The reader hardly needs me to point out that there has been a media firestorm surrounding controversial new laws in both New York and Virginia in recent weeks. Both New York State bill S240 and Virginia House Bill 2491 have proposed significant changes to legislation around reproductive rights, particularly loosening restrictions around abortion, which has unsurprisingly ignited massive backlash from more socially-conservative people. As a moderate-left individual (politically) who is at the same time conservative on this particular issue, I have to admit that there is something about the broadly Christian rhetoric I’m seeing that makes me uncomfortable, which is what I want to dig into in this post.
But before progressing any further, I want to state clearly and unequivocally that I am both pro-life and anti-abortion. I believe that legally protecting an individual’s choice to quickly and easily terminate unwanted pregnancies is a tragic direction for a society to pursue, and I do lament, along with the pro-life community, that this seems to be the trajectory our culture is continuing in. This discussion is about to complicated, so hear me loud and clear at the outset: loosening restrictions around abortion is a bad idea, normalizing abortion is morally problematic (to say the least), and I want the number of abortions in our country to be as close to zero as possible.
Having taken that stance, I want to confess 2 areas of tension I experience with the way American Christians engage our culture on this issue.
Concern #1: On being politically manipulated.
The political history regarding the prominence of abortion as a rallying-cry for evangelicals is much more complicated than most realize. There is an ugly and oft-ignored racial component to the movement that has been exposed by historians like Randall Balmer. As the argument goes, the founders of the “Moral Majority” shrewdly leveraged abortion as a unifying cause to rally evangelicals against electing Jimmy Carter for a second term. While defeating abortion was the presenting issue, a deeper motivation was to protect the many recently-founded private Christian schools’ tax-exempt status, which was under threat in a post-Brown v. Board of Education society because most of these schools did not admit black students. They were even commonly referred to as “segregation academies.” The looked-for “savior” of these institutions was then-governor of California, a man named Ronald Reagan, who specifically promised to protect their tax-exemption, if elected as president, during an early campaign speech at Bob Jones University. Running on explicitly-segregationist rhetoric, however, is not palatable to ostensibly-Christian voters, and alas, abortion was discovered to be much more motivating as a cause. If this narrative is true, and I think the data is convincing, then people voting against abortion were at the same time voting for racial segregation and the continued disenfranchisement of black people, even if they didn’t realize it.
The point I’m trying to make here is that we should not be naive about the motivations of our political system. We should be much more careful about allowing worldly political agendas to define our voting patterns, and by raising any single issue to non-negotiable status, we signal to politicians that “it doesn’t really matter what else you believe or contend for, as long as you say that you are against abortion” and the result is that we evangelicals become a all-too-easily-manipulated voting bloc.
Rather than being the “conscience of the state,” to use MLK’s memorable phrase, I fear we have become a simple lever that the state can pull to get votes, knowing we won’t think twice if we hear the right rhetoric about abortion laws.
The church can, and must, be better than that.
Concern #2: On the unmet expectations for a moral America.
There’s a striking theme in the social media uproar that I consistently see from Christians regarding abortion, and it goes something like, “This is yet more evidence of the continued moral degradation of our society!” Our culture, the thinking goes, is careening into a moral cesspool, and the loosening of abortion laws is simply confirming this trajectory. This is an important spark for the emotional panic and outrage.
But there’s an unspoken logic behind this thinking, because you can’t lose something you never had. So if our society is, in fact, morally de-volving, the implication is that we had already morally evolved. Or, to put it more bluntly, once we were good. Now we aren’t.
And I’m not so sure about that.
Time and space don’t permit an in-depth discussion of this, but I contend that any intellectually honest reading of history exposes troubling moral issues (indeed, right alongside high moral aspirations, what Lincoln famously called the “better angels of our nature”) at the core of our nation’s founding. Such issues notably include the Enlightenment-drenched racial doctrines that protected the practice of chattel slavery, and explicitly-religious ideas like the “Doctrine of Discovery” that sanctified the expulsion, forced assimilation, and slaughter, of Native people.
The point here is not to paint America as the worst country in history, as that would also be unnecessarily simplistic, but rather it is to acknowledge that, in spite of Winthrop’s vision of our country as a “city on a hill,” the functioning of our laws and institutions has always been deeply morally-compromised. Abortion is awful, but we aren’t suddenly sliding into a moral abyss. The Trail of Tears was also awful. Practicing race-based chattel slavery, and literally going to war with ourselves because we couldn’t disentangle ourselves from the systemic and economic implications of it was also awful. Currently holding one of the highest incarceration rates in the global community is awful.
Now hear me carefully on this, because I am not arguing that we have no grounds to declare abortion immoral simply because our country does other things that are also immoral (a logical fallacy popularly known as “whataboutism”). Rather, I am arguing that if you want to make broad statements about the moral state of America, pointing specifically to legislative changes as evidence, you must broadly consider our legislative history.
Here is why this matters: think about what perpetuating this narrative about America’s morality signals to all the communities of people who were already suffering (and continue to suffer) the effects of immoral legislation for decades and centuries before Roe v. Wade. Convict leasing, redlining, the school-to-prison pipeline, and mass incarceration are American legislative issues that have been disproportionately harming black and Latinx Americans for a long, long time, and to say that we are now a “country with immoral laws” indicates that you either didn’t know, or worse, didn’t care, about the very real injustices happening on a legislative level before these recent changes.
Don’t stop calling abortion immoral. But do stop selectively utilizing it to perpetuate a false narrative about the moral state of America’s legal system. Better yet, let go of your expectations for a morally-perfect American government. That was never God’s plan for the world. The actual plan has already been launched in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and it’s called the “Kingdom of God,” which you can participate in right now.
Conclusion: A Kingdom-Witness Against Abortion
I’m proud of the historic stance Christian communities have always taken against abortion, even within the ancient Greco-Roman world in which child-exposure was practiced when infants were not wanted. Contending for life, in every sense of that word, is an important and necessary implication of what it means to believe that the divine image is imprinted in every individual, regardless of how society might define their worth.
But the way in which we contend for life must not be controlled and manipulated by worldly politics and social media virtue-signaling. We risk compromising our witness, and our integrity, when we give such corrupt systems undue influence in how we operate. Yes, we happen to live in a participatory democracy, so by all means, vote against any and all laws that are diametrically opposed to the way of God’s Kingdom. But even more importantly, live as if that Kingdom was present and breaking through right now. Because I believe it is, and that’s the best news we can offer to a confused and hurting culture.