An alternative history

Slacktivist buys a book — a somewhat surprising book nowadays. It’s a book on evangelical Christian ethics that has no problem with abortion.

In 1975 — two years after Roe — Zondervan Press published a book for white evangelicals in which Norman Geisler wrote: “Abortion is not murder, because the embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.” And nobody freaked out. Nobody even imagined freaking out. This was simply a restatement of what most white evangelicals believed — a belief that was widely held because it has the advantage of being true.

It’s still true, of course, but white evangelicals are no longer allowed to say so. That’s a huge change.

Actually, I shouldn’t say it’s that surprising. There were also Christian science textbooks from that era that thought evolution was a fine idea, and that the Earth is clearly billions of years old (there still are!). Just imagine an alternate history in which American Christianity hadn’t been derailed by anti-woman, anti-science derangement — it would have short-circuited a lot of the motivation behind the atheist movement, and might have produced a 21st century America in which the conservatives wouldn’t have been driven by a fanatical version of right-wing Christianity.

Unfortunately, nowadays “Christianity” and “rabid religious fanaticism” are in the process of an ongoing merger.


  1. says

    I have often wondered how much of the christian right’s concern with abortion is due to dramatically lessened child mortality thanks to humans figuring out bacteria and viruses and antibiotics in the 1930s. Prior to then, babies were not something you assumed were necessarily going to survive (neither were mothers, for that matter) People were a lot more fatalistic about infant death and probably miscarriages and abortions.

    The great thing about christianity is that you can fit just about anything under that big ole tent.

  2. chrislawson says

    That last line is a little unfair, PZ. I think it would be fair to say that politically conservative Christianity has been pushing towards rabid fanaticism — my favourite example of how awful this has become is when Paul Ryan, lifelong Ayn Rand fanboy, was forced to publicly denounce her when he discovered she was an atheist…but her toxic political theory that flatly contradicts 95% of the original Christian message was, and still is, the driving political theory among Republicans.

    But having said that, there are huge numbers of progressive Christians who despise this movement towards fundamentalism and fanaticism.

  3. kantalope says

    I wondered when they went buggy. When I was growing up they didn’t seem weird.

  4. happyrabo says

    @chrislawson “there are huge numbers of progressive Christians who despise this movement towards fundamentalism and fanaticism”

    If they only say so in private, what good are they? If they allow the fundamentalist fanatics to be the public face of their religion, doesn’t that make them at least a little bit complicit? Who stands a better chance of talking the fundamentalists around to a more Christlike point of view than progressive Christians? I think it might be time to focus the missionary efforts a little closer to home if they want to be taken seriously.

  5. chrislawson says


    I didn’t talk about Christians who only speak out privately. Those people are indeed partly complicit. I specifically mentioned progressive Christians who oppose the current trend and promote more humanistic values.

    Also, the reason progressive Christianity has not been very influential in recent years is not because they won’t speak up any more than the rise of Islamist terrorism is due to moderate Muslims refusing to criticise it — it’s all about the conjunction of amoral politics and the Murdochisation of media that deliberately excludes the voices of moderation in order to shore up reprehensible policy-making.

  6. Erp says

    The last line is unfair especially since your source, Fred Clark aka Slacktivist, is an outspoken progressive Christian. It is however notable that on the site that Protestant Christians are split into “Progressive Christians” and “Evangelical Christians” but the latter really means “Conservative Protestants” (for instance Fred Clark, an evangelical under the older definition, is on the Progressive Christian channel).

  7. microraptor says

    Marcus @1:

    From what I understand, abortion became an issue for the Moral Majority (and thus a political issue) after the Civil Rights Movement. Prior to that, their big issue for them was (drumroll) desegregation of the schools. Once that was no longer politically viable, they needed a new thing and Roe V Wade caught their eye. Prior to that, being anti-abortion was considered a Weird Catholic Thing.

  8. chigau (違う) says

    I have a Theory™, which is mine,
    that the Biblical Inerrantists* got their notion from the Fact® that the Quran was created at the same time as God created the universe.
    The Christians never thought of that wrinkle.
    * don’t worry, it’s not a real word

  9. brucegee1962 says

    Yeah, I think there’s precious little theology in the whole anti-abortion movement. Like @9 microraptor said, Republicans post-Johnson were trying to figure out issues that would appeal to white Southern racists, and this happened to be one that stuck. Because feminist women tended to be in favor of abortion, and racists are more likely to also be misogynists.

  10. johnlee says


    We here at John Lee Inc. can guarantee – yes, guarantee! That you will have no defaulters on your high-risk loans with our John Lee Guarantee Policy!
    All you have to do is to fill in the form below, and we will take care of the rest.
    Name: ………………………………………………………………………………………………
    Bamk account number: …………………………………………………………………………………..
    I authorize John Lee Inc. To clear out my bank account, taking every cent in it. I understand I will never see my money again.

