The Pro-Life Movement After Trump: Can We Get Along?
Many in the pro-life community think that the most important date over the next month for the future of the movement is November 8th.
But they are wrong.
The morning of November 9th will matter far more to how effective the pro-life movement will be in the years to come. On that morning after our Great National Nightmare comes to a close, pro-lifers will be left with the difficult and painful task of sorting out whether and how they will reconcile with each other.
And reconciliation will be needed.
Even if Trump were to pull off the miracle comeback and win the Presidency — and if we know anything about the politics of 2016, divine action of the gracious variety is in short supply — the meaning and shape of pro-life politics has shifted irrevocably. Many in the pro-life leadership have demonstrated themselves willing to support Trump despite and through his manifest and obvious misogyny (not to mention his racism). The Supreme Court has always been a trump card for pro-lifers; but never before has it exacted the kind of collateral damage to the integrity of their witness as playing it this year has. It has become clear that many of the politically-oriented pro-life institutions will lend their support to Republican candidates on the sheer hope that such a candidate will be better for our purposes than their Democratic challenger.
And that’s if he wins.
If he loses, pro-lifers who opt to vote for a third party, Hillary Clinton, or to play board games with their family instead of fulfilling their civic duty will be blamed for helping someone who will be no friend to the cause win the White House. Those who supported Trump will come face to face with the reality that they dragged their institutions into the unseemly position of rationalizing someone who actively boasted about sexual assault, and that they have nothing to show politically for it. Under such descriptions, the question of whether we are going to be able to get along — or whether we should — will loom large.
The question of rebuilding social trust after November 8th is not that of the pro-life movement alone, of course. Such a movement is a microcosm of the deeper and more destructive fractures that this election cycle has wrought. Those who supported Trump have frequently been accused of carrying themselves the many vices he embodies; whether those communities whose sense of alienation is disconnected from the darker impulses of race and gender can be folded again into the structures of American life is one of the great questions before us all.
The one thing that such reconciliation cannot be is cheap or easy. If there is wrongdoing here, on either side, it must be named and confessed; if there were mistakes, responsibility must be assumed. That the pro-life movement is a coalition of so many different and diverse organizations makes it both easy to idealize such a process of seeking a restorative justice and to avoid enacting it altogether. Who will hold Tony Perkins accountable for sullying the name of the “Family” Research Council, to pick but one leader whose institution claims to want to advance both marriage and life in the public square? (Their double purpose should have given them double-reason to reject Trump.) It is easy to see why the conditions for restoring trust are relatively impossible: For those, like me, who no longer believe that the leaders of certain pro-life organizations have demonstrated the judgment needed to guide it into the future, the only alternatives are to demand repentance and contrition or begin our own efforts. But while the latter is one of the greatest sources of the ongoing renewal of the movement, the legacy institutions still matter. And it would be better for them to hold their own accountable, and do better the next time around.
What Judgment Means
The disagreement between pro-lifers over what course they should pursue is a difference in judgment about both the proximate ends and means of the pro-life movement. It is, as such, a very serious disagreement; it is a matter for prudential assessment, which is a virtue that can be manifested well, badly, or not at all. It is tempting to shy away at this point from the language of morality, and to simply say that because every pro-lifer agrees on the final ends that there is nothing more of moral import to be said. But I am not sure things are that easy. Where and how we draw the boundaries of moral reasoning is enormously difficult, and it would be neither useful nor relevant here to attempt a full answer. But at the very least, I would suggest that the failure to properly judge what sort of action pro-lifers should take in this election supplies a reason to be skeptical about a leader’s prudential wisdom, and a reason to not support their efforts in the future.*
So some judgment must be made. But of what sort, and what does it mean?
First, the argument that pro-life leaders were wrong to commit themselves to Donald Trump is not an assertion of moral superiority, in any respect. It is absolutely the case that in attempting to name and pluck the speck from the pro-life movement’s eye I may be ignoring the plank in my own. It may also be the case that my own errors in judgment are of the same gravity, except on completely separate moral issues. It is possible to determine that someone has been mistaken on a matter of importance without claiming one has attained perfection, or anything near it.
