Christians who are deeply committed to human life's intrinsic dignity from conception to natural death." Beckwith concludes:
The view that human beings are made in the -image of God and ought to be protected by our laws and the wider community is not "one issue." It is the principle that is the point of justice itself: to love our neighbors as ourselves; to exercise charity; to help the vulnerable and the weak.
Tell me that you simply do not believe that abortion kills human beings. I shall disagree with you, but I will understand why you find it reasonable to allow the abortion issue to be eclipsed by other concerns. Tell me that you do not believe in the imago dei or the notion of human dignity. I'll comprehend, but I'll also wonder what grounds you can offer as the basis for any moral concern—such as AIDS or poverty—whatever. Tell me that political affiliation is inconsequential for the abortion issue. I'll understand, but note that you misunderstand the importance of Supreme Court appointments and veto power.
But please do not tell me that, even though we have thus far killed fifty million bearers of the imago dei in this nation since Roe v. Wade, this fact must be "juxtaposed" against other important issues. For then I shall fear that you are at risk of losing touch with all that is sacred. One might as well "juxtapose" Russian roulette with Monopoly, Risk or Gin Rummy when deciding how to pass a rainy afternoon.
How can anyone who believes man is made in the image of God look the other way when any "three-pound child" has "her head deliberately caved in" and is tossed aside, because a more mature view of the "integration of faith and public life" has demanded his attention?
Even two eighteen-year-olds back in 1975 knew better. •
Whatever Happened to the Human Race?
Thirty years ago, Francis Schaeffer, one of the fathers of the Evangelical movement, and C. Everett Koop, then a world-renowned pediatric surgeon, collaborated on a project called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? The two men couldn't have been more different. Schaeffer, while philosophically conservative, was something of a hippie, sporting suede pants and a goatee and running a commune in the mountains of Switzerland. Koop, on the other hand, was just about as buttoned-up as one can be; he was already the Chief of Surgery of the Children's Hospital in Philadelphia and would later become the Surgeon General of the United States under Ronald Reagan. Despite their differences, however, both individuals shared a passionate concern about the technologies and ideologies that were beginning to threaten the notion of human dignity.
Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, first a book and then a film series, was an outgrowth of this passion. Euthanasia, infanticide, eugenics: At the time, these were issues and practices that had yet to bother a majority of Evangelical Christians. In fact, most Evangelicals believed that abortion was just a Catholic concern and refused to take up the cause for this reason alone. Of course, Koop and Schaeffer argued otherwise. "Each era faces its own unique blend of problems," they wrote. "Our time is no exception. Those who regard individuals as expendable raw material—to be molded, exploited, and then discarded—do battle on many fronts with those who see each person as unique and special, worthwhile, and irreplaceable." Such rhetoric lit a fire under Evangelicals, and some have even suggested that it is solely responsible for the formation of the Religious Right.
Today, the bioethical landscape is much more treacherous than either man could ever have imagined it would be. Cloning, embryonic stem-cell research, partial-birth abortion, and the right-to-die movement now dominate headlines, and the Darwinian belief that people are indeed "expendable raw material" has infiltrated just about every quarter of society. It's somewhat ironic, then, that growing numbers of Evangelicals are taking this opportunity to divorce themselves from Koop and Schaeffer's conviction that the battle over human dignity is "the greatest moral test to be put before us." Schaeffer, in particular, would be sorely disappointed with his Evangelical brethren. And had he not already died in 1984, the knowledge that his own son has joined them would surely do the job. •
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