Preying on Historical Ignorance

So did you know that Christians have only opposed abortion for about 40 years? Yeah. Neither do I. Neither does anyone else familiar with Church history.

But I had recently seen the view expressed in a tweet without thinking too much of it, and then a few days later, someone sent me a couple of blog posts by Fred Clark at Slacktivist. So apparently there really are people trying to push this narrative.

In the older one, Clark contends that

In 1979, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.

Sometime after that, it was decided that the Bible teaches that human life begins at conception.

It’s rather pitiful, to be frank. Clark’s arguments here are what happen when somebody who is completely ignorant of church history hears some unexpected & salacious factoids but isn’t intellectually competent enough to understand them in a historical context. Clark points to a few institutions and a theologian who have changed their opinions on the subject since the 60’s, insinuates without evidence that it’s all due to acute peer pressure, and… well, that’s about it.

Of course, since the Church is 2000 years old, one can’t just look back half a century and call it a day. As it turns out, the anti-abortion stance of the Church did not spring fully formed from American Evangelicalism’s forehead in the late 20th century–it is literally as old as the Church. For example, the Didache (a first century ethical catechism of sorts that is one of the oldest extant Christian writings that isn’t part of the New Testament) explicitly forbids abortion. You see the same thing in early theologians like Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, Tertullian, as well as others, with many of them citing the same Biblical passages that people cite today. (Some handy references can be found here and here.) The pro-fertility and anti-abortion stances of the early church are remarkable enough (and profoundly different enough from Roman paganism) that I’ve even seen some historians argue that these stances heavily contributed to the rise of Christianity in its first few centuries because they out-bred their contemporaries.

The other “older-than-50-years” factor to consider is the too-slowly simmering conflict with Theological Liberalism that was coming to a boil in many protestant denominations at the time in question. This was a heretical movement that was started among elite academics in the 19th Century, and it took some time before it truly started filtering down from the elites to the people in the pews. In the 60’s and 70’s, many Christians were waking up to a pair of unpleasant facts: A) The movement was blatantly heretical, and B) it already dominated many of their own seminaries and ecclesial structures.

A considerable shakeup resulted within many churches and denominations, to say the least. Some fought to take back their ecclesial institutions. Some split off to found new ones. And yes, sometimes church policies on abortion changed during those upheavals. But this wasn’t due to some heretofore unknown theology on abortion being imposed by the Moral Majority. This was due to Protestantism sorting itself into ranks over a variety of issues related to Theological Liberalism. Christians who adhered more to orthodoxy gravitated towards evangelical churches while those who instead held to Theological Liberalism gravitated towards the mainline denominations. Naturally, the former were much more likely to be pro-life while the latter were much more likely to be pro-abortion.  Just as naturally, the cultures of those two sets of churches diverged as well.

Even more laughable is the newer piece of the two about an anecdote from Clark’s childhood. He remembers a women’s prayer group being very leery about a woman with a troubled pregnancy going to a Roman Catholic hospital. Their fear was that the doctors there would sacrifice the life of the mother in order to continue the pregnancy at all costs. Clark therefore concludes that valuing the mother’s life was entirely acceptable until Ronald Reagan and Francis Schaeffer teamed up to banish such concern from Evangelical churches with fire and sword.

But however Clark uses his ravings to rhetorically dress it up as concern for the mother cruelly transforming into an imagined non-concern, what he describes are essentially ladies expressing the view that abortion is permissible when the mother’s life is at stake (with a sizable dose of the typical anti-Roman sentiment of the time putting its own spin on that expression.) Unfortunately for Clark’s argument, that’s not even a transformation. Most pro-life people still agree with exceptions when the life of the mother is threatened by her pregnancy. It’s even in the great new abortion law in Alabama that the left hates so much. On the other hand, if one was to go back in time and ask typical Christians whether abortion was wonderful because of its primary purpose–facilitating promiscuity and fornication by eliminating the consequent children–I suspect he’d get an earful about another Christian doctrine that hasn’t really changed.

All the 1984 references are particularly ironic since Clark is the one revising history. But I suspect he doesn’t even realize that’s what he’s doing because he never bothered to look too closely at the subject in the first place. This whole bit of nonsense is just another attempt by “progressive Christians” to construct a new narrative about their relationship to Christ’s Church. Instead of heretical Theological Liberalism hijacking the Church’s institutions over the past century or two, they would prefer to believe that Christian orthodoxy was the real innovation–and that it was all Ronald Reagan’s fault somehow.

That sleight of hand might work for narrative thinkers or for the unfortunately growing ranks of Christians with little knowledge of their own Scriptures or history. Nevertheless, anyone who actually takes to heart Christ and his Apostles’ warnings about false teachers will think critically about it. And in so doing, they’ll compare the erroneous innovations of Theological Liberalism to God’s Word along with two thousand years worth of faithful Christians who did the same.  Those who do so will not be deceived.

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