Stanley Hauerwas abortion

Stanley Hauerwas & Abortion

on April 17, 2020

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.

  1. Comment by Jim on April 17, 2020 at 1:30 pm

    According to this man’s thinking then the church should have stayed out of the abolition movement.

  2. Comment by Richard S Bell on April 17, 2020 at 5:38 pm

    As I understand Hauerwas’s thinking, it implies that the Church should have forbidden its communicants to own slaves and should have resisted arguments in defense of slavery. That would be joining the abolition movement, although not joining in support of its plank calling for legal prohibition. That would be going further than the apostle Paul did, I think

  3. Comment by John on April 21, 2020 at 2:18 pm

    My view on “abortion rights” is that Roe v. Wade was primarily about the rights of doctors. Blackmun was connected with the Mayo clinics and he knew that many practicing doctor were performing abortion on their clients and were therefore in legal jeopardy. Such procedures were done rarely, and most doctors looked down on surgeons who did it on a regular basis. These doctors thought of it simply as choosing between the mother and the child, with the mother being their patient and the child being of lesser value, certainly to her family. New babies could be created, but not the mother. The problem was that in the context of radical feminism, the woman’s new ease in obtainly openly what had been done secretly quickly led to a huge increase in the number of abortions performed. It also dulled our sensitivity to the unborn as individuals. I mean, if the mother cares so little, then why should we? The public attitude became much like the guy who gets his girl friend pregnant and expects her to get rid of it, and thinks himself a gent of he pays for it, or even if he just drives her to the abiortionist. The earliest Christians rejected abortion as they did infanticide because such practices displayed the lack of love so typical of pagan society, which they attributed to idolatry.

  4. Comment by JR on April 17, 2020 at 1:52 pm

    “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.”

    I’m not sure why you see a conflict here.

    Nominal Christians might be 50% of the population. Active Christians, far fewer.

    Work to address the root causes of abortion – poverty, moral ambiguity, etc – instead of trying to litigate or legislate. Be a beacon for love of child, love of the unwanted. Do these things, and don’t worry about the legislation.

    When the root causes are gone, there will be no more abortions.

  5. Comment by Donald Bryant on April 17, 2020 at 5:17 pm

    We should address the root causes of all kinds of crime. In the meantime, we actually legislate to make some acts illegal. We have a social burden to address root causes. In the meantime, we legislate in order to protect human life. The Christian is invited to participate in the political process and should do so.

  6. Comment by Jim on April 18, 2020 at 10:19 am

    Don, I totally agree. We’re called to refrain from all sorts of behavior that is sinful according to scriptural guidance. I think this particularly true in situations where another human being is subject to harm. Thus, we for example advocate for laws that call for harsh penalties for criminals that sexually abuse children. While at the same time, we share the wisdom of scripture and the way of salvation to ALL.

    “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; “(Ephesians 5:11, NASB)
    We’re to expose and oppose the works of the Prince of Darkness. We do so with every available tool including law.

  7. Comment by JR on April 20, 2020 at 8:50 am

    So where have Christians engaged in root cause mitigation when it comes to abortion?

    I’m really serious on this. Show me a couple of instances, because the religious right has been stuck on one note for my entire lifetime. And that note is a sour ‘ban’, which falls awfully flat.

  8. Comment by Patrick98 on April 20, 2020 at 3:18 pm

    Hi JR,
    In case you missed it:
    1. One of the best methods of birth control is education for girls and women. Christians have started and run many schools from elementary to colleges and universities, many exclusively for women.
    2. Many women abort because they are afraid they won’t be able to support their children. Christians have been working for economic development to lift people out of poverty and thus alleviate this cause. Christian economic development organizations include: World Vision, PCUSA Self-Development of People, Hope International, Heifer Project, Opportunity International, World Relief, and others.
    3. Some women worry about how they will care for their children while they are working. Many churches have daycares.
    4. Some women worry about how they will feed their children. Christians have been in the forefront of hunger relief ministries, both here in the United States and around the world. Such ministries include: – Bread for the World, Convoy of Hope, Lutheran World Relief, CROP, Operation Blessing, Union Gospel Missions, and the Salvation Army.
    5. For those women who don’t think they can care for a child, Christians have established foster care and adoption agencies to help these women and their children. Some of these include: Bethany Christian Service, Bair Foundation, Christian Family Care, and others.
    6. Christians promote monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. Women are less likely to abort when they feel the security of a marriage.
    7. This is one area where Christians could do better, but they have taught boys to respect girls and men to respect women. If you have ever seen the cover of a Playboy Magazine, you know that it says: “Entertainment for Men”. Well, true Christian men believe that women are not to be our entertainment. Women are to be our sisters in Christ.
    8. And finally, while there are no statistics supporting this, I have seen it several times over: Christians taking a pregnant women under their care and walking with them through the pregnancy and afterwards, helping them and teaching them how to care for their child, providing the love and support that are necessary, and that so many women are looking for.

