Abortion, the Bible, and Us: The Evangelical About-Face on Abortion

An anti-abortion protest in California's Bay Area from 1986
A 1986 anti-abortion protest in the Bay Area
(Photo by Nancy Wong, CC by SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)
To recap what I’ve covered in this series so far:

All of this is hard to square with the tenor of contemporary abortion politics, where absolute opposition to abortion, grounded in a belief that life begins at the moment of fertilization, is often held to be the defining political commitment of the religious (read: Christian) right. Within this conservative coalition, evangelicals in particular tend to justify their anti-abortion stance in originalist and biblicist terms. 

Take, for example, resources developed by Focus on the Family that assert that the Bible says life begins at conception, or megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s comment that “the reason I believe that life begins at conception is because the Bible says it.”

The Bible, of course, says no such thing.

And you have to work pretty hard to get the Bible to imply it.

 If it isn’t in the Bible, then—and it isn’t—where does it come from? Is it simply a constant element of Christian belief? Again, the answer is no.

The Evangelical About-Face

From the outset, we have to distinguish between different kinds of Christians, since different denominations do not have the same historical relationship with abortion. Officially, the Roman Catholic Church has long opposed abortion and, since the mid-20th century, contraception (individual Catholics have various opinions, of course, and tend to access contraception and abortion at roughly the same rates as everyone else in the United States.

Evangelical Christians, however, who are now at least as closely identified with anti-abortion politics as Catholics, have not always been politically motivated by abortion—or even united in opposition to it.

In the era before Roe v. Wade, many evangelical leaders argued that abortion was permissible in many circumstances. For example, the influential evangelical theologian and apologist Norman Geisler, in the 1971 and 1975 editions of his Christian Ethics, wrote the following, which I will quote at length:

The one clear thing which the Scriptures indicate about abortion is that it is not the same as murder. … Murder is a man-initiated activity of taking an actual human life. Artificial abortion is a humanly initiated process which results in the taking of a potential human life. Such abortion is not murder, because the embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.

When it is a clear-cut case of either taking the life of the unborn baby or letting the mother die, then abortion is called for. An actual life (the mother) is of more intrinsic value than a potential life (the unborn). The mother is a fully developed human; the baby is an undeveloped human. And an actually developed human is better than one which has the potential for full humanity but has not yet developed. Being fully human is a higher value than the mere possibility of becoming fully human. For what is has more value than what may be. …

Birth is not morally necessitated without consent. No woman should be forced to carry a child if she did not consent to intercourse. A violent intrusion into a woman’s womb does not bring with it a moral birthright for the embryo. The mother has a right to refuse that her body be used as an object of sexual intrusion. The violation of her honor and personhood was enough evil without compounding her plight by forcing an unwanted child on her besides. … the right of the potential life (the embryo) is overshadowed by the right of the actual life of the mother. The rights to life, health, and self-determination — 
i.e., the rights to personhood — of the fully human mother take precedence over that of the potentially human embryo.

Fifty years later, such a position from a notable conservative evangelical would be almost unthinkable. Indeed, Geisler himself did not remain supportive of abortion. Long before his death in 2019, he had become an ardent opponent of abortion in any form, arguing explicitly that it should supersede all other issues in determining Christians’ voting priorities. This change was already apparent in the 1989 2nd edition of his Christian ethics, where he asserted (as part of a much longer discussion):

Scripture texts leave no doubt that an unborn child is just as much a person in God’s image as a little child or an adult is. They are  created  in  God’s  image  from  the  very  moment  of  conception,  and  their  prenatal  life  is  precious  in  God’s  eyes  and  protected  by  his  prohibition  against  murder.

In 18 years, the Bible had managed to shift from being crystal clear in one direction to being crystal clear in the opposite and contradictory direction, something which Geisler scarcely hints at (and only in the preface)..

But Geisler’s permissive position was far from anomalous in the evangelical circles of the mid-20th century. Bruce Waltke, a professor at the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote in Christianity Today in 1968 “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.”

In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted an official resolution that affirmed the value of fetal life but added “We call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

At the time, 70% of Southern baptist pastors approved of abortion to support the mental or physical health of the mother. Support was 64% for “fetal deformity” and 71% in cases of rape. 

Similarly, the evangelical response to Roe was not immediate or uniformly negative. While Christianity Today criticized the decision in 1973, many influential conservative pastors voiced their support. W. A. Criswell, pastor of the largest Southern Baptist church in the US, said “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother, that it became an individual person.” He went on “it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and the future should be allowed.”

