[In late 1983, I founded the New England Christian Action Council (NECAC) when I lived outside Boston, completing my M.Div. at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. The motto of the NECAC was “biblically committed to protecting the unborn” and my initial newsletters were entitled “Contrabortion,” written for grass-roots pro-life Christians. I started my engagement with the subject in a reactive posture, that is, defining and critiquing it. But being committed to the biblical foundations in Genesis 1-3, I grew consistently more proactive across the years. So here are the original unvarnished articles, as my thinking was at the time.]
Contrabortion, Vol. 3, No. 2, November, 1986
Debates with the Unitarian Universalists
John C. Rankin
On October 23 and 28, Dr. Andrew White [board president of the NECAC] and myself participated in two debates with open forums with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The UUA was represented by the Rev. Jerry Goddard and Ms. Mary Abdrus Overley, ASCW.
These two forums came about because of a “bull-session” I had with the Rev. Gary Smith, special assistant to the president of the UUA, at the Boston headquarters in July. I had arranged to meet with him simply out of a desire to talk about matters of religious liberty. Because of some honest rapport we established in terms of openness and the affirmation of women in order to empower them to choose life for their unborn, he informed me of a recent UUA resolution (passed by their General Assembly in Rochester, NY in June). This resolution (“for study” by local UUA congregations) restated their long-standing belief that women have full option to choose abortion. But, in a unique effort for a “pro-choice” group, they said: “Whereas the current polarized environment is nit conducive to open discussion and we as a religious body are in a position to explore moral arguments, encourage public discussion and promote consensus on shared values; therefore … Be it finally resolved: that individual UU’s, congregations and the UUA open discussion with those of different mind and seek opportunities for consensus from our shared values.”
In view of their own resolution, we have taken it upon ourselves to honor it on its own terms, and hold them accountable to it as well. The Unitarian Universalists pride themselves on open-mindedness (I know, as I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist church prior to my conversion in 1967). Ad we as biblical Christians should be the most open of all, if truly we are convinced that all truth is God’s truth. It is such openness that permits the Gospel to be heard in places where otherwise it might not.
In the two debates, it was most the “moral arguments” that were focused on. In Springfield [UUA church in Longmeadow] the crowd responded to us, and Andy and I felt some heart and minds were opened. There was also some open hostility toward us, but we felt confident that our reasonable, even-tempered answers toned down much of the anger and converted it into some honest listening. But with the Rev. Goddard, we felt like were were coming up against an “existential brick wall,” as he did not deal with much of our argument, but dismissed it in order to focus on some of his pet peeves. Thus, in the Boston [Arlington Street Church] debate, we focused on two primary issues, and left with a good sense of having won substantial ground. First, we established a positive and scientific definition of human life beginning at conception. Rev. Goddard continually fudged at this point with only negative assertions. At one point, when he was cornered, he simply changed the subject. Second, we defined constitutional liberties which he denies us. He said that it was illegitimate for us to seek the legal ban of any abortions beyond the Roe v. Wade decision, that such equals an “imposing” upon society of a narrow view. He did not even grant us the right if we won the vast majority of this country’s opinion! And when we turned his logic back on him, it was clear that in truth he was and is imposing his own religious non-definition of human life on us and the unborn, without any appeal to scientific criteria. Clearly he was not open or honest at these points. At the end of the evening, he said to me, “I’m worn out.” To which I replied, with a smile, “Well, I’m just getting warmed up.” Andy White commented to me later that when someone defends an intellectually dishonest position, it wears them out when challenged. Despite the “brick wall,” Rev. Goddard did affirm many things we do in the empowering of women to choose life for their unborn. But at the bottom line, it was a challenge of opposing world views. We believe in the sanctity of all human life, in a personal God, in eternal life. Rev. Goddard is an existentialist who believes life is a cosmic accident of a material and godless universe, that there is no eternal life, no purpose for it all. And this is where the real battle over abortion lies, the Gospel vs. opposing world views. And we must proclaim Jesus, and seek to get behind the “brick walls” and touch human hearts with God’s love and hope.
With Ms. Andrus Overley, it was a different matter. Though she affirmed the legal option of abortion in her opening statement, she did not once seek to articulate or defend it in the open forum. Rather, she sought top focus on areas of mutual agreement. And I believe there is much that can be accomplished here, particularly in terms of the openness of dialogue, the affirmation of life empowering options for women facing crisis pregnancies, and the renunciation of violence or harassment on either side. As I have maintained in other writings, any expression of mean-spiritedness on our part is contrary to the Gospel, and will only set us back. Judgment belongs to God alone, and Jesus’ mission was to seek and save the lost. God loved us when we were still enemies (e.g., Romans 5:6-10), and he wants us to love our enemies too (e.g., Ex.23:4-5; Rom. 12:17-21). If we do so, then some will be reconciled to God, and those who are not will only silence themselves ultimately. The Gospel will always advance.
It is most important to pursue this dialogue and debate with the Unitarian Universalists. I believe it is fair to say, that in their midst, and because of their world views, that the philosophical center ground for a “pro-choice” ethic is rooted there. If we are to change the hearts and minds of this country’s people, we must first win the battle with the hard core, and then the rest will follow.