Must Pro-Life Mean Pro-Trump?
This wasn’t at all how I imagined it would be.
I had long hoped for a president who was unabashedly pro-life, one who would stand with the tens of thousands who attend the March for Life each year to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. (Four of the last six presidents opposed abortion; one of these addressed the march via video.) Some might think of such an act as only symbolic, mere virtue signaling. But symbols have power. So when Trump became the first president to join the March for Life this past January, it was a historical moment both for the pro-life movement and in the history of American politics.
Yet, standing far in the back of the crowd that day, listening to the president echo the polished phrases which we pro-lifers have carried in our hearts and on our banners all these years, I was unsettled. I heard truth being spoken, but not love. The letter did not reflect the spirit. Praise for the dignity and sanctity of human life from a man known for verbally abusing his critics, mocking the appearance of women, and fending off two dozen accusations of sexual assault rang hollow. This was not what I had pictured a pro-life presidency to be. The old adage rose to the surface: Be careful what you wish for.
When the Israelites elected to worship Baal, they didn’t do so with evil intent. On the contrary, they bargained that Baal would save lives because Baal was believed to have the power to bring about prosperity and fertility. Fealty to Baal was, a kind of backup plan in case God didn’t work quickly or satisfactorily enough. The Israelites thought they could have their Baal and their Yahweh, too, so to speak.
To be clear, I am not saying that voting for any particular candidate is the same as worshipping Baal. Rather, the Israelites’ assimilation of pagan beliefs and practices while placing too little faith in God’s provision and plan spurs us to ask: When does our faith in politics overtake our faith in God? Can we support some kinds of sin to prevent other sins? At what point do our actions imply that God wants us to do wrong because he needs us to help him do right?
Scripture is sufficient to guide us, yet the Bible is short on detail when it comes to modern democracy and presidential elections. Christian conscience plays differently in a constitutional republic than it would under a king we had no choice in choosing.
We cannot hold in contempt those whose convictions lead them to vote differently. Some Christians see our two-party system as a kind of single-option tyranny: we are forced to decide between the lesser of two evils. Other Christians believe we are obligated to vote for a good candidate, regardless of their chances of winning.
All our votes are based on a calculus. But human calculus cannot account for the calculus of God. As David French recently argued, “Theological truth can also create a pragmatic reality. Over time, perhaps the best method of cleansing our political class of the low, narcissistic characters who all too often occupy public office is to stop voting for them.” I believe God honors most a vote cast in faith for the most godly candidate, no matter their electability.
When I became pro-life decades ago, I was convinced that abortion was a problem to be solved politically. When my state didn’t have sufficiently pro-life candidates, I ran for lieutenant governor of my state on the Right to Life Party ticket. When I protested with many others at abortion clinics, part of our strategy involved challenging unjust laws by being arrested and processed through the courts. When a federal case in which I was an original defendant went before the Supreme Court, I slept on the sidewalk overnight to get a seat in the court the next morning. Legalized abortion on demand came by way of politics, so we would get rid of it likewise.
Or so I believed.
I still believe justice demands laws that protect the lives of unborn children. I believe such laws will be enacted only through the political process. But I have come to understand that we have placed too much faith in the political calculus and not enough faith in God’s power.
Among all the forms of injustice we face today, I believe abortion is one of the most urgent because it is a life-or-death matter. Yet, like all life-or-death matters, abortion never occurs in a moral, social, or political vacuum. Except for rare cases of dire medical necessity, the desire for an abortion arises from a woman’s belief that—for any one of far too many reasons—it is better to destroy her unborn child than to let him or her live. This thinking plays out based on a vision of outcomes that excludes or minimizes the possibilities of overcoming whatever fears, wants, or needs play a starring role in the drama unfolding in the mind of the mother (or father). Where there is no vision, people do indeed perish (Prov. 29:18; KJV)—especially the most vulnerable ones.
The way people in a community imagine their life together is referred to by philosophers, anthropologists, and sociologists as the “social imaginary.” This shared vision for our collective life is reflected in our laws, religion, institutions, economic systems, government, values, and (again) our symbols. Because everything we do is influenced by the values of the people and institutions around us, the social imaginary is at work in both our public policies and our private decisions. Our consciences are formed in community. Although in modern society, we think of abortion as a personal matter, it is a decision made very much within a social imaginary. We have widespread abortion today because we exist in a social imaginary that values human life less than other ideals such as individualism, materialism, autonomy, and self-construction. Yet, God designed us as human beings—made in the image of a trinitarian Creator—to be social creatures. From the start, we are all interdependent—each life forming from a biological union, each life dependent upon the mother, both her body and her will. There is no protecting the child apart from the mother. But the power of the social imaginary can sway a woman toward or away from abortion.
This power makes it quite possible that our president—who was once a vocal advocate for abortion—is becoming genuinely opposed to abortion. (Given the growing number of politicians who vote against abortion but demand them for their own wives and mistresses, it’s impossible to be certain.) I hope and pray it is so.
But this is also why, even more than laws alone, the character of our community—especially our faith community—matters. Community forms and reforms us even (especially!) when we don’t realize it. Our votes do more than support the policies we favor. Our votes shape the character of our community and ourselves in ways that will outlast our laws. Our votes demonstrate where, and in whom, we ultimately place our trust.
Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University.
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Must Pro-Life Mean Pro-Trump?