Why Isn't 'Pro-Life' about All Life?

At the root of it all is power, and who has it.

Sean Illing is a smart omnivorous thinker who works for Vox. His range is remarkable, as is his intellectual courage. One week, he’ll write about John Dewey’s argument with Walter Lippmann. The next about the psychedelic charms of ayahuasca. The next about “epistocracy,” the psychology of marriage, or the science of happiness.

Like most liberals I know and read, and respect and admire, Illing is flummoxed utterly by the stated principles and political agenda of white evangelical protestants. On Tuesday, in reaction to a state senator in Oklahoma introducing legislation that would defy court rulings and outlaw abortion, Illing wrote on Twitter:

I sincerely understand the pro-life impulse, but I will never understand the disjunction between unwavering moral concern for a fetus and complete indifference to the plight of people who are living and walking and suffering right now.

I bring up Illing not to call him out. (He recently interviewed a prominent white evangelical figure in the hopes of figuring out why they adore notorious philanderer Donald Trump.) I bring him up to underscore a problem I see among liberal types who believe in facts and reason, who defer to the authority of truth, and who tend to believe the evidence of their senses. You know, sane people without an ax to grind.

Many fiercely intelligent writers of good faith do not have, as I do, experience on the inside. They do not carry with them the weight of personal history during which they internalized the tenets of conservative evangelical Christianity only later to disgorge them fully. And because they are lucky enough never to have lived through that history, they cannot see what’s going on. They cannot see that the fight over abortion has less to do with the rights of the fetus. It has more to do with power.

The sect of born-again Christians I was born into, in the early 1970s, did not think much about abortion. They didn’t think much of a woman’s right to determine her reproductive destiny. They didn’t think about these issues, probably because it was hard even to conceive of a reality outside a socio-religious order in which God reigned over mankind, man reigned over wife (not women), and man and wife reigned over their children. The most important of Moses’ laws was not, as Jesus told the Pharisees, to love God with all your heart in equal proportion to loving thy neighbor as thyself.

No. It was to obey.

That meant obedience went hand in glove with morality. To be good was to obey one’s father unconditionally. This meant that even if Dad (or Mom) wronged you by, say, physically assaulting you as punishment for some sin, you could not express grievance, you couldn’t even get angry about it, because getting angry was challenging authority, and challenging authority was like challenging the will of God. On the outside, every human deserves justice. On the inside, deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

Where does abortion stand in this context?

Well, first let me say that born-again Christians of the sort I grew up with didn’t think about birth control or how to avoid pregnancy, because the assumption was that sex didn’t come until marriage, and the community invested a lot in making sure children heard this message, and obeyed. Once you were married, there wasn’t need for birth control, because at that point, the entire point of sex was to be fruitful and multiply.

These were practical people, though, and they understood that God works in mysterious ways—ways that include complications during pregnancy. And if, say, the parents of that fetus had to make a medical decision that, in the end, resulted in that fetus’s death, there was nothing, theologically speaking, that would have prevented them from making it. After all, just as God has dominion over man, man and wife had dominion over their children. Not even the “rights of the fetus” (as it were) could challenge that authority, because challenging that authority was forbidden.

I’ll leave it to historians to explain how white evangelical protestants of the sort who now follow Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham embraced over 40 years the rights of the fetus as a mobilizing agenda. (I recommend reading Randall Balmer’s account.) My task is to illuminate the category error most liberals make, Illing included, when they confess, admirably, to being bewildered by “the disjunction between unwavering moral concern for a fetus and complete indifference to the plight of people who are living and walking and suffering.” Most importantly, I want to illuminate why.

Why? To exert authority. Theirs. That’s why.

The fight over abortion has less to do with the the fetus and more to do with the old order’s illegitimate claims to authority. Yes, abortion is part of it. This isn’t empty rhetoric. These people really do believe in the “sanctity of life.”

But the only way we can square this circle—the only way to understand the “unwavering moral concern” for life before birth but not after—is to see that power, not morality, is the animating force. More precisely, power is morality. As in: to obey is to be good. It is, moreover, an attempt to project that power onto the polity.

This is important to note, because liberals often believe, generously but wrongly, that religious efforts to restore a social order in which women are subordinate to men are due to fear. As in: They’re scared of what they don’t understand, and if they understood that women want to be men’s equals, not men’s superiors, then they would stop with all this nonsense of trying to put women “in their place.” So many, many liberals offer good-faith explanations of this and that and the other thing. All to no avail.

Why? Because authoritarians understand what equality means. Because authoritarians are enraged by the fact that women “disobey.” Because authoritarians are enraged even more when women go unpunished. This, more than anything else, is why white evangelical protestant leaders stand by Trump. With this president, these authoritarians have the best chance they have ever had to project their authority.

Again, I don’t bring up Sean Illing to call him out. He’s more or less a stand-in, for me, of the kind of good-faith highly intelligent and open-minded liberal who can’t quite bring himself to believe that conservatives are as fascist in their thinking as I’m describing them to be. They can’t quite see that obedience to God, by way of Jesus, matters more to them than Jesus himself. Why? Because Jesus was a liberal.

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