How to Lose the Abortion Debate While Winning It

Written by on May 12, 2022

This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

As leak after leak from the United States Supreme Court indicates, the Roe v. Wade decision that has legalized abortion for nearly 50 years likely will soon be gone.

The question of where a pro-life ethic goes from here won’t be decided by courts or even legislatures, but by the state of the church in America—and that’s a far more complex realm. In fact, for pro-life Christians like me, the warning should be that it is possible to “win” and “lose” a culture of life at the very same time.

Both sides of the abortion debate have voices warning their compatriots of overreach. Some pro-life governors seem unprepared to talk in interviews about exceptions for rape and incest or the legality of IUDs and other contraceptive devices.

And many are warning pro-choice activists that they are in danger of losing public opinion by protesting at the homes of justices or seeking to pass wildly expansive bills at the state level guaranteeing nine months of legal abortion for any reason.

For decades, some of us have argued that a “hearts and minds” strategy alone is not enough to deal with this issue. One cannot make the case that unborn children are our neighbors without seeking to protect their most basic rights by law. And those of us who are so-called “whole life” advocates have argued that a hearts-and-minds strategy toward women in crisis alone is not enough.

We must have real action, from advocating for a government safety net to supporting church congregations willing to care for the poor and their children. In so doing, we oppose the idea we see often with some on racial injustice questions—“Just get people saved, and racial issues will take care of themselves.”

But while we need more than just a hearts-and-minds strategy, we also need nothing less. If the American people don’t care about the humanity of their imperiled neighbor—whether the pregnant woman or the preborn child—no set of laws will hold for long.

Perhaps the greatest danger here is not what focus groups or polling data say about abortion, but something that has nothing to do with abortion at all—the moral credibility of the American church.

To see a model of how possible it can be to “win” and “lose” a cultural debate at the same time, we need only look across the Atlantic to Ireland.

A recent book by historian Fintan O’Toole examines the seemingly sudden collapse of Catholic cultural influence in the land of Saint Patrick, in ways that could be a premonition of what could happen to evangelical America.

O’Toole writes, for instance, about the unchallenged influence of the long-serving archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. This influence was such that the archbishop could call a radio network to account for playing a song by Cole Porter—the lyrics of which (“I’m always true to you, darling, in my fashion”) the cleric found to represent a “circumscribed morality.”

One reviewer frames the matter bluntly, writing, “The only circumscribed morality McQuaid was prepared to tolerate was the abuse of young boys and girls by priests, and of women from many backgrounds by nuns in the infamous Magdalene Laundries.”

The church’s influence was unquestionable—Ireland stood apart from the rest of Western Europe on the moral matters of abortion, contraception, divorce, and so on.

And yet, as O’Toole argues, the church’s influence was far-reaching in other ways too. He writes that when numerous instances of molestation by clergy were discovered, the parents of the children harmed seemed inclined to apologize to the church for the “difficulties” these abusive priests faced.

“This was the church’s great achievement in Ireland,” O’Toole writes. “It had so successfully disabled a society’s capacity to think for itself about right and wrong that it was the parents of an abused child, not the bishop who enabled that abuse, who were ‘quite apologetic.’

“It had managed to create a flock who, in the face of an outrageous violation of trust, would be concerned as much about the abuser than those he had abused and might continue to abuse in the future,” he continues. “It had inserted its system of control and power so deeply into the minds of the faithful that they could scarcely even feel angry about the perpetration of disgusting crimes on their own children.”

Although some evangelical leaders would tell us that language of “gaslighting” and “spiritual abuse” are just vague therapeutic slogans for the deconstructing, these terms describe perfectly what O’Toole saw in the abusive church systems in Ireland—and they just as easily describe what many have experienced in American evangelical contexts.

The end result—perhaps for born-again America as for Catholic Ireland—is a church with an inordinately powerful force of cultural influence, if not moral authority, that finds itself suddenly without the credibility to enforce its orthodoxy at all.

The reason? People could not withstand what O’Toole calls the “most shocking realization of all,” which was “the recognition by most of the faithful that they were in fact much holier than their preachers, that they had a clearer sense of right and wrong, a more honest and intimate sense of love and compassion and decency.”

The church in Ireland is now a hollow presence culturally compared to what it once was. Abortion is now legal in Ireland, after a popular referendum in 2018 repealed the laws preventing it. Abortions are, in fact, free through the nation’s public health service. Divorce, as of 2019, is liberalized as well.

Did these massive and unpredictably sudden changes happen because of dramatically improved mobilization or messaging tactics by the (to use an American framing) “cultural left”? No.

Many researchers believe that the cultural shifts in Ireland were due, in large part, to a backlash against the church itself. Was this backlash because of cultural forces of secularization warring against the church? No. It was because people who once revered the church came to realize that the church did not itself believe what it taught.

O’Toole points to the previous cultural necessity of obtaining an annulment by a church board to end a marriage. He notes that one of the church’s board members was a priest credibly accused of sexual predation on minors—and under the authority of leaders who were credibly accused of covering up the abuse.

The corruption of any institution does not, of course, decide the morality or immorality of any action, nor the rightness or wrongness of any belief. Martin Luther believed the medieval Roman church was wrong about indulgences and purgatory but right about the efficacy of the sacraments and the existence of a heaven and a hell. And yet, as Jesus put it, “Woe to the person through whom the stumbling block comes,” (Luke 17:1 NASB).

I wrote above that the cultural collapse of the Irish church was the “end result” of their very public hypocrisies and scandals, but that isn’t quite right. As a christian, I do not believe the “end result” is Ireland’s turn away from the church, or any other sociological or historical shift.

Rather, the true end result is the judgment of God. And while that is far less quantifiable, it should be far more terrifying.

What the pro-life movement needs most from American evangelicalism is not more of our cultural or politi

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