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The Forerunner

Pro-life Activism in Reformation Perspective

By P. Andrew Sandlin
Published May 1, 2008

A Position Paper of the Ohio Center for Policy Studies


The Christian wing of the pro-life movement, and specifically the subgroup known as Operation Rescue, stands at a crossroads. Reacting instinctively to the disastrous consequences of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing most elective abortions, American evangelicals in the mid- to late-70’s joined their conservative pro-life Roman Catholic counterparts, and, in some cases, orthodox Jews, in vigorous protest against the wanton “slaughter of the innocents.” While the Thomistic conception of natural law theory and the traditional view of the church had tended to serve as the theological foundation of the Roman Catholic opposition to abortion, evangelicals, historically less concerned with theology and confessions than with a pragmatic concern to “get the job done,” seemed to lack much of a principled theological response to abortion other than the conviction that abortion equals murder and that “getting the job done” in this case meant eliminating, and preferably outlawing, abortion.

The Current Situation

The election of Bill Clinton to the United States presidency seemed to have squelched the hopes of many evangelical activists who had interpreted the actions of the previous two administrations as giving at least tacit support to the pro-life position against a mostly pro-abortion Congress. It seemed all the tireless efforts of the evangelicals were wasted, or at least seriously jeopardized. In their dismay, some have decided to re-eneter the political bunker of the evangelical subculture from which they emerged with a vengeance in the 70’s. Some have even sold out their devotion to the bedrock Protestant dictum of sola Scriptura and endorsed the infamous “Cain prophecy,” in which we Christians must quit-or seriously curtail-our political and social oppostion to liberalism and recognize in Bill Clinton a man on whom the Lord has placed his Spirit, as well as the revelation that “some of the characteristics in Bill Clinton that were interpreted as ‘waffling on the issues’ were really a genuine openness and desire to do what is right and fair.“1

A chief purpose of this paper is to underscore the fact that the evangelicals’ lack of theological underpinning to their activism has finally begun to yield bad fruit. For much of their activistic life the evangelicals rode, albeit shakily, on the winds of success, or at least of the promise of success. The genesis of the evangelical pro-life movement corresponded roughly to 1976-The Year of the Evangelical; and perhaps some of the success of the evangelicals in mobilizing their constituency can be attributed to the broader evangelical revival in the United States. Though the legislative victories were few, the Republican revival of the 80’s and the courageous efforts of Operation Rescue2 served temporarily to stem the tide of rampant political liberalism and its disastrous social consequences.

But 1993 is not The Year of the Evangelical; the Freedom of Choice Act will likely sail through Congress and will most certainly be signed by the President; and Congress at the time of this writing is poised to pass the FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) bill3 which proposes federal incarceration from one to three years for conviction of obstructing the entrance to “reproductive health services” and, in addition, empowers the providers of such “services” as well as the United States Attorney General and the various state attorneys general to seek “relief” in civil court for the “damages“4 caused by the rescuers. Barring some remarkable reversal, this bill will pass legislatively and, if so, will most certainly be signed by the President. It is true that if passed it would likely be challenged on Constitutional grounds and find its way through the judicial system. However, opponents of abortion, and particulay supporters of Operation Rescue, would find themseleves fighting a desperate uphill battle against a law whose validity a majority of the population, as well as of the current justice system, would not question.

The Roman Catholic Connection

While they did not possess a carefully articulated and principled theological approach to their opposition to abortion, the evangelicals had apparently picked up by osmosis the Roman Catholic idea of the repudiation of abortion on the grounds of “sanctity of life.” According to this theory, we deduce abortion is wrong because the church historically has opposed it and because “abortion of the human fetus [is] murder of the innocent.“5 Man was created in God’s image and abortion has little “regard for the dignity and rights of the individual which is basic to the entire Judeo-Christian theology and tradition.“6 The Roman view specifically founds its opposion to abortion on “right to life,” even as that right is spelled out in the American Declaration of Independence.7 This appeal seems to imply a connection with the natural law theory pervasive among the Founders and, of course, one of the principal doctors of the Roman church, Thomas Aquinas.

