From all indications, the Supreme Court seems poised to overturn the almost-50-year precedent enshrining legal abortion as a constitutional right. As expected, this does not sit well with those who support Roe v. Wade (which is much of the country, according to most polls).
Some are suggesting this is a manifestation of a kind of soft theocracy—that those of us who are pro-life are now imposing our religious views on the rest of the country. For others, the charge is not that pro-life Americans are too consumed with abortion, but that abortion is just a stalking-horse for the real issues, which are white supremacy and Christian nationalism.
The first argument is one that goes back almost to the days of Roe itself: the idea is that most people who oppose abortion do so because of a religious commitment. Sure, there might be an atheist pro-lifer here or there, the argument goes, but most people at the March for Life or working at the crisis pregnancy center near you are Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, or, sometimes, Orthodox Jews.
According to this reasoning, to oppose legal abortion is to impose a certain religious viewpoint upon other people, and thus violate the religious freedom of those who don’t believe the fetus to be a human person.
That would be true, of course, if what anyone sought to do was to impose a religious dogma. That’s why I oppose, for instance, public school teachers offering a gospel invitation at the close of a class period or municipal governments declaring that the Trinity is the truth. A religion cannot and should not be coerced.
I believe in religious freedom for everybody—Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, atheists, my fellow evangelical Christians, etc.—because I believe in the founding principles of this country. But I also believe in it because I believe, on the basis of biblical revelation, that the gospel must be received by faith, not by force.
I care about not coercing people to accept my religious doctrines, not only because I think that’s demonstrably bad for society, but because I think it confuses the gospel and hurts the church. But that doesn’t mean religious motivations shouldn’t inform what Christians, or others, care about.
There are all sorts of issues one could be concerned with today. The question is always why someone is motivated to pay attention to some of them. In my community, working with Afghan refugees, helping them to resettle, find work, and provide for their families, is carried out by people with multiple different motives for doing so.
One person might be, like me, an evangelical Christian who believes that because my storyline in Christ includes being on the run from Pharaoh and Herod, that I ought to care about people in a similar place of vulnerability. Someone else might care about these refugees because she was a refugee from Cuba a generation ago and feels a kinship with those hurting in that way.
One person might be an Afghanistan War veteran who saw the humanity of the Afghans suffering under Taliban rule and so wants to help them. Someone else might find President Joe Biden politically offensive and is motivated by his blaming the administration for the suffering after pulling out from the country.
Each of us is serving refugees for very different motivations—ones we often do not share with each other. That tells you why each of us is spurred to action, but it doesn’t tell you whether the action is right or wrong.
In some places, laws are being written to criminally charge homeless people for sleeping in public parks. The person who opposes this because he realizes that he can’t mistreat homeless people when Jesus himself was homeless—is he imposing his religion on everyone else? No. He’s telling you why he’s motivated to care about certain human beings.
His religion dictates his responsibilities to the homeless neighbor in front of him—and the notion that they are human beings is not a specifically religious teaching. The fact that the Qur’an tells Muslims to care for the poor doesn’t make homeless shelters the outworking of Sharia Law. The fact that the Bible tells Christians to care for “widows and orphans in their distress” (James 1:27) doesn’t make foster-care safety nets a sign of theocracy.
The second charge often leveled—that the pro-life issue is really about white supremacy—is plausible to many people right now. That is because we have seen awful realities revealed in the church and the world over the past several years, which I’ve written about repeatedly.
Christian nationalism is real. It is a threat to the witness of the church, and it’s a repudiation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And, yes, we’ve seen the pro-life issue sometimes used by people whose viewpoints—about women, refugees, the disabled, and other vulnerable people—do not in any way reflect a holistic pro-life vision with any integrity or consistency.
In his bookBad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right, historian Randall Balmer argues against the idea that Roe v. Wade mobilized evangelicals into political action, saying that this a myth. Balmer contends that the motivating factor was, in fact, religious conservatives’ backlash against Carter administration initiatives to remove tax exemptions from racist all-white “segregation academies” run by church groups.
