Rules for (Pro-Life) Radicals

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By Stefano Gennarini, The Stream, Nov. 2, 2017

Stefano GennariniJesus was not a politician, but he understood the most important rule of politics. “He who is not with me is against me” (Mt 12:30). Many of his present-day followers, on the other hand, do not, at least when it comes to the pro-life cause.

“The world is not black or white,” they say. “There are many shades of gray. You can’t legislate morality. You must not ardently criticize your opponent. Christians are called to dialogue. Believers and unbelievers should set aside differences in the pursuit of common ground,” they insist.

Christians Who Never Draw a Line

In Washington, they call this bipartisanship. In Rome, they call it accompaniment. But in practice, it always means one thing. Whether it is policy or morals, Christians in politics find it hard to draw a line in the sand. Above all, they should be polite and not get hung up about abortion and homosexuality.

Not so the leftists, and the churchmen who support them. They understand the importance of allegiances in politics all too well. In his famous book Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinksy laid out an entire strategic manual for politics based on polarizing rhetoric. He wrote it specifically to empower underrepresented populations. It has inspired the left for generations, to great effect.

Many Christian politicians and clergy, on the other hand, too often suppress strong rhetoric against abortion and reject pro-life political litmus tests in favor of naïve, appeasing rhetoric. They’re all too ready to concede the moral high ground to avoid controversy. A pro-life “lite” approach that weighs abortion as just one political issue among many is a prime example of this. The pro-life cause has suffered as a result.

Of course, Christians shouldn’t adopt Alinsky’s tactics uncritically. But we should borrow where we can from his playbook. As we increasingly become political underdogs, we must become more radical, in Alinsky’s sense. The passion and invective of pro-life politicians in recent congressional debates on the twenty-week abortion ban show we are moving in the right direction.

Alinksy believed there is no such thing as compromise in politics. There are only winners and losers, friends and foes, in his political universe. He was right in at least in one respect. You need to win elections to get results in politics. Just ask Hillary Clinton or Jeff Flake.

Alinsky’s Rules are Not the Golden Rule

Alinsky crafted a genius formula that is all about winning. First, demonize your political opponent. Caricature him. Make him the embodiment of everything that is wrong in the world. Then, assail him with a barrage of attacks. Don’t give him time to rest and reorganize. Above all, make no concession for your political enemy, ever. Don’t pander to his good will. The enemy must be annihilated.

There are only two options: score a point or lose one. That’s the Alinsky way. It has nothing to do with dialogue or persuasion, but with securing and wielding power.

President Obama’s relentless culture war was a perfect example of this. He pummeled the country with so many outrageous statements and policies you could hardly respond as a new reality was created right under our noses. It was so disorienting that few noticed that he went from supporting marriage in 2008 to pushing transgenders in the military in 2016.

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Christians instead seem to apply the golden rule not just to personal life but to politics, as if Jesus had intended it as a political strategy. The result is rather amusing. Treat your political opponent as you would like to be treated by him. Always give him the benefit of the doubt. Cast him in the best possible light. Assume that he’s sincere even when you know he’s lying. Discuss the issues, not the person. Always be polite to your opponent even when he is not. Highlight the things on which you agree with him, assume his good faith, and never ever give ultimatums.

You Can’t Avoid Controversy

This is a recipe for failure. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney for example, never attacked President Obama in the 2012 election. He virtuously declined every opportunity to criticize Obama, and politely “disagreed” with him instead. The rest is history.

we need to learn to play hardball. Christians in politics cannot shy away from making ultimatums, adopting litmus tests, highlighting differences, and working to discredit opponents who defend morally repugnant policies.

The reality is that politics has its own set of rules, and they track pretty well with Alinsky’s playbook, like Machiavelli’s before him. The point is not that Christians should forget themselves in the public square and lie, be rude or uncharitable. The end doesn’t justify the means, even in politics. Christians must remain Christian even in politics, however hard it is.

My point is that we need to learn to play hardball. Christians in politics cannot shy away from making ultimatums, adopting litmus tests, highlighting differences, and working to discredit opponents who defend morally repugnant policies. This is all part and parcel of engaging in the public square. That’s especially true when life and family are at stake. Christians have not been good at this. The ascendency of Trump and the Tea Party prove this.

There are Only Winners and Losers in Politics

Alinsky understood the need to use a coalescing and polarizing political narrative to claim the moral high ground, and then defend it at all costs. This is the only way to create and sustain a social movement that can be translated into political results. Christians often appear to go out of their way to prevent this from happening, by trying to avoid controversy at all costs.

“The first rule of change is controversy. You can’t get away from it,” Alinsky famously used to say. He was not the first activist to understand this. The abolitionists, the North during reconstruction, Roosevelt before the New Deal, Religious leaders during the civil rights movement, all did precisely this. They prioritized one issue above others and understood the need to be loud when it mattered the most — which incidentally is also when controversy is least welcome, and divisive rhetoric is likely to be most divisive, and therefore also most effective. 

You cannot expect to enter the public arena without making enemies and getting dirty, sometimes even risking your life. Christians must dispense ultimatums, not platitudes. We should not avoid controversy and waste precious political capital on political strategies doomed to fail.

There are only winners and losers in politics. Jesus knew it, as do over 50 million of innocent children slaughtered around the world each year, nearly one million here at home. They urgently need Christians to become pro-life radicals.

At the moment, that means this: Tell your senators they must support the twenty-week abortion ban or lose your vote.


Stefano Gennarini is the Director of Legal Studies at the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam) in New York. He tweets as @prolifeadvocate. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of C-Fam.