Garry Wills: Hey Evangelicals, You’re Dumb. Or Maybe Just Dishonest

By David Mills Published on August 3, 2015

Evangelicals, how silly you are to oppose abortion! How ignorant! Or dishonest! According to Garry Wills, that is, not me. I’m a Catholic and I think you’re great. But Garry Wills doesn’t. In a Los Angeles Times article titled “Abortion Isn’t a Religious Issue,” he argues that Christianity never really objected to abortion and there’s no reason to start now. Evangelicals in particular are either fools or liars in the way they talk about the subject.

Wills, a professor at Northwestern, is a very learned man. He’s also a Catholic, though one who seems to love the tradition while rejecting all its fundamental beliefs. When newspaper editors want a religious voice to counter conservative religious voices or a learned defense of the dominant liberal line, they call Wills. The Planned Parenthood scandal is taking down the pro-choice movement? Call Wills to take down the pro-life movement!

Evangelicals, he begins, believe that “one must oppose murder, however much rancor or controversy may ensue.” They ignore “what others think, what polls say, what looks practical.” Apparently he blames you for this. You’re fanatics, he’s saying. You push your own views on other people. You don’t play well with others.

Really? He himself surely feels the same way about murder. The Civil Rights movement didn’t play well with others and he admires them for it. His opening criticism, in other words, is just a cheap shot blaming Evangelicals for acting like . . . Garry Wills.

Evangelicals, he then claims, don’t really believe abortion is wrong because they don’t want to execute women who have abortions. Yes, he really says that. He writes as if you are incapable of compassion or even of applying what the law calls “extenuating circumstances.” Wills thinks you either want to kill the woman or you’re lying about abortion. Evangelicals, he says, you’re either dumb or mean.

Then comes his grand “Aren’t these people silly?” declaration:

The subject of abortion is not scriptural. For those who make it [Scripture] so central to religion, this seems an odd omission. Abortion is not treated in the Ten Commandments—or anywhere in Jewish Scripture. It is not treated in the Sermon on the Mount—or anywhere in the New Testament. It is not treated in the early creeds. It is not treated in the early ecumenical councils.

Let me just pause here to note that this kind of thing is probably why editors like his writing. He offers enough scholarly argument to convince people who don’t know any better, but he mis-presents the material he talks about. It is true that the word “abortion” doesn’t appear in any of these documents. Gotcha! his liberal readers think.

But — as Wills the scholar knows full well — that doesn’t mean the Scriptures don’t address it or that the people who wrote them didn’t believe abortion an evil. The scholar knows how to read between the lines. Here he pulls off the neat trick of offering a simple-minded reading of Scripture while accusing Evangelicals of reading Scripture simple-mindedly. (For a short treatment of the biblical teaching on abortion, see this and this. For a more extensive treatment of the subject, see Michael J. Gorman’s Abortion in the Early Church. The matter is at least a lot more complex than Wills claims.)

Now we get to the real point of the article. After some scholarly sleight-of-hand trying to prove that the Christian tradition doesn’t oppose abortion when it does, he continues: “Much of the debate over abortion is based on a misconception — that it is a religious issue, that the pro-life advocates are acting out of religious conviction. It is not a theological matter at all. There is no theological basis for defending or condemning abortion.”

There is, and I’m sure Wills knows there is, but let that go. If it’s not religious, Evangelicals have nothing to say, he’s claiming, and it’s not religious, so shut up, you silly people.

Not so fast, Professor Wills. Yes, Evangelicals do think God has forbidden people to kill their unborn children, but they — and every other pro-lifer, including the atheist ones — also believe that it’s just wrong. They don’t need to rely on Scripture or the Christian tradition. They rely on the natural law, on the things that “we can’t not know,” to use the philosopher J. Budziszewski’s phrase.

Wills anticipates the objection. “If we are to decide the matter of abortion by natural law, that means we must turn to reason and science, the realm of Enlightened religion,” he says. “Who are the relevant experts here?” he asks.

They are philosophers, neurobiologists, embryologists. Evangelicals want to exclude them because most give answers they do not want to hear. The experts have only secular expertise, not religious conviction. They, admittedly, do not give one answer — they differ among themselves, they are tentative, they qualify. They do not have the certitude that the religious right accepts as the sign of truth.

I’m not sure I know what that last remark means. I’m not sure he does. But here’s the central problem with Wills’ attack on Evangelicals. It’s driven by his need to deny their reasons for believing that abortion is wrong, because he wants to leave the matter unclear and thereby preserve abortion on demand at any stage of the unborn child’s life. So he appeals to unnamed “experts” who conveniently disagree. So whaddya do? he asks. Gotta throw up your hands and keep abortion legal, that’s what. Since no one can know for sure what the unborn child is, let’s leave the decision to the mother. Wills offers the soft pro-choice argument, but the hard pro-choice conclusion.

But who, the Evangelical and the rest of us ask, are these experts? Evangelicals don’t object to “reason and science.” They object to “science” used, as Wills uses it, as an authority for moral decisions for which scientists have no more authority than anyone else. The horrible trade in fetal body parts is run by scientists for scientists. These scientists want the material to experiment with and they obviously don’t care what it is or how they get it. Don’t expect an Evangelical, or any morally sane person, to treat them as moral authorities.

Why don’t Evangelicals take Wills’ experts as experts? Not because they oppose “reason and science,” but because they know that science is only a method for finding out things about the material world. The scientist knows how to study atoms or the movement of the planets or the development of the embryo. Science isn’t a method for discerning right and wrong. Scientists as scientists aren’t moral philosophers. The Evangelical brings this up when Wills says “The Experts”! As it turns out, the Evangelicals have a more sophisticated way of understanding science than Wills does.

And they resist the games Wills and other pro-abortionists play with the idea of “personhood.” When you have people who look at the unborn child and say “It’s a child,” because it so obviously is a child, you have to do something to avoid admitting it’s a child. Here the sleight-of-hand kind of scholarly talk about “personhood” proves very useful. Those Evangelicals, Wills would say, just look at the surface. We look deeper. They see a baby. We see the knotty philosophical problem of deciding whether that creature is a person.

Early in the article Wills declares, “It is not demonstrable that killing fetuses is killing persons.” Demonstrable to whom? the Evangelical asks. Near the end Wills says, “The question is not whether the fetus is human life but whether it is a human person, and when it becomes one.” A question for whom? the Evangelical asks. He’s blissfully unintimidated.

The Evangelical says the fetus is a person. Ah, well, counters Wills, the experts disagree. If you disagree with the experts, you just don’t want to face the results of “Enlightened religion” and “reason and science.” You’re dumb and backwards. But what, on his own grounds, does the scientist have to tell us about that? The embryologist can describe the stages of embryonic development, but nothing in his training gives him any insight into when that creature becomes a person. The pro-choice embryologist sees what we see, can draw the same logical conclusion. He doesn’t. But, the Evangelical says with a shrug that seems to annoy Wills, so what? He’s wrong.

The Bible doesn’t condemn abortion, says Wills. “Yeah, it does, but even if it didn’t, it’s still murder,” says the Evangelical. The experts disagree, says Wills. That’s nice, the Evangelical says, but they’re not experts in this. But that thing isn’t a person, or it might not be a person, who knows? says Wills. He is too a person, says the Evangelical. It’s a baby, it’s a person.

But, but, says Wills. Says the Evangelical: The unborn child deserves legal protection, and we’re going to keep saying this until he gets it. We’re here, we’re clear, get used to it, Garry.

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