Pro-choice pastors like Raphael Warnock have the Bible, history on their side
Rev. Raphael Warnock describes himself as a “pro-choice pastor,” a label that prompted swift and merciless attacks from Republicans eager to turn Georgia’s Senate runoffs into a referendum on faith and abortion.
After declaring the religious beliefs of President Trump’s Supreme Court picks off-limits, Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) let loose on Warnock’s faith, claiming that “there is no such thing as a pro-choice pastor. What you have is a lie from the bed of Hell.” Warnock’s opponent, Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.), refuses to be “lectured by someone who uses the Bible to justify abortion.” And as President Trump’s press secretary piled on via social media, conservative news outlets slammed Warnock, claiming that “the Bible is clear about abortion.”
But therein lies the rub. Not only do Warnock’s detractors ignore history and the Bible itself, their certitude and intolerance of differing perspectives only deepens America’s extreme social, cultural and political divides.
The rank hypocrisy of Republican attacks on Warnock’s faith aside, the Bible makes no mention of abortion. This remarkable silence, along with the first Christians’ divergent views on the issue, instantly deflates sweeping claims that the Bible is “clear” on abortion.
More importantly, up until the late 1970s, most evangelicals believed that life begins at birth. In stark contrast to the movement’s present-day orthodoxy, evangelicals were largely pro-choice or ambivalent about abortion for much of American history. These nuances make the acerbic and uncompromising Republican attacks against Warnock woefully myopic.
The Bible also largely contradicts the contemporary evangelical view on the beginnings of life. For one, the scriptures make no mention of life commencing at conception. Moreover, many biblical scholars argue that a passage frequently cited by abortion opponents relates not to when life begins, but to God’s foreknowledge and omniscience.
At the same time, no fewer than four biblical passages state that life commences with a first breath. The Book of Genesis, for example, holds that “man became a living being” only after God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” The Book of Job states that “the Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” The Book of Revelation details how the dead arise after inhaling “the breath of life from God.” Similarly, God told Ezekiel, “I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.”
With particular relevance to abortion, Ezekiel goes on to write that a pile of bones, tendons, flesh and skin with “no breath in them” only “came to life” after “breath entered them.”
More importantly, a Mosaic Law found in the same book as the Ten Commandments holds that causing a miscarriage is not a capital crime, undermining a key conservative argument that abortion amounts to murder. God also causes the abortion of any fetus conceived through adultery.
As unfathomable as it may seem to Rev. Warnock’s detractors, leading evangelicals once cited these Bible passages to declare the Catholic claim that life begins at conception unbiblical. Indeed, a 1968 issue of the evangelical movement’s flagship journal proclaimed that “God does not regard the fetus as a soul.”
But evangelicals’ views on life and abortion underwent a profound change in the late 1970s. After the Bible was literally rewritten in 1978, Jerry Falwell politicized abortion, mobilizing millions of previously apolitical evangelicals. The modern pro-life movement emerged shortly thereafter.
Falwell’s indelible mark on American politics is evident in the unyielding and ahistorical attacks against Rev. Warnock. Yet contrary to Warnock’s detractors, pro-choice Protestant ministers were the norm in the not-too-distant past. Even today, pro-choice pastors are not an uncommon phenomenon. Moreover, polling shows that over 60 percent of mainline Protestants and 56 percent of Catholics believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
In light of the Bible’s silence on abortion, Americans of faith are right to hold nuanced and varying views on such a complex and challenging issue. As such, liberals and progressives must respect the ethical and moral beliefs of the millions of Americans steadfastly opposed to abortion.
At the same time, the uncompromising, intolerant and theologically unfounded Republican attacks on Rev. Warnock’s faith must stop. They only deepen the cultural and social fissures dividing America.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.