The Baptist Press actually hailed the decision as a win: “religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.”

Neither was this a case of leaders who were out of touch with the theological leanings of their congregations, as rank-and-file evangelicals were not exercised by the decision and proved hard for activist groups to mobilize. In 1980, the evangelical magazine Moody Monthly lamented that “Evangelicalism as a whole has uttered no real outcry. We’ve organized no protest. … The Catholics have called abortion ‘The Silent Holocaust.’ The deeper horror is the silence of the evangelical.”

This sentiment was echoed by other members of the new religious right at the time, including Heritage Foundation founder and John Birch Society member Paul Weyrich,  Moral Majority board member Ed Dobson, and the anti-abortion activist group the Christian Action Council.

Eventually, though, activist efforts to mobilize evangelicals against abortion did come to fruition. Harold O. J. Brown, the Christianity Today editor who wrote the original criticism of Roe v. Wade, founded the Human Life Review in 1975 and the Christian Action Council in 1976. Jerry Falwell preached his first sermon against abortion in 1978, and Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop published their influential Whatever Happened to the Human Race? in 1979. Together, these and other activists worked to bring abortion to prominence among evangelicals. 

By 1984, the landscape had changed. That year, the book Brave New People argued the once common evangelical view that abortion was ethically complicated and often permissible, but this time it provoked such a strong backlash that the publisher, Zondervan, conducted the first recall in its history.

Since then, staunch opposition to abortion has been the almost unquestioned position of the Christian right, evangelicals included.

What happened?

At this point, the facts are pretty clear. Abortion for evangelicals was not an important issue or an issue of unanimous agreement in the middle of the 20th century. Since Jonathan Dudley made this point in an influential op-ed for CNN, however, there has been a war over the narrative. Why exactly did evangelicals perform this about-face on abortion?

When evangelicals themselves tell the story, it becomes a story of heroes rousing morally sluggish congregations to realign with clear biblical truth. In other words, the problem was general ignorance of the Bible’s clear teachings and the remedy was deeper, more diligent Bible study.

These retellings rightly emphasize the significance of highly motivated activists, but their Bible-centrism falls flat. As I’ve argued throughout this series of posts, biblical texts stake out no clear position on abortion or fetal personhood, and neither do they suggest it was an issue of moral significance to the communities by and for whom biblical texts were written. The Bible could not have been the sole driver of this revolution in evangelical politics, which means that other motivations must be identified.

For Dudley, it was a story of the political tail wagging the theological dog. That is, adherence to political conservatism did not result from the belief that life begins at conception; rather, political conservatism motivated many Christians to interpret biblical texts to mean that life begins at conception.

Religious historian Randall Balmer puts a finer point on it. In his book Bad Faith and these articles for Politico Magazine, Balmer argues that political mobilization around abortion was actually kicked off by conservative evangelical resistance to government-mandated desegregation of religious schools. 

Balmer is not arguing for anything as simple as an “Aha! It was really just racism all along!” gotcha. This is America, and at some level it’s racism all the way down. The anti-abortion movement has had troubling connections with white supremacist and eugenics movements throughout its long history, but the pro-choice and birth control movements have a few racist and eugenicist skeletons in their closets as well.

What these reconstructions show, however, is that anti-abortion politics did not arise directly from diligent Bible reading and that abortion did not function as an independent political issue. Rather, it interacted with a slew of other issues that all revolved around the social and cultural changes of the 1960s and ‘70s.

The civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam movement, sexual revolution, and second wave of feminism co-occurred in ways that profoundly destabilized the traditional hierarchies of American society and, working together, motivated the political resurgence of the religious right.

While the rhetoric of the abortion debate focuses intensely on the figures of the fetus and the mother, the ethics and politics of abortion have implications that connect very strongly to these traditional hierarchies. I have more research to do here, but I have a hunch that opposition to abortion has proved so powerful a galvanizing force because its intense focus on the fetus—usually portrayed as a baby no matter the gestational age being discussed—easily obscures its connections with less palatable and less popular conservative political priorities. For decades now, the mantra “abortion is murder” has acted as a powerful Trump card and a nearly insurmountable barrier to defecting from the Republican Party, as Bradley Onishi wrote in this powerful essay. No matter how many harmful and destructive policies they espouse, no matter how promiscuously they flirt with authoritarianism, how can any other issue compete with the murder of a million babies a year? This question keeps many people voting for candidates they disagree with on almost everything because the prevalence of abortion weighs too heavily to bear.

