Updated: Oct 21, 2020
Earlier this week, we released the latest Holy Post video about the impact the President and Supreme Court have on abortion. I’m grateful for the strong engagement the video has received, and for the fruitful conversation it has started. As Phil said in the video’s introduction, it’s ok to disagree and I believe dialogue about these important matters will only help Christians become more informed and therefore more faithful in their response. To keep that conversation going, I want to address a few objections I’ve encountered, and expand on ideas that we could not include in the video.
#1 - I Believe in Voting for Pro-Life Candidates
One of the more perplexing reactions to the video has been the misapplication and exaggeration of the argument I presented. For example, Andrew Walker wrote, "The underlying assumption in Jethani’s video is that because abortion will continue regardless of political circumstances, it should not be the preeminent factor in how a Christian votes.” I’m not certain how this could have been the “underlying assumption” of the video when I clearly stated in the opening sentence, the last sentence, and repeatedly in-between that I was addressing voting for the presidency—not how Christians vote in general. I absolutely believe abortion should be the preeminent factor in how a Christian votes in some elections. Exaggerating the scope of my argument is an easy way to dismiss it.
The video goes to great lengths to emphasize the influence of local and state policies on reducing abortions. That means it is vital for Christians to understand a candidate’s pro-life position as well as the influence on abortion policy their elected office wields. A wise voter will consider the candidate and the office when casting their ballot. I don’t particularly care what my local school board president thinks about the Paris Climate Accord or the Iran Nuclear Treaty. I do care what a presidential or senate candidate thinks about them. Likewise, a governor or state legislature candidate’s view of abortion has proven to be more critical than a presidential candidate's in the effort to reduce abortions. We should factor these realities into our vote.
Some have also responded to the video saying their conscience simply will not permit them to vote for any candidate, running for any office, who supports abortion. I believe that is a legitimate, principled, and faithful position to hold. As I stated in the video, “There are things about the Democratic Party platform I still strongly disagree with including abortion.” I never called for Christians to vote for a Democrat or ignore the party’s increasingly extreme stance on abortion. What I do believe is that Christians owe neither their vote nor their allegiance to a presidential candidate simply because he or she claims to be against abortion. If being pro-life is a requirement for earning your vote—Great! I just hope that’s not your only requirement.
#2 - The Problem with Comparing Abortion to Slavery
Numerous responses to the video have equated the horror of abortion in America to the evil of race-based chattel slavery, and they’ve said my nuanced approach to ending abortion would have been morally unacceptable in the fight against slavery. Some said we would call any presidential candidate in favor of slavery a moral monster, so how can we accept one who does not denounce abortion? (It’s worth remembering that in the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln did not support the abolition of slavery. Nor did he begin the Civil War with the intent to free the slaves. American politics rarely produces morally unambiguous candidates. )
Slavery and abortion are both evils because they ignore the inherent value of human beings. Sharing this sinful root, however, does not mean they will share the same solution. Employing the same strategies that ended slavery in the current fight against abortion is to fundamentally misdiagnose the nature of the problem.
In the 1800s, fugitive slave laws meant Christians were legally prevented from helping slaves seeking freedom, white supremacy was enshrined in the nation’s laws including the Constitution which assigned Black Americans 3/5th the value of White Americans, and slavery had a stranglehold on the nation’s economy. According to historian David Blight, in 1860, the market value of slaves in the U.S. was greater than the value of every bank, factory, and railroad combined! No less than 1/2 of the American economy was dependent on free slave labor. Here’s the point—Ending slavery necessitated a federal response including amending the Constitution and a complete reengineering of the U.S. economy. Ending abortion does not.
Unlike slavery, we could effectively end abortion in the United States without the Supreme Court, Congress, or the President by instituting local and state policies that reduce the conditions which have been shown to create demand for abortion, and by nurturing a culture of life in which abortion becomes unthinkable. I’m not saying we should ignore the federal government in our efforts to end abortion, only that it has a less essential role than it had in the fight against slavery because of the different factors governing these two issues.
Thankfully, abortion is not 1/2 of the U.S. economy. There are no federal laws against crisis pregnancy centers. Christians are not threatened with prison for sheltering or helping a pregnant woman. And no woman is required by the Constitution to have an abortion. Simply put, while both are dehumanizing and evil, abortion is a different problem than slavery and requires a different set of responses to solve. Acknowledging this fact does not make someone “soft” or “immoral.” And judging an approach to solving abortion based on how well it would have solved slavery is like judging a linebacker based on his ice skating skills.
#3 - Laws Do Matter—Up to a Point
One of the more consistent responses to the abortion video has been about the moral and symbolic importance of making abortion illegal. The argument goes like this: By permitting abortion, the laws of the United States are endorsing evil. Therefore, even if overturning Roe or electing a pro-life President would have minimal impact on the actual number of abortions, it’s still worth pursuing because of the moral message it would send. As Andrew Walker says, “In a sane world, we would not ambiguate or equivocate on abortion as we do.” And this would aid in “the collective searing of our national conscience.”
