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More on Evangelicals and Abortion

posted by Ed Kilgore

I did a post here a week ago raising a number of questions, theological and cultural, about the much higher tendency of white evangelicals to hold strong anti-abortion views, as compared to Catholics. 

It took a while, but I’m glad to report that Ross Douthat of The Atlantic (a second time today), and Steve Waldman and Rod Dreher here at Beliefnet, rose to the challenge with their own theories for the phenomenon. 

Two of Steve’s suggestions strike me as plausible: (1) Catholics who are not in the habit of reading papal or episcopal encyclicals may actually hear less in church about abortion than evangelicals; and (2) opposing abortion is part of a “bundle” of issue-positions related to the overall conservative political positioning of evangelicals, and their alliance with the GOP. 

On this second point, I agree with Steve that the “bundle” is eroding; fewer and fewer evangelicals each day seem to accept the idea that religious fidelity requires them to oppose cap-and-trade or favor high-end tax cuts.  But some of the strains in the GOP-evangelical relationship have to do with disappointment over Republican failures to “deliver” on core moral concerns, so it’s not clear to me that evangelical anti-abortion sentiment is going to decline any time soon. 

Rod Dreher took as his point of departure Ross Douthat’s theory that evangelical religious commitment is simply more “intense” than that of most Catholics, leading to a greater sense of religious obligation on issues like abortion.  Rod assumes that Ross is talking about levels of church-going, with Catholics less likely to be observent. 

The problem with Rod’s argument is that most of the available data shows evangelicals are much more likely than Catholics to take conservative positions on “life” issues across every level of religious observance.  Yes, weekly Mass-going Catholics are more likely than irrregularly attending evangelicals to oppose abortion and stem-cell research (or for that matter, gay marriage), but not nearly as much as weekly-attending evangelicals.  Something else is going on here beyond rates of church-going. 

Ross is on stronger ground in his post today, citing yet another Pew survey as evidence that evangelicals are far more likely to consider themselves “traditonalists” than are Catholics.  But even if you buy Pew’s traditionalist/centrist/modernist typology (which I don’t, fully, given the different meaning of these words for different “traditions”), the same survey shows the same, sizable gap between evangelical and Catholic “traditionalists” on abortion policy–and on a host of other issues signifying overall conservatism–that all the other surveys show. Across every measurement, white evangelicals are simply more likely to hold hard-core anti-abortion views than Catholics, and I’m not sure any of us really know why.   

One final thing: in the comments thread for my original post a philosophy professor named Francis Beckworth challenged my claim that scriptural arguments for outlawing abortion typically involve circular reasoning from prohibitions against homicide that don’t really establish that abortion is homicide in the first place.  He helpfully offered a link to a scholarly article of his own from 1991.  I will concede that his article does address the underlying issue from a right-to-life point of view, but read it yourself: it’s not the sort of argument that any significant number of rank-and-file evangelicals–or I suspect, even clergy–would have ever heard or understood. The fact remains that there is nothing in Scripture that offers the sort of direct, unambiguous condemnation of abortion that is available with respect to a wide variety of other behaviors, from adultery to homosexuality to divorce to greed to unjust war.  Perhaps the gap between evangelical and mainline Protestants on gays rights is attributable to the belief in biblical inerrancy common among the former category. But that doesn’t seem to be the case on abortion.



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