"Pre-History" of Protestant Debates About Abortion

This guest post comes from my colleague and fellow University of Tennessee American religious historian, Mark Hulsether. Mark's work focuses upon the intersection of religion, culture and politics post-1945 in the U.S., and his most recent book, Religion, Culture, and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States considers the new religious right, religious aspects of ethnic and sexual diversity, and the impact of media on popular religion. Hopefully, we will see more from Mark in the future.

A Comment on the “Pre-History” of Protestant Debates About Abortion Before Roe V. Wade

Mark Hulsether

Reading the thread below about Dan Williams’ new book, God’s Own Party, I was interested in the discussion about abortion—that is, about rethinking how much the issue of abortion was important for traditions of politicized evangelicals prior to the mid-1970s. When I wrote on this issue years ago, I drew on Robert Booth Fowler’s book, A New Engagement, which was based largely on a content analysis of Christianity Today (CT) from 1966 to 1976. Abortion doesn’t stand out there all that much—although it is in the mix—and in Fowler’s brief section about it, most of the citations are from 1973 forward.

But I’ve done little primary research on this and I look forward to being instructed by Williams.

The reason I am writing is to mention a possible similar dynamic—if we hypothesize that evangelicals presupposed opposition to abortion before the 1970s and simply didn’t talk about it too much until after 1973—on the leftward side of the coin constituted by Protestant right on one side, in dialog with Protestant left-liberals on the other.

In my book on Christianity and Crisis magazine (C&C), I have a section about its evolving views on abortion, along with its exceedingly bitter debate about Roe V. Wade and successor policies. If you like vivid and intense conflict in your reading material, this section has it, for example one scholar who said that his colleague’s work was like “giving dum-dum bullets to the Mafia.”

Anyway, C&C (which I’m using as a rough-and-ready barometer of left-liberal debates, somewhat like Fowler used CT) said little about abortion before 1973, although there was a dust-up in 1967.

What the debate after Roe V. Wade did was in large part to bring to the surface fault lines and submerged disagreements that had been there for some time, although evolving in complicated ways by the 1970s.

The pattern at C&C about LGBT rights has interesting family resemblances, too.

So I’m saying that it might be useful to learn from the patterns and to think about trends on both “sides of the coin” in explicit or implicit dialog with each other.


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