Monday, October 9, 2017

How Right-Wing White Evangelicals Fixated on Birth Control and Abortion: Answers from Tara Isabella Burton, Fred Clark, and David Gushee

At Vox this past weekend, Tara Isabella Burton asks how birth control became a part of the conservative evangelical agenda, when even the most conservative evangelical churches never had a peep to say about this matter until fairly recently. She writes:

Yet among evangelical Protestants, at least, birth control — and who has access to it — has only recently become a major political issue. Unlike Catholics, whose catechism denounces use of most forms of contraception as a sin, evangelical Protestants by and large do not. (Because of the disparate nature of evangelical Protestantism, which includes hundreds if not thousands of separate denominations, it’s difficult to speak of a "formal stance" in the way we can of Catholics.) But alongside Catholic organizations like Little Sisters of the Poor, it's evangelical-led companies like Hobby Lobby that have been on the forefront of opposition to the ACA birth control mandate. 
In this, the evangelical stance on the ACA birth control mandate reflects a wider issue: the increased convergence of Catholics and evangelical Protestants — hardly historical allies — on social issues in the past few decades, as issues like the same-sex marriage debate and abortion have united the two socially conservative groups. As David Talcott, professor of philosophy at King’s College and an expert in Christian sexual ethics, told Vox, "Catholic and conservative evangelicals have become allies of certain kinds," each defending the interests of other, as theological and philosophical overlap between the two.

And then she adds:

Meanwhile, despite the evangelical right’s current commitment to anti-abortion policies, this was not always the case. As late as the 1960s, abortion seems to have been a debated issue among the Christian right. According to an excellent article by Rob Shryock at Salon, a 1968 document produced at a conference co-sponsored by Christianity Today and the Christian Dental and Medical Association treated the question as unresolved: "Whether the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity of it and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord. … When principles conflict, the preservation of fetal life … may have to be abandoned to maintain full and secure family life."
But amid the culture wars of the late 1970s and the '80s, evangelicals disillusioned by Jimmy Carter's first term used the 1973 Supreme Court decision for Roe v. Wade as a rallying cry for conservative Christians to deny him another one. Evangelical Protestants joined their Catholic brethren — whose position against abortion and contraception had long been more established — in understanding life to begin at conception.

For valuable historical corroboration of Burton's points above, see Fred Clark's recent series of articles at his Slacktivist site entitled "White evangelicalism, 1975: Before the change" (here, here, here, and here). Fred surveys how white evangelicals have shifted their view of abortion since 1975, when conservative evangelical Norman Geisler published the third edition of his influential book Ethics and Alternatives, which summarized the conservative evangelical understanding of abortion as it stood at that point in time — and which was nowhere nearly as rigidly opposed to abortion in all circumstances as right-wing evangelical orthodoxy today is.

What conservative white evangelicals believe and say in 2017 is very different from what they believed and said in 1975. And what they said back then is, in their circles, no longer allowed to be believed, no longer allowed to be spoken, and no longer even allowed to be considered or entertained as a possibility. 
This change has become so paramount for white evangelical doctrine and practice that they needed to rewrite the Bible to accommodate it. That happened. The most Bible-y Bible Christians who ever Bibled took on a new core belief that was such a departure from their previous outlook that they took it upon themselves to change the words of their inerrant, infallible sacred text. 
It's impossible to overstate how huge that is. Even more so, it's impossible to overstate the enormity of the fact that this was done — the Bible itself was changed — without anyone bothering to notice that it happened.

Here's David Gushee in his recent book Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017) explaining how the Republican party brought Southern white evangelicals on board the anti-abortion, anti-contraception culture-war wagon, when they had previously been indifferent to these issues (hint: at the bottom of the sordid alliance between the U.S. Catholic bishops and white evangelicals is the Ur issue of racism and resistance to civil rights breakthroughts for African Americans): 

On the political front, Republicans had been attempting to shift the South from Democrat to Republican since the 1960s. The Republicans' "Southern strategy" included both direct and veiled appeals to white discomfort with black gains achieved via the civil rights movement. The more that national Democratic leaders such as Lyndon Johnson threw their support to black civil rights and racial integration, the more the South became ripe for a Republican resurgence. 
Republicans certainly made gains with white Southerners in this way and continue to do so. But millions of white Southerners are, or want to be, devout and faithful Christians. A struggle was set up for the white Southern Christian soul between the racial reconciliation central to the gospel and the sometimes veiled, sometimes open racism central to white, especially Southern, culture. Of course, this struggle is as old as America itself, having become entrenched where slavery was prevalent. We have seen all too often that in the conflict between gospel reconciliation and racism in Southern – even Southern evangelical – contexts, racism wins. 
By the late 1970s, a different strategy was developed on the conservative side, focusing especially on traditionalist Christian discomfort with the women's movement, the sexual revolution, and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion. The culture wars were born, pitting against each other those favoring and those opposing these liberalizing cultural and legal developments. This proved a more appealing agenda for conservative Christian consumption than directly attacking progress in racial integration and black empowerment (pp. 31-2).

The need to control and debase black bodies, female bodies, queer bodies, to prop up a male-dominated, misogynistic, heterosexist, and racist white Christianity as normative, as the default definition of what it means to be Christian, at a point in which the complexion of Christianity in the U.S. is shifting rapidly: this need has placed Donald Trump in the White House. This history should be faced honestly by anyone who really believes that Christianity should exert a redemptive influence in the world, given its ugly effects as they're being inscribed daily now in the bodies of those whom misogynistic, heterosexist, racist white Christianity have thrown to the wolves in the form of Mr. Trump and his administration.

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