Balmer is hardly the only one to make this case.
Almost 30 years ago, historian Godfrey Hodgson quoted pastor Ed Dobson, a key lieutenant of Jerry Falwell Sr., as saying: “The Religious New Right did not start because of a concern about abortion. I sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority, and I frankly do not remember abortion ever being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something.”
Over the past several years, a lot has been revealed. We have seen many moral causes championed by Christian leaders who later didn’t seem to care about those things, but only wanted the power those issues could bring with them. It can be disorienting.
Maybe you watched a pastor preach about evangelism and now you find he was really just trying to amass numbers for his own personal empire. But does that cynical use of the Great Commission mean the Great Commission is a lie?
Using the call to evangelism was cunning precisely because that pastor was exploiting something true for false ends. That doesn’t mean everyone who has witnessed door to door or mustered the courage to talk about faith with their neighbors is motivated by ego and power.
Even with the most cynical view possible, the question is not whether some leaders used abortion when their real objectives were contradictory, immoral things instead. The question is, if that’s the case, why emphasize abortion? Why not simply mobilize people to protect segregation? One can only mobilize people with something they actually care about.
When one looks past the power brokers and politicians, one can see countless small pro-life ministries around the country, where people genuinely believe in caring for the suffering of their neighbor—for the unborn child in danger of dying, the pregnant woman in peril of facing violence or poverty, or the born child in need of food or a home.
Are there those who use abortion as simply a cudgel to say, “If you don’t vote for otherwise reprehensible candidates or policies, you are guilty of murder?” Yes. And are there pro-choice employers who pressure women to abort because they refuse to provide the support and benefits for women with small children? Sure. Does either case nullify the central question? Are there people who support democracy because it’s the way they can get votes to hold office? Yes. Does that mean that’s all democracy is? No.
Do not let your allies determine who your neighbor is.
Once, while putting together an event on human dignity from womb to tomb, someone told me that he would participate, but only if I promised not to mention race, refugees, or migrant children. He said it was because he thought “pro-life” applied only to abortion.
I asked if we could also talk about adoption and foster care. He said yes. I asked if we could talk about the wrongness of euthanasia. He said yes. About the sexual exploitation of women and girls? Yes. About genetic engineering and other bioethical questions? Yes. I realized he didn’t want anything mentioned about race or migrants or refugees because that would get him in trouble with his political allies.
I was urged to make some people invisible because an acknowledgement of their presence would be inconvenient to someone with power. But to me, that sounded exactly like the abortion culture, and I refused to avoid talking about those “inconvenient” people.
I’ve seen it work the other direction too. People will work diligently on matters of migrants, refugees, the trafficked, or the poor but who will blanche at the mention of the unborn—not because they don’t believe the unborn are persons deserving of protection, but because it would put them in a camp with people they don’t like or respect.
Whichever way that goes, Jesus told us that defining our neighbors according to the expectations of our tribal allies can lead to nowhere good. That’s why Jesus chose a Samaritan as the neighbor in his parable about the man by the Jericho Road. It’s also why Jesus did not care that his fellow Jews thought he shouldn’t talk to Zacchaeus because he was a tax collector who collaborated with Rome (Luke 19:1–10). Jesus cared about Zacchaeus, not about his tribal standing.
And neither should we.
If the unborn are made in the image of God, and I believe they are, let’s care for them. If women are in the image of God, and I believe they are, let’s care for them. If white supremacy and Christian nationalism are of the Devil—and I believe they are—let’s oppose them.
Let’s be pro-life even if that makes some of our “pro-justice” allies uncomfortable and let’s be pro-justice even if that makes some of our “pro-life” allies uncomfortable. And whenever our group tells us that the price of admission is to make some other category of person invisible to us, then let’s tell them that price is too high.
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.