    So JR, you may not have been aware of these many ways that Christians are working to mitigate the root causes that cause some women to not want to continue their pregnancies. Now you know.

  9. Comment by JR on April 20, 2020 at 3:26 pm

    Great references, and I’m aware of the majority of those.

    I support several of them directly.

    My real problem, and where my original criticism went awry, is those that see legislation as a good option don’t ever bother to link these kinds of things in. If you are going to ban abortion at a certain point, there’s no reason that you cannot – in the same piece of legislation – offer larger tax credits for abortion, or support other food/educational programs. Link those things together, and it shows that you aren’t just waving a ban stick around.

    Personally, I’m of the opinion that we should be addressing root causes first and foremost. When you do that, and do it effectively, the argument against banning the procedure loses a lot of teeth.

  10. Comment by Linda Rosenblum on April 21, 2020 at 9:03 am

    JR- I don’t put my primary focus on legislation as the way to best way to oppose abortion. I have been a foster parent and have adopted a child out of foster care. I support all of the ministries Patrick98 has referenced. I just don’t think that the church should be looking to the government to be the primary way we become the hands and feet of Jesus.

  11. Comment by JR on April 21, 2020 at 9:29 am

    Linda, I totally and wholly agree with you. Thank you for being an excellent example.

    Legislation should be (in my opinion) the last step in the process.

  12. Comment by John on April 21, 2020 at 2:26 pm

    One purpose of registration is to instruct the public is what is good for society and what is bad. Since the sexual revolution, our law has been teaching the lesson that Christian morality is bad and the new morality is good. Since law is coercive by its nature, it will therefore use force to suppress such practices. We are somewhat in the same position as smokers. No banned because there is still substantial public support, but discouraged.

  13. Comment by Steven Vornov on April 17, 2020 at 5:22 pm

    Legal restrictions on abortion don’t work. What’s more the majority of Virginia voters will reject them.

    The Church needs to be a constant witness to the gospel of life.

  14. Comment by Michael Moore on April 20, 2020 at 9:17 am

    Look at your two sentences. They are entirely contradictory.

    The Church should stand for what is right, no matter whether or not “the majority of Virginia voters will reject them.” Ultimately, the rightness of a moral stand is not dependent on what the majority thinks,but solely on what God says.

  15. Comment by John on April 21, 2020 at 2:35 pm

    My guess is that “they”will accept them, or at least some of them.The governor caught heck when he showed the cloven hoof when he said he could let a survivor of an abortion die on the table, rather than give it the help he would any other newborn. But you have a point, which is that “Federal” Virginia now dominates the State. The air smells more and more like burning sulphur.

  16. Comment by James Sundquist on April 17, 2020 at 6:29 pm

    Hi Mark,
    Great rebuttal. No Christian owns themselves because as soon as they are saved they were purchased by Christ by his shed blood. As to when life begins, my father was a physician who delivered 2200 babies over 30 years. I once asked him when does life begin, he said as soon as there is blood. When is there blood? He said in days. Scripture says life is in the blood. As to abortion. Liberal Christians will join forces with Climate Change prevention, but champion changing the climate of an unborn infant into extinction who never drinks in one breath of the earth’s air!

  17. Comment by Richard S Bell on April 17, 2020 at 9:19 pm

    Mr Tooley rightly points out that Hauerwas’s ideas are inconsistent with most of Christian tradition. Mr Tooley thereby raises a presumption that Hauerwas’s ideas are wrong, but that presumption alone is not rebuttal and not close to a great rebuttal. Hauerwas may defeat that presumption with good argument. (I have no firsthand knowledge of Hauerwas’s reasoning, only Mr Tooley’s account, so I would not judge whether Hauerwas has defeated that presumption even though I trust that Mr Tooley’s account is fair.)

  18. Comment by John on April 21, 2020 at 2:40 pm

    The “modern” view is that a baby’s life begins when the mother decides to “keep” it.