I understand this earnest belief. I understand this discomfort. At some point, though, I had to acknowledge that the Bible’s clarity on prenatal personhood and on abortion were illusory. 

This doesn’t mean that people who read and believe in the Bible can’t believe that life begins at conception or that abortion is always wrong. However, these beliefs must be understood also as reflections of social, historical, and political forces outside of the Bible. The attempt to locate fetal personhood and anti-abortion ethics in the original message of the Bible is an attempt to remove them from historical and cultural contingency and to sink them deep in the unchanging bedrock of eternal truth. However, theological priorities are influenced by contingent and contextual forces for evangelicals as much as for anyone else. 

In short, categorical opposition to abortion is neither a necessary element of true Christian faith nor an ethical issue so clear and settled that it should supersede all others in social and political reasoning.

I can’t tell you exactly what to think about abortion (I’ll share my own positions in the next post), but I can tell you this: if it were left to the Bible, we’d spend a lot less time policing it.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Most of these sources are linked above and repeated here for ease of reference. 

Balmer, Randall. Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right. Eerdmans, 2021.

—. “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.” Politico Magazine, May 27, 2022.

—. “The Religious Right and the Abortion Myth.” Politico magazine, May 10, 2022.

Dibranco, Alex. “The Long History of the Anti-Abortion Movement’s Ties to White Supremacists.” The Nation, Feb 3, 2020.

Dudley, Jonathan. “When Evangelicals were Pro-Choice.” CNN Belief Blog, 2012.

—. “How Evangelicals Decided that Life Begins at Conception.“ HuffPost Religion, Nov. 5, 2012.

Farley, Audrey Clare. “The Eugenics Roots of Evangelical Family Values.” Religion and Politics, 2021.

Onishi, Bradley. “Pro-born: A Former Evangelical on the Single-Issue Politics of White Christians.” Religion Dispatches, March 18, 2018.

Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism

 

Further Reading

Griffith, R. Marie. Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics. Basic Books, 2017..

Parker, Willie. Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. 37 Inc., 2018.

Pittman, Ashton. “To Rule History with God: The Christian Dominionist War on Abortion.” Mississippi Free Press, Jan 26, 2022 (Part one of a three-part series).

Schenk, Rob. Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love. Harper COllins, 2019.

Abortion, the Bible, and Us: Concepts of Conception

Human sperm and egg uniting to form a zygote, the single-cell first stepp in the process of human development.
As I mentioned last time, I’m going to be writing a series of posts on abortion ethics as they do (and do not) relate to the Bible. I’ll be publishing posts as I get to them, which means they probably won’t be punctual or regular. Regardless, I welcome your comments and discussion!
***
Perhaps the most significant question in the abortion ethics debate has to do with when life begins. This may not be the best phrasing of the question, since in some sense life is continuous—every step of the process of reproduction involves living cells, from the parents’ gametes to the newborn baby, with no break or period where the tissue in question is not alive.

The question, rather, is when a new person begins, and within that are several other questions. Is the beginning of a new person’s life determined by natural laws or determined by societies and cultures? Does full personhood appear in an instant, or does it accumulate gradually? Does personhood bring with it all of the rights of a full, adult member of society? How do the rights of this new full or in-process person stack up against other people’s rights (particularly those of the person who is pregnant?

Those who hold strong anti-abortion beliefs often answer that “life begins at conception.” In other words, personhood is attained at the earliest possible moment, and with it the unmitigated right to life.

Yet even within this formulation there is uncertainty. The American College of Pediatricians (an unabashedly conservative and anti-abortion organization that should not be confused with the mainstream American Academy of Pediatrics) admits that conception is a process that takes nearly 24 hours and that there is disagreement about when in the process life begins: when the sperm enters the egg, when genetic recombination is complete, or when the first DNA replication leading to cell division occurs. Others have tried to push “conception” even further forward in time, making it synonymous with an embryo’s implantation in the uterine lining.

These debates are interesting, but they are difficult to square with the idea that the Bible (or any biblical text) affirms the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. None of the fine biological distinctions or the logic that underlies them would have meant anything to anyone living in, around, or for at least 1500 years after the times when biblical texts were being written. Ancient medical practitioners were keen observers and knew a good deal about the process of reproduction, but there is only so much they could learn without access to ultrasounds, microscopes, and arthroscopic cameras. The uterus was something of a black box, and the earliest phases of gestation were the most unknowable. Presumably some information about later stages of fetal development could be gained from miscarriages and still births, but there was little concrete knowledge about early pregnancy.

