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 instates 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 still plans to bring about. A useful object lesson can be found here: perceived morality counts for little when it is compelled.
White evangelical Christians woke up to some rather unexpected news. A draft opinion, somehow leaked out of the Supreme Court, suggests that Roe v. Wade is to soon be overturned. 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. It would be an error though to conclude this means white evangelicals are the most pro-life; this is not the case at all. White evangelicals are likely no more pro-life than other religious groups, Christian or otherwise – they are, however, the most autocratic. While many other Christians value life just as much, where we differ from evangelicals is on a solution to the number of unwanted pregnancies in the country. Evangelicals largely believe outlawing abortion is the only solution, while most others believe it is an ineffective and dangerous solution. At the center of the controversy is not Christian doctrine at all, or even morality, but rather love of money. I’ll explain.
Evangelical beliefs about prosperity 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. This misguided principle, contrary to sound Christian theology, is still preached commonplace in many evangelical churches. Not unsurprisingly, it is typically preached more 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 more blessed. 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 – particularly Switzerland and many Nordic countries – have done to bring their abortion rates and infant mortality rates dramatically lower. Most Christians do not understand church history has engrained such socio-economic prejudices, yet their world view was biased early on in the 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 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 that could have solved itself if the church had done its job in the first place – both financially and spiritually. Should Roe be overturned, experts predict what we will end up with is 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. This crisis will be the reckoning we face as a result of past inaction of the church to fulfill our 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. 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.
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 theological and hermeneutic background, churchgoers are more ignorant today as a whole than they have been in the last few hundred years. Should moral rule become more commonplace, it 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 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 due to the intensity of emotions involved. 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. It should be the desire of any Christian to want to help make better parents and set families up to succeed. 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.
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. This isn’t the moment Christians have been waiting for. This is the moment that underscores the moral failings of the church.