Updated: Jun 19, 2019
Dear Pro-Choice Advocates,
I am one of you. I am also a former member of the Christian Right. As someone who has been on both sides of the abortion debate, I feel compelled to share a tidbit of insight you can’t be blamed for overlooking in your fight to save women’s rights. How can this still be an issue, you ask. How can we be reverting instead of keeping the progress we’ve made, never mind progressing further? If you truly wish to understand your opponents better, I invite you to take a peek behind the Christian Right curtain.
Disclaimer: For the purposes of this opinion piece, I am making broad statements about evangelical Christians and their faith-based pro-life allies, including Catholics and Mormons. There are always exceptions. When I use the term ‘Christian Right,’ I am referring to the socially conservative political group founded on the tenets of Judeo-Christianity who are pro-life - or pro-forced birth, for those who prefer the term.
There are two things I would like to help you understand about the Christian Right: their motivation is spiritual warfare and persecution is their fuel. Say what? Before I elaborate on each of these, let me acknowledge that not every member of the Christian Right will subscribe to these beliefs. Some may not even know what I’m talking about. A good many, however, will know exactly what I mean. More than 25% of American voters identify as evangelical Christians. If you care to know the mentality you are up against, allow me to try and explain two lesser-discussed but potent driving factors behind this particular facet of the Christian GoP.
I am not going to address the other reasons the Christian Right is so adamantly against abortion. I feel they are already well-documented. That many Christians sincerely believe abortion is murder is perhaps the most cited reason, woven into the very name of their stance with the term ‘pro-life.’ They believe in an unborn child’s right to live. Also frequently covered in public discourse is how controlling women’s reproductive rights is ultimately about controlling women. Being anti-choice is in large part about shaming women for being sexual beings. It is, in the shadows of its core, about punishing women for not being virgins and for being raped. The Bible teaches us to punish women for these. (See here and here.)
My goal is to try and explain two other reasons that might be missed by pro-choice advocates in their confusion over why so many Americans want to overturn Roe v Wade. My hope is that a deeper understanding might lead to a more effective approach in getting what we want: safe and legal access to abortion for women.
I’ve seen your pleas to the Christian Right. They probably have, too. Stats and graphs are not going to change these minds. Mocking memes are not going to win them over. Seeds of reason may be planted, but a timely about-face followed by an aha-moment is not something you are likely to see regarding this and many other faith-based issues. Why? The Christian Right is not living “of this world.” You keep appealing to their humanity and logic, asking how can they be pro-life in the face of their own inconsistent evidence. If it’s about life, you ask, how can they be pro-guns? If it’s about saving children, why do they seem indifferent to the children dying in ICE holding camps? To understand this, you must try to understand that to evangelical Christians - and believers of many other faiths - it is the immaterial world that carries far greater consequences than the physical world we share. This is why you cannot reason with them. They are fervently, and earnestly, engaged in a spiritual war.
Spiritual warfare probably sounds ludicrous to those who weren’t trained to fight in it. I was. This war was once very real to me, as it is to millions of others. Its consequences are eternal and it is sincerely a matter of life and death.
Allow me to briefly summarize the battle many members of the Christian Right believe is occurring…
There is a war going on between God and Satan. The forces of good are combating the forces of evil. God and his angels are good. Satan and his demons are evil.
The war is over our eternal souls. God wants our souls up in heaven with him. Satan wants to torture our souls forever in the gnashing pits of hell.
There are countless ways we fight on God or Satan’s side each day. For example, giving to the homeless is a win for God’s side; giving in to pornography is a win for Satan’s.
When we abort a baby, we are fighting on Satan’s side.
Some Christians believe the souls of aborted babies go to heaven, for God is merciful. Some believe their innocent souls go straight to hell, for God is just. When I was a Christian, I feared the latter. God says he will punish children for the sins of their parents in the third commandment, and in the sixth commandment, God says not to murder. These fueled my personal reasons for wanting to overturn Roe v Wade. I truly believed that aborting babies damned their little souls to the tortures of hell, and all because their mothers selfishly didn’t want to have them.