I’ll get into some evidence about what various ancient writers did know or theorize about reproduction in the next post, but for now I just want to underscore the vast chasm that separates our own understanding of conception from the one(s) held by the composers of biblical texts and their peers. Honestly, I think that “conceive” may be an unintentionally misleading translation in modern Bibles, because those of us educated in the medicalized modern world reflexively link the word itself to precise and imperceptible biological events and processes. I usually opt for the translation “be/get pregnant” instead, because it feels more vague and informal and focuses more on the change in the woman than on the product of conception.

***

Recognizing this difference in views of conception raises several questions: How could a crucial ethical distinction be based on an event no one knew was happening? How could a text (divinely inspired or not) communicate that distinction to an audience who had no context for it? 

To be clear, these questions don’t inform the ethics of abortion directly (I’ll get to that in later posts). They do, however, present problems for those who seek to base their opposition to abortion directly in the Bible (and especially in an inerrantist or other originalist reading of the Bible), and I don’t see these problems addressed or even acknowledged often enough. 

That’s it for today! Stay tuned for next time: ancient writing on sex and pregnancy!

Thoughts on Abortion: Satire and Seriousness

I wrote a piece of satire that was published today, and I felt it was worth writing some serious thoughts on it as well. Abortion is an issue of critical importance to a lot of people I know and care about, and it’s not a topic I take lightly. My beliefs and positions have changed substantially over years of thought, reading, and discussion, and I’m going to start sharing that process and where I’ve ended up.

Though the McSweeney’s piece is satire, I stand behind the serious point that it makes. Essentially, I find that Christian pro-life arguments often assume three things that cannot all be true at the same time.

1. God is a good communicator

2. God inspired the Bible to communicate (among other things) deep and enduring ethical concerns

3. God cares deeply about abortion and opposes it entirely

In other words, if God is a good communicator who wanted to convey the sanctity of fetal life and the absolute impermissibility of abortion, then God would have had to create a text quite different from the Bible.

On the flip side, if God wrote (or inspired) the Bible as we have it to express (again, among other things) prohibition of abortion, then God is not a very good communicator. So the silly thought that inspired this piece was “how would a God who wrote this Bible to express opposition to abortion justify those writing decisions?”

This disconnection between anti-abortion ethics and the text of the Bible may come as a surprise; it was certainly a surprise to my students this year. Anti-abortion organizations claim that the Bible is crystal clear on the topic of abortion so often and so forcefully that it is generally believed to be true. That is certainly the understanding I grew up with and operated under before I became a Bible scholar and looked into it systematically.

After the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe vs. Wade leaked this Spring, the students in my  “Bible, Politics, and the Internet” course insisted that I expand our one class session on abortion into a week. I’m glad I did, because we all got a lot out of the experience.

For the first session, I gathered every biblical text that I could find quoted or cited on either side of the abortion debate. There were quite a few but not an absurd number, so I asked them to read through them all before class. I had also assigned articles on contraception and abortion in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, so they knew that both were known and commonly practiced throughout the societies from which the Bible emerged.

In class, the students broke up into small groups and answered two questions: which of these texts pertain to abortion directly? Which of them pertain to other ethical issues that influence the debate over abortion?

In the general discussion that followed, most students agreed that none of the verses or passages we read had anything at all to do with abortion. Some were indirectly relevant (the accidental miscarriage laws in Exodus 21:22–25, for example), but most were either shoehorned into the debate in a wholly inappropriate way (creation verses in Genesis 1:26–28 and 2:7) or were only relevant if you had already made your mind up that abortion was murder in advance (Exodus 20:13, Proverbs 24:11 and 31:8).

Their reaction echoes the position of many biblical scholars, such as John J. Collins. I take a slightly different stance, since I understand the ritual in Numbers 5:11–31 to describe the induction of an abortion for failing a divinely abetted paternity test. However, even if this one text literally prescribes an abortion, it does so in a way that helps neither side of the contemporary debate (as Rhiannon Graybill has helpfully explained. 

My students, to a person, were shocked. All of them had assumed it was in there somewhere—a clear and unambiguous prohibition of abortion. How could it not be, when abortion took up so much space in political discourse, especially among Bible-believing communities?

