This the 1st in a 5-part series on abortion.
Sanctity of Life Sunday: A Modest Critique
When Life Began to Begin at Conception
The Impossible Middle Ground
A United Methodist Bishop's Pro-Life Witness
Challenging Liberal Christians on Abortion

Each year on the third Sunday in January (coinciding with the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling), many white evangelicals and fundamentalist leaders (and some others) observe Sanctity of Life Sunday in their churches. After largely welcoming the Roe ruling, many conservative evangelicals became aware of the "murderous reality of abortion" in the 1970s and, as they rose to power and influence thereafter, made pro-life advocacy a foundation of Republican politics and Christian faith and life. This annual observance reveals much about religion and politics in America and about a subset of evangelicals who doubled down on criminalizing abortion even as they turned their backs on the ecumenical Christian consensus on almost every other issue.

Sample church bulletin insert for Sanctity of Human Life Sunday 2014

Sample church bulletin insert for Sanctity of Human Life Sunday 2014

Liturgically, most of the world's Christians (and many in America) observed last Sunday as the Second Sunday after the Epiphany. Following Christmastide, the season of Epiphany (Gk. epi phanos = "to shine forth") celebrates the shining forth of God's light into the world in the person of Jesus. During this time, Christians remember pivotal evens in Jesus' life and ministry as he manifests the Divine Self. You won't hear about all that in most evangelical churches. Of course, evangelicals and fundamentalists are not alone among American Protestants in largely ignoring the liturgical calendar (or in unwittingly turning national and sentimental holidays -- Thanksgiving, Independence Day, Mother's Day, etc. -- into Christian holy days).

But these guys have become creative in constructing their own special holidays. In 2005 and for a few years afterward, groups including the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family organized "Justice Sunday." The purpose of Justice Sunday was to protest Democratic U.S. Senators who were filibustering judicial nominees, as Republican Senators had done previously and would do again subsequently. At the same time, though not in a coordinated fashion because Pat Robertson was considered too extreme for even James Dobson and Tony Perkins, Rev. Robertson urged Christians to pray for vacancies on the Supreme Court. It was never quite clear whether Robertson wanted God to kill pro-choice justices or merely strike them with illnesses so severe that they would have to retire.

Technically nonpartisan and apolitical, Sanctity of Life Sunday encourages pastors to preach about the sanctity of all of life. So you might hear a word or two about befriending lonely old people or about adopting orphan children. But mostly, you hear about the evils of abortion. Since abortion is the gravest moral crisis in American history (yes, some say worse than slavery), the only Christian response, according to preachers, is to advocate for its outright criminalization.

And this, I think, is where Sanctity of Life Sunday may do more harm than good.  By committing themselves to criminalization of abortion, pro-life advocates choose the impossible perfect over the attainable good. I never hear pro-life advocates talk much about the back-alley and international tourism abortion industries that would thrive if they ever attained their sacred goal of criminalization. I have never heard their plan for how to deal with the aftermath of life-threatening self-abortions. Who will counsel victims when the state forces them to carry their rapists' babies to term? Who will adopt the children who are birthed and then abandoned? How will society deal with the population bulge of unwanted and, in many cases, unloved, children?

Sadly, I suspect that pastors who preach thoughtful sermons on Sanctity of Life Sunday about how to actually reduce the number of abortions in the U.S. will be attacked for being insufficiently pro-life. After all, there are many public policies that have been empirically proven to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies: evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs, mass media campaigns discouraging unprotected sex, increasing public subsidies for family planning services, etc. Everyone agrees that unintended pregnancies have personal and societal costs. It is within our power to enact reforms that reduce unintended pregnancies and drive the abortion rate down. Unfortunately and ironically, so-called Bible-believing Christians are often the most vociferous opponents of proven pro-life policies.

Since pro-life and pro-choice interest groups are now gatekeepers to political office, church-based pro-life advocacy takes on an overtly partisan tone. The only legitimate option for the Christian is to support Republican politicians (regardless of their positions on any other issues since this issue is paramount) to the greatest degree possible. Democrats are fetus-crushing murderers and must be opposed at all costs. Such black-and-white thinking endangers what credibility ever existed in conservative evangelicals political thought. Their single-issue obsession with Republican politics has, over time, led them away from time-honored and essentially unanimous ecumenical Christian consensus on a myriad of important social, economic, and political issues.

The debate over abortion's legality has polarized us, our politics, and our churches. It has also hardened our hearts. I suspect that few evangelical pastors realize how many of their own parishioners have aborted. It's hardly pastoral to attack and shame 65-year old church ladies for choices made decades ago, likening them to convicted first-degree murderers. In the same way, evangelical elites should be more sensitive to the fact that Christian women make the difficult decision to terminate unacceptable pregnancies every day.

These leaders -- almost always men -- continually double down on the most extreme culture war positions. But the farther they push, the fewer people they actually speak for. Previously, I noted the surprising diversity of white evangelicals' abortion attitudes. Yet leaders are now saying that sending children to public schools is increasingly not an option, that hormonal birth control may now be akin to abortion itself, and that unless you advocate for criminalization of abortion in every case, you're not really pro-life. If these guys keep pushing, they will eventually lose their own people.

On abortion, it wasn't always this extreme. I suspect the hardline position evolved after elites accepted the idea the life begins at conception. That will be the subject of my next post: When life began to begin at conception.

This the 1st in a 5-part series on abortion.
Sanctity of Life Sunday: A Modest Critique
When Life Began to Begin at Conception
The Impossible Middle Ground
A United Methodist Bishop's Pro-Life Witness
Challenging Liberal Christians on Abortion

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