Problems with “Pro-life”

Grounded as it is in natural law theory, the pro-life position appeals to a supposed objective neutrality among humanity that, if it sees the issue aright, would logically oppose abortion. It does not-cannot-employing Roman Catholic rationale take the depravity of mankind and the harmful effects of that depravity on man’s moral views seriously.8 Christians who support the pro-life position must recognize that in giving the unregnerate individual the opportunity to adjudicate on the issue of abortion on the basis of natural law, they are compromising the message of Scripture which depicts the unconverted as spiritually dead and unable to so adjudicate.

It is time for the evangelicals to rethink and, I assert, revise their commitment to the oppostion to abortion by a “pro-life” rationale, which, I am convinced, is theologically defective and practically deleterious.

Who is the ultimate authority and consideration, man or God?

1. The “pro-life” position shifts the opposition to abortion from specifically Biblical to non-Biblical grounds. Abortion is opposed because it is a violation not of the law of God,9 but of the value of human life. The locus of objection is transferred from the propositional revelation of God to the value-estimate of humanity. It is anthropocentric (man-centered) rather than theocentric (God-centered) and therefore idolatrous. According to the pro-life position, abortion is opposed fundamentally because of the hovoc it wreaks on humanity, not because of the havoc it wreaks on the law of God. If we oppose abortion primarly because of our high regard for humanity, it is hard to perceive how we can criticise supporters of homosexuality and opponents of capital punishment who employ the value of human life as the rationale for their misguided causes. More importantly, if we oppose abortion primarily because of our high regard for humanity, we come dangerously close to committing the sin of idolatry, the worship of man and his temporal life.

Losing The War by Denying Sola Scriptura

2. The “pro-life” position opens wide the door to other antinomian views and policies that in the log run will undermine opposition to abortion. In the case of Romanism, the activism opposing abortion must ultimately be subject to the ex cathedra pronouncements of the pontif; and if the Roman church were to alter her position on abortion, it would be difficult for consistent anti-abortionists within her bosom not to alter their activism, devoted as the Roman Church is to the subordination of Scripture to tradition. Similarly, formerly fervent Operation Rescue activists of charismatic orientation have been paralyzed and muted by the specious “prophecies” of Paul Cain mentioned above, devoted as many charismatics are to the validity of “advanced prophetic revelation.” It is critical to note that in both cases Christian opposition to abortion may suffer immeasurably when authority for that opposition is redirected from the objective revelation of God in Scripture to some subjective standard, be it human tradition or experience. Similarly, it provides no bulwark against evangelicals like Ron Sider who, employing the rhetoric of pro-life, support “Christian” varieties of both socialism and feminism,10 or those who oppose capital punishment on precisely pro-life grounds.

The Desperate Need for Theological Revision

3. The “pro-life” position cannot survive indefinitely because its lack of sound Biblical theology and social theory cannot generate a sustained activism. For example, most of the evangelical wing of the pro-life movement is premillennial, while most most of the Roman wing is amillennial. Neither of these eschatological views harmonizes with a long-term theory and strategy of Christian activism for each espouses a philosophy of history antithetical to the advancement of the Christian faith in the social and political spheres.11 The endorsement of postmillennialism, however, the view that the kingdom of God in all sphers of life is destined to advance in time and history by means of the operation of the Spirit of God, the preaching of the word of God, and the faithfulness of the church of God, provides the framework and impetus on which to ground a potent social theory.

Postmilllennialism cannot, nonetheless, provide the content for that social theory, but neither is modern evangelicalism equipped with a workable social theory, because its uniformly dispensational ethics either denies the need for such a theory, or abandons the applicability in the present age of those portions of Scripture (most notably the Old Testament law) that serve a blueprint for a Christian social theory. If evangelicals were to embrace theonomy,12 however, they would have at their disposal a concrete pattern on which to develop a sound and potent social theory that includes a rationale for a principled oppostion to, and alternative for, abortion. As it stands, the pro-life sector of evangelicalism is floundering because its eschatology cannot sustain its enthusiasm, and its social theory cannot inform its program.

