How Paul VI and John Paul II Defended Moral TruthAugust 10, 2018
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By Samuel D. James, First, Things, 8 . 10 . 18
Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.” So counsels the demon Screwtape to his junior tempter Wormwood, encouraging the inexperienced devil to avoid debating with humans and instead try to “fuddle” them with slogans. Is there any topic that illustrates this satanic strategy more obviously than abortion? Talk to a normal American about abortion for any length of time, and you will quickly realize how pervasive is jargon and how scarce is logical thinking.
Here’s an example. For nearly three years, pro-lifers have been told that we should be wary, for the time being, of working on behalf of the unborn, because Donald Trump is delegitimizing our movement. We’ve been warned that the cause of the unborn will not survive the moral hypocrisy of a thrice-married, immigrant-bashing philanderer. “The pro-life movement has lost,” we hear. Trump is a surefire bet to “alienate millennials from the pro-life movement.” As Yahoo columnist Jon Ward recently put it: “[T]he conservative alliance with Trump is unhelpful and counterproductive. … Having Trump as the leader of religious conservatism makes their approach to the courts appear to be much more about coercion than it is about persuasion.”
Warnings about the optics of Trump as a leader of religious conservatives aren’t totally misguided. Trump’s pro-life politics almost certainly arise from convention and convenience, rather than conviction. His rhetoric is incompatible with a holistically Christian worldview, and there may be some political blowback to the pro-life agenda in the midterms and 2020 elections. But the notion that the pro-life movement can be identified with Trump or the Republican Party is specious. It bespeaks a political and moral math that seems to apply to abortion and nothing else. That some think one politician can singlehandedly delegitimize the pro-life cause is evidence of Screwtape’s success in fogging up the abortion debate with propaganda.
Pro-life advocates are no strangers to accusations of hypocrisy. In the years since Roe v. Wade, abortion-rights activists have vigorously tried to keep the debate away from the actual merits of the philosophical and political arguments. Instead, the focus has been on controlling language: slogans like “safe, legal, and rare,” pejoratives such as “anti-choice,” and depictions of pro-lifers as hypocrites who only care about human life “until birth.”
A decade ago, opponents of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq accused pro-life evangelicals of gross hypocrisy. A legion of pundits wondered aloud whether the pro-life cause would ever recover from such a toxic alliance. Guess what—it did. Three years after Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory, 68 percent of GOP voters identified as pro-life. This was a higher number than those who still supported the Iraq war or those who supported their party’s tax policy. If inopportune alliances or even moral hypocrisy among the conservative leadership are death knells for the pro-life movement, surely they would have proved so in those left-for-dead days.
The interesting question is why so many commentators seem to think that the pro-life movement is uniquely vulnerable in this way. Did any major columnists compose a funereal dirge for the death of Hollywood liberalism after Harvey Weinstein’s scandals? Did I just miss those prominent editorials that predicted Roe’s reversal after Kermit Gosnell’s Nazi-like horrors were unveiled? When it came to these PR nightmares, the commentariat seemed to understand that worldviews and movements transcend individuals and moments. Why don’t they think this about the pro-life movement?
Perhaps some want the pro-life movement to be vulnerable in ways that other movements aren’t. There is even a class of self-described pro-lifer who is more concerned with whether the New York Times might publish his op-eds or the Atlantic might profile him as a “respectable conservative” than with making a full-throated case for life. This kind of conservative blushes redder at the scorn of verified accounts than at the number of abortions since 1973. For such people, announcing that the pro-life cause is hopelessly compromised is more olive branch than sackcloth and ashes.
The irony is that Trump is the least of their problems. Their real challenge is to straddle a thinning magenta line, seeking a respectable center that satisfies fewer and fewer people.
Pro-lifers need not make a cause of defending the current White House. This president is more beholden to the spirit of Roe than any of his predecessors were. And yet, just as those who care about campus sexual assault did not retreat after the fabrications of Rolling Stone, so those who love our most vulnerable citizens should not “hit pause” because they are embarrassed by one man’s inauthenticity. The pro-life cause is not about Donald Trump. Those who insist otherwise are telling you more than they mean to.
Samuel D. James is associate acquisitions editor for Crossway Books and blogs at Mere Orthodoxy.