Those of you who weren’t around back then might be surprised to learn that, by the time Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973, many evangelical Christians were pro-choice. Back then abortion wasn’t even a particularly polarizing issue. It didn’t differentiate between Republicans and Democrats the way it does today. In fact, evangelical luminaries such as Billy Graham considered anti-abortionism a largely Roman Catholic affair, and back then the majority of Catholics were Democrats! Graham, a Republican, was himself pro-choice.
Believe it or not one of the most enlightened pieces of early pro-choice legislation in the United States, the California Therapeutic Abortion Act of 1967, was endorsed and signed into law by then California Governor Ronald Reagan. Imagine that. And as if that isn’t enough, in the run up to the Roe decision, America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, passed a resolution recommending abortion be made legal!
So what happened along the way to so dramatically change the political landscape? The intense anti-abortion fervour did not spring to life naturally. It had to be learned, and in order that it be learned it had to be taught. And of course it also had to be sold.
That’s where the Schaeffers came in. At the behest and encouragement of C. Everett Koop, who later became Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General, American evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer and his son Frank toured the country speaking out against abortion and teaching and selling counterfeit outrage about abortion. They evangelized the evangelists. They helped to transform abortion into a rightwing, political organizing tool and a moral cause célèbre. The Schaeffers carefully and deliberately cultivated performative outrage about abortion.
Frank Schaeffer quickly saw the error of his ways. Schaeffer has spent nearly forty years trying to undo the damage he and his father caused. Frank came to clearly understand the harm he’d done. He saw the movement that he helped found become corrupted with power and greed. He saw the evangelical icons he once admired turn into monsters. Unfortunately, by the time he came to his senses, the damage had already been done.
In the ten year transitioning time between 1974 and 1984, when I was a young evangelical in my teens and 20s, I watched abortion become a hot topic. It soon became an important political litmus test for Republicans. Suddenly, you couldn’t properly be a Republican without being anti-abortion, or what they cynicaly rebranded as “pro-life.”
I recall paying minimal lip service to the whole thing. But it was done entirely without passion. Truth be told I didn’t really feel as though abortion was murder. A barely differentiated bit of protoplasm with no memory, no relationships and no self-awareness was very different from a human being, I thought. But if God said life began at inception, who was I to argue? The real question was, of course, did God actually say that? Another question for me became, did God even exist?
These were the questions I asked within myself that helped to shape my personal movement away from evangelical Christianity to agnosticism, which is where I remain today. But it has given me insight into the origins of the antiabortion movement. The most powerful cause of the tragedy that is the antiabortion movement today is the same one that caused the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades and the Witch Trials. It all stems from the notion that human beings can be certain about what God thinks. Or they pretend to be certain, which amounts to the same thing.
Nothing good has ever come from that. Only tyranny can come from the self-anointed moral certainty that I know what is best for you because I know the mind and will of God. The sincere but misguided belief that God is on your side and that he needs you to enforce his will is perhaps the greatest mistake the human race has ever made. And we keep making it. That great mistake has always led to great evil.
It is intrinsic in the U. S. Constitution that individual liberty is the all-important guiding principle behind the American government. Thomas Jefferson’s genius was manifest in the subtle handoff of our liberties from God to the human race when he said that human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” That was the difference between the fledgling American government and every other nation on earth. Human rights, and not the arbitrary rule of a king answerable only to God, became center stage for the first time.
Now for the first time in its history, the Supreme Court of the United States has taken one of those human rights away, the right of a woman to choose. It came about because, thanks to decades of relentless assaults on American liberties, the Republican Party has finally managed to plant agents of corruption into the SCOTUS. Those agents are the direct result of the mistake Francis Schaeffer and his son Frank cultivated and exploited to create antiabortion fervour more than four decades ago: the notion that human beings both know and must enforce the will of God, and in this case, the notion that God hates abortion. It is a mistake that was ingrained into the minds of many Americans and is difficult to eradicate.
It seems to me that if there really is a God then he isn’t much if he needs us and our puny powers to do his bidding and enforce his will. And if God doesn’t exist then it’s all folly anyway. Either way, it’s time for us to admit our ignorance and stay away from such questions. We need to stop making decisions about moral choices for other human beings, and restore those choices to the long and majestic list of our unalienable rights. If you don’t believe in abortion then don’t get one. But stay away from the right of other people to choose, and, above all, learn to mind your own business. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.