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Why the Anti-Abortion Rhetoric of Evangelical Americans Is Not Just about Valuing Human Life

According to statistics gathered by the Pew Research Center, 77% of evangelical Protestants believe abortion should be illegal in America because it is morally wrong. When I was growing up in evangelical America, the reasoning behind this belief was consistently presented to me as follows: Christians oppose abortion because it undermines the value of every human life, which is made in the image of God. In due course, I started to appreciate the irony of this argument, in that evangelicals have both historically and in the present been some of the most complacent if not the greatest opponents of some of the leading human rights issues of our times, including women’s rights, LGBT rights, and BAME rights. Indeed, they tend to be sceptical of any equality initiative that is not instigated—and thus subject to the control of—the white heterosexual Christian male. This raises questions about whether the anti-abortion rhetoric may have motives other than simply ‘valuing human life’ and invites us to consider what those motives might be.


My contention here is that evangelical opposition to abortion is at least partly if not primarily about preserving the hegemony of the white straight male over other parties. This, I suggest, is something that can be discerned in the evangelical approach to other questions of human rights such as I mentioned above—an approach, whose support and rationale is believed to be grounded in the Bible. For example, evangelical ideas about the status of women are often based on certain passages of the New Testament, which order wives to submit to their husbands, children to their parents, and slaves to their masters (Colossians 3:18-22; 1 Peter 2:18; 1 Timothy 6:1-5; Titus 2:9-10). In evangelical circles, these ‘household code’ passages are interpreted very literally to imply that the primary role of women is in the home, supporting the career ambitions of their husbands, to which their own must be subordinated; ultimately the wife must maintain her physical attractiveness for her husband’s benefit. In turn, the husband provides leadership and financial support for the whole family, including the children whose welfare is also the primary responsibility of the woman.


Within this framework, the problem with abortion seems quite obvious: it grants women the right to make choices about having sex and having children which should only presumably happen under the authority and in the context of relationship with a husband. At the same time, it undermines the chances of producing babies who will be brought up according to an evangelical worldview. In both these ways, abortion presumably inhibits the fulfilment of God’s design for human relationships, as outlined in the household codes, which supposedly have the good of all parties involved at their core.


While it is difficult to argue with the Bible, recent scholarship has shown that the purpose of the codes at the time they were written was to help budding Christian communities to ‘blend in’ with the wider Roman culture which followed them, in order to avoid persecution. The subordination mandated in the passages was not therefore intrinsic to Christianity, in which there is ‘neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). This significant contextual factor in the interpretation of the New Testament has been glossed over by evangelicals, as part of a larger tendency to read the Bible as a sort of ‘textbook’ for sexual ethics or even for science rather than as the ‘story with a moral’—which is subject to interpretation in different contexts—that it was intended to be.


Such an approach to biblical interpretation has implications for another area in which evangelicals carefully police any trend which could disrupt the supposedly biblical hierarchy of the white heterosexual male over his wife and children. This concerns the perceived threat of homosexual relationships. Here again, evangelicals are quick to point out that their opposition to homosexuality is based on passages of the Bible which seem to suggest that God condemns homosexuality (Genesis 9:20-27, Genesis 19:1-11, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:10, Romans 1:26-27). While Christians can ‘love the sinner,’ they are still supposedly constrained by Scripture to ‘hate the sin.’ As recent research has shown, however, the passages evangelicals invoke as indisputable proof of God’s hatred for homosexual acts are actually concerned with other issues like rape, male prostitution, cultic prostitution, pedophaelia, etc. There is not therefore any discussion let alone any censure in the Bible of homosexual relationships between two consenting adults.


To this, a conservative-minded Christian might reply that marriage has always been conceived in both the biblical and theological traditions as ordered towards the procreation of children, which is only possible in a heterosexual relationship. However, there is a long tradition of interpreting Scripture in a ‘spiritual sense’ according to which the purpose of marriage is to strengthen the partners to contribute both jointly and individually to playing some role in the socialization of the human race. This is something that can be achieved in countless ways, only one of which involves bearing or perhaps adopting children, and within male-male and female-female as well as male-female partnerships. The reason opposition to gay partnerships presumably exists is not therefore because they cannot achieve the biblically defined ends of marriage but that they pose a threat to the definition of marriage in terms of the subordination of woman to man that evangelicals are quite desperate to preserve.