    Signed …………………………………………………………………………………………………….

    Please tick the box:
     I wish to hear of more scams like these
     I Please sign me up to your newsletter

  11. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I’ve always lived in my alternate universe where Bible is a book of advise about behavior not a science book. Only history in it is of people’s actions, not the physics. Miracles were just a convenient story-telling-device to keep focus on the effects of actions and not the physical cause. Motivation more than mechanics.
    That’s MY religion, for this atheist. I need covfefe* ( * coffee)

  12. KG says

    slithey tove@15,

    You mean advice like:
    “When you win a war, kill everyone except the girls and young women – keep them as sex slaves”,
    “Stone your children to death if they cheek you.”?

    The Bible is no more useful as advce about behaviour than as a science text.

  13. Matt Cramp says

    Unfortunately if the Slacktivist is right about the underlying causes, a world where the evangelicals didn’t go all in on abortion is a world where the civil rights movement failed. The evangelicals, essentially a white supremacist church, came out hard against the civil rights movement on moral grounds and were absolutely trounced. It was one of the big moral questions of the 20th century, and the supposed moral guardians of America were completely and unambiguously wrong, and monstrously so. His theory goes that after a few years of dazed flailing, it gradually dawned on the leadership that they could jump on board the anti-abortion movement and get back that moral high ground they so decisively lost. If these fringe nutters were right about life, biblically, starting at conception, then abortion was like… a million murders! A holocaust, even! If they were heroically struggling against the forces of abortion then they could be righteous again without having to actually practice being Excellent People.

    This is a delusion on their part, I agree, but I don’t think America realises just how abnormal evangelical Christianity is. Our Gracious Host is right in that it shapes the modern atheism movement; I think atheism unconsciously patterns itself on what it sees of evangelical Christianity, not realising that the structure of it is a big reason why it’s so goddamn crazy.

  14. markkernes says

    If I may suggest, Geoffrey Stone’s excellent work “Sex and the Constitution” spends a couple of chapters tracing the origins of how religion got so involved in politics, going back to the 5th century BC. Not only did christians not oppose most abortion early on, when they did try to flex their muscles, they did it first with the southern Democrats. An excellent read!

  15. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Re15 :
    No of course not, the more Jesus’s quotes, like “love thy neighbor as you love yourself is the whole of The Law”. I can cherry pick too 😉

  16. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Re 15 ,
    Despite my previous @19, both are only political “advice”, not at all related to issues of any Physical Science.
    That is what I meant about “useful discussing attitudes”. The actual problem are literalists who accept every word as absolute truth, and try to present it as “True Science”.
    What you quoted is what the GOP follow. We can find other quotes in opposition. Thus what you quoted are politics not physics

  17. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To slithey tove
    If the book has any particular moral-teaching value, you shouldn’t have to cherry-pick. If you have to cherry-pick, then your values are coming from somewhere else.

  18. Les Black says

    I’ve enjoyed reading the various hypotheses offered here re the changing focus of the moral crusades of the religious right over the decades, such as the shift away from the lost cause of their opposition to civil rights/gender equality, and toward opposition to abortion.

    One source of hope toward which I sometimes turn when things appear really dark (such as when we vote quite possibly the worst person in America into the presidency) is that, in the long run (sometimes very long), social conservativism always lose. We liberals do suffer losses and setbacks, but I believe what MLK said about the arc of history being very long but eventually bending towards justice.

    (Now, as for economics, I’m not so sure the liberals are winning here, long term or short. But don’t get me started.)

    Anyway, one take I have in this regard addresses the modern evangelical opposition to the LGBT(WXYZ…) movement — an opposition which appears to be losing steam (I hope, anyway). When I was a kid in the ’60s and ’70s, the great moral scourge that the evangelicals just knew was destroying America was DIVORCE. Now, since then, even though the divorce rate appears to have more or less stabilized at or near historic highs, I can’t remember the last time I heard any right wing religious nut even address it. That battle was lost. A minister now in even the most conservative church would risk losing his job if he railed against divorce with any rigor at all, because a huge segment of his congregation is either divorced or cares deeply for someone who is. Hell, the preacher himself may well be in that number.

    Having lost yet another piece of the supposed moral high ground, they went in search of another. Voila, forget divorce, it’s HOMOSEXUALITY that needs to be vanquished! Only, as I said, of late they seem to be losing the fight there too, because, more and more, larger and larger chunks of their flock are either coming out as gay, or they’re made up of folks who love and care about someone who is.