If this sounds irrational to you, I understand. I also ask you to try and understand that this was once very rational to me. When you accept the Bible as the word of God, as an inerrant truth shared by nearly every member of your community, your brain learns to reason within that operating system. Those who challenge you are deemed detractors, Satan in disguise. Regardless of whether a Christian believes an aborted baby goes to heaven or hell, they will have a rationale for their personal beliefs. Please believe me when I say that to Christians, their arguments are just as rational as yours, if not more so in their eyes. You are consumed by the petty drama of this world while they are sacrificial warriors enduring misunderstanding and persecution for the next. This is what it means to battle in spiritual warfare. I know it might be hard to understand, or even entertain. I do think this understanding is necessary if you wish to appeal to their reason, however different it might be from yours.
To further try and explain the mentality shared by many pro-life Christians, allow me to address another aspect of spiritual warfare: prayer and politics.
If winning this spiritual war is the objective, living in accordance with God’s will is the battle. This is why so many Christians can’t leave prayer out of politics. This is why they cannot separate church and state. Ensuring the policies we are governed by align with what the Bible says keeps them fighting on God’s side. For the Christians who take this war seriously, fighting on God’s side means actively fighting against what the Bible teaches is wrong, including gay marriage and abortion. Although the Bible doesn’t address abortion in specific terms, it does say that God knows us while we are in our mother’s womb and it says that murder is wrong. Put two and two together. What happens when we do not fight on God’s side in this spiritual war? Our souls will be cast into a lake of fire.
Many evangelical Christians believe the Second Coming of Christ is near. So near that it might even occur within our lifetimes. Jesus will return to judge the wicked and separate his true followers from his untrue followers and those who rejected him. True followers will go to heaven. Untrue followers will go to hell. There is a lot of variance in what makes one a true follower or not, resulting in all the different Christian denominations. There is also the 3.5 to 7-year period before the Second Coming to prepare for, the Great Tribulation, an apocalyptic era of suffering that many Christians are stockpiling goods and weapons for - ergo their fervent support of the NRA. These faithful who believe the End Times are nigh are earnestly waging war against what they perceive to be the forces of evil. They must prove themselves true followers of Christ if they and their families are to be spared from suffering here on earth and in the hereafter. For many American Christians, being a true follower means fighting against abortion.
You might be thinking this sounds extreme. Surely not that many of your fellow citizens believe in this mythological fire and brimstone? Surely only proselytizers on street corners and David Koresh-like cults in bunkers actually think the apocalypse is coming? Yes and no. While there are a minority of Christian extremist groups stockpiling bunkers, you might be surprised to know just how many average church-going Americans believe in Judgment Day, however imminent or far-off. The Bible says no one knows the day or the hour. It will be precluded by world wars, famines, and earthquakes - those are the warning signs, Jesus says. (Sound like climate change? Hence why many in the Christian Right aren’t that bothered by it.) To err on the side of safety, it never hurts to be on God’s side. To be on God’s side, for many, means to fight for Christian conservative values and policies.
You might not hear Christian politicians talking about spiritual warfare in those exact terms. They know how fabled it sounds, whether they personally believe it themselves or just pretend to in order to win votes. But there is reason to believe the words ‘spiritual warfare’ are being used in the White House. President and First Lady Trump hosted a special dinner last year in honor of evangelical leadership. 100 of America’s most prominent evangelicals were there. One pastor in attendance, Jack Graham, said the evangelical dinner was like a testimony meeting, with scripture shared and verses given to the president.
“We need to maintain our vigilance in the upcoming days,” said Graham. “The concern is that this is a spiritual warfare, this is a battle and ultimately battle is won on our knees.”
Prayer and politics. This is not a fringe movement. It is not relegated to backwoods revival tents or middle-American megachurches. It is in our very administration. Vice President Mike Pence is a self-described Catholic-Evangelical, a devout theocrat and reputed dominionist who believes in Creationism. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is an evangelical Christian who has publicly stated she wants to “advance God’s kingdom,” a reference to spiritual victory. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used spiritual warfare terms when he spoke at a church in Wichita, Kansas just three years ago, inviting the congregation to join a fight of good against evil.
“We will continue to fight these battles,” Pompeo said. “It is a never-ending struggle… until the rapture. Be part of it. Be in the fight.”
The rapture, some Christians believe, will occur right before Christ’s Second Coming. Christians will vanish into thin air in the blink of an eye to be spared the abominable desolation of the Great Tribulation.