The fact is, the clarity of the Bible on abortion is largely an invention. More sophisticated anti-abortion advocates know this and so focus on natural law and Christian tradition over biblical precedent, but the broad assumption that the Bible prohibits abortion continues to be widespread and common.

So, what does it mean that the Bible does not present a clear position on abortion? What does it mean that the Bible does not seem to care about abortion enough to mention it almost at all, especially considering the prevalence of contraceptive and abortifacient practices throughout the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean? It’s a complicated question, since no religion has ever derived all of its doctrine and ritual from the Bible, and all types of Christianity have added, adapted, and sidelined biblical texts liberally for all manner of culturally and historically contingent reasons. It’s complicated further still by the Bible’s nature as a composite anthology with numerous different (and often disagreeing voices) represented within its pages. It is not a single text, with a single meaning and a single way of reading it. Rather, I see biblical texts as a generative base from which all manner of interpretations grow. It is certainly possible (as simple observation makes abundantly clear) to hold the Bible sacred and arrive at a pro-life, anti-abortion ethic, It is also possible to hold the Bible sacred and hold fast also to choice and reproductive justice. Neither derives necessarily from any Bible and no Bible alone can definitively adjudicate between the two for us.

As a historical Bible scholar, though, I also try to work out how these texts emerged and fit into the world in which they were written and spread. So in posts that follow this one, I’m going to discuss the place of abortion in antiquity, how the Bible’s various texts fit into it, the relevance of Bibles and biblical texts to the current debate over abortion policy, as well as my own thoughts and positions as they have developed over the past few decades. Maybe take it with a grain of salt since I’m not capable of getting pregnant, but I hope you’ll stick around and join in the conversation!

Best Books of 2021: The Mess We’re In

It’s no secret that we’re in a mess right now, politically, economically, and societally. In this third batch of favorite reads from 2021 (see 1, 2, and my full reading list), I’m sharing a few books that have helped me think through the present moment and how we get somewhere better together.

Front cover to Ill Fares the Land

Ill Fares the land, by Tony Judt

In this book, Judt tells the story of how the United States developed a faith in social democracy in the mid-20th century, then lost it in favor of a fetish for privatization and a devotion to free market solutions. The result is what he calls the ”eviscerated society,” characterized by private wealth and public squalor. Inequality has reached unsustainable and destructive levels through the consistent workings of unregulated capital markets (or more accurately, capital markets whose regulations are set by the most powerful interested players). His analysis is based on a life’s work as a historian of the post-war period, and his argumentation is lucid and eminently quotable. That said, it is not a perfect book—Judt is more statist than I am always comfortable with, and he falters on topics of race and identity as determinants of American economics and politics (see the forward to the 2020 edition by Ta-Nehisi Coates). On these, the next two books (and especially Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us) do much better.

Front cover of the 9.9 Percent

The 9.9%: The New Aristocracy that is Entrenching Inequality and Warping our Culture, by Matthew Stewart

This is another entry on the theme of inequality. However, Stewart takes a broader approach, examining a wide array of socio-cultural phenomena in addition to economics and politics. He argues that it is not only the 1% or the .1% of America’s wealthiest who are hoarding undue wealth and unraveling the fabric of society, but the 9.9%—the top decile in terms of net worth excluding the ultra-rich of the .1%. 

As inequality has grown, the upper decile has observed the shrinking chances of upward mobility and the increasing precarity of remaining in their place in the hierarchy. Stewart makes the case that this has led to a pervasive and corrosive anxiety that is spreading throughout every part of our lives and our institutions. To ensure their continued position near the top, 9.9 percenters (and those who wish to become 9.9 percenters) have imported ultra-competitive and anti-social logics into their child-rearing, education, marriages, living situations, health and fitness practices, etc., etc.

The tone can be a bit glib and some evidence and analysis could be disputed (his interpretation of ancient texts and archaeology made this scholar of the ancient Near East’s eyes twitch a little, for example), but Stewart’s overall case is strong. I learned a lot from this book, and it gave me a lot more to think about. Definitely worth a read.

For further reading in this vein, see Richard V. Reeves’ excellent Dream Hoarders (which was one of my top picks in 2017) and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s The Sum of Small things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class.

Front cover to The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can prosper Together, by Heather McGhee

In this book, Heather McGhee gives not only a clear and convincing analysis of how racism has and continues to increase and entrench inequality in the United States, but also a compelling path forward.

