Mississippi is making national headlines regarding a recent law which threatens to close down the State’s only abortion clinic. Tempers are hot on both sides of the abortion debate, and we’ve even seen some minor violence break out between sidewalk counselors and the abortion clinic’s security. Mississippi’s rumblings are also going on at a time when our nation is undergoing major social changes and is extremely polarized. There’s a new buzz in the air, a lot of expectations, and more than a little bit of anxiety. For just these reasons we need to think critically about our situation.
1) Pro-lifers need to be prepared for MS’s latest law to be ruled unconstitutional by federal courts. We should pray that the law stands, but given legal precedent and current prevailing attitudes, it seems unlikely to do so. Some of this is simply due to the difficulty of getting around Roe v. Wade in the first place, but significant blame also has to be laid at the feet of politicians who decided to grandstand before the press, stating that the basic intent of the new law was to end abortion in MS. Of course we would assume that all opponents of abortion want to see it ended, but the fact remains that laws with the express intent of outlawing or obstructing abortion are going to be struck down, having already been ruled unconstitutional in the past. All competent lawmakers and judges know this. This is how the American legal and judicial system works, and unless conservatives are willing to change their mind and come out in support of judicial activism, then they are going to have to play by the rules of law. This involves intelligent strategy, political wisdom, and patience.
2) Along the same lines, I have been very discouraged by the rhetoric I’ve heard while attending Pro-Life MS events in the last month. I am and always will be staunchly pro-life, and as such I will always support those who work to end abortion, but I also know that it is of utmost importance that we be wise and self-reflective about how we go about this. Many of the talking points that I have heard have been confused and quite wrong-headed, and I think these actually work to turn off (and thus turn away) many people who would otherwise be willing to publicly identify with the pro-life movement. This effectively means that the movement is unnecessarily weakened and the message is unnecessarily impeded. These criticisms, then, should be understood as in the service of assisting and promoting pro-life goals and ideals, in the hopes of greater success.
The biggest problem with the rhetoric is the persistent claim that every Christian should be engaged in sidewalk counseling or crisis-pregnancy centers on a regular basis. It’s not enough to simply support the people who are specifically carrying out these vocations. Rather, all pro-lifers must themselves get involved in direct action of this kind. If they do not, then, we are told, they are hypocrites and only half-committed. This is fundamentally wrong.
The specific action of counseling in a crisis situation is one that requires training, unique gifts, and consistent practice. It takes time. People cannot just pop in and out, but rather have to make this a life calling. And as such, not everyone can be called to do it. It would be absurd to imagine every Christian simultaneously showing up to the abortion clinic. Instead of the clinic instantly shutting down in fear, we would actually have a sort of unlawful assembly. Sidewalks and roads would be obstructed, and the city would have to disperse the crowd in order to preserve order. Even more relevant to the individuals involved, however, is the fact that if they acted in this way, then their own personal vocations would suffer. In fact their families would also suffer. People who felt that the call to specific counseling was truly universal would not be able to properly tend to their ordinary duties of work and family because they have instead given that time over to regular activism. It simply doesn’t work, and we all know this instinctively. This is why we select certain times to become personally involved and why we select certain specific individuals to make crisis counseling a personal vocation. Gifts and callings are distinct and unique.
Before I am accused of attacking a straw man, let me say that I fully realize that the absurd illustrations were not the intent of those making the universal call to action. They did not mean that all pro-lifers must always and only be engaged in counseling. But the problem is that the force of their rhetoric does actually lead to such conclusions if taken literally. One leading speaker that I heard actually mocked the idea that a person might not be called to specific sidewalk counseling and political activism, and another said that unless our churches are regularly making displays at the abortion clinic, then they are not really pro-life. These are pep-rally sentiments, but they are still totally misguided, and they do turn people off.
The ordinary ministry of the church– the word, the sacraments, prayer, worship, and catechesis– are the basic means by which hearts are changed, Christians are trained, and foundational character is crafted. Any hint of disparaging the ordinary life of God’s church is a colossal mistake. Furthermore, Christian families have a primary duty to growing in grace, nurturing their marriages, and raising their children. This requires basic domestic duties as well as successful jobs and strong relationships of love and friendship. To think that these things are all secondary to “the real business” of political activism is to miss the very obvious point that while sidewalk counseling is the “last line of defense,” healthy godly families are the front line of defense. In fact, they aren’t only the front line of defense. They are the actual means of offense. Does anyone really think that wars, whether literal or cultural, are won by the side that only takes the defensive? If not, then those front lines must be strengthened.
