I am about to leave home for a month to begin the World Journalism Institute’s annual multi-week New York convergence course and the thought of leaving my granddaughter Alexis is making me sad. Lexi’s mother is my daughter Karissa, a senior prosecutor in Seattle, and my wife Kathy and I get to care for Lexi two days a week, and sometimes more often. She is our first grandchild and has changed our lives. Blessedly, she was adopted a couple of years ago and has improved the blood lines of all the families involved in her life. I don’t like the idea of not watching her grow over the next month. And I really don’t like the idea of not hearing her say “Papa.”
Karissa and her husband Nat have been informed that another baby girl may be available to be adopted by them, and they will know in a month. So another sweet voice saying “Papa” may be my blessing this year.
Both of these extraordinary children were born because a birth mother chose life and not death through Bethany Christian Services, an allied organization to Care Net.
Finally, in the last month, I have been involved in Care Net annual banquets in Tacoma and Seattle, where I live, and a Pregnancy Care Center banquet in New York City, where I work, and so the story of the pro-life movement is vivid in my mind.
I was blessed to be picked from obscurity 35 years ago to help form a new Protestant pro-life organization called the Christian Action Council, which eventually would morph into the massive Care Net organization of today.
Here is what happened in 1976.
In January 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its historic death sentence decision, Roe vs. Wade which legalized abortion on demand. I was a seminary student at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis at the time, preparing to graduate. I had no idea what the Supreme Court decision meant and it was not discussed on campus except by Dr. George Knight who publicly criticized the decision and warned of its effect on American morals. I graduated in May, went quickly to my first job and got immediately involved in pastoral affairs at a thriving Presbyterian church in Colorado Springs by doing Evangelism Explosion and Bill Gothard’s Basic Youth Conflicts, and responding to Biblical feminism (All We’re Meant to Be, Letha Scanzoni/Nancy Hardesty, l976).
Then in January 1976, Harold O.J. Brown, Contributing Editor of Christianity Today wrote an extraordinary article on the right and obligation of evangelical Christians to be involved in our pluralistic society. The article was called “The Passivity of American Christians.” He identified himself as belonging to an outfit called the Christian Action Council. I had never heard of the organization but I liked the name. If one is looking for a seminal article which began the national evangelical pro-life movement, that is the article. Surely, if one believes as I do, that the major evangelical pro-life organization in America is Care Net and if one knows that Care Net came from the Christian Action Council and if one is looking for the genesis of the Christian Action Council then Brown’s article stands at the headwaters of the evangelical pro-life movement. This is where I come in.
I was pastoring Hope Presbyterian Church, a mission church of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod in Phoenix in January 1976, and I read Brown’s article with intense interest. I had seen Dr. Brown’s name in National Review (one doesn’t forget a name like Harold O. J. Brown) and I was really impressed that an evangelical scholar was writing for mainstream national opinion magazines. I was bewildered as to how I could engage the American culture as a Christian when the gatekeepers were telling me to shut up. Brown told me why and how to be non-passive. Basically, Joe Brown freed me from my self-imposed shackles of silence.
After reading the article I screwed up my courage and called Joe in his Washington, D.C. office and invited him to come to Arizona, where I would set up speaking engagements and press interviews around the state. He agreed to come.
Meanwhile, inspired by Brown’s challenge, I signed up to attend the March, 1976 Arizona pro-life conference and banquet. As it turned out, I was the only Protestant pastor at the conference. It was a Roman Catholic/Mormon affair. But they welcomed me with open arms. A Presbyterian pro-life pastor! Could it be? In April, I found myself writing published letters to the editor of the Phoenix Gazette. I continued to be an oddity for the time – a Protestant pastor who was pro-life. Newsweek labelled l976 as “The Year of the Evangelical,” but I didn’t see it.
In May, Dr. Harold O. J. Brown came to town as our house guest and blew us away by his erudition and courage to speak the truth about abortion. Newspaper and radio interviews, television appearances, church talks and private conferences were the order of the day. In July, Brown announced that I had been appointed the first state chairman of the Christian Action Council with the words, “The national Christian Action Council board will use Arizona as a forerunner state in developing other state CAC committees.” CAC was one year old in the summer of 1976 having been started at the Montreat, N.C., headquarters of the Billy Graham Association. The press release further stated that, “The Arizona committee of Christian Action Council intends to awaken the local evangelical community to the Biblical issue of abortion by mailings, church presentations and speaking out through the various media.”
It may be pertinent at this point to note that while the new council drew its distinguished members from the evangelical ranks, it drew its funding from the Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Life, Inc. The Ad Hoc committee was a Roman Catholic creation headed by the estimable J.P. McFadden of National Review fame and was run by Washington, D.C. lawyer, John P. Mackey. Without the Roman Catholics, there may have been no Care Net organization today! Elizabeth Flanagan remembers getting contributions to the new Protestant CAC with Virgin Mary images tucked inside! While we evangelicals were dithering, the Roman Catholics were bearing the torch of salvation for America’s unborn.