Our nation’s leaders appear to sincerely believe these stories. They are ruthlessly fighting to bring our country’s policies in accordance with their religious values to be on God’s side when the End Times come. They are striving toward Christian theocracy - a government based on Biblical teachings. Like a Christian version of Sharia law. And you know what? I prayed for this to happen.
In September of 2000, during a rainy Labor Day weekend, I marched on the Capitol Mall of Washington, D.C. to turn America back to God. I was fourteen years old. My Kansas City youth group had joined thousands of others to partake in a political prayer rally known as TheCall. It would be the first of many led by Lou Engle, an evangelical prophet and political activist who would go on to become a prominent speaker for the Christian Right, associated with politicians such as Mike Huckabee and endorsing Sarah Palin as a modern-day Queen Esther. Back in 2000, Engle’s influence over American politics was just getting started.
I wept with 600,000 other teenagers in the muddy grass of the Capitol Mall for two days. We cried out for the banning of gay marriage, for the return of prayer and Creationism in schools, and for the overturning of Roe v Wade. Our bellies growled from fasting - depriving ourselves of food was supposed to further demonstrate our earnestness to God - and our fists pounded at the charcoal sky as we pleaded for God to forgive the mothers who slaughtered their babies, for they knew not what they did. We were actively engaged in spiritual warfare. It was up to us teenagers, Lou Engle said, to save our country. It was up to our generation to bring America back to God’s side in this spiritual war.
I struggled with shame for years after leaving Christianity. The love of my gay friends made my eyes water with regret for fighting their right to marriage. Marveling at the wonders of evolution made me feel stupid for what I had willfully ignored before. Accompanying a tearful friend to her abortion made me never want to tell her how I had once fought against her right to choose.
It was love that changed my mind. Ultimately it was the kindness of non-Christians, the curious questions, unspoken actions, and late-night conversations that gradually led me to question my views in ways I never thought I would dare. Watching the film about Mid-Century abortionist Vera Drake with one of my close friends inspired the first genuine abortion debate I ever had with a Democrat. It ended with me deciding that I could personally be pro-life while respecting another’s right to choose. (For the record, I am no longer a Christian, but I still was at this point.) This change would not have come about without the love my friend showed me, without the safe reassurance of his acceptance of me no matter what I said. Perhaps this sounds corny, but it was my truth: love was what ultimately brought me to the other side.
Which brings me to the second thing you need to know about the Christian Right. You will not change their minds by persecuting them.
I hope by now I’ve explained why reasoning with Christian Right voters often doesn’t work. Their belief in spiritual warfare nullifies earthly logic in favor of what they believe to be divine calling. Remember: this life is temporary. Eternal life is, well, eternal. And life on earth is our test to see what side of eternity we will end up on.
So what do we do? If trying to reason with the Christian Right doesn’t work, then how do we fight to keep abortion legal? The first thing I personally think we need to look at is what we ought not to do.
Evangelicals believe they are called to be living, breathing martyrs for Christ. If there is one thing I could hope to get across to you, pro-choicers, it is this: the more you come down on the perceived irrationality of the Christian Right, the harder they will dig in their heels. It will be deemed as persecution and their stances will be strengthened. [Click to Tweet] If you truly hope to change minds, I hope you can be open to the idea that you might need to start with changing hearts. And this will not happen quickly. I am asking you to play the long game for the long-lasting goal you wish to see: nationwide access to safe and legal abortion.
You might think your statistics speak for themselves. Abortion rates indeed go up in places where it is illegal. If criminalizing abortion is supposed to save lives, and more lives are lost both of mother and child when abortion is illegalized, how does it make sense to outlaw? It doesn’t. Not to you. Not even to many evangelicals. But it makes greater sense to them that this is the sacrifice sinners must pay when they turn their backs on God. It makes greater sense to them that abortion helps Satan, and that although God will triumph in the end, they need to help save as many souls as they can before the end comes and they are doomed to eternal fire, pain, and suffering. It makes greater sense to evangelicals that God must be feared and obeyed above humankind. And when you misunderstand and mock them for these beliefs, however unwittingly, you are reinforcing the validity of their stance. Jesus warns Christians that they will be persecuted for following him. When you persecute the Christian Right with enraged tweets and screenshots of snarky quotes effectively saying how stupid they are, you affirm they are doing God’s will. You affirm they are on the right side of the spiritual war. You are hurting your own cause.
