One of the most important books for our era...

Last night I watched a clip on the "Rachel Maddow" show describing the growing wave of new legislation that is being introduced in states like Louisiana, Ohio and Alabama that share one goal:  to overturn Roe v. Wade at a state level. 
(For more information, check out:

Earlier this spring I read a little book by Jonathan Dudley, a medical student at Johns Hopkins with a MA from Yale Divinity School, called Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics.  To call this THE most important recent book on religion and culture would be an overstatement - but not by much!  As Phyllis Tickle has noted, it is, "hands down... the most insightful, clear-eyed and popularly useful overview to date of why and how evangelicalism has come to be such a powerful and intractable political and doctrinal block in American affairs."

So if you want to REALLY to wrestle with both the historic Christian tradition about when life begins - a position vastly different from the current evangelical posturing - including what the Bible does and doesn't say... this is your book.  "Given the widespread and intense conviction among evangelicals - on both the left and the right - that life begins at conception and abortion is killing an innocent human being from then on (which is the perspective of the proposed new legislation) you'd think that this position is clearly taught in the Bible, the mainstream position of historic Christianity or firmly established by modern science.  You would be wrong!"

Dudley then carefully reviews a host of important insights including:

+ The Biblical texts most often sited as condemning abortion and affirming that life starts at conception - quoting Pope John Paul II, too - that "the texts of Sacred Scripture never address the question of deliberate abortion and so do not directly and specifically condemn it."

+ The Jewish tradition:  "...with its long tradition of respecting humans as made in God's image (shows) that it is consistent to think of human life as immeasurably valuable and also think it begins later than conception. The question of when moral life begins is a question of how far back the category "human" should extend (while) the question of the value of human life is a question of how what is already placed in that category should be treated. The mistake many evangelicals make is to conflate the two questions."

+ The Christian tradition: noting that pre-Reformation Christians opposed contraception but never stated that human life began at conception.  The early Church Fathers were uncertain when a viable fetus developed a sacred soul, prompting Augustine to write: "If what is brought forth is unformed but at this stage some sort of living, shapeless thing... then the law of homicide would not apply, for it could not be said that here was a living soul in that body, for it lacks all sense, if it be such as is not yet formed and therefore not yet endowed with senses."  This position was dominant in the Roman tradition until the mid-1800s when, due to revisions in teaching about Mary... "and a resurgence in Platonism..." it was suggested that a soul was received at conception.  This, however was never the Protestant nor Evangelical wisdom until the rise of the Religious Right in 1975.

+ The Religious Right (1975-79) - was not initially interested in abortion - what it opposed was the Carter administration's change in tax laws that denied segregation academies the right to tax money.  That is, tax exemptions were at the heart and soul of the early religious right - not abortion, homosexuality or equal rights for women. Dudley's careful treatment of the union between the National Right to Life movement of the Roman Catholic Church with the Religious Right in the 1980s is worth the price of the book.  It documents a dramatic shift of both tactics and theology.

This chapter concludes with this insightful and challenging reality for those of us eager to find common ground:
The campaign to criminalize abortion has dominated evangelical politics for the past thirty years. In the minds of many, perhaps most, lay evangelicals, who constitute roughly 35 percent of the American population, it doesn't ultimately matter what a politician is doing to combat economic oppression, help marginalized groups, promote world peace or even promote US interests... At the end of the day, all that really matters is what a politician identifies as "pro-life."

For a community that thinks embryos are morally equivalent to fully developed humans, abortion becomes genocide on an unprecedented scale... Settling for abortion reduction becomes settling for legalized murder. Allowing abortion in so-called hard cases - for raped women or pregnancies resulting from incest - is equivalent to allowing the murder of one person to improve the lot of another. Uncompromising single-issue politics flow naturally from the belief that life begins at conception and abortion is murder...

This position can claim biblical support only through tendentious and historically recent interpretations; it contradicts the dominant tradition of Christian thought on when moral life begins... and is not required by new scientific discoveries.

As the rise of these new laws suggest, the possibility of moving away from the culture wars towards a civil American society focused on true justice and social responsibility is a distant dream so long as religious groups insist on judging others through the lens of this single and very compromised vision.  I refuse to demonize these religious opponents - they are not evil - but as part of the family there is a time to call them out for being wrong.  And that time is now.


Black Pete said…
It's north of the medicine line, too, James. Scary stuff, especially since our national leader is firmly in that misguided evangelical camp.

Popular Posts