The Innocence of the Pro-Life Movement

[This is a follow-up to my four-part Letter to White Pro-life Christians. You can read that series beginning here.]

Nobody likes feeling guilty or ashamed. But people of European descent, of which I am a rather ordinary example, have more than our share of reasons to feel guilty and ashamed these days.

And how we deal with our guilt and shame can make us dangerous.

For example, when white Christian citizens of the U.S. today learn that our white Christian ancestors

  • stole the lands and attempted genocide of the Indigenous nations,
  • kidnapped and enslaved millions of African peoples — separating families, selling children, exploiting and torturing human beings they considered as inferior and mere property, and raping enslaved women, and
  • created an apartheid society and economy based upon racism in the north as well as the south,

what are we to do with that information?

We may try to face the hard truth, to admit it, and to humbly seek to heal the damage done by our ancestors, joining God in the healing of our fragile, damaged world.

Or we may try to deny and suppress the truth, trumping up patriotic claims of “American exceptionalism” and manifest destiny, promoting white Christian nationalism, suppressing the truth in public school textbooks, tuning in to cable news channels that recount history in an unfair, imbalanced, and whitewashed way, erecting and protecting statues to the architects of a slave society, and so on … all in a never-ending effort to drown out the actual facts and deceive ourselves with “alternative facts.”

But these efforts themselves haunt us whenever we look in the mirror, giving evidence that we are today’s deniers and defenders of the racism of our ancestors. By excusing ourselves for not being the active perpetrators, we become the tacit perpetuators.

In addition to race, we can look at the percentage of fossil fuels pumped into the atmosphere by Europeans and Americans, or we can try to quantify the loss of biomass of wild animals, insects, forests, fisheries because of the global civilization we have fueled.

Whether we admit it or not, nearly all of us feel some amount of persistent grief about our nation’s past. If we do not translate that grief into constructive action, it becomes guilt, and that guilt makes us want to be restored to innocence and purity, especially if we’re sincere Christians whose very being “hungers and thirsts for righteousness.”

Unfortunately, as modern-day Americans, we are attracted to quick-fixes and short-cuts to nearly everything, including that innocence and purity we desire to replace our guilt and shame.

The pro-life movement, I believe, provides a near-perfect quick fix and short-cut.

I speak as someone who marched in the pro-life movement in its early years, as I explained in a recent series of blog posts. I am not saying this is the only motivation that drew me and others into the movement. I am not saying this was or is the conscious motivation. But I believe it is a significant unconscious motivation for at least some people, perhaps even most, and that it deserves our attention.

In short, I believe that when white Christians see themselves as valiant defenders of vulnerable unborn lives, they gain a deep feeling of moral purity, as if the innocence or purity of the unborn victim is transfused into them.

My friend Nadia Bolz-Weber recently called it a cult of innocence.

I think it’s important to acknowledge: It is only people who want to be moral (or at least appear moral) who would even desire this shortcut to morality. We might say it is an occupational hazard that morally serious people uniquely face. (It’s may also be exactly the kind of thing Jesus warned about in Matthew 6:1-18 and 7:1).

It’s easy to see how guilt-inducing shame-based religious communities would put their members under such constant moral pressure that they would be even more attracted to this kind of instant cure-all for their always-uneasy conscience.

And it’s easy to see how people who feel certain of their transfused innocence would see anyone who doesn’t join them as tainted, evil, and the enemy. The pro-life cause, then, not only gives them an infusion of innocence; it also gives them an enemy to project their shame upon: their pro-choice neighbors. The once-guilty are propelled from deep moral unease to a secure position of moral superiority, with the added bonding that comes from uniting against a shared enemy whom they depict as murderous and evil.

Shortcuts, of course, are a form of cheating, and when you try to cheat your way to morality, especially moral superiority, you’re already headed for trouble. The more you succeed, the more dangerous you become, because when you’re absolutely convinced of your own innocence, you can easily harm others, but your sense of innocence blinds you from seeing what you’re doing.