  19. Comment by Joy on April 18, 2020 at 3:35 am

    It is difficult to imagine Our Lord expects us to believe a thing to be wrong and then, to do nothing about it! As I read his words, I kept thinking of those trains rolling to Auchswitz and how absolutely nominal this priest feels action is! When I was on High School, my Jewish teacher was so anti-Jewish that she would flunk anyone who missed the big exams she sprang on High Holy Days! She would make that grade serious. I talked to my Dad, went to temple, presented my excuse and waited. “You aren’t Jewish,” she said. “I’m of Jewish descent but I’m not ashamed of it.” I said. I stood my ground. She could not buck my Dad as he was the best pediatrician in Va. forever after Jewish kids got fair treatment. Another time, liberals wanted to repeal Jefferson s statute of religious freedom. I was told it was hopeless to fight. My winning vote came from the gay legislator! I cannot believe a man believes something if he won’t stand for it!! God has a thousand ways to give us Victory if we will just stand! Abortion is not about babies. It is about the moral choices of men to fornicate or not! God said to me that the greatest judgment after their choosing Him that men would receive before Him was what they did with their seed! I can’t believe something and not stand for it. I can’t lie there in the night and hear the trains roll by! I I serve a risen Savior.

  20. Comment by Jim Radford on April 18, 2020 at 12:24 pm

    I love Stan Hauerwas. I took ethics under him back in the ’80s as a student at Duke Divinity. As to his having voted for Hillary Clinton, his vote , like my own, was not so much a vote for Hillary as much as it was a vote against Donald Trump. Hauerwas did not, as I did not, like Mrs. Clinton’s stance on abortion (and a good many other things). But he could not, as I could not, stomach the idea of Mr. Trump being president. Hence his line quoted by you, Mark, “…I was–like most people–stunned with the results (of the election–parentheses mine). I just couldn’t believe that it happened.” Nor could I. Still can’t. I love evangelicals. I am cut from that piece of cloth. I am a believer, as I have stated many times, in historic creedal Christianity. I am not a Progressive. But I am out-of-step with a good many evangelical voters for whom Mr. Trump represents a Christian ethic. I have said to others, and I really hate to say this here, but I believe that if Satan were running for president as a pro-life candidate, I tend to think that some evangelicals would vote for him and urge others to do the same. Sorry.

  21. Comment by Hans Svineklev on April 18, 2020 at 1:15 pm


    No doubt, Mr. Trump is an exceedingly flawed, shabby little man to run for president. He didn’t garner my vote, but only because I live in a thoroughly red state. Pragmatically, I was overjoyed he won.

    Many of us “disappointingly hypocritical” Evangelicals (as I’m guessing you see us) did indeed see Satan’s name on the ballot.

    And you voted for her.

    (You ought to be sorry.)

  22. Comment by Michael Moore on April 18, 2020 at 5:05 pm

    Most “evangelicals” (I consider myself a fundamentalist) probably don’t believe that “Mr. Trump represents a Christian ethic” But they believe that the alternative was unthinkable. Mrs. Clinton represents the worst type of politician, one who took advantage of her office to enrich herself, constantly lied, committed federal crimes for which she has yet to answer, and is the epitome of proabortion supporters. In no way, shape, or form should she have been elected to any office, much less the presidency. Mr. Trump has surprised me, and many others, in being an overall good President.

  23. Comment by theenemyhatesclarity on April 19, 2020 at 1:53 pm

    Michael Moore, you nailed it. I had many doubts about how Trump would govern, but I still voted for him. He has pleasantly surprised me.

  24. Comment by JR on April 20, 2020 at 8:46 am

    “Mrs. Clinton represents the worst type of politician, one who took advantage of her office to enrich herself, constantly lied, committed federal crimes for which she has yet to answer, and is the epitome of proabortion supporters.”

    To quote Meatloaf regarding President Trump, 2 out of 2 ain’t bad.

  25. Comment by JR on April 20, 2020 at 8:46 am

    Urg, paraphrasing, and ‘3 out of 4’. I need more coffee. 🙂

  26. Comment by Hans Svineklev on April 18, 2020 at 1:01 pm

    I find Hauerwas’s comments intriguing, thought provoking. But I find his applications utterly not in keeping with these insights.

    Now, mind you, he’s not right about everything, even abstractly. Christians do see–and have always seen–physical life as sacred. It’s just that we see spiritual life as more important, important enough to sacrifice our physical lives when the situation calls for it.

    We should indeed be talking about Evangelical sexual-ethic shortcomings: male promiscuity and female contraception (a high percentage of Evangelical women regularly use abortifacients without any pangs of conscience).

    We should also work to alleviate poverty. What we shouldn’t be doing is employing humanistic, secular policies to attempt to overcome instances of economic deprivation or oppression. How does Hauerwas justify voting for a woman whose rhetoric is pointedly anti-Christian? How does he hope a woman who wholeheartedly supports abortion will compassionately deal with other marginal populations? The left is power hungry and tyrannical. It purposefully keeps the poor in their place. The right merely ignores them, wishing them well. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats, don’t you know.