Discussions began between Joe Brown, H. Stanley Wood (CAC member) and myself in the summer of 1976 about my taking the organization out from under the funding umbrella of the Ad Hoc committee and making it self-supporting. This would entail my moving from Phoenix to Washington in the fall. Joe Brown had accepted a full-time position at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside of Chicago, so he would not be available to handle the day-to-day responsibilities of a new activist organization.
Meanwhile, in Phoenix things did not slow down. In September, 1976, as Jimmy Carter waged his campaign for president of the United States, CAC of Arizona publicly criticized Carter for inconsistency and hypocrisy as a born again Christian politician because of his views on abortion. In October, 1976, I testified before the Arizona State Senate on a living will bill. It doesn’t sound like much now, but at the time there were few evangelical ministers doing any public advocacy on bioethical issues.
Having reached some understanding with the executive committee of the Christian Action Council, spearheaded by Rev. H. Stanley Wood of Bethany Collegiate Presbyterian Church (Haverstown, PA.), I assumed the position as the first executive director in November, 1976. My wife Kathy and I moved to Washington and I began my duties in the CAC office in the National Press Club Building.
One of the first things I did after I settled into the Washington office was to attend the annual convention of the Evangelical Theological Society meeting, which was conveniently being held at Westminster Theological Seminary outside of Philadelphia. My roommate was Gordon Fee, the New Testament man from Gordon Conwell Seminary. Dr. Fee is now retired and living in Queens, NY near his children. As I remember, the reception I received at the conference was lukewarm. That should have told me something.
The understanding with the CAC members was that I would have a guaranteed salary for six months – until April 1, 1977. After that we would reevaluate our arrangement. I had just received my first indication that evangelicals were lukewarm about this sacred cause of preserving the life of the unborn child and that the next few months might be difficult. My experience in Arizona with the lack of evangelical interest in the pro-life cause should have sent a flag up, but I was enthusiastic and committed and somewhat oblivious to the daunting task that lay ahead.
When I arrived in the Washington office, it was and continued to be well-managed by Elizabeth Flanagan who had been with CAC from the very beginning in 1975. She was the rock of the office as I wandered around trying to figure out what to do. What CAC would have done without Elizabeth Flanagan, no one will ever know.
Part of my job description was to raise funds, so I began to schedule speaking engagements at various congregations in the Washington area as well as publicizing the existence of a national evangelical pro-life organization. I wrote a number of book reviews for Christian magazines (Christianity Today, Eternity, Presbyterian Journal, National Right to Life News, Sojourners and various church bulletins). In January 1977, I participated in the Inauguration Week prayer service at the Lincoln Memorial and other inaugural festivities which I was allowed to attend as a Republican. Jimmy Carter had been elected over my objections.
We were so unusual as a conservative Christian political advocacy group, that I was invited to appear on the 700 Club in March, 1977, to explain how evangelicals can be politically engaged.
As I spoke at conservative congregations around Virginia and Maryland, I discovered that while the pastors were sympathetic and knowledgeable about abortion, many in the congregation were upset by the discussion. Here we were four years after Roe v. Wade and evangelical Christians were still ambivalent about abortion. I remember speaking with Richard Halverson at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., to request some time to present the work of CAC to the young couples group. He refused and said that some in his congregation had had abortions and this was a controversial subject to talk about with his flock.
As I visited Capitol Hill to make courtesy calls to like-minded congressmen and senators, I found myself sitting in the anteroom for long periods of time as they neglected me. When I had the opportunity to tell them that I was on their side, I was quickly ushered in for a nice chat.
But, I soon discovered that the only religious organizations doing any lobbying in 1976-1977 were liberal, pro-abortion groups, like the National Council of Churches.
I particularly remember sitting alone outside a relatively newly minted congressman named Chuck Grassley from Iowa. CAC had lists of evangelical churches in Grassley’s district which I could use to help him get reelected. Like all the congressmen and senators I met with, he was friendly but wary of my intentions.
I do remember one congressman and one senator who welcomed me with open arms. Rep. John Conlon, the brilliant but somewhat eccentric congressman from Phoenix was friendly and helpful. He and Joe Brown were pals. Senator Bill Armstrong of Colorado, also a friend of Joe’s, was gracious and I remember his hospitality to me decades after his kindness.
Generally, however, the political reception to a conservative evangelical lobbying organization like CAC was cold, aloof and hostile. This was before the Moral Majority or any other evangelical think tanks or advocacy groups had become prominent in the capital. Brown and the other CAC sponsors were ahead of the curve, and I was their initial point man.
