Often I’m confused about the abortion views of widely influential Christian theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, who popularized the perspective of the late pacifist Mennonite thinker John Howard Yoder. (Hauerwas, now retired from Duke University, is a United Methodist turned Episcopalian.)
Hauerwas professes to be pro-life but seemingly doesn’t advocate legal restrictions on abortion. He stresses the church’s responsibility to encourage life-affirming decisions within congregations. In a 1990 sermon he gave to North Carolina evangelical United Methodists, he shared his views, which seem not to have greatly changed, summarized here:
Christians…do not believe that we have a right to do with our bodies whatever we want. We do not believe that we have a right to our bodies because when we are baptized we become members of one another; then we can tell one another what it is that we should, and should not, do with our bodies.
Hauerwas faults abortion on the “privatization of individual lives, by the American ethos. If you want to know who is destroying the babies of this country through abortion, look at privatization, which is learned in the economic arena.” Under American individualism, “people think that they have a right to their bodies The body is then a piece of property in a capitalist sense.”
Rejecting typical pro-life rhetoric based on “inalienable rights,” Hauerwas explained:
Christians do not believe that life is sacred. I often remind my right-to-life friends that Christians took their children with them to martyrdom rather than have them raised pagan. Christians believe there is much worth dying for. We do not believe that human life is an absolute good in and of itself. Of course our desire to protect human life is part of our seeing each human being as God’s creature. But that does not mean that we believe that life is an overriding good.
Hauerwas warned against arguments based on the perceived beginning of life:
…The Christian approach is not one of deciding when has life begun, but hoping that it has. We hope that human life has begun! We are not the kind of people that ask, “Does human life start at the blastocyst stage, or at implantation?” Instead, we are the kind of people that hope life has started, because we are ready to believe the at this new life will enrich our community.
And Hauerwas warned against arguments based on “personhood,” equating value with rationality, rights and autonomy:
We must remember that as Christians we do not believe in the inherent sacredness of life or in personhood. Instead we believe that there is much worth dying for. Christians do not believe that life is a right or that we have inherent dignity. Instead we believe that life is the gift of a gracious God.
In his 1990 sermon, Hauerwas cited male promiscuity as a factor behind abortion churches must confront:
The church will not have a valid voice on abortion until she attacks male promiscuity with the ferocity it deserves. And we have got to get over being afraid of appearing prudish. Male promiscuity is nothing but the exercise of reckless power. It is injustice. And by God we have to go after it. There is no compromise on this. Men must pay their dues.
When asked after his sermon about what abortion law he preferred, Hauerwas demurred:
The church is not nearly at the point where she can concern herself with what kind of abortion law we should have in the United States or even in the state of North Carolina. Instead, we should start thinking about what it means for Christians to be the kind of community that can make a witness to the wider society about these matters.
Hauerwas further explained:
Christians witness to wider society first of all not by lobbying for a law against abortion, but by welcoming the children that the wider society does not want. Part of that witness might be to say to our pro-choice friends, “You are absolutely right. I don’t think that any poor woman ought to be forced to have a child that she cannot afford. So let’s work hard for an adequate child allowance in this country.” That may not be entirely satisfactory, but that is one approach.
Twenty-seven years later, in a 2017 column reacting to the 2016 election, in which abortion motivated how many Evangelicals and other Christians voted, Hauerwas reiterated his earlier argument:
When Christians can imagine politics in a more imaginative and less circumscribed manner, then the question shifts from whether Christians can participate in politics to how they can do so. This also resituates the issue of abortion from hinging on whether abortion is legal to whether abortion is imaginable. The former we see as difficult given the cultural legacy of Roe v. Wade, and the latter impossible but for the ministry of the Holy Spirit. That near impossibility requires the church to beseech the Spirit, since any robust Christian challenge to abortion (where “robust” indicates persisting beyond myopic strategies) will require the church to be the church (where the church being the church enables reasons and resources beyond myopic strategies).
Hauerwas further elaborated in 2017:
…The American church has punted to the state and justified itself by proclaiming the state as the only site of Christian faithfulness on the matter of abortion. As a result, clergy ask the state to do what they believe they cannot ask members of their congregations to do. This is an astonishing failure of imagination.
And that is what happened with Christians in 2016. In direct opposition to that kind of thinking, we argue that the church offers an account of political life where activities like lobbying against abortion is meaningful inasmuch as it is continuous with many other things that make those activities coherent, an expansive enough picture of politics to make Donald Trump’s ascendance less likely in the conflagrations to come.
And Hauerwas concluded with his stress on worship as the church’s primary political tool:
Because Christian political life starts in worship, because actual worship in actual sanctuaries is the first political thing Christians do, they are taught to see the world rightly which in turn enables them to believe that even though trouble is found in this world, now as much as ever, Jesus has overcome this world.
The call to begin in worship does not license doing nothing but enables doing anything, including speaking truth to power, providing sanctuary and praying for enemies. This is to say that while voting and lobbying and marching and sheltering are all political, more basically political is the gathered body of Christ.
In a 2018 interview Hauerwas noted:
I feel very strongly about abortion so I don’t like Hillary’s abortion stance, but I voted for her and I was – like most people – stunned with the result. I just couldn’t believe that it had happened.
Hauerwas believes Christians should not have abortions because children are divine gifts the church should welcome. This witness of love and community will lift up the Gospel to an unbelieving world. But he apparently does not specifically affirm legal restrictions on abortion nor does he think Christians should politically work to protect the unborn in civil law. Hauerwas mostly sees the church as the central arena of God’s concern in the world. He does not attach providential importance to governments or other human institutions outside the church.
Obviously, the influence of Mennonite thinker John Howard Yoder is strong on Hauerwas, though he himself has spent his life in traditions (Methodist/Episcopal) that decidedly do attach providential importance to governments and civil society.
Nearly all Christian traditions, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, have for centuries taught that governments are ordained by God. And that ordination, traditionally taught, entails the duty to protect vulnerable human life, including the unborn. The Hauerwas/Yoder modern Mennonite perspective dissents from that consensus.