Freeing Pro-Life from Conservative Evangelicalism

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I am increasingly coming to believe that we are at a very pivotal point in our culture in which a revisit of the Roe vs. Wade decision is long overdue. I am not alone in my general convictions on this issue, of course, but I do think there if there is an opportunity to drive the culture back to the stage of looking at abortion for what it is, it needs to happen now! Race, gender, and orientation (and a whole host of other issues) have all been major topics in the news media lately and the nightly exposes and reports on socio-political events throughout the country have forced questions of human rights to the center of the American judicial and civil stages. For the pro-life advocate, the killing of the unborn is the quintessential human rights issue facing us today and this means that it needs to be cast in that light: a human rights issue. Pure and simple.  But how do we not let this particular opportunity to re-center the question escape us?

Despite the re-emerging cultural apathy to this question, there are several things we can do. I want to outline two initial steps and then really focus on a third because it will seem to some to be the most controversial.

First, people of all levels need to be educated on this issue. Philosophically and scientifically, pro-life advocates must have more than opinion and conviction on their side. We need better education on this issue so that when people speak as a pro-lifer, words become backed by evidence and not merely opinion. Both science and philosophy demonstrate the veracity of the pro-life claim and it is absolutely critical that we equip ourselves with this knowledge.

Second, despite the murmurings of some that society should be immune from looking at images of abortion and its aftermath, we must open ourselves up to seeing abortion, not just talking about it. As broken and sinful humans, we tend to talk in the abstract whenever we want to preserve a “functional” system. The pro-abortion camp insists that looking at images and videos documenting abortion is a harassment or emotional pleading. This could not be farther from the truth. It is existential and moral pleading and it is part of what we have done with every social justice issue throughout history. Every social injustice needs to be surrounded with images: as hard as it may be to see, we need to see images of domestic abuse, child labor, human trafficking, slavery, massacre, and so forth. Abstract words can never resonate the truth within us in the way that images and testimonies can. Use discretion, of course, but do not be afraid of showing the world the face of injustice.

Third, I believe that the pro-life movement must be set free from conservative Christianity. For many readers, this is a bold suggestion, but stick with me. I have been a part of this conversation for quite some time and on various levels, but almost always the first objection I need to break down is the one that suggests the pro-life position is a religious position. This, of course, is always an interesting response to me because unless I have been talking with Christians, I make a pretty explicit point about not bringing in religion. No quotation of Psalm 22.10-11 or 139.13,15. No appeal to creation. No Imago Dei. No divine ethics. No talk of a “soul”—nothing that can be connected exclusively with the realm of religion.

Now, making mention of those things aren’t bad and, most certainly, this is a conversation the church needs to engage in internally. Too many denominations have jumped in bed with the cultural opinion on abortion. But any in-depth study of the historic church position, from ancient Judaism up until today, establishes the Christian ethic against abortion (see Michael Gorman’s excellent book Abortion and the Early Church or Richard Hays’ chapter in The Moral Vision of the New Testament). We need to vigorously address this issue within the internal life of the Christian community from biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical grounds.

But in reference to the wider cultural conversation, we have to recognize the fact that we live in a post-Christian culture. And this culture will never be convinced of morals that appear to be exclusively religious based ones. The pro-life movement needs to be a movement that transcends religious boundaries. As long as the general public (and especially those that are actively pro-choice) can close this issue behind the gates of religious conviction, this issue will go relatively nowhere and the pro-life campaign will continue to be seen as a “value” proposition and not an objective truth. And the more we reinforce it with appeals to religion, the more counter-productive our message will be in the face of a post-Christian culture.

The assumption to link the pro-life movement with political and religious conservativism, of course, is not without reason. The appeal to link personhood with divine significance and ethics with divine morality is natural. And I am personally convinced that secular ethics of whatever kind are always philosophically self-defeating. But there are many in the world that could be our allies in this issue that would disagree with me on that. So be it! I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, especially when the water involves babies! Last I checked, most atheists are just as against slavery and human trafficking as my fellow Christians are. I don’t see a need to try and convince them otherwise because of where they base their morality. We can work together, irrespective of our own convictions on religion.

