A recent New Yorker profile of Michele Bachmann triggered a national debate over evangelicals, abortion and violence. The piece stated that evangelical right founder, Francis Schaeffer, advocated the violent overthrow of government to end legalized abortion. Evangelicals insisted, in turn, that he did not.
To be fair to the New Yorker, most anti-abortion evangelicals are by no means pacifists. Rick Perry, who has presided over more than 200 executions, is nevertheless considered by evangelicals like Jerry Falwell Jr. to be "one of the most pro-life governors in American history."
And shortly after the Iraq war began, the 2004 National Election Study found that, of mainline Protestants, evangelical Protestants, Catholics and members of other religious groups, evangelicals were the most likely of the four groups to oppose abortion but also the most likely to support the war and strongly favor the death penalty.
One of the most likely groups in America to support violence against adult humans is also one of the most likely to identify as "pro-life."
But to be fair to evangelicals, regardless of what Schaeffer believed, one is hard-pressed to find a mainstream Christian leader who accepts using violence to stop abortion. Abortion clinic bombings, the killing of abortion doctors and even the suggestion that Schaeffer would advocate violence to stop abortion -- all have been quickly and heartily condemned by mainstream anti-abortion groups.
The debate illustrates a curious fact: pro-life evangelicals say that life begins at conception and abortion is murder. But they don't actually believe it.
It makes little sense to reject pacifism, to insist abortion is morally equivalent to the organized slaughter of millions of children and then to say that violence should never be used to end abortion.
If one agrees with Schaeffer's depiction of abortion as on par with the atrocities of Nazi Germany, one can quite reasonably agree with the actions of Christians in Nazi Germany, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who took up arms to save Jews.
As Hastings Center ethicist Thomas H. Murray asks, "If it would have been morally justifiable to kill Nazi mass murderers, would it not be similarly justifiable to kill the perpetrators of what [pro-life activists] view as the contemporary American holocaust?"
It would take the most ardent pacifist indeed to content himself with voting and picketing over the course of a genocide of innocents that stretched on for 40 years with no end in sight and, with 50 million abortions to date, resulted in more causalities than the real thing.
The evangelical left joins many anti-abortion Catholics in rejecting all violence, making it less susceptible to this charge of inconsistency. But while liberal evangelicals often profess to agree with the right on the morality of abortion, their desire to make abortion just one of many issues on the agenda suggests otherwise.
Income inequality and global warming may be important, but it's hard to believe they should rival the state-sanctioned murder of millions taking place in one's own country. Imagine Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany, berating fellow Christians for letting the Holocaust distract them from taking care of the environment. If abortion is what most evangelicals say it is, single-issue political makes a lot of sense.
The evangelical right and left do share one apparent contradiction between words and actions. Despite professing to believe that embryos are humans from conception onward with as much value as a child, both groups have never been troubled by what should, for them, be an unsettling fact: due to hormonal imbalances, chromosomal abnormalities and a number of unknown reasons, between 60 percent and 75 percent of all embryos die in the womb.
In the analysis of those who believe life begins at conception, this means more than half the human population immediately dies.
These would be natural deaths, while deaths from abortion would not be. But deaths from cancer, heart disease and AIDS are natural as well. And those who care about humans suffering from them don't passively resign and let nature take its course. They insist that large sums of money be spent understanding these maladies and trying to remedy them.
Yet the same organizations that profess to believe every embryo is equivalent to a fully developed child have shown no concern at all for what, in their own analysis, would be the number one cause of death in human history.
Whether the topic is violence, expanding the issue agenda or the embryo miscarriage rate, evangelicals who liken abortion to the Holocaust and embryos to children demonstrate by their actions that they don't really believe it.
Calling abortion genocide may be good for rallying voters and gathering funds, but when the campaign season is over, evangelicals ultimately share many sentiments with their pro-choice counterparts. They are uneasy about abortion, they even think it's morally wrong, but they are not prepared to treat the developing embryo like they would treat a child.
And that means, Francis Schaeffer and the New Yorker aside, that at the end of the day, pro-life evangelicals have more in common with pro-choice liberals than they think. Neither group believes that life begins at conception.