Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey recently signed America’s most draconian anti-abortion law. This latest in a series of red state efforts to overturn Roe v Wade makes abortion a Class A felony, threatening doctors who perform the procedure with up to 99 years in prison. Alabama’s law denies abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Despite the fact that Pat Robertson, longtime culture warrior and anti-abortionist, called it “extreme,” this law is the product of a long-term Evangelical sell out to political power.
For more than 40 years, abortion has been used as a political strategy by the Republican Party. Co-opted leaders like Jerry Falwell Sr., James Dobson, Francis Schaeffer, Ralph Reed, and Pat Robertson have reduced the painful, personal, and multifaceted social factors and ethical questions surrounding abortion to a simplistic good and evil binary, making abortion a partisan cause around which social and political power could be built.
And they have been extraordinarily successful in building power. No cultural wedge issue has been more effective in politicizing Evangelicals and turning them into dedicated Republican voters. No issue has been more instrumental in enmeshing Evangelicals into the mechanics of Republican politics. And nothing has been more detrimental to the Evangelical witness or to the cause of the gospel than the political capture of Evangelicalism by the Republican Party.
People of good conscience wrestle with the ethics of abortion. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, does not believe abortion is equal to murder. Some Presbyterians concede that they don’t know when life begins. Others are convinced that Genesis 2:7, “the Lord God formed humans from the dust of the ground and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life” is the definitive biblical statement. Of course, most conservative Evangelicals believe that life begins at conception. Along with the history of oppression and the impact of economic and social factors, theological concerns are part of the context in which churches are called to offer women pastoral care. Debate is not the problem.
What has cost Evangelicals their integrity and undermined their credibility is the coercive manner in which they have chosen to fight. Evangelicals have pursued a political battle to legislate control over women’s bodies. In this, they have abandoned the gospel of Jesus in favor of the gospel of Caesar. They have chosen state power and in the process have lent moral credibility, religious legitimacy, and ultimately real political power, to the American imperial project.
And what is the price of this accumulation of political power?
To anyone outside its misguided worldview, white Evangelicalism (and “white” is the correct qualifier because these categories do not apply to much of non-white Evangelicalism) has become the religion of the Republican Party, of big money corporate interests, of patriotic militarism, and of anti-immigrant Christian nationalism. The moral absolutism used to fight abortion has been applied to other cultural issues so that Evangelicalism has come to be known as pro-gun, pro-death penalty, and anti-LGBTQ, perfectly in step with the hard right turn America has taken over the past generation. The final result of this politicization of moral and cultural issues is that Evangelicalism has become an imperial religion, an essential part of the structure of justification for American Empire.
The trouble with imperial religion is that it is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, in their new commentary, Romans Disarmed, stress that the gospel Paul preached to Rome was explicitly one of solidarity with those marginalized by empire. For slaves and Jews and “barbarians” and women and the sexually exploited and for the fledgling Christian communities who insisted that “Jesus is Lord” not Caesar, the gospel was God’s power of liberation (Romans 1:16). And Paul makes it explicit this gospel is first for the Jew… that is, it privileges those Rome had marginalized. Paul insists further that this gospel is “the justice of God from first to last,” because “the just will live by faith” (Romans 1:17) — not by coercion, not by domination, not by the violence of empire.
Paul was not ashamed of the gospel despite its counter imperial claims, because it was God’s good news for the weak and for those who had nowhere else to turn. For women facing perhaps one of life’s toughest choices, a gospel that denies safe, legal access to abortion is not good news. It is a means of control over their bodies. It is a shameful distortion of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The United Nations has linked abortion restrictions to torture, arguing that such restrictions compel women to seek unsafe abortions — a leading cause of maternal deaths around the globe. I’m ashamed of a gospel that forces women to carry pregnancies against their will.
The day after Gov. Ivey signed House Bill 314, or the “Human Life Protection Act,” she refused to sign a reprieve for Michael Brandon Samra, clearing the way for his execution by lethal injection. I am ashamed of a gospel that is pro-death penalty but claims to be pro-life.
I’m ashamed of the gospel preached by anti-abortion advocates who function as political proxies for the Republican Party. I’m ashamed of a gospel that claims to be pro-life but defends and justifies an empire built on predatory capitalism, a gospel that privileges the rich at the expense of the poor and of the planet itself.
But I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus. In it, the good news of God’s justice is present for pregnant people, including for one of life’s many choices. I only wish the Evangelical church would trade in their legislative mission for state control over women’s bodies for the gospel of Jesus — the power of God for the liberation of all who believe, first for those who need it the most and for everyone who chooses faith over force.