The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse[d] among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries. Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
Documented use of an Abortifacient, Numbers 5:16-22
In May 2022, white evangelical Christians woke up to some rather unexpected news. A draft opinion had somehow leaked out of the Supreme Court, suggesting that Roe v. Wade would soon be overturned. Shortly after, it was. I single out white evangelicals here because, according to a recent Pew Research study, they are twice as likely to want to see abortion outlawed than other Americans (including other Christians). It would be an error though to conclude this means white evangelicals are the most pro-life. No no no, this is not the case at all. White evangelicals are no more pro-life than other religious groups, Christian or otherwise – they are, however, the most autocratic. Yet those who would use the Bible to institute government sponsored morality seem to have forgotten where the bodies are buried: also in their Bible.
The concept of abortion is nothing new. The practice of inducing an abortion as punishment for unfaithful women was once conducted as part of priestly duties in pre-Christian Judaism. A woman suspected of adultery, yet maintaining her innocence would be partially stripped, treated as an animal (right down to the presentation of an animal’s meal offering), and made to drink a type of holy water concoction; it was believed an unfaithful woman would abort her lover’s fetus and die within up to three years were she guilty (Mishnah Sotah 3). Holy water has a long tradition of being used to cleanse and purify, and so the implication was that the illegitimate fetus was evil, and therefore must be purged from the woman. Behind the scenes, this seemed to have more to do with the financial aspects of marriage contracts and intimidation than it did holiness, and the practice was eventually ended prior to the destruction of the second temple. Today’s American evangelicals take the opposing viewpoint of their ancestors – namely, against all forms of abortion – yet still firmly hold onto the practice of controlling women in much the same way. Yet while many other Christians value life just as much as autocratic evangelicals, we differ greatly from them particularly on a solution to the number of unwanted pregnancies in the country. The earliest Christians opposed abortion by adopting others’ discarded and unwanted live babies – a Roman practice known as “infant exposure” would leave abandoned babies in the trash or otherwise discarded after birth, left to die or be raised as slaves and prostitutes by others. It was this practice that many early writers condemned as “the worst abomination of all” (Philo of Alexandria). They wrote about Roman abortion practices far less. Yet while early Christians put their faith into action by sacrificially taking in these babies to save them from such a fate, today’s evangelicals largely believe opposing abortion through politics and legislation is the only solution. Most others believe it is an ineffective and dangerous solution – perhaps just as dangerous as the ancient practice that once caused them (or at least was perceived to; the practice’s effectiveness was highly questionable among rabbis).
Forced morality is likewise nothing new either. In the book of Chronicles, King Josiah breaks down the altars of false gods, tears down carved images, and rids Judah and Jerusalem of the ungodliness of the time. When his priest finds the Book of the Law, Josiah tears his robe and imposes moral rule according to the laws of the book. The chronicler Ezra writes, “Josiah removed all the detestable idols from all the territory belonging to the Israelites, and he had all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God. As long as he lived, they did not fail to follow the Lord, the God of their ancestors.” An often overlooked detail in this story is that in spite of a society living under (and clearly practicing!) moral law, God tells Josiah that he will take his life early so that he will not see the disaster God plans to bring about. A useful object lesson can be found here: perceived morality counts for little when it is compelled. At the center of today’s controversy is not really Christian doctrine at all (there is no Christian doctrine concerning abortion), or even morality, but rather the same desire for power; today, that translates to the church’s desire for socio-economic power.
Evangelical beliefs about economic power can be walked back to the early Protestant Ethic, brought over to America from the Puritans. The Protestant Ethic is the notion that hard work and financial prosperity are a sign of God’s election, where election refers to evidence of favor from God; a sign of salvation. In other words, the more prosperous you are, the better your standing must be with God. It is the foundation of our capitalist history. To the chagrin of many a Christian, Jesus rejected the predominant system of power by means of financial status, and put to shame the use of wealth and social status in the community as a means of privilege and power over others. The misguided principle of the Protestant Ethic is however still preached broadly in many fundamentalist churches, not surprisingly by church leaders of elevated status who find such theology a strangely perverse source of self-legitimization. In its most extreme form, it is preached often in economically depressed areas, where the preacher’s remedy to poverty is for the poor to give even more to the church. This prosperity gospel, often used to manipulate the poor, further bolsters the status of church leaders by amplifying their own wealth – making them appear in higher stature with God. Throughout this hustle, the poor become poorer, and rarely ever come to understand their role models are prospering only by means of their own exploitation.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, three-fourths of women who have an abortion in the United States live near or below the poverty line. The Protestant Ethic engrained in many has conditioned American evangelicals to historically position against public services such as welfare, free prenatal and perinatal care, universal child care, and paid maternity or family leave. These same services that many American Christians have fought against for decades have turned out to be the very things that other civilized countries – notably Switzerland and many Nordic countries – have done to bring their abortion rates and infant mortality rates dramatically lower. Many Christians ironically see charity as a threat to their very own status with God. Without thinking about it, the protestant ethic has engrained such socio-economic prejudices that are entirely contrary to the Christian teaching. Their world view was biased through the capitalist Christian experience against social justice and welfare. This, despite a connection the old and new testaments both make in fighting for these things as a byproduct of righteousness. One only needs to look as far as the first few chapters of Isaiah to get this.