She shows that the only way to an economy that does not tilt entirely in the ultra-wealthy’s favor is by building multiracial coalitions that work on behalf of everyone. She also provides communication strategies for getting past places where conversations on race in the US tend to stall or backfire.

The key is dismantling the myth of zero-sum racial progress. There is a common perception (particularly among white Americans) that any improvement in the economic wellbeing of black and brown people must be accompanied by a corresponding decrease for whites. This, as McGhee shows with much data and many examples, is entirely false. It is in those very places where legal and cultural oppression of black and brown Americans was most severe that we find also the poorest conditions for working class white people. In effect, capitalists and business owners exacerbated and exploited the social divisions and resentments between racial groups to preempt solidarity and thus, to keep wages low and benefits minimal. In places where racial division has been intentionally overcome in the creation of multi-racial labor and political organization, Mcghee identifies what she calls a “solidarity dividend”—economic benefit to the communities of color involved, certainly, but also to the white population and to the region as a whole. As one organizer she quotes put it:  “as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered. The only way we succeed is together.”

This book would pair well with Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness.

Front cover of Becoming Abolitionists

Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, by Derecka Purnell

Uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer brought police abolition and PIC abolition (i.e., abolition of the prison-industrial complex) into the public conversation in a way it had never been before. I have spent a lot of time reading and learning about what abolition means in theory and practice over the past year, and I have come to resonate with it as an ideal and a horizon toward which our society and our politics should always be oriented. I also understand that it can seem opaque, unclear, foolhardy, or destructive. Questions about public safety and protection are valid and deserve answers. In many cases, though, conversations and publications on abolition were being conducted by small groups of like-minded scholars and activists who shared common presumptions and language, and they were hard for curious newcomers to break into.

 Luckily, this year has seen the publication of several books that aim to make abolition more accessible and understandable to people who are curious but perhaps skeptical or uncertain about whether it can work in reality. I particularly like this book by Derecka Purnell, which conveys abolition theory through her own personal journey. Purnell is honest about the reservations she had toward abolition as her experience and consciousness have shifted over time and makes a compelling case for the insufficiency of reform and the need for an entirely new paradigm. I also enjoyed Mariame Kaba’s essay collection We Do This ’Til We Free Us and highly recommend Angela Y. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?

Front cover of You are Here

You Are here: A Field guide for navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and our Polluted Media Landscape, by Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner.

When we talk about this mess we’re in, the role of the internet in getting us here inevitably makes its way into the conversation. Many problems with the internet and social media cannot be solved by individuals making individual choices, but each of us who lives some part of our life online needs to know how it works, how it goes wrong, and how it can lead us astray. Phillips and Milner have written a short, clear, and very illuminating guide for internet users who want to consume, share, and publish information responsibly and productively. This is going to be required reading in my spring course on “The Bible, Politics, and the Internet,” so it’s fair to say I think it has something worthwhile to say!

 

And now some runners up in the education department:

Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch

Public schools are wonderful. Charter schools are vicious parasites that suck public dollars into wasteful, undemocratic, and often corrupt private ventures, impoverishing us all in the process. Read this book, support your local teachers’ union, and vote to fund public education.

Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School, by Courtney Martin 

A mom’s journey to make good educational choices for her daughter in Oakland, CA, where good means good for society too, not just for her own family. Good for anyone feeling squeamish about sending their kids to “bad” or “low performing” public schools.

What Would the “America First” Budget Mean for Me?

Ever since the White House released the blueprint for its “America First” budget, my email inboxes have been inundated with urgent pleas from organizations who would have their funding cut or eliminated under the new plan. After a few days, it became clear that these budget priorities would affect the work that I do and the ways that I do it on a daily basis.

Many things in this budget make me deeply uneasy, but this isn’t the place for a full analysis, and I am not a policy analyst. What I am is a person who works at the corner of blindness and academia, and I recognize things in this budget blueprint that would create very real difficulties for me on both of those counts. I will focus here on two specific cuts and the harm they would cause without creating any real benefit.

Research Funding

The “America First” budget blueprint calls for elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA; p. 5). These two organizations provide funding and support for projects and programs, large and small, in the arts and humanities. 

