The Theological Roots of Akin’s “Legitimate Rape” Comment

Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), his party’s candidate in the Missouri Senate race to unseat Democrat Claire McCaskill, has quickly attempted to retract his comment that in cases of “legitimate rape,” women have biological defenses against pregnancy. “I misspoke,” he claimed in a carefully crafted statement. After all, cleaning up the mess after the candidate not misspoke, but spoke his mind on television, is what campaigns do to pretend that the candidate is not a loon.

The strategy is not unlike the one used after the controversy Akin ignited last year when he attacked NBC for omitting “under God” from the pledge of allegiance in a broadcast. Accusing the network of being liberal, Akin told Tony Perkins on Family Research Council’s radio program, “at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God. And so they’ve had a long history of not being at all favorable toward many of things that have been such a blessing to our country.” Akin later tried to claim, “My statement during my radio interview was directed at the political movement, Liberalism not at any specific individual. If my statement gave a different impression, I offer my apologies.”

Akin is proud of how his religion, and in particular, the Presbyterian Church in America, the deeply conservative Calvinist denomination founded in 1973, influences his political views. Akin has a Masters in Divinity from the denomination’s flagship Covenant Theological Seminary. His campaign website notes, “Although most of his classmates went on to become pastors or missionaries, Todd took a different path. For several years he studied the founding of America and the principles which made this country great. His love of country and conviction that leaders must stand on principle led him to run for State Representative in 1988.” On abortion, the PCA is absolutist: opposing abortion in all cases, with no exceptions.

Akin’s comments reveal a religious culture fundamentally opposed to women’s equality. On the rape exception question in particular, he’s not forging new ground, but rather echoing tropes long in circulation. As Garance Franke-Ruta details at The Atlantic, deploying the bogus claim that a woman cannot get pregnant as a result of rape has long been a tactic of anti-choice activists to remove rape exceptions to laws outlawing abortion. And as Mother Jones’ Nick Baumann reports, last year Akin “and most of the House GOP co-sponsored a bill that would have narrowed the already-narrow exceptions to the laws banning federal funding for abortion—from all cases of rape to cases of ‘forcible rape.’”

A 2001 PCA report on the prospect of women serving in combat positions in the military, titled “Man’s Duty to Protect Woman,” states, “woman is the weaker sex and part of her weakness is the vulnerability attendant to her greatest privilege—that God has made her the ‘Mother of all the living.’ Men are to guard and protect her as she carries in her womb, gives birth to, and nurses her children.”

Yes, that was written in 2001, not 1001.

In its lengthy position papers on abortion, the PCA has made clear that what it claims are biblical prohibitions on abortion should take precedence over any other law, because of its views on the separation of church and state:

The civil magistrate [a government official] is responsible to God. He is to discharge his duty according to God’s will. The Bible is the supreme revelation of God’s will. Because church and state are neither subordinate to the other but to God, the civil magistrate is under obligation to recognize the Bible as authoritative in the exercise of civil magistracy. The Lordship of Christ in all areas of life is fundamental.

In other words, the PCA view is that its own view of the Bible should dictate laws on abortion (and other matters). On abortion, the PCA rejects what it calls “situation ethics” for exceptions to prohibitions on abortion, including “population control, economic hardships, unwanted children, psychological or physical health of the mother, rape or incest, deformed children, and protection for the mother’s life.” As early as 1978, the PCA was discussing the “personhood” of a fertilized egg, arguing, “conception, then, is not a mere human happening. Apart from the sovereign intervention of God, conception (which Scripture designates a divine blessing) does not take place.” It has concluded that “God in His Word speaks of the unborn child as a person and treats him as such, and so must we. The Bible teaches the sanctity of life, and so must we. The Bible, especially in the Sixth Commandment, gives concrete protection to that life which bears the image of God. We must uphold that commandment.”

On rape exceptions, the PCA report cites a report on abortion by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which addresses rape exceptions by arguing that “Actually there are extremely few cases of this kind: less than one in 5,000 abortions is performed on such grounds, and that figure includes pregnancies arising from statutory rape as well as, we assume, some cases where rape has been falsely alleged.” (emphasis mine). Actually there are more like 30,000 pregnancies by rape a year, but the OPC report goes on, inexplicably, and without documentation: “In Washington, no documented rape cases resulted in pregnancy over a 20-year period.”

But acknowleding that indeed such pregnancies do take place, the OPC asked, “should she seek an abortion? We must reply in the negative. We are here weighing the shame, pain, and inconvenience of the mother against the life of her child, and we have no choice but to decide in favor of the latter. The unborn child must not be put to death for the sin of a parent. A Christian must indeed sympathize with the plight of a woman in such a situation, and must be prepared to give counsel, prayer and other help. In spite of her suffering, she should be helped to see from God’s Word what a privilege it is to bring a child into the world, and how the child, even from such an origin, may be one of God’s elect—a blessing to God’s church and to the world.”

This is not a situation where Akin sat in the pews of the church of a controversial pastor, or once attended a conference or seminar where controversial views were discussed. Akin has a Masters in Divinity from the PCA’s seminary, and proudly claims he took a political rather than a pastoral path after seminary. His denomination has not only opposed abortion in all cases, including rape, but has suggested that the number of pregnancies by rape is overstated, and even questioned the veracity of rape claims. And Akin, who in a few months could be a United States Senator, wants his religion to dictate our laws.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email