I think this view is valid—up to a point. For example, as a parent of three teenagers, it was easier for me to warn them about the dangers of drug use when marijuana was illegal. It wasn't just dad telling them to not smoke weed, it was the state too. In this regard, the collective morality of the society was codified in our laws adding moral weight to a father’s instruction. Of course, we must also admit that criminalizing marijuana failed to deter many, many people from using it. And as the culture has become more accepting of marijuana use, our laws have changed to reflect that new position. The same was true of no-fault divorce, same-sex marriage, the deregulation of guns, and many other prohibitions that no longer exist in our laws.
Laws are most effective when they reflect the moral position already affirmed by society, but their effectiveness declines rapidly when they do not—as we saw during Prohibition in the 1920s. In other words, the law is downstream from the culture. The culture is rarely downstream from the law.
So, the idea that passing laws to make abortion illegal will “sear our national conscience” and shift the culture doesn’t fit with the evidence, and we don’t just have to look at drugs, guns, or marriage laws for proof. For about a century before Roe v Wade, abortion was illegal in many states, and yet the abortion rate was higher before Roe than it is today. As I reported in the video, in the 1930s when anti-abortion laws were at their peak, there were still 800,000 abortions in the U.S. each year, and in states where abortion was illegal tens of thousands of women still crossed state lines to have abortions.
Maybe the problem was how the government equivocated in the enforcement of those laws. According to Clarke Forsythe, writing for “Americans United for Life,” there are only two known cases of a woman ever being indicted or tried for having an abortion. The last was in Texas in 1922. And no woman has ever been indicted for a self-induced abortion in U.S. history. So, here are my honest questions—If having anti-abortion laws on the books in many states before Roe didn't sear our conscience against the practice, what would? And, what does enforcement of pro-life laws look like that does “not ambiguate or equivocate on abortion”?
Would it require the criminal prosecution of women who have abortions as a way to clearly communicate its sinfulness? And, if abortion is equivalent to murder, and murder necessitates capital punishment (as some conservative Christians argue from Genesis 9:6), should the state execute physicians who perform abortions and women who take abortion-inducing drugs? Would that be enough to sear the national conscience? I don’t know any pro-life Christian supporting these outrageous, although unambiguous, positions. The "War on Drugs" has put millions of Americans in prison and drug use remains pandemic in our country. Would a criminal justice "War on Abortion" do any better?
#4 - God is Not Stupid
Related to the importance of righteous laws, many responses to the video have simply said that God will not bless a nation whose laws permit the killing of innocent lives. Therefore, we must elect pro-life presidents, to nominate pro-life justices, to overturn Roe. Period.
One of the most powerful and reoccurring themes in Scripture is the Lord’s disregard for empty symbols. Through the Old Testament prophets, the Lord rejected the worship of Israel. “They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). And he found their rituals and fasting detestable because of their mistreatment of the poor, homeless, and naked (Isaiah 58:1-10). In the Gospels, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. Externally, they appeared righteous, obeying God’s laws, and performing the right sacrifices. But he called them “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27).
Finally, in his epistles, Paul frequently discounted the importance of external symbols of righteousness like circumcision. In Romans 2, he says what makes someone truly a Jew isn’t whether he is circumcised, but whether he obeys God’s law. “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart” (Romans 2:28-29).
My point is simple—God is not stupid. He is not fooled by our symbols, rituals, words, or written laws. He does not judge us individually or collectively by what we display, but by what we actually do. Wearing a cross does not make you a Christian. Saying a prayer does not make you a saint. And overturning Roe will not make America holy. Having a law on the books in all 50 states declaring abortion is murder means nothing if we fail to create a culture of life that dramatically reduces the number of abortions. And here’s the good news—we can work to create a culture of life that dramatically reduces the number of abortions right now! We don’t have to wait for a law declaring abortion is murder.
I’ll conclude with a parable from Jesus:
“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” (Matthew 21:28–31)
Which nation does the will of God? The one which passes laws criminalizing abortion, but does not actually reduce the number? Or the nation in which abortion is legal, but works diligently on the local and state level to help women, children, and families and dramatically reduces the number of abortions? Of course, this is a false dichotomy. We can both pursue good laws and work on the ground to help reduce abortions. What's required is discernment to know where to best put our energies. That's what our video was all about, and what a fruitful conversation among pro-life Christians should continue to debate.
Some have accused me of being a pragmatist on an issue in which there can be no compromise. When it comes to the issue of abortion, yes, I am guilty of putting pragmatism ahead of idealism. I believe in strategies that will reduce abortions, help women, and support families—not in symbolic gestures that present a facade of righteousness but will do little to help the least and the vulnerable. I've taken this posture because I believe God will judge a nation for its actions rather than for its image.