I have personally worked on research projects that were funded by grants from the NEH, and I have benefitted from many more. In a recent email to members, the president of the Society of Biblical Literature reported that SBL members have received over $7.2 million in research grants from the NEH. Further, the SBL’s Bible Odyssey website, a source for reliable, scholarly information on the Bible and Bible-adjacent topics, is made possible in part by a $300,000 NEH grant.

This is just one scholarly society. Scholars working in Egyptian, Syrian, Anatolian, and Mesopotamian studies also receive funding from the NEH. 

Their research links us to our shared cultural heritage. It connects us to the roots of Western society and the worlds from which our major religions sprang. If you cringe when ISIS bulldozes ancient gates in Palmyra, churches in Aleppo, or palaces in Nineveh, you should cringe when the humanities are dismantled at home. 

I might be more sympathetic to this budget reduction if the amount of money saved were not so extraordinarily small. The NEA and NEH each received about $148 million last year, meaning together they made up only 0.006% of the federal budget. Their elimination is an ideological and symbolic gesture that would do a great deal of harm while doing taxpayers very little good.

Educational Resources

According to the blueprint document, “[t]he 2017 Budget…continues support for the nation’s most vulnerable populations, such as students with disabilities” (p. 17). If only that were true. It seems that, in reality, these budget priorities would place a heavy burden on students with disabilities. For younger students, the emphasis on charter schools would probably end up reducing school choice and educational quality (see point 3 in this article). 

For me in particular, and other blind students, scholars, and citizens of all ages, it would mean increased difficulty in accessing books and other academic materials. The budget jeopardizes funding for the Educational Technology, Media, and Materials for Individuals with Disabilities Program, which benefits me through services like Bookshare.

Bookshare is an online library that provides accessible digital versions of print books to people who are blind, have a learning disability, or are otherwise unable to read print. Their catalog contains more than half a million books, and is growing quickly.

I use Bookshare literally every day—it is not my only source for accessible books, but it is a major one, and it has saved me dozens, if not hundreds of hours of work in the past few years.

And this is why Bookshare is so important, for me and for everyone else: because it saves so much work. Bookshare is an incredibly efficient and economical program, and defunding it would make life more burdensome for students of every age and level, and would end up increasing costs for everyone. Here’s how:

Books enter the Bookshare library in two ways: either publishers send digital files directly, or volunteers scan printed books and submit their own files. When a volunteer digitizes a book, it takes a few hours to scan the book, OCR and edit the text, and prepare the file. After that, it can be downloaded and read in large print, Braille, or audio by students nationwide using any number of disability-specific apps and devices. There is some additional labor in maintaining the database and website, but it is minuscule in comparison with what would be required if Bookshare’s federal funding were cut.

If that happened, the burden of providing accessible materials to disabled students would shift to local school districts. Not all districts would be able to advocate with publishers as effectively as Bookshare, which would increase the burden on volunteers and paid school staff. That same 4-10 hours of work digitizing books would have to be done anew in every district in every area of the country.

This could only play out in two ways: either local taxes would increase to accommodate the increased need, or educational outcomes for disabled students would suffer due to lack of resources. More likely, both of these would happen to a greater or lesser extent in every school district, depending on the resources at their disposal.

I am a firm believer that U.S. schools should provide excellent educations to students with disabilities, so that they can become self-sufficient, contributing members of society. But I also believe that accommodations for students with disabilities should be made in the most efficient and effective way.

In the digital age, centralization is the best way to provide many kinds of accessible materials in the most economical way  without compromising its quality or availability. A federal dollar simply goes much further than a state or local dollar. Cutting federal funding for accessible materials may appear to save money, but any savings will be offset by a manifold increase in costs at the state and local level. It helps no one, and hurts everyone.

Other Cuts

These are only two issues raised by the budget blueprint, but there are many other, darker parts of the White House budget priorities. The cuts to Legal Services could prevent citizens with disabilities from seeking and receiving justice from discrimination and mistreatment. Cuts to the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and various programs like Meals on Wheels could remove much-needed aid from the disabled, poor, elderly, or otherwise vulnerable populations in the U.S.

In short, these specific cuts and the “America First” budget priorities as a whole are hostile to academic learning and disabled citizens. Furthermore, any savings at the federal level would increase costs locally, creating a net harm to taxpayers. Pleas contact your legislative representatives and suggest budget priorities that do more than pay lip service to education and the idea of supporting vulnerable populations.

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If you would like to help support Bookshare, I would appreciate it! They have provided this very easy to use tool to write your representatives about it: Support Bookshare