Free the Pro-Life Movement

Free the Pro-Life Movement November 6, 2008

I’ve been distracted with personal matters for the last few days. Given these personal matters, my reaction to the Obama victory was bittersweet. But I make no apologies for being gladdened by his victory, by being hopeful for the future. and for finally being able to emerge into the clear light of day from an eight-year nightmare. From a cursory glance of the Catholic blogosphere, though, I see the same entrenched and bitter rhetoric, and even going so far as to blame us Catholic Obama supporters for the current situation (flattering, but nonsensical!).

Right now, I don’t intend to rehash the same old arguments of probabilities, prudential judgment, and what policies are most likely to reduce abortions. No, I want to argue instead that the alignment of the pro-life movement with the Republican party has proved be be an absolute disaster, which has seriously set back the likelihood of any real progress on the abortion front. For look at what the Republican party has become in recent years: a rump party of the south and the plains, mired in an anachronistic culture that has little resonance with the modern world and with the younger generation. Consider the following map, which shows the areas of the country where McCain actually did better than Bush in 2004:

We saw it coming. In many respects, the Republican party took up the mantle of the old south, padded with some more modern elements of a romanticized white rural culture: the sense of cultural superiority; the opposition to the foreign, especially if deemed “elitist”; the abiding anti-intellectualism, and disdain for expert knowledge; the rugged frontier individualism; the robust honor-driven militaristic culture; the theology of American exceptionalism that saw God bestowing a special blessing upon the USA, granting it a unique role in the world. Sarah Palin became the emblem of this culture, which explains both her popularity among the ever-narrower Republican base and the broader backlash against her. This movement was marked by a fanatical zeal for guns, a glorification of the military, and a fervent desire to avoid redistribution toward “the other”. For let us not deny the racial element either. Just look at the contours of the map above. The coded appeals to white southern voters in the domain of crime, welfare, and affirmative action were part and parcel of the post-Nixon Republican alignment that proved so successful for a while. And yet now the chickens have come home to roost.

Obviously, the Republican party needs to remake itself. And that is for the best, as a single dominant party breeds corruption and lethargy. But that is not my concern here; leave that to the Republicans. Look at the list above. One thing I deliberately left out was the right to life, defined narrowly as the opposition of the “right” to abortion. The reason I left it out was because it sits uneasily. It is not consistent with, and does not blend easily among, the other traits of the modern Republican party. And yet, the so-called social conservative wing not only accepted abortion as a key leg of the movement, but they also accepted the whole Republican agenda. In other words, many who stressed the supremacy of abortion as the defining issue in our political discourse were in effect quite comfortable with the rather narrow cultural base of this party and its favorite issues and themes. This was really brought home to me by the ecstatic reaction among many Catholics to the selection of Sarah Palin, which went far beyond her position on abortion. No, I was told she represented the “real America” (whereas people like me clearly did not) and that she would gleefully thumb her nose at all of those nasty elitists who look down their own noses at small-town white culture. This was an eye-opening moment for me.

There are other examples. I talked recently about how James Dobson had bought into McCain’s really bad economic analysis. Of course, he is not Catholic. But many Catholics who support the Republicans largely on the abortion issue are also extremely comfortable with laissez-faire liberalism, and are inclined to blame government entities and programs rather than free market greed for the current financial crisis. I look across Catholic blogs, and sometimes I get the feeling that Ronald Reagan is a major figure in Catholic social teaching! Bizarre.

Needless to say, hitching the pro-life cause to this wagon has been an unmitigated disaster. Rather than being seen as part of a principled ethic of life, opposition to Roe v. Wade is instead part of a philosophy and a culture that is rapidly losing salience in America. Look at the lop-sided youth vote, which is staggering. Any movement that is so detested by the younger generation is doomed. And it is taking the pro-life movement down with it.

Was it ever about abortion? Many pro-lifers seem genuinely puzzled by Obama’s appeal, given his strong pro-abortion rhetoric. Unfortunately, for most people, abortion is a minor issue. This year, economic fears dominated. Four years ago, a country confused and scared about terrorism flocked to George Bush; his views on abortion were distinctly secondary. And yet, some people just keep digging. Pro-lifers ogle over Palin, defend McCain’s economics, support pre-emptive war, oppose universal health care, keep quiet about torture and global warming, and stand against any restriction on gun ownership. None of this is coherent. None of this is consistent.

The pro-life movement should use the Obama victory to make a clean break with the entire Republican agenda, at least until the party has reformed. Pro-lifers need to reach out to Obama, knowing well that he will not agree with them on some fundamental issues. But Christians can only persuade by example. The only viable example is that of the consistent ethic of life, grounded in Catholic social teaching. Strong and loud, yes, but first consistent.

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