From historian Randall Balmer I learned the medical/moral matter of abortion became a late-date toss-in to the cynical Southern strategy of GOP thinkers in the 1970s. It gave them a new wedge to use in dividing the Bible Belt: Elevate a long-standing Roman Catholic objection to abortion into a righteous cause for all lovers of the Bible.
Upon the Supreme Court’s Roe decision, the GOP discovered they had stumbled upon political gold.
But like many a lucky prospector, how were they to exploit their bonanza?
They faced no problem with messaging it to hordes of ministers. These men of the cloth already knew some proof-texting Bible verses resting in the prayers of the ancient Hebrews (for example: “you knit me together in my mother’s womb,” Psalm 139:13).
Sadly, these clergy did not know or care to interpret this prayer-talk as just that — or to question if the words were straight from the mouth of God or from the devotional reverence of pre-scientific pietists. The Bible said it, they believed it — and the die was cast.
“The Bible said it, they believed it — and the die was cast.”
It was a different matter with the general populace. The existing parlance of the day had been content with the simple distinctions of “pro-abortion” and “anti-abortion.” But this lacked the sharp clarity needed for political slashing.
So, as language maven William Safire demonstrated, the search was on for new lingo. The “pro-abortion” advocates understandably ran from now being seen as “anti-life” or “pro-death” champions. Better, by far, to uphold the “right to choose” or “freedom to choose.” On the other side of the street, the “anti-abortion” forces eventually landed upon “pro-life.” It was stoutly positive — and terse enough for a bumper-sticker slogan.
As Safire summarized the messaging quest in 1980: “Now we have two equally loaded phrases encapsulating the opposing views: ‘pro-life,’ which implicitly derogates all those who disagree as killers, and ‘pro-choice,’ which implicitly derogates all those who disagree as dictators. A matched pair of pistols for a bitter duel.”
Today’s political headlines confirm Safire’s sagacity and far-sightedness. Abortion is a classic illustration of biblical words twisted into nation-dividing thrust-and-parry sabers of political blood lust.
Sadly, the door remains wide open for new biblical distortion. For example, what is to happen when the next political divider discovers Psalm 116:15: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”
If it weren’t so tragically possible, I might find the potentials humorous.
Daniel Day is emeritus pastor of First Baptist Church (Salisbury St.) of Raleigh, N.C., and former senior professor of preaching and Christian worship at Campbell University Divinity School. His latest book is Lively Hope: A Taste of God’s Tomorrow.