In less than a month, the Supreme Court will take up arguments on a Mississippi case that could conceivably spell the end of Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion as a constitutional right. At the same time, the justices sent signals that they were perhaps dubious of a recent Texas law that sought to restrict abortion through civil liability measures.
For the first time in a while, it seems that abortion is at the forefront of conversation in the United States. And yet, some surveys suggest that abortion is not the motivating factor for evangelicals that it once was.
Those who disagree with me on abortion may feel it is good news that evangelicals are lessening their priority on the pro-life issue—thinking perhaps that a cooling down in the culture wars might lead to a less polarized America. But such people would be wrong. As a matter of fact, if this trend continues, it could be bad news for everybody.
Political scientist Ryan Burge collected polling data this summer from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and compared that with recent data gathered from the Association of Religion Data Archives. The poll asked respondents how they would rank their relative priority on various sociopolitical issues. Burge noted that, over time, the abortion issue has decreased in priority among white evangelicals and other issues, like immigration, have increased.
Most of this data was aggregated before critical race theory and COVID-19 dominated the public square. But many pollsters and activists say they see far more energy spent discussing race, masks, vaccines, and other topics. Abortion is low on the list.
Some argue that this has always been the case. For example, in his book Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right, religion scholar Randall Balmer arguesagainst the common assumption that Roe mobilized evangelicals into political action. He calls this idea a myth, contending instead that segregated academies threatened with losing their tax-exempt status were the real motivators—and that abortion was merely a convenient cover for the politics of white racial grievance.
That may well be true for some of the political strategy leaders at the time, but I remain skeptical of Balmer’s overall thesis. Even with the most cynical view possible of political-religious activist leadership (and I think I’ve earned the right to some cynicism here), there has to be a reason why such leaders would choose to emphasize abortion in grassroot movements. The question isn’t whether political strategists can manipulate the issue but rather what exactly is being manipulated. That is, one can only mobilize people around an issue they fundamentally care about.
A week or so ago, I was talking with a friend who disagrees with me on abortion. They asked me—with genuine curiosity—“Why do you all want to impose your religious views on everyone else by restricting abortion?”
This would be a fair critique, I responded, if evangelicals and other pro-lifers sought to enact “blue laws,” which banned Sunday commerce for everyone based on Levitical laws.
When it comes to abortion, however, the debate is not about whether society should protect the vulnerable, but about how many vulnerable people we should care about. In a pro-choice view of the matter, there is only one—the pregnant woman who must decide what to do with her body. For those of us who are pro-life, there are two vulnerable people here—the pregnant woman and the child within her womb—and we have a responsibility to consider both.
Former US Representative Barney Frank famously quipped that pro-lifers believe life begins at conception and ends at birth. This might well be true in some direct-mail fundraising operations, but it is not true for those at the grassroots level—those for whom this issue is a matter of action as well as conviction, those who work on the frontlines with pregnant women in crisis, or those who help children find families and safe homes.
As a matter of fact, these pro-life people can sometimes be the most sensitive to a holistic vision of human life and dignity. They are usually the ones who advocate for job training, childcare, and health care for women, so that no woman is put into a position where she must choose between the life of her child and her own well-being. Other pro-lifers are working in the foster care system or caring for people with disabilities in their homes.
Nearly every day, I speak with foster or adoptive parents who are giving their lives in service to children they love—those ravaged by fetal alcohol syndrome, infant drug addiction, severe mental illness, or those coming from impoverished families—and I have found that these people have almost always learned to love such children because they are pro-life.
When anchored biblically—rather than merely as a partisan political strategy—a pro-life viewpoint is a contradiction of social Darwinism, which estimates human value in inverse proportion to vulnerability.
Ayn Rand’s conception of the poor as losers and takers is absolutely contradicted by the Sermon on the Mount (along with the rest of the Bible). In ideological frameworks like Rand’s, human rights are linked with “viability”—the ability to survive on one’s own, independent of the womb and the life of another.
But those of us who follow a crucified Christ must recognize that none of us are “viable” in that sense. We always leave one womb to enter another—that of our mother to that of the biosphere around us. All of us are dependent on oxygen, water, and nutrition—and we are all interdependent upon each other.
At its best, a pro-life vision reminds us of why Jesus was indignant when his disciples saw children as a distraction from his mission. He pointed out that “to such belongs the children of God,” and that those who do not “receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” The Lord welcomed children—other people’s children—and “blessed them” (Mark 10:13–16, ESV throughout).