If, in fact, leaders of Operation Rescue wish to avoid the dilemma of short-lived politically conservative groups like Moral Majority, they should develop an affinity for the theology and social theory flowing therefrom that will most conistently sustain a permanent oppostion to abortion and other evils of our generation and that will provide a pattern for the application of all of the word of God to all of life. This theology is Reformed. I respectfully suggest the leaders of Operation Rescue immerse themselves (perhaps while they are in jail!) in the works of writers and preachers like Calvin, Owen, Witsius, Turretin, Edwards, Kuyper, and the Hodges. Moreover, drinking deeply from the well of the Westminster Confession of Faith will satisfy the deepest spiritual cravings of life and provide sustenance to wage a long-term battle agaisnt the evils of our land. It is the Reformed faith that alone offers a theology that can support the sort of sustained social action in which Operation Rescue is engaged.13

The Growing Operation Rescue-Reformed Connection

Gratifyingly Randall Terry’s most recent book bears the unmistakable marks of an influence of Reformed theology and Reconstructionism in particular. One should not be misled by the populist title Why Does A Nice Guy Like Me Keep Getting Thrown In Jail?,14 for this slim volume is an obviously self-conscious and energetic affirmation of key elements of the Reformed faith and of one of its subgroups, Reconstructionism. Terry boldly stresses the applicability of God’s law, the continuity of the Biblical testaments, and the validity of post-millennialism. He recognizes that “One of the huge errors of the ‘Christian Right’ since the late 70’s in America is that we refused to identify ourselves and our policies as distinctly Christian. We preferred instead to be called ‘conservatives.’ Well, what do we base our beliefs on? The Bible? Then say so, without embarrassment.“15 This book sounds like — this book is — a Reformed and Reconstructionist handbook without the code words. True, there is no obvious support for soteriological predestination, but Terry’s insistence on postmillennialism seems to assume a Calvinstic view of election. His bibliography and list of suggested reading contains titles by Reconstructionists. We thinkers and activists of the Reformed and Reconstructionist camp loudly applaud Terry for this conscious shift and hope it will be successful in pulling the entire Operation Rescue movement with it.

The Cooperation Operation

The cooperation of conservative Roman Catholics, orthodox Jews, and other pro-life groups in Operation Rescue should not be prohibited, but its leaders must assure that the theology, direction, and tactics of the movement are consistently Protestant. If the leadership of Operation Rescue permits the pragmatic concern for swelling numerical support to guide its positions and policies, it will find it increasingly difficult to embrace and apply a conistently Protestant theology and social policy. In principle it will be virtually impossible to support Christian activism and the “crown rights of King Jesus” if it is compelled not to offend orthodox Jews. In principle it will be virtually impossible to support theonomic postmillennialism if it is compelled not to offend conservative Roman Catholics. Moreover, it will be almost impossible to hold out against cooperation with universalist unitarians and Muslims if it posits as the basis of association of prolife activism a sort of vague monotheism. Conservative Roman Catholics, as well as Lesbians for Life, fundamental views of both of which are in clear violation of the Holy Scriptures, should nonetheless be permitted to attend Operation Rescue rallies and picket with rescuers outside abortion clinics. They should not, however, be permitted to shape either the theology or policies of Operation Rescue. The basis of fellowship must be the historic Protestant Christian faith: affirmation of orthodox trinitarianism and Christology, Scripture alone as the final authority of faith and life, and justification by faith alone.

Only as it comes to affirm the tenets of the historic Reformed faith can Operation Rescue expect virile and pure-and permanent-success against the forces of evil in modern society.

1 Paul Cain and Rick Joyner, “The Clinton Administration: Its Meaning and Our Future,” The Morning Star Prophetic Bulletin, January, 1993, 2.
2 Randall Terry, Operation Rescue (Springdale, PA: Whittaker House, 1988).
3 Amendment to House Bill 796. The Senate version is numbered 636.
4 House Bill 796.
5 Thomas J. O’Donnell, “A Traditional Catholic’s View,” in ed., Patricia Beattie Jung and Thomas A. Shannon, Abortion and Catholicism: The American Debate (New York: Crossroad, 1988), 44.
6 ibid., 47.
7 ibid.
8 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967 ed.).
9 R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (no location: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 263-269.
10 Ronald J. Sider, Completely Pro-Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1987).
11 Gary North, Millennialism and Social Theory (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990).
12 Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984 ed.).
13 See N. S. McFetridge, Calvinsm in History (St. Edmonton, AB, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books [1882], 1989), ch. 1, 2.
14 (Lafaytte, LA: Huntington House, 1993).
15 ibid., 78.


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