3) We have to develop a holistic pro-life vision. The Roman Catholics are well ahead of the Protestants on this issue, but there are many basic truths that need clear articulation. It is routinely said that abortion is a symptom of a deeper problem, but I’m not sure that American conservatives are prepared to actually confront that deeper problem. Abortion is a product of many American values. It does not simply rest on the question of whether or not the embryo or fetus is “human life.” Abortion proponents are prepared to grant that! The so-called right to abortion follows directly from the conviction that individual liberty is the most basic right, deserving to be esteemed higher even than the life of others. And this conviction runs deep in American thought.
Being pro-life means rejecting the various romantic ideas that each individual can and should always strive to realize their personal goals, irrespective of other factors and responsibilities. Being pro-life means embracing relationships, familial bonds, and social duties. It isn’t just about sentimentality. This sort of love is hard work that requires sacrifice. But I believe that selfless sacrifice is a concept that Christians are supposed to believe in. And again, this doesn’t begin at the question of pregnancy. This has to begin well prior to that, when we are crafting our ideas about families, vocations, community groups, and government policy. Does it make any sense at all to promote laissez-faire societies and not laissez-faire families? Why shouldn’t political individualists be moral individualists? To refute one requires refuting the other.
And so to be specific, pro-lifers must have a high view of marriage, a high view of sex and gender roles (what a man is called to be and do and what a woman is called to be and do), a high view of procreation (which means a very critical view of the majority of contraceptive methods as well as the philosophy that assumes most sex ought to be simply unitive and not reproductive), a high view of civic communities, and a high view of social welfare and the common good. We can discuss the particulars about how these things are to be preserved and promoted, but we must be agreed that all of them must be preserved and promoted, and these need to be all leading issues.
4) We have to understand that political change typically comes from the top and that its lasting power comes from effective public persuasion. James Davison Hunter explains this well in his book To Change the World, and we are seeing progressive politicians make very sweeping political changes as we speak through these means. It is true that important intellectual and cultural movements preceded these political changes, but they were able to gain power by persuading institutions and governments that they represented the intellectually and materially affluent and that it would only be a matter of time before the majority of the American population came to agree with their views. And at least from the perspective of the present, they seem to have been correct.
As much as conservatives do not like to hear it, “grass roots” campaigns and anti-elite posturing are not strategies for long-term success. They are strategies for further political fracturing and the creation of sects, playing tug-o’-war at a civically superficial level whose gains are usually ephemeral. We have to craft a smart, culturally-savvy, and politically prudent pro-life movement, all without sacrificing true compassion for the disadvantaged and without giving up on our moral principles. It’s not a surprise that most people would rather adopt the critical-yet-distant posture of condemning generic evils. That’s the easier route by far. To actually get involved in the dirty, messy, complicated business of effecting social and political change is much more difficult.
And that brings us back to specialization. Most people need to develop sound minds about their principles and then live those principles out through having a family, obtaining a good job, raising joyful and faithful children, and exerting a positive influence over those within their spheres of influence. Unique individuals should become involved in specifically political action. Some need to run for political office, and others need to position themselves in influential teaching posts. We should work within the system, make the most of law and government, and develop realistic goals for the near term even as we work towards greater goals later. This is the only way that internal reform and renewal can work. It isn’t so much slow change as it is a deep and staying change, the only possible change that can last.
5) Finally, we must eschew all unlawful and personal violence. While the civil magistrate has a legitimate duty to use the power of the sword, individuals and social groups do not. This eschewal of violence also has to pertain to rhetoric and confrontation. If you are having to constantly reassure everyone that you are not angry and have no plans of violence, then you need to ask yourself why everyone seems to be assuming that you might. If you are always ranting and raving and making intimidating physical gestures, then you are contradicting your claim of nonviolence.
This observation does not mean that prophetic condemnation of evil is wrong. But it must be carefully employed, and the message that “vengeance is the Lord’s” must always be at the forefront. Our confrontational ministry is wholly a Word ministry. We trust that the Spirit will then do the work of internal persuasion. At no point is force justified. That belongs to the other side. They are the ones who say that equality and liberty must be obtained through acts of violence and expulsion. Life-lovers believe in a different way, and need to live like it.
I believe that we are at a very important point in world history. The forces of modernity are coming to a head, and we have a fundamental choice between efficiency and perceived-equality at the expense of justice on the one hand, and a moral society that requires virtuous self-sacrifice in the promotion of life and the common good on the other. This choice cuts across party lines, and requires self-examination on the part of both conservatives and liberals. But as challenging as it is, it cannot be avoided.