Despite the impression that the pro-life position is a religious value, we must work to mainstream the pro-life stance by talking about it in mainstream language. This does not mean, as I pointed out earlier, that God doesn’t fit into the picture at all…He does. And it does not mean that this isn’t also an issue for the Church…it is. It simply means that for the sake of engaging and reforming social conscious, and for the equipping of all people to make decisions that save the lives of the most vulnerable of our society, we must break free the pro-life position from where it currently stands. We must be willing to link arms, support, and encourage the pro-life position from whatever particular vantage point another person sits.

A couple years ago I interviewed a group called Secular Pro-Life. One of the things that the group noted to me was how many people at an American Atheist rally came up and thanked them for representing a non-religious approach to this issue. I thanked them too. For my part, I am glad to stand beside Secular Pro-Life in their initiative just as much as I would be glad to stand alongside my Muslim friends, my Buddhist friends, my agnostic friends, my feminist friends, my “progressive” friends, and so forth. The sooner we can release it from the boundaries of explicit Christian bias the sooner a community of diversity can bring this issue to the forefront of a non-Christian culture and ask questions about how we can reform it.

Recommended reading:

The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture
Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments
Beyond the Abortion Wars
About Abortion: 10 Things a New Generation of Christians Should Know

8 COMMENTS

  1. Randy, can you share some resources you use to educate yourself concerning philosophic and scientific discussion of the abortion debate?

  2. Randy,
    I think “break-free” is too harsh of language. The pro-life movement is not going to be an issue that conservatives don’t care about, at least in our lifetime. We need a bigger tent, something that I think groups like Secular Pro-Life indicate is beginning, but the pro-life movement is going to lean to the right for some time.

  3. Randy, your blog has many merits. Of course the reality of political mobilization theory requires that there be a broad based coalition of divergent groups and a national mechanism like a political party to change the social conscience. This did happen with the civil rights movement. It had deep roots in the church, found a friend in the DNC, and was championed by it as a national platform issue. In the process, civil rights was owned and marketed in the political arena. Black Muslims, atheists, and many other divergent groups who align with the DNC all became partners in the civil rights campaign. In the end, many adopted to the pluralistic team by adopting a universalistic soteriology. Social justice became the main way in which the church witnessed to society. Yet, social justice is not the same as kingdom justice. A political theology (black theology/liberation theology) is not an evangelical theology that emphasizes the core gospel or the reign/righteousness of God as a central point of reference. Today, we have the civil rights act and many years of political fixes but the black community largely remains enslaved by high rates of poverty, high crime rates, large numbers of people in jail, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, drugs, social welfare programs that breed dependency, high HS dropout rates, gang wars, antipathy, and hopelessness. What would have happened if the civil rights movement would have remained in the churches? In terms of abortion, evangelicals should make common cause with like minded people of any faith tradition that want to end the genocide. Still, our reasons flow from our faith. Our faith gives witness to our God. That witness in the public arena is important. The early church won the favor of the hostile world because members loved each other, rescued abandoned babies and raised them, and buried the dead. Today, many Christian aid organizations want to give help to non-Christians without telling them why they give it. They do not want to taint the gift or make vulnerable people feel obligated to convert. The MCC is particularly bad about this. In the end, social action and divine witness belong together. If we make common cause with people of other traditions, we must remain firmly committed to our core identity in word and deed within and without the church.

  4. I think anyone who says abortion is absolutely wrong or it’s absolutely right are really not taking the issue seriously. What if a child is going to be born without skin? Or what if the child is going to be born with horrible physical mutations and it would likely die after birth? These questions are not so simple. To say absolutely that child without skin should be born is selfish because you are standing to a personal ideal that doesn’t benefit the being that’s in development.

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