One common defense against such government programs is the argument that scripture makes these a moral imperative, yet countless research studies suggest this belief isn’t backed up by their wallets. A USCCB study on national church giving concluded that only a third of churchgoers give more than $500 annually, with one third giving less than $100. Another study from Barna found that less than 3% of churchgoers tithe. The average churchgoer gives just $17, according to a Health Research Funding study. Of that, other studies estimate at least a third of that money goes to faith and religious services. If you ever look at a church budget, most giving ends up paying for facilities, operating costs, and salaries, followed by foreign missions. Sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow estimates less than 5% of all giving ever reaches local service activities. While there are many different studies and conclusions, they’re all filled with the same awful news: the moral imperative is bankrupt. At the very least, any services being provided by the church today are woefully insufficient to meet the needs of the country. Without services seeing adequate funding from the church, the worldview of evangelicals has left the communities they operate in without resources. In resisting federal funding, Christians look to outlawing abortion as the solution to a problem the church helped create, and could have solved if the church had done its job in the first place – both financially and spiritually. Now that Roe has been overturned, experts predicted what we are already seeing: a patchwork of states with different abortion laws, leaving the economically depressed too poor both before and after pregnancy, and more likely to seek medically dangerous alternatives. Because of the extra load on clinics from out of state visitors where the practice was banned, waiting periods have gone from days to weeks – meaning fetuses are now developing even further along before they’re terminated. The moral crisis of all of this will be the reckoning we face as a result of past inaction of the church to fulfill these self-proclaimed moral imperatives.
As a Christian, I am worried about both the mothers and the children involved. I am worried about the mother’s emotional well-being, and her safety. I am grieved that there will continue to be unwanted children, many of whom might be wanted had the parents been given a little bit of financial help. Christianity changed abortion dramatically during the Roman era not just through adoption, but by introducing the novel Christian concept that humanity had intrinsic value – that we’re not simply trash to be thrown away. Christianity deeply impacted humanity through love, not legislation. In addition to the spiritual state of sadness today, I also think of the deep socio-economic issues that, for many, compress an already bad situation into a worse one. Desperation is a dangerous place to be, and this will undoubtedly push many more into harmful medical decisions. Rather than help, the church has historically left the poor at the disposal of naïve short-sighted Christian politicians, many who seem incapable of thinking through the consequences of their actions. Christians too often treat the poor like garbage, when we should be washing their feet. It has proven itself out, as we read of frequent horror stories in red states where mothers are forced to carry stillborn children to term, and raped children are themselves forced to have their attacker’s child as a result of trigger laws and recent legislation. Is this the Christian utopia you envisioned?
Instituting a theocracy where moral beliefs are codified into law will undoubtedly backfire in a country that used to hang Catholics and burn witches. Even among modern day evangelicals, there is little consensus on key doctrine. Robert K. Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Seminary, wrote of the deeper intrinsic problem of evangelical theology, “That evangelicals, all claiming a Biblical norm, are reaching contradictory theological formulations on many of the major issues they are addressing suggests the problematic nature of their present understanding of theological interpretation. To argue that the Bible is authoritative, but to be unable to come to anything like agreement on what it says (even with those who share an evangelical commitment), is self-defeating.” Doctrine has largely been replaced with opinion in the church, and with a growing lack of sound understanding. A theocracy will undoubtedly become oppressive and disagreeable even to evangelicals. Christians have historically been bent toward Christian dominion on Earth, in spite of the fact that “our citizenship is in heaven” and “we are not of this world”. Yet we continue to mistakenly attempt to establish a kingdom in a land that should feel foreign to us. The clearly broken eschatological views of evangelical Christianity have debased many Christians’ worldviews, somehow normalizing the horrors we are already beginning to see happen as a result of the ruling.
The appropriate Christian response to the abortion matter should be to approach it with compassion and love rather than recklessly compelling morality, especially with the lack of foresight. We know how to make things better, because we’ve watched other countries do it – dramatically reducing their abortion rates, as well as infant deaths. Those who proclaim to be pro-life should be interested in solutions that work, rather than those that give the appearance of piety. We should be interested in putting our faith into real action, and willing to sacrifice financially or even consider adoption, rather than think our moral obligation is somehow satisfied through involvement with politics – a privilege early Christians didn’t have. It should be the desire of any Christian to want to help make better parents and set families up to succeed. Yet virtually every study shows we don’t, and without the public services in place for what is coming, we face a different kind of moral crisis on the horizon. Meanwhile, the same people who push society over this cliff will continue to look at their own bank accounts and feel blessed, genuinely believing they are doing God’s work and hesitant to want to share any of their “blessing”.
Contrary to the Protestant Ethic, God favors the poor. The book of Proverbs says that those who give to the poor also lend to the Lord. I wonder what the Lord thinks of those who continue to oppress the poor and push them into impossible and never-ending cycles of poverty. Pushing women into horrifying medical situations to impose moral law is not Christian, it is downright monstrous. This isn’t the moment Christians have been waiting for. This is the moment that underscores the moral failings of the church.