The anti-abortion drive recently launched by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops stirred up a new wave of concern that the Vatican seeks to impose a tenet peculiar to itself upon all Americans. The origin of this concern can be traced to the strong negative reaction of the American Catholic community to the Supreme Court decision that struck down anti-abortion laws three years ago this month.

Catholics do wield considerable political power and have indeed been in the forefront of the fight to overturn the decision through a constitutional amendment. But the question that needs answering is this: is abortion a moral question extending beyond Catholic moral philosophy? If there is no significant reservation about abortion in Protestant, Orthodox, and Jewish thinking, then obviously the government should not attempt to regulate it simply to please Catholics.

Interestingly enough, Mormons also oppose abortion, and in states where they exercise political clout the charge has often been made that abortion is a “Mormon” issue.

The Reverend Bob Holbrook, national coordinator of “Baptists for Life”, argues that the anti-abortion laws struck down by the court had been enacted with a broad base of popular support quite irrespective of sectarian divisions. The test case itself came out of Texas, where Protestants have always predominated in great numbers. North Dakota, said to be more than 75 per cent non-Catholic, voted in a public referendum against liberalized abortion the year before the court decision.

Holbrook points out that before the passage of the first relaxed abortion laws in 1965, forty-six states and the District of Columbia explicitly permitted abortion to save the mother’s life but prohibited it on most other grounds. Inasmuch as Catholic traditional teaching does not allow abortion to save the life of the mother, it seems reasonable to assume that the rationale for the laws lay elsewhere. “It is certain,” Holbrook contends, “that if the Catholic Church had political power enough to enact anti-abortion laws, forty-six of the states would not have passed legislation reflecting a non-Catholic exception.”

The permissive attitudes toward abortion prevalent in Protestant circles today represent a clear break with the past. What is yet undetermined is whether this change has taken place at the grass roots as well as among professional churchmen.

In the last three years a growing number of Protestant lay persons have become active in anti-abortion efforts, and through their involvement they have tried to show that permissive attitudes toward abortion are not as prevalent among Protestants as “Catholic issue” protesters claim. The Christian Action Council, organized last summer, is specifically trying “to remind non-Roman Catholic Christians that virtually all Christians from the beginning have been against permissive abortion and for the protection of all human life, and to make clear to lawmakers that abortion and related problems are not merely sectarian or ‘doctrinal’ issues but of fundamental importance to the whole of Western civilization.” Some groups, most notably the American Citizens Concerned for Life, have tried to emphasize educational programs on alternatives to abortion, rather than simply lobbying for a constitutional amendment.

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The ethical questions posed by abortion focus on the most fundamental of human rights, the right to life. It is a principle that is even more basic and important than the right to food currently being championed by Bread for the World.

There are, of course, other considerations, such as the rights of the parents and the much-debated question of when life begins. These are terribly urgent subjects to which Americans need to give much more attention. It will aid discussion and increase the possibility of a consensus solution if irrelevant and invalid theses are avoided. The argument that abortion is a Catholic issue is one of these. Whether brought on by sincere misunderstanding or bad motivation, it ends up being a smokescreen.

Byang Kato

Byang Kato had an appointment. A radio interviewer had asked to meet him in the press room on one of the last days of the Nairobi World Council of Churches assembly. The energetic general secretary of the Association of Evangelicals of Africa and Madagascar (AEAM) was on time; the journalist was not. Kato enlisted the help of a CHRISTIANITY TODAY staff member in the search for the radio man.

When a North American on the staff of the radio station was pointed out, Kato replied that he was looking instead for a West African since the interview was to be in Hausa, his native tongue. “I’m going to speak in my own language,” he said, beaming.

We don’t know if that interview was ever recorded. We do know that Byang Kato now has gone on to a more important appointment. He drowned last month in a swimming incident at Mombasa, Kenya, where he had taken his family for a delayed holiday after adjournment of the WCC assembly. At the age of 40 he has already met his Lord, and he is certainly rejoicing not only in being able to speak his own language but also in being able to speak face to face with Jesus.

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The association headed by this talented Nigerian was just beginning to have a most wholesome effect on Christianity in Africa. Kato was an effective communicator and a sharp theologian. He had earned a doctorate and was in demand as a teacher and lecturer. His zeal was for the evangelization of the whole world but particularly for Africa. He did not like to see the Gospel presented with cultural accretions that made it difficult for Africans to understand, but neither did he accept any “Africanization” that corrupted the Bible’s teachings.

Kato’s family, his denomination, the AEAM, and the whole Christian world have suffered a great loss. There is comfort, however, in the first Current Religious Thought column he contributed to this magazine (issue of January 2, page 42). He wrote: “Our sovereign Lord can still bring good out of a humanly tragic situation.” He can, and we are confident that he will.

Freedom Is From And For

Preachers combing their concordances for appropriate texts in America’s bicentennial year will do well to start with Galatians 5:13–15. Freedom is one of the Bible’s main themes, and this passage sums up the teaching neatly.

Paul’s counsel (v. 13) is put this way in the Living Bible: “For, dear brothers, you have been given freedom: not freedom to do wrong, but freedom to love and serve each other.”

For the Christian, there is liberty but no license. Jesus Christ has freed the believer from the bondage of sin, but now that same redeemed sinner is a slave to Christ.

For the unbeliever, this is nonsense, or at best the “foolishness” that Paul mentioned elsewhere. It is a paradox to speak in the same sentence of freedom and no freedom. The natural man questions the value of liberty if there are strings attached.

Enslaved to sin, the unregenerate person is looking only to be released from whatever is restraining him. He cannot see beyond this release. Freedom for something better in life is what salvation is all about, though.