    Some of us need to start thinking AND acting Christianly. I see no signs of such a movement just yet.

  27. Comment by Paul on April 18, 2020 at 6:03 pm

    I think Hauerwas speaks for the church as the church, not as a political action committee. The confusion of the two seems to be the root of the confusion in this article. There are avenues for people to engage the body politic and they are welcome to it. But one should not confuse action with one sphere with action in the other. When that happens the typical result is that the action in the political sphere tends to supplant and replace the proper action of the church. The church then thinks because it has a pro-life stance and tries to make its voice heard politically that it has fulfilled its place in the world. This is a denigration of both spheres. I think Hauerwas has it exactly right when it comes to what needs to be said to the church.

  28. Comment by David A Booth on April 18, 2020 at 9:55 pm


    Stanley Hauerwas is a remarkable man, and most of us are happy to profess the debt that we owe him as our teacher.

    And yet, there is tendency of great intellectuals in the church to set the bar impossibly high for ordinary Christians to actually do anything. We can see a bit of this in the quotation: “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.” Do Christians really have to become more sophisticated, more nuanced, and more creative before they can say: “Killing babies is wrong”?

    This isn’t an either/or proposition. Consider the biblical prophets. Some of them were remarkably creative in confronting the evils of their day – but they also sometimes condemned the evils in their day with the plainest and bluntest language imaginable. Why shouldn’t we do the same?


  29. Comment by theenemyhatesclarity on April 19, 2020 at 2:13 pm

    Science is clear. Life begins at conception. Every human embryologist agrees. And it is alway, ALWAYS, immoral to intentionally kill an innocent human being.

  30. Comment by JR on April 20, 2020 at 8:44 am

    Not even worth the argument. Enjoy your bubble.

  31. Comment by Michael Moore on April 20, 2020 at 9:09 am

    You are right. It is not worthwhile arguing with you. But, you are wrong. Life begins at conception. And, abortion is murder. You may argue that point now, but a day is coming (the Great White Throne judgement) when you will realize, too late, that you were wrong.

  32. Comment by JR on April 20, 2020 at 3:32 pm

    Roughly speaking, a third or more ‘lives’ from all of human history never made it out of the womb, if that is true.

    That makes God the greatest abortionist of all time, if you believe the hype.

    And murder has a definition. Abortion doesn’t usually fit under that, no matter how much you want it to be true.

  33. Comment by Michael Moore on April 20, 2020 at 5:25 pm

    “And murder has a definition. Abortion doesn’t usually fit under that, no matter how much you want it to be true.”

    Ask women who have had abortions, and are regretting doing so, why they fee; that way, and quite often they will answer, “I murdered my baby!” I have talked to a few In my time, and have never had one say, “I’m glad I got rid of that blob of tissue invading my body”. No, abortion IS murder, it involves taking the life of a human being, and you can pontificate all you want, but it does not change the fact>

  34. Comment by JR on April 21, 2020 at 9:36 am

    Bzzt, thanks for playing.

    Murder has a specific definition.

    Abortion does not qualify, at least not at this time. [Change the law, and it could.]

    PETA considers eating meat to be murder. What was the name of the last cow you murdered in order to have a meal?

    See, that doesn’t work either. Not because ‘causing death of another’ is the issue, but because it’s LEGAL to eat meat.

    Biblical reference: Thou shalt not kill. Some translations refer it to murder. And yet, stoning someone to death for a sin was perfectly fine, as was certain ritual killing and certainly warfare.

    All death by the hand of man is not murder.

  35. Comment by Margot on April 20, 2020 at 4:49 pm

    The Bible is clear: Life begins when God’s breath is received.
    Genesis 2:7 – And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

  36. Comment by Patrick98 on April 22, 2020 at 9:00 am

    A bigger man would have said: “I stand corrected.”

  37. Comment by JR on April 23, 2020 at 2:34 pm

    You need to give me some context here for your comment. Having it pop at the bottom, without noting what you were replying to, gives me no help at all.

    Please inform me as to your reference point and I’ll decide if it’s worth a response.

  38. Comment by Patrick98 on April 24, 2020 at 9:40 am

    You asked “So where have Christians engaged in root cause mitigation when it comes to abortion?” I showed you.

  39. Comment by JR on April 24, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    And I responded.

    I’m sorry that my response didn’t meet with your approval, I’ll try to do better in the future.

  40. Comment by David Francisco on May 3, 2020 at 9:01 am

    I am a moderate Methodist in the Dominican Republic and I think it is neither prudent or wise for a group of brothers to become separatist within the UMC, because of an issue that is barely dealt with in the scriptures, such as abortion and homosexuality.

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