A Letter to My White Christian Pro-Life Friends, Part 2: My Misgivings

You can read Part 1 here.

Dear White Christian Pro-Life Friends,

If you from time to time have second thoughts about what the pro-life movement is doing to our country, our faith, and your own soul, this four-part series is for you. I only ask that you read it prayerfully and thoughtfully, with an open mind and heart. I hope you will feel that I show you and your sincere involvement in the pro-life cause the respect you deserve, and if nothing else, I hope this series will help you participate in the movement more wisely and lovingly going forward.

As I explained in Part 1, back in the early and mid-80’s, I was attracted to the pro-life movement because it invited me to use my voice for those without a voice and to take a public stand for compassion and decency. Those values took hold in me and still guide me today. In fact, my life of public activism began in the pro-life movement.

But even as I marched and carried my sign for the cause, I began having vague but persistent misgivings about the movement at large. There seemed to be another agenda at work, and I wasn’t sure what it was.

I could only make sense of my misgivings many years later when I encountered two books that gave some historical background to the movement.

First, I read Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come (Basic Books, 2006). It helped me understand the movement’s backstory.

In short, in the 1950’s and 60’s, reacting to school desegregation and civil rights legislation, large numbers of white Protestants and Catholics in both the South and the North transferred their children from integrated public schools to all-white private church-based schools. (These schools are often referred to as “segregation academies.”) During Jimmy Carter’s administration (1977-1981), a rumor spread that the government would soon remove tax exempt status from these segregated schools. Protestant and Catholic leaders came together in a series of conference calls to strategize how to defend their tax exempt status while remaining racially segregated.

This created an opportunity that a fundraiser and conservative activist, Paul Weyrich, seized. A conservative Christian coalition couldn’t be based on overt segregation and the white supremacy that fueled it, he knew, so Weyrich convinced Protestants to rally with Catholics under the banner of opposing abortion to protect their tax exempt status. Francis Schaeffer was welcomed into this growing movement, although he himself would surely have abhorred its racist underpinnings if he knew about them.  (The central thesis of Balmer’s book is summarized in this Politico article, “The Real Origins of the Religious Right”: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133.)

Kevin Kruse’s book One Nation Under God (Basic Books, 2015) sets the stage for the pro-life movement in the context of a larger conservative Christian movement that began in the 1930’s. (You can read an excellent review of Kruse’s book here, and an interview with him here.) This movement began as a reaction against the Social Gospel, which drew from the theological work of Baptist pastor Walter Rauschenbusch, and which was important to Dr. King’s spiritual formation. The Social Gospel sought to apply the teachings of Jesus to public life today, so that, as the Lord’s prayer said, God’s will could be done on earth — in politics, in culture, in economics — as in heaven. I heard many sermons against the Social Gospel as a boy. They confused me, because I thought the world would be a better place if people lived by Jesus’s teaching and example. Why would we be against the Golden Rule and the Great Commandment? I once asked my mother about this, and she said, “It could lead to socialism.”

That’s what trusted preachers told her, and that’s what powerful industrialists thought too.

They saw the Social Gospel message as a threat to their form of capitalism. They joined forces with James Fifield, a seminary-trained Congregationalist who was liberal in his theology but a conservative libertarian in his politics. The life and teachings of Jesus were irrelevant to contemporary life, Fifield said, because “the salvation of the individual” soul was all that mattered. Billy Graham became an ally in this message, as did Abram Vereide, founder of The Fellowship — a.k.a. The Family, with which I became quite involved in my twenties, and which was more recently described in the book and Netflix series by Jeff Sharlet, both called The Family.

Balmer and Kruse helped me see that hidden beneath the surface, two of America’s most deeply-embedded motivations — racism and greed — had joined forces to use the pro-life movement as a cover for their own agenda, which wasn’t pro-life: it was extreme right-wing and white nationalist.

And well-meaning Christians like Grace and me, who simply wanted to do the right thing, were being swept into it, completely unaware of the backstory and hidden agenda.