This passage in the Galatian letter reminds people throughout the centuries and around the world that freedom brings with it responsibilities. Liberty has its limits. God gives fallible people the opportunity to love and serve him. Some, of course, cannot handle this freedom. They go either to the extremes of legalism or antinomianism. But the record is clear. Christians are advised in the letter not to do wrong (by violating God’s law) but to do right (by loving and serving God and his people). With their variety of gifts, Christians can express that love and service in a multitude of ways.

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While the epistle was directed at Christians specifically, the advice can be applied in a political sense to all citizens of the United States in the nation’s bicentennial year. Liberty, which was purchased at a high price, is for a high purpose. America’s blessings over its history have been great, and its responsibilities in this era are just as great.

A Fair Hearing For Religion

Most of the times when one wants to consult an encyclopedia, a good one-volume work is adequate. The recently released New Columbia Encyclopedia is receiving generally favorable reviews. This product of Columbia University and its press is likely to be recommended widely for use in home and office, as were the previous editions (the third was issued in 1963).

Christians would presumably consult one or more of the good dictionaries specializing in the Bible, theology, or church history, rather than a general encyclopedia, for answers to questions in those areas. Nevertheless, they would like to know whether a major work like the New Columbia, is anti-supernatural or anti-Christian to the point that believers would feel uncomfortable using or recommending it.

Happily, we can report that in its handling of religious matters the New Columbia maintains about as consistent a stance of detachment as one could expect. Sometimes there is room for improvement. In the article on “Jesus,” for example, we wouldn’t have said, “there are many contradictions between one Gospel and another,” but rather something like “many scholars find contradictions while others are able to harmonize the apparent discrepancies.” Nevertheless, the article does accurately summarize orthodox beliefs about our Lord and the course of his earthly life. The article on Paul the Apostle is surprisingly in line with conservative views, and from the academic point of view probably overstates the case in saying that “Ephesians and Second Thessalonians are accepted by all but a few critics.” The biography of Paul by noted evangelical author John Pollock is mentioned first among the recommended readings.

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Biological evolution, while presented sympathetically, is labeled as belief and theory, not fact. So also the papacy’s succession from Peter is presented as Catholic belief rather than historical truth.

Don’t expect the articles on denominations to be as up to date as those on politics. Watergate is present, but the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (formed by merger in 1970) has only its Presbyterian predecessor mentioned. Similar treatment is accorded the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (1965), except that the one pre-merger group mentioned is inaccurately named. One can always quibble about space allotments, but the small Christian Reformed Church should be especially proud of its twenty-seven lines when it realizes that the giant Southern Baptist Convention got only five (and those in the short article on Baptists).

But can any one book be worth $79.50? Yes. Each New Columbia page, with its three columns, has more than three times as many words as an average book page. Since there are more than 3,000 pages (and 50,000 articles), the price works out to less than a penny per column and compares favorably with all hardback and most paperback prices these days.

Bicentennial Brief

The Christian tradition, introduced by the first comers, reinforced by nearly all their European successors, and perpetuated by conscious effort, was the chief foundation stone of American intellectual development. No intellectual interest served so effectively as Christian thought to bring some degree of unity to the different classes, regions, and ethnic groups. Whatever differences in ways of life and whatever conflicts of interest separated the country gentry and great merchants from the frontiersmen, poor farmers, artisans, and small shopkeepers, all nominally subscribed to Christian tenets and at least in theory accepted Christianity as their guide.—Merle Curti, in The Growth of American Thought.

The Secret Believers: ‘Another Generation’

In the best account yet of everyday life in the Soviet Union, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newsman confirms that “there is evidence of a modest religious revival in recent years among the middle and younger generations.”

Hedrick Smith collected a wide assortment of such evidence during his three years in the Soviet Union as Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times. He devotes a twenty-one page chapter to religion in his new book The Russians, published by Quadrangle.

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Smith notes that 70 to 80 per cent of churchgoers are older women, but adds the smiling comment of a middle-aged believer who chooses not to attend public worship: “When each generation of old women dies off, there always seems to be another generation to take their place.” Smith explains that “the pressures and controls of the Soviet system still make it risky for people from 20–50, especially those with career ambitions, to attend church. Old women go fairly freely because the system has given up on them.”

Smith suggests that the number of secret believers who are influential people in the Soviet Union is considerable. He gives a moving account of his conversation with a highly educated woman, a computer expert in her mid-forties who was wearing a cross. He had asked her if she were a believer.

“Yes, in the sense of believing in Something [her eyes glanced upward] and not going to church, I am a believer, but I have no Bible. Some time ago, I got little books of four of the gospels.”

She retrieved four little books, not much larger than matchboxes, from behind an overstuffed chair. “I read them quite a bit and I find they help me,” Smith quotes her as saying. “Sometimes I read them to my children.”

“Many. Like me, they do not go to church, but they believe.”


“Most of all, out of frustration with the emptiness of life here, the emptiness in our contemporary life. Religion gives something to hold on to. That is how I feel it.”

Refuge America

Amid the clamor of criticism about the CIA, imperialist aggression, and the capitalist system, one happy and positive note emerges as the United States celebrates its two-hundredth anniversary. The job of relocating approximately 140,000 South Vietnamese refugees has been completed. And 600,000 Cubans, too, were resettled in the United States.

Americans took in the Vietnamese and Cubans, not because of a sense of guilt for America’s involvement in war, but because of compassion for fellow human beings in need. It is the kind of response that has characterized the United States across the years. The Statue of Liberty still stands tall in New York’s harbor, still proclaiming to the world the words:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Despite all their nation’s shortcomings, Americans can take pride in this completed task as they continue working to integrate these strangers into the life of the nation.

The churches of America played a large part in the resettlement efforts. And they can be certain of another well-known promise, engraved not on a statue but in a book: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

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