One of the things CAC started was a newsletter called “Action Line,” which was sent out to our few donors and church friends. The newsletter called for specific actions for specific politicians on specific issues. If I remember correctly, Elizabeth Flanagan was the brains behind this nifty newsletter and those first issues still compel action after 35 years.
Most of our church support came from the charismatic movement in the church and not the evangelical mainstream. My theory is that abortion in 1976-1977 was still an unacceptable topic to bring up in polite company and we evangelical Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians wanted little to do with the subject. It was the denominations that mainstream culture despised, i.e., Pentecostals, Southern Baptists (“Baptist for Life,” Huntsville, Texas), or independent community Bible congregations that were the first to join the fight. These groups didn’t care about acceptance at the local country club. Interestingly enough, the Lutherans had begun the first national denominational pro-life organization that I can remember, Lutherans for Life, in 1976 along with CAC, but LFL was not Washington-based nor politically active on a national level.
I wrote CAC’s first brochure, “Abortion: What Can I Do?” It may have been one of the first evangelical pro-life brochures. We printed a bunch of copies and tried to distribute them. I still have a letter from a Baptist pastor requesting some copies! In January, we also researched and distributed a bi-monthly 24-page collection of bioethical articles written from a biblical perspective entitled, “Evangelical Bioethical Digest.” I don’t think anyone cared at the time, but it was a significant project and I think, even at this distance, a valuable contribution to the evangelical discussion of bioethics. The “Digest” lasted one issue.
In March, the lack of success in my fundraising began to wear on the key Council members and friends, such as Dr. C. Everett Koop and Joe and Stan Wood, and though they valiantly tried to change the direction of my activities, it became clear that at the end of our six-month agreement we would not have enough money to continue operations in the same manner. Fundraising for an evangelical pro-life advocacy organization in 1976-1977 was very difficult and time-consuming, and I believed that we had to have a successful program to show a prospective donor. I moved to engage a fundraising firm to help us out of our predicament. The firm would pay themselves out of what they raised. The CAC board was uncomfortable with this idea, communications began to break down and I began to look for another job.
Elizabeth Flanagan became the ad hoc executive director in my absence. Despite all the gracious attempts by Council member Stan Wood to meliorate the relationship, it was decided that a parting of the ways on March 31, 1977, at the conclusion of my six-month agreement, was best for both parties.
The CAC went into a holding pattern for a period of months under Elizabeth until Curtis Young, a Trinity protégée of Joe Brown’s, joined the organization as the Executive Director later in 1977. Young took the organization to prominence and was the successful director for a decade. During that time he wrote his wonderful pro-life book The Least of These. Under Curt’s direction the Council moved from a political advocacy group to more of a counseling and care ministry which fit the temper of the times and filled a great need in the Church.
It is widely believed, and I agree, that the evangelical pro-life movement took off only after Dr. Koop and Francis Schaeffer (Edith Schaeffer was a CAC’s founding sponsor) came out with their video series, “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” in January, 1979. It was finally okay for evangelicals for stand up for unborn babies.
Rev. H. Stanley Wood has become Dr. H. Stanley Wood and has gone on to a distinguished academic career, presently at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Elizabeth Flanagan managed the Washington, D.C., Christian Action Council office until February, 1978, when she and her husband Steve began to have their six children.
Dr. C. Everett Koop, of course, was appointed Surgeon General of the United States in l982 by Ronald Reagan. Dr. Koop died of noble age in February 2013.
Many of the distinguished founding sponsors of the Christian Action Council, those that hired me in the summer of l976 as the executive director, have gone home to Glory. But men and women have been added to the Council (included the above mention George Knight) and it has evolved and thrived under new leadership.
After a rocky period between Joe Brown and myself, we kissed and made up, and I was privileged to have him and his wife Grace come to Asheville, N.C., and teach for me at the World Journalism Institute in 2002. In 2005, at the 50th anniversary L’Abri Jubilee in St. Louis, Joe and Grace Brown and I shared a dinner together. Brown died of cancer in 2007, highly honored and respected as the brilliant theologian, writer and Christian activist that he was. Joe and Grace have two children, Cynthia and Peter. But the fact is that the Browns have thousands of children around the country who owe their life to the Christian Action Council/Care Net movement. I now have a granddaughter and hopefully will have another due to the evangelical council of life which was largely absent before Harold O. J. Brown began his crusade.
In the 1990s I was involved in CareNet activities in Kittitas and Pierce Counties in Washington State (see remarks at CareNet banquets in other blog postings). In 2013 I once again was the master of ceremonies at the Pierce County CareNet spring banquet, 20 years after my first gig!