Those of us raised as evangelicals are trained from a young age to accept - indeed, embrace - mockery and scorn as persecution. It is a privilege to be persecuted for Christ. It is an honor to suffer as Jesus suffered. It is our calling to sacrifice our egos worried about what the world thinks for the sake of what we believe is spiritually good.
“You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death,” Jesus told his followers when warning them what to expect right before the End Times. “And you will be hated by all nations because of me.”
This is why the Christian Right is not phased by having a less than likable president. If the world hates America because our policies reflect conservative Christian values and climate change denial, well, Jesus prophesied this would happen.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,” Jesus says in Matthew 5:10. “For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Evangelicals translate persecution as affirmation. The more the secular world antagonizes them, the more the heavenly realm embraces them. You might not see your outrage as persecution. I understand why you are angry, why you are indignant, scoffing, and genuinely concerned. I understand your confusion at the apparent double standards of the Christian Right. You should be confused and angry. It doesn’t make sense to you. The Christian Right agenda is hurting millions of people. It’s hurting women, members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, and so many more. You are right to be enraged.
To be clear, I am not advocating for your silence. I am not saying we should stop fighting for women’s rights, or that we shouldn’t be vocal and express ourselves authentically and with passion. What I am hoping to do is show you the unintended effect your justified anger may be having. When you blast it on social media in a way that puts down Christians and other conservatives (and yes, I’m guilty here, too), I can almost guarantee you it is being viewed as persecution and therefore validation. If the last thing you want is to strengthen the conservative side, I sincerely hope it might be helpful to better understand their mentality.
Do I think you should stop posting statistics on social media? No. Do I think you should stop sharing your stories of why you had an abortion? No, please keep sharing. Humanizing the experience of abortion speaks volumes. Do I think you should stop spreading facts like how federal taxes don’t actually fund abortion as birth control, or how late-term abortion might not be what you’re advocating for? No, keep spreading accurate information. But I implore you to consider doing so with compassion and with a lot less mockery.
Using sarcasm and words like ‘ridiculous,’ ‘backwards,’ and ‘draconic’ will be interpreted as forms of persecution. I understand where these word choices are coming from. Humor, however mean, does often prove a point far more effectively than other methods. If Bill Maher-style mockery or call-it-like-it-is outrage is your tool of choice, I get it. I also feel a responsibility to let you know that you are likely fueling the very fire you wish to put out. Again, you cannot be blamed for not knowing this. It is only as a former insider that I can say anything at all about the consequences of these tactics. When you hope to shame, you strengthen. When counter-protesters shouted back at me with slogans like, “If you don’t want an abortion, just don’t have one!” it gave me resolve. They don’t understand, I would think, praying for their souls. They don’t understand I’m trying to bring America back to God for them. Their anger made me feel persecuted. Like I was taking one for the team.
When you retweet or re-gram quotes and memes that ultimately throw shade on the Christian Right, you are solidifying their stance. You are also likely growing their numbers. Christians who didn’t want to be involved and vote will now vote against you because they believe they are being persecuted. Share your facts, but leave out the scorn. Appeal to hearts, not minds.
What To Do
Now that we’ve considered what not to do, let’s look at what to do. The following suggestions may have little to no effect in changing the voting stance of even one person - like I said, the calling of spiritual warfare is one reason cannot argue with. I know this from experience. But seeds can be planted, and I know this from experience as well. The idealist in me hopes that adopting a kinder, more educational approach might at least mitigate inciting non-voters to pro-life polls. If we can offend fewer Christians, maybe fewer of them will feel persecuted, resulting in fewer of them showing up to vote for pro-life candidates. Without further ado, I offer you five pieces of unsolicited advice:
Listen. Are you more likely to listen to someone after you yourself feel heard? Most humans are. When we feel seen and understood, we are more open to considering another’s point of view. I know you may not want to hear what the Christian Right has to say. They’ve already said enough, you may think, and it sounds like it’s coming from another planet. If you know any pro-lifers, listen to them. Ask them, in a non-combative and sincere way, why they are pro-life. And listen to their answer. No matter how outrageous you find it, express that you are doing your best to understand their point of view. Say, “I can see why you feel that way,” if it feels honest to you. If it doesn’t, say, “It’s hard for me to understand that, but I respect that’s how you feel.” Respect begets respect.
