Editor's Note: This piece is published as a part of a symposium hosted by Patheos'Catholic PortalandEvangelical Portal, entitled, "For Life and Family: Faith and the Future of Social Conservatism."
When I was, well, a few years younger than Tim Muldoon is today, the message of despair now directed at marriage was directed at the pro-life movement. All the powerful elites favored abortion. Media coverage of anyone who was pro-life was dreadful. All the wives of Republican power-brokers favored abortion rights. If you said you opposed abortion, people would shout, "You are calling my sister a murderer!" They informed me that by the time I turned 50, the pro-life movement would be dead because young people were so pro-choice.
I'm 50 now, and yet the pro-life sentiment is surging as today's young people are more pro-life than their elders.
How did that happen?
There are many ways to answer that question, and what I offer here is more of a missing piece—the role of politics in cultural change—than a comprehensive theory.
This is a part of what I saw happen in the last thirty years:
Led by people of faith, and above all by the Catholic Church's principled and prescient stand, pro-lifers formed coalitions across faith groups and built intellectual institutions to develop and sustain ideas (like Human Life Review), as well as messaging and lobbying institutions to shape the political process.
Pro-lifers (eventually and not without great internal struggle with purity issues) identified achievable political goals to keep hope—and influential organizations—alive. Pro-lifers organized politically and effectively. They helped elect presidents, senators, congressmen, governors, and state legislators who promised not just to support their values but to vote on specific issues to limit abortion.
In doing so, prolife leaders successfully raised the cost to pro-abortion-rights elites of their hateful, denouncing, stigmatizing rhetoric. Eventually Democratic elites decided that it was just too expensive to go on losing elections by talking that way. So they muted their rhetoric. "Safe, legal, and rare" became the Democrats' Clintonian new mantra.
By the 1990s, both sides agreed (at least publicly) that pro-life values should be respected, even if they continued to disagree on the specific legislative strategies for reducing abortion.
That political accommodation created a new cultural space for pro-lifers. The pro-life position became "respected" by both sides in the public square, rather than relentlessly de-legitimized by elite organs of culture.
Politics and culture are not separate activities. Sometimes culture determines politics. But sometimes politics, by raising the costs of demonizing pro-life positions, and raising the profile of the issue in the public square, serves cultural change as well.