To understand conservative complacency regarding Black Lives Matter, desegregation, and other questions of racial equality requires digging deeper into America’s history. In the years leading up to the American Civil War (1861-65), evangelical Christians in the American South especially invoked the household code passages mentioned above to defend the practice of slavery. The defence of exclusively black slavery was based on a botched exegesis of Genesis 9:20-27, in which the Patriarch Noah cursed his son Ham’s descendants to eternal slavery on account of Ham’s disrespect for his father. Although there is no evidence in the Biblical, rabbinic, or late antique traditions that Ham was understood as the father of Black Africa, he was assigned this label from the 7th century onwards, when Islamic nations and later Christian ones began exploiting the African subcontinent for slave labour. By the time of the Civil War, the divine sanctioning of specifically black slavery was taken for granted, at least in the American South. So were certain pseudo-scientific stereotypes of African Americans as intellectually inferior and thus better suited to hard, outdoor labour; or as lazy, licentious, and violent and therefore in need of being kept under control.


These characterizations clearly had nothing to do with any qualities intrinsic to African Americans themselves. They reflected instead the psychological needs of the white population which sought to justify slavery for their own economic gain. Although slavery is now nearly 200 years in American history, it would be difficult to overstate how deeply such unwarranted stereotypes have sunk into the American psyche. There are no longer masters buying or beating their slaves—sometimes to death; but one could argue that there is a kind of counterpart or substitute for the institution in a police force and a ‘justice system’ that often seem to operate on the assumption that African Americans will make trouble and are better locked up before they have the chance to do so.


This, in my opinion, is quantitatively but not qualitatively different situation to the one that existed in the pre-Civil War period, during which the lives of African Americans were subjected systemically and pervasively to certain disadvantages and limitations which indirectly and directly promoted the hegemony of the white straight male. Of course, many evangelical Christians would be quick to insist that they love ‘all people’ and have nothing against black Americans, who are often the objects of Christian ‘charity’. In that sense, they might claim they are not guilty of (direct) racism. But opposing or failing to contribute to the structural changes that are needed to level the playing field up for these and the other vulnerable parties mentioned, under the guise of religious freedom or free speech, is in my view not only at least part of what is often referred to as implicit or institutional bias; it is also a highly disingenuous way to achieve the maintenance of the status quo.


As I have been trying to suggest, this involves asserting white straight patriarchy. That is not to deny that there are exceptions to the norm within the evangelical world or that there are many well-meaning evangelicals who genuinely believe that their stance on abortion is about valuing human life; nor do I wish to make light of the matter of abortion. The reason I have delved deeper into the rationale behind evangelical perspectives on other questions of human rights, such as I have discussed above, is precisely that this helps to render other motives behind the anti-abortion rhetoric clearer.


So does stopping to reflect on how the American abortion debate compares to its fate in correlative religious circles in other countries. In many European countries, for example, Christians have by and large accepted that—in light of the separation of Church and state from which Christians themselves stand to benefit—it is not their right to impose their moral values on the wider political order, and it is the prerogative of that order to devise a safe social solution to an inevitable phenomenon. One of the enduring ironies and indeed inconsistencies of American evangelicalism is that it tends to prefer small government and de-regulation, except when it comes to sexual mores.


This is one likely reason why abortion became such a make-or-break issue in the 2016 election, to the point that 82% of self-professed evangelicals were prepared to vote for a president who offended every last one of their alleged moral values: abortion is one of the linchpins in the preservation of the white patriarchy. That in turn is arguably what is at stake in the vigorous ‘culture wars’ in which evangelicals pit themselves against ‘secular’ ways of being that threaten the supposedly biblical lifestyle. The goal of these battles is undoubtedly to defend an all-consuming object of worship, which serves as the organizing principle of life. The only question is whether that object is God, or the white straight Christian male.


Written by Dr. Lydia Schumacher


Dr. Lydia Schumacher is a Reader in Historical and Philosophical Theology at King's College London. She joined King’s in 2017 as Senior Research Fellow in Medieval Philosophy and Theology and Principal Investigator on a European Research Council Grant project titled, ‘Authority and Innovation in Early Franciscan Thought’ (c. 1220-45). Previously, she held a Chancellor’s Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh. From 2011-14, she held a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship in the University of Oxford, Faculty of Theology and Religion.

She is a member of the Editorial Board for the International Journal of Philosophy and Theology as well as a member of several elite academic societies, such as the Young Academy of Europe and the Société internationale pour l’étude de la Philosophie Médiévale.