My misgivings grew through the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s. That’s when my fellow Evangelicals were creating something called “Purity Culture,” which was intended to reduce pre-marital sex. Later research proved that these efforts were ineffective in reducing premarital sex, but beyond that, they had unintended negative consequences both psychologically and spiritually. (Several of my friends have written important books on this topic, including Pure by Linda Kay Klein, Sex, God, and the Conservative Church by Tina Sellers, and Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Du Mez.)

All this talk of sexual purity took place while a list of scandals grew, involving pedophile priests, sleazy televangelists, respected conservative pastors, and other Christian leaders. I remember thinking that we Christians were good at pointing out the sexual splinter in the eyes of others, but not so good at addressing the sexual beams in our own eyes. (Recent headlines only reinforce this observation.)

Something clearly wasn’t working in the conservative Christianity I inherited.

I started listening to friends who were progressive Christians. They told me they were pro-choice but they were not pro-abortion. Instead of dismissing them as “baby-killers” as my more extreme friends in the pro-life movement would do, I started asking them questions and listening to their answers.

They explained that being pro-choice does not mean being pro-abortion. You can be personally against abortion because you believe it is immoral, but you can simultaneously be for choice politically, because you do not believe the government should have the power to impose your moral judgment on everyone. Years later (in 2016), my friend Rachel Held Evans made this same point in a widely-read blog post.

My pro-choice friends also explained that criminalizing abortion is not, in fact, the best way to reduce it — not by a long shot. A number of studies have shown that the best way to reduce abortion is to provide quality health care (including contraception), quality education (including sex education), and economic help to needy people. (That’s one major reason why abortion declined so significantly under President Obama – to the lowest level since before Roe v. Wade. See http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/01/17/509734620/u-s-abortion-rate-falls-to-lowest-level-since-roe-v-wade).

My pro-choice Christian friends also explained how they saw the pro-life movement as an arm of patriarchy, which puts female sexuality and female lives and bodies under male control. (This reminded me of the “come to Jesus” moment I recounted in Part 1.) Patriarchy, for example, minimizes the consequences of rape or abuse for men and maximizes consequences for women. The pro-choice movement was for empowering women, so that powerful men would not be able to control women’s lives, moral agency, and bodies. The fact that the Republicans in Congress were overwhelmingly male, together with the fact that both Evangelical and Catholic clergy were exclusively male, struck me as evidence for this concern about patriarchy.

My friends also explained that many Christians don’t automatically see abortion as a sin, nor do members of several other religions, including most branches of Judaism. For conservative Christians to impose their views on their fellow citizens of other religious faiths (and no religious faith), they said, would violate religious freedom and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Of course conservative Christians are free to use their freedom of speech to persuade others not to have abortions. But when conservative Christians try to use the government to impose their religious beliefs on others by legislation … that is not fair, my progressive friends said. And I saw their point.

Meanwhile, several times in my twenty-four years as a pastor, members of my congregation faced medical circumstances that my pro-life friends told me never happened. The easy answers the pro-life movement had given me rang hollow in hospital rooms where would-be parents agonized in tears over heartbreaking moral/medical choices involving abortion — to save the life of the mother, for example, or in the aftermath of rape.

Along the way, members of my congregation and my fellow Christian leaders entrusted me with their private stories relating to abortion, and I took time to listen, really listen. The more I listened, the more the rhetoric of religious right leaders, including their use of the abortion issue, rang not just hollow, but deceptive.

I do not for one second believe that grass-roots pro-life people — people like you, for example — are being intentionally deceptive in your commitment to the cause. Not at all! I know how sincere you are because I marched and prayed beside you for many years. But I must make this confession: I believe the pro-life cause has been misled and corrupted, first by racism and greed, and also by power — and specifically partisan political power.

I’ll share the choice these misgivings led me to make in Part 3.

Again, knowing how sincere you are, my white pro-life Christian friends, I thank you for sticking with me as I share information and ideas that likely feel deeply disturbing and even offensive to you. I hope you will consider reading Parts 3 and 4 too, but if not, I thank you for your attention thus far.