Lead with did-you-know’s. Invite dialogue by leading with fact-based tidbits instead of outrage-fueled rants. “Did you know taxes don’t actually fund abortion?” is a much more intriguing opener than, “Btw, taxes don’t fund abortions, and also, if you’re anti-welfare, how can you be pro-life when there’s going to be more kids who need it?” Respectful did-you-know’s will be better received than judgmental how-can-you’s. The former invites discourse and may lead to genuine consideration. The latter may feel like persecution and make them double down.
Educate yourself on their education. Learn what the Christian Right is being taught so you can debate it more effectively. For a start, I recommend watching this video from Catholic news channel EWTN titled ‘The Spiritual Warfare Reality in Abortion.’ Secondly, watch this video from Bethel TV of evangelical activist Lou Engle speaking about how Exodus 1:22 is effectively a prophecy for the legalizing of abortion in America on 1/22/73 (watch from 3:30 to 7:34 if you don’t want to sit through the whole thing). This is a glimpse into the symbolism-laced mentality of the Christian Right. This is the mindset you must understand if you wish to appeal to their logic.
Specify what you are fighting for. Many Christians, like Lou Engle in the video linked above, use the most extreme of abortion cases to argue that all abortion is wrong. If full-term, partial birth abortion is not what you’re advocating for, say so. If abortion only in the first trimester is what you wish to keep legal, tweet about that. Whether you believe in rape or incest-only abortion, or in cases of risk to the mother, or you feel abortion at any time for any reason should be kept legal, let your specificity be known. Because a lot of Christians are only imagining near-to-full-term, bloody, brain-sucking, baby-screaming slaughters.
Take notes from the Christian Left. Although I am now an atheist, I think one of the best places we can look to for advice on talking with the Christian Right is the Christian Left. There are growing numbers of progressive and pro-choice Christians. In my opinion, these brave folks are fighting the battle from the inside. As Bible believers themselves, they know how to speak to the rationale of fellow Christians and use the word of God as a basis for their beliefs. Google ‘pro-choice Christians.’ Here are some of the things they have to say:
“I believe reproductive rights and bodily autonomy are deeply important. I believe that is faithfulness to Christianity… When people talk about ‘Our body is a temple of God, and holy,’ I see that as I have the right to choices over my body, and the freedom to make the decisions that are right for me.” ~ Jes Kast, ‘A Pastor’s Case for the Morality of Abortion’
”When I learned that abortion is not an act of murder that goes against God’s will but simply a medical procedure that every person should have a right to, my mindset completely changed.” ~ Livi Burke, ‘Pro-Choice and Christian’
“Episcopal priest Kira Schlesinger takes what has become, perhaps, the default pro-choice and Christian view: for Christians, abortion must be understood through the broad lens of justice. The focus must be on upholding the conditions for healthy and thriving children, not on policing women’s individual choices.” ~ Amy Frykholm, ‘Two Ways of Being Christian and Pro-Choice’
I’ll leave you with a speech from Vice President Mike Pence given during a commencement ceremony at Liberty University just a few weeks ago.
“You’re entering an America where you have a President and an administration that is standing strong for all the liberties we cherish,” the Vice President said. “The freedom of speech, the freedom of religion. And we stand without apology for the sanctity of human life… Some of the loudest voices for tolerance today have little tolerance for traditional Christian beliefs. So as you go about your daily life, just be ready. Because you’re going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith; you’re going to be asked to endorse them. You’re going to be asked to bow down to the idols of the popular culture… So... my word to all of you is decide here and now that you’re going to stand firm, that you’ll put into practice all the things you learned here... And as you do these things, in increasing measure, I promise you, you’ll be blessed, you’ll be a blessing to your family, to your coworkers, and you’ll be a blessing to this nation."
The spiritual war of the Christian Right is being fueled by persecution. If we want to keep abortion safe and legal in America, we need to take their worldview seriously. [Click to Tweet]
UPDATE: This post has been edited to specify that federal taxes do not fund abortion as birth control. Please see this link to view what federal and state tax funding does cover.