The entire Bible shows us why this is. We come before God as those who, in our utter dependence, cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15), and we learn to receive others as we have been received (Rom. 15:7). This means that in following Christ, we, like him, are able to see the people we would rather or otherwise keep invisible—the poor, the stranger, the vulnerable, the unviable, the un-useful.
We see the folly in human boasts of strength—whether about one’s net worth, physical attractiveness, or “stage of development,” whether living in the uterus of a mother or in a nursing home forgotten by everyone. Human dignity is not an earned right but a signpost to God, pointing every human life back to the Word who took on flesh and dwelt among us.
That’s why we must constantly ask ourselves, “Who are the people in our lives for whom it is inconvenient—whether in terms of our social status, financial security, religious tribes, or political identities—for us to even see?”
The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan probably did not think of themselves as antagonists in the story of the beaten man by the Jericho Road (Luke 10:25–37). They averted their eyes, seeing this man as a minor character, soon forgotten in the story of their lives. But Jesus says he will judge the “goats” on Judgment Day all the same for having no idea that they have neglected the poor, the naked, the hungry, and the imprisoned in their midst (Matt. 25:31–46).
This is why some of us were so concerned about political movements that celebrated winning and delighted in denigrating the weak—whether the disabled, refugees, or the elderly. It is also why some of us believed that waving away credible claims of sexual promiscuity and even sexual assault cannot sustain a pro-life movement long-term, no matter how many good judges are appointed.
When people are judged by their usefulness, the unborn are deemed dispensable as soon as they cannot help someone win an election. Whenever we make a determination on which people matter and which people don’t, we lose the possibility of building a culture that supports life and family values, human rights, or social justice. In the end, all we are left with are constituencies to reward and enemies to punish.
At its best, the pro-life movement once cut across the polarized culture wars. Despite the publicized images in popular culture of angry protesters screaming at women outside abortion clinics, this did not happen most of the time—for the very reason that most pro-life activists sought to persuade women to choose life for their children. You cannot do that if you are focused on demonizing, intimidating, or overpowering people. In order to be true to itself, the pro-life movement had to be about loving your neighbor, not about owning the libs.
White racial grievance and fear of those who are different, by contrast, is not about loving your neighbor but about preserving yourself. And when these become badges of identity, human life begins to be defined not by the image of God, but in terms of its likeness to us—and we define “us” more and more narrowly all the time. This is the way of Cain, especially when the way of Abel—or the way of the Cross—starts to look “weak.”
In his new book, A World After Liberalism: Philosophers of the Radical Right, Matthew Rose points with data to a phenomenon present in so-called populist movements in Europe and now in North America. Many of these groups claim Christian identity or use its symbolism, because it helps to use the struggle to preserve “Western civilization” or “Judeo-Christian culture” as a way to ground ethnic or national identity.
But often, the people driving ideas behind the scenes are hostile to Christianity—not because Christianity is too narrow, too moralistic, or too intolerant, but because it is too globalist and egalitarian. Christianity upends ethnic and national superiorities because, as Rose writes, it requires non-Jewish Gentiles of all nations to “adopt the sacred history and even the deity of another community, connecting their deepest beliefs to the unique experiences of a foreign people,” namely, the people of Israel.
Most importantly, these post-religious illiberal movements ultimately revolt against what Rose calls “the essence of the Christian Question,” which is this: “Christianity denied what antiquity had serenely assumed: that the strong are destined to rule the weak, that we have no obligations to strangers, and that our identities are constituted by our social status.”
Rose warns that a post-Christian populism would “give defiant expression to primordial passions, once disciplined by religion, that liberalism tried to repress—about preserving cultural differences, punishing enemies, and deposing disloyal elites.” In other words, as Ross Douthat says in issuing a warning to secular America: “If you thought the Religious Right was bad, just wait until you see the post-religious right.”
If the dignity and sanctity of human life is replaced in priority of passion with the will-to-power, the unborn will suffer. But they will not suffer alone. Every vulnerable person—whose dignity isn’t justified by his or her capacity—will suffer too.
Instead, we might find ourselves in a place where we don’t argue about abortion anymore, not because we’ve settled the issue, but because we’ve replaced the worldly gods of Zeus, Thor, or Baal—the gods of thunder, power, fertility, or various tribes—with this proclamation: “Yes, Jesus loves me; the Bible tells me so.”
Russell Moore leads the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today.