It’s also easy to see how the attraction of instant innocence can make morally-motivated people vulnerable to manipulation by clever religious and political operators who promise innocence in exchange for your votes or donations.

These religious and political operators would know that moral manipulation rakes in donations and wins elections. They exemplify the old saying that the masses see their religion as true; the elites see all religion as false, and the powerful see all religion as useful.

Where can this set of innocence transactions lead?

History gives many examples of cults of innocence becoming cults of revenge, cults of ethnic cleansing, cults of hate. In fact, we can imagine these dynamics being in play in the ancestors of today’s white people who committed our founding atrocities. The Pilgrims, for example, saw themselves as innocent victims of an oppressive Church of England. The revolutionary colonists saw themselves as victims of a tyrannical King George. Could their certainty of innocence have blinded them to the humanity of the people they dispossessed and enslaved?

From Stalin to Hitler to Pol Pot, the 20th Century offers many examples of political demagogues on both the left and right who played on myths of victimization and promises of transfused innocence, turning people with a persistent sense of shame into cult-like followers. In so doing, these demagogues actually became vampire-like parasites upon the innocent victims in whose names they rallied support. Just as they needed a real or concocted enemy to unite and rally against, they constantly needed a stream of innocent victims to provide their followers with transfusion of innocence to heal their guilty conscience.

This self-definition as allies of the innocent united against murderous villains created an almost impenetrable force field in which the demagogues and their followers conceive of themselves as utterly righteous, good, and on God’s side, with no second thoughts allowed.

Let me repeat: I am not saying this is the only motivation of all people in the pro-life movement. But as someone who was involved in its early days, I am saying that looking back, I see it in myself and I sense it in others today, especially among the pro-life base of Donald Trump.

As I mentioned earlier, for those who do not want to take the short-cut to innocence, there is another way to deal with guilt and shame, simpler and better but not easier and faster. The old-fashioned word for it is repentance: soberly rethinking the past, facing it without minimizing it, grieving over it, feeling the full measure of the pain of victims, seeking to understand the conditions that prompted the victimizers to do what they did, seeking to right the wrongs and heal the wounds, and  joining with victims in a struggle for mutual liberation. It’s only by doing this real work — this soul work, this holy work, this often agonizing labor of personal and social transformation and rebirth — that we leave the past behind and actually become better people.

The pro-life movement isn’t the only group vulnerable to the cult of innocence. All of us, whether we lean left or right or consider ourselves centrists, need to be aware of the ways we use victims as tools to achieve instant innocence. All of us need to examine ourselves for the ways we seek to play the victim ourselves, in hopes that victimhood will restore us to innocence.

I  am hearing reports of QAnon and related conspiracy theories running through churches and communities around the world. I am tempted to see them as deluded rubes, victims of con artists, being groomed to repeat  some of the ugliest chapters of our history.  But no, I would be wiser to see them as my neighbors plagued with shame, looking for relief by protecting imagined victims from imagined villains. And I would be wise to look in the mirror, and see how I too may be working out my own guilt issues, even as I write these words.

I worry that, in my attempts to help my fellow citizens face the terrible situation we’re in, I am actually adding to their guilt and shame, which will only render them more vulnerable to the con artistry of guilt-and-shame manipulators who themselves seem incapable of shame or remorse.

As I watch Donald Trump and his allies wield victims as their weapon for Trump’s own purposes, I plead with my pro-life friends and neighbors to engage in sincere self-examination in this regard. I say this not to shame you, but to join you in mutual liberation, because I see you as victims of demagogues who are manipulating you — consciously or unconsciously — by means of your desire to be good and do what is right.

Instead of short cuts, let’s take the high road of repentance. We will find mercy and forgiveness and freedom from guilt and shame, as individuals and as communities. Together we can build a world with fewer victimizers and fewer victims, with less guilt, less shame, and more justice, joy, and peace.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.