Additionally, it is not a global assessment of individuals in those institutions, many of whom have done far more for the cause of life than I. The argument is simply that they have stewarded their vocations and their trusts badly in this particular moment. Their failure has called into question the credibility and breadth of their pro-life convictions, as it has demonstrated a myopic interest in the Supreme Court and a willingness to accept any number of bads for that purpose. But while a man is not exonerated a bad deed if it only begins in the fortieth year of his life, the judgment may be softened for that reason. Assessing the point and purpose of reconciliation demands that those pro-lifers who opposed Trump all along mitigate their assessment both on the basis of the intentions of the leaders and their history of their efforts.
This point is, I think, worth dwelling upon. In Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Eliot’s dramatic portrayal of the murder of Samuel Beckett, he famously writes, “The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” It is a haunting line, which those who oppose Trump should take to heart. It may be that for us, the right deed has been done out of ambition or envy or simply a desire to be in the thick of a good argument.
But it is also possible to invert the problem, to do the wrong deed for the right reason. The reason does not always excuse the deed; culpable ignorance is always a possibility. But we still view such deeds more leniently because they happened to get things right than if they do the wrong deed for any reason whatsoever.
The question of reconciliation, then, turns upon whether people who supported Trump recognize that they have done the wrong deed for (in most cases) the right reason. Those distinctions are not simply theoretical: they will, if taken to heart, improve your marriage and friendships. Indeed, there is nothing theoretical about reconciliation: to pursuit it properly requires fine-grained attentiveness to the reasons, stated and otherwise, people give for their actions and judicious charity in interpreting them.
The Constraints of Reconciliation
There can be no reconciliation without both justice and the sober, clear-eyed confession of one’s wrongdoing. It is undoubtedly easier to avoid pursuing such clarity by allowing the fog of ambiguity that invariably arises when there are diverse institutions at work and varied levels of complicity and responsibility. Who can possibly know for sure who is responsible for the trajectory of a movement as diffused and diverse as the ‘pro-life’ movement?
And yet, reconciliation demands at least the diagnosis of what has gone amiss. If the health of the social body is to be restored, we must diagnose the ailments, and do so properly. To avoid that process because of its difficulty allows wounds to fester, and for wrongs to endure until those who perpetuated them are gone. “Never excuse,” the ruler of Athens says in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, “for when the players are all dead, there need none to be blamed.”
I have made my own arguments, of course, for why I think a pro-life vote for Donald Trump is a prudential error. Those arguments apply with special force to those leaders of organizations who have actively supported Trump with their money, time, and email lists. I will not rehearse those arguments now. They are still out there on the internet, waiting to be read. I reserve the right to be wrong in my conclusion. But nobody has yet supplied me with sufficient reason to think I am.
But the harder question is what is to be done once the vote is cast. Some social observers will doubtlessly call for punitive measures against the GOP and Trump supporters for bringing deadly and ugly undercurrents of our society out into the open, and thus normalizing them. The impulse is understandable, and even good: Despite our society’s surface-level dismissal of judgment (“Judge not!”), there is a deep and abiding human need to be held and to hold each other accountable for our actions.
Of course, accountability in this sort of instance must be as unevenly distributed as the responsibility is. Reince Priebus is more responsible for Trump than any voters — as is all the other candidates for President who never had a chance at the White House. The agency which allowed Donald Trump to be a nominee for President is diffused among a variety of sources, some of whom are more public and easy to identify than others.
At a minimum, though, reconciliation can begin when those in leadership acknowledge their missteps — and then take the appropriate means of undoing them, including resigning from their positions when appropriate. To use an example from above, even if Tony Perkins rescinds his endorsement of Trump in the next 27 days, he should still step down from running the Family Research Council. Such an act would be a clear acknowledgment of the badness of his judgment in this election cycle, and begin the process of reconciliation. There is forgiveness, to be sure, which is felt most deeply in learning to love the consequences of our failings as the chastening hand of justice upon us. “Oh how I love thy Law” is the sentiment of someone who has tasted its gracious reproofs.
All this is theoretical and abstract, of course, as it must be. Well, except for people like Tony Perkins (and others) seriously contemplating retirement because they messed up this election so badly. But when people reduce the reasons we have to trust their judgment, it is reasonable to subsequently constrain the sphere in which their judgment can be enacted. This is why leaders are treated differently than everybody else: the sphere of their authority exceeds that of the rest of us. Reconciliation and the attendant restoration of confidence in the pro-life movement will almost certainly require new leadership to emerge.
