It would be wonderful for Christians to know in their hearts of hearts that the bible is indeed the inerrant word of their god, and that the holy spirit moves within each of them to provide the right meaning and interpretation of said holy text. Indeed, one of the core fundamentals of Protestantism – and hence modern Christian fundamentalism - is that an earthly authority is not required for the right reading and understanding of the bible at all; this point was clearly made in the Reformation and rejection of the Roman pope as final arbiter on the meaning of God’s word.
We’ve seen many fundamentalists claim that the only requirement for complete understanding of scripture is “prayerful” reading of the text, while being open to the spirit to reveal the truth. Which is all well and good, until one finds out that there are now in fact over 40,000 different Christian denominations in the world, each with its own particular slant and interpretation of the inerrant word of God. The inconsistency should be quite plain to anyone with a smidgen of logical rationality – if God speaks his truth through inspired believers, how can there be so many versions of it?
It gets more interesting when considering actual, real-life biblical issues in the flesh, so to speak – specifically the christian position on abortion. It would be extremely comforting to know that the belief in the sanctity of life from conception was a cast-iron standard since the relationship between man and his god began, but sadly it isn’t so. Not just because of the iniquities commanded of the Israelites by way of infanticide, nor just because of the sacrifice Abraham was asked to make of his son’s life. No, it’s much more current than that.
You see, while we tend to think that fundamentalists have all held the same uniform view that termination of a pregnancy anytime from conception is murder, this just isn’t true. Evangelical views on the subject in the 1960’s and 70’s were actually surprisingly liberal. It turns out that even the Southern Baptist Convention – as “prayerful” as it is – believed that abortion could be justified in the case of “rape, incest, clear evidence of severe foetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.". Surprised? It gets better.
In 1968, Christianity Today and the Christian Medical Society hosted a gathering of evangelical leaders from across the USA for a symposium on birth control. The purpose was to set forth "the conservative or evangelical position within Protestantism" from scholars who "shared a common acceptance of the Bible as the final authority on moral issues." The joint statement resulting from the conference, titled "A Protestant Affirmation on the Control of Human Reproduction," included the consensus of attendees on abortion.
"Whether the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed," it declared, "but about the necessity of it and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord." Circumstances justifying abortion included "family welfare, and social responsibility." "When principles conflict," they affirmed, "the preservation of foetal life ... may have to be abandoned to maintain full and secure family life.". This lazzais-faire attitude to in-utero life was based on, amongst others, parallel reading of Lev. 24:17 and Exodus 21:22-25, where it is clear that causing the death of a foetus is not a capital offence, whereas taking a human life is. "Whether the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed…".
In the mid 1970’s, the Christian Action Coalition tried to mobilize lay evangelicals against abortion. Its founders quickly discovered that they just weren't interested: "We really thought it wouldn't take much to get the general Christian community in the United States really upset about this issue. ... We thought, 'Once people realize what's going on, there will be spontaneous upheaval.' That didn't happen." Moody Monthly, an evangelical magazine, complained as late as 1980 that "Evangelicalism as a whole has uttered no real outcry. We've organized no protest. ... The Catholics have called abortion 'The Silent Holocaust.' The deeper horror is the silence of the evangelical."
What?! Back up a little! The catholics were the only ones interested in what is now a cornerstone of fundamentalism? What irony! And evangelicals couldn’t get themselves out of bed for this!
So what changed this tawdry state of affairs? Falwell did.
Jerry “Tellytubbies are Gay” Falwell, who asserted that fellow believer "Billy Graham is the chief servant of Satan in America", galvanized enough evangelicals to create a focused message that life begins at conception - a message that we now see posted with great regularity. (He’s also credited, by the way, with gems like "AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals” and "You've got to kill the terrorists before the killing stops. And I'm for the president to chase them all over the world. If it takes 10 years, blow them all away in the name of the Lord.").
So what’s the issue? Simply this: how is it that such a core religious denomination, in all its “prayerfulness” and openness to the spirit, can have confusion over such a central question, can teach for so many years that abortion is not always a sin, and many quite common circumstances can justify it, and then perform a complete somersault on the issue to the extent of adopting the Roman catholic stance that life begins at conception, and abortion is almost never justified?
So much for biblical inerrancy, so much for the power of the spirit.