The Imperfection of Contrition
Still, The gravest danger the pro-life movement faces is the moral perfectionism that has affected and colored nearly every corner of our society, but is particularly pervasive within the everlasting chatter of social media.
Consider the sad case of Wayne Grudem, the evangelical theologian who endorsed Trump and then unendorsed after the despicable video we have heard so much about came to light. His reasons for endorsing Trump were bad, but common; his reasons for unendorsing were good, but imperfect. He confessed his culpable ignorance and lamented his choice — and even then, for many observers, his confession was not enough. A number of people shrugged it off as simply a cynical attempt to preserve his own credibility in the face of Trump’s plummeting poll numbers; others pointed out that his reasons for unendorsing demonstrated his problematic racial biases. Had he been attentive to the cries of Latinos and African Americans, the argument went, he wouldn’t have been in the situation he found himself in.
Those are fair readings of his unendorsement — which was also a confession. But they fail to demonstrate the kind of leniency in judgment that will be required if social trust is to be restored. Grudem did the right thing (unendorse) not even for the wrong reasons, but for incomplete reasons. And that incompletion matters: but the man who does the right thing for good-but-incomplete reasons is on the right sort of trajectory, which we should encourage and commend. The appropriate response to a change of heart like Grudem’s is to say, “Good. Now come up higher, brother. There are better and truer and more just things that await.”
The same lesson applies to those within the pro-life community. It will be tempting to be perfectionists about the conditions of justice, repentance and restoration: but such perfectionism will only breed further resentment and alienation. ‘There is a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea,’ a ‘kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty,’ the old hymn puts it. And there should be a wideness in ours as well, which leaves ample room for those who acted imperfectly to make their imperfect amends.
A Coalition of All Kinds
The idea that reconciliation within the movement turns not only on the argument that such reconciliation is what justice demands, but upon the more pragmatic consideration that the pro-life movement is better when its various coalitions and constituencies have some semblance of unity.
The future of the pro-life movement is bright, far brighter than this election has allowed. Ruth Graham’s excellent introduction to its various younger voices and the growing diversity of methods heralds good news for those interested in supporting both infants in the womb and the women who lay down their lives and bodies for them. While I am more reluctant than some to untether defending life in the womb from the more unpopular doctrines of marriage that have frequently gone alongside it, I understand the impetus given how public disputes about the latter have gone. Either way, the willingness of pro-lifers to reimagine our public witness and expand our arguments is an important sign of health and vitality; the movement should be more creative in its framing of the issues and more interesting, attractive, and colorful in its presentation in fifty years than it is today. That isn’t my vision: it’s clearly the aim of the people Graham interviews, who are already well on their way to implementing it.
It is tempting for some pro-lifers who have worried about the captivity of pro-life interests to the Republican Party to rejoice at the grand disentangling of those movements that this election might lead to. And, indeed, the opportunity to chart a new path is a good one: the legacy pro-life institutions have committed a pretty serious unforced error in their willingness to sign on to Donald Trump, and the effects will not go away quickly.
But we should recognize with sadness that it would have been far better for such institutions to have acted otherwise, and the pro-life movement as a whole will suffer enormously because they didn’t. It is not easy to build the kind of institutional capital stored up in many of the legacy pro-life institutions. No, it is not easy to mend and repair the perceptions stored up, either. It can only be done with considerable cost, as an institution like Focus on the Family demonstrates. But the constituency those institutions reach matters, and their collective knowledge and clout will take time to match or exceed. While the prevailing tendency in the face of failing and fading institutions is to go out and plant new ones which we hope will succeed, we ought sometimes attempt to renew them from within.
For we need a coalition of all kinds. The gravity of the cause should animate us to pursue the painful, good process of peace and justice. By learning to justly forgive one another, by graciously keeping each other accountable for our failings, and by demonstrating the wideness of the mercy in meeting each others’s failures that we hope for ourselves, the pro-life movement can model the peaceful justice that our society desperately longs for.
*Whether this reason is conclusive is an open question. There will be countervailing factors in any situation, no doubt, which may overwhelm such a reason. The question cannot be judged in the abstract.