The religious right is not pro-life, no matter how much they claim to be

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the religious right that it’s a pro-life organization.

For as long as I’ve been active in the church, the religious right (along with its bedfellow, the GOP) has crafted a false narrative, giving the impression it’s pro-life. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

To make this point abundantly clear, I’m going to concede each of the religious right’s talking points.* As such, I’m not arguing against the belief that life begins at conception; I won’t highlight the connections between misogyny and the assault on reproductive justice; I’m not addressing the fact that the right’s commitment to a consistent ethic of life leaves much to be desired when it comes to the religious right’s stances on the death penalty, the military industrial complex, gun reform, etc. (not to mention their treatment of immigrants and LGBTQIA+ people); I won’t even go so far as to argue against the draconian laws recently passed in Alabama and Missouri.

Instead, I will simply highlight the most effective measures proven to reduce abortion, and ask why the religious right — despite all its pro-life rhetoric — consistently rejects them. These measures include providing quality and affordable healthcare to mothers and their children, reducing poverty, and offering equitable access to education for everyone. While every reputable study shows these are (by far!) the most effective ways to reduce abortion, states like Alabama and Missouri — despite all of their pro-life rhetoric — are well-known for enacting policies that do the precise opposite. The hypocrisy is downright nauseating.

As the Rev. Kira Schlesinger writes, “many so-called ‘pro-life’ politicians do little to address measures that would support women and their families by providing adequate maternal health care, equal pay, a raise in the minimum wage, and mandatory paid family leave.” The state legislatures in Missouri and Alabama are exhibit A.

In the words of theologian John Caputo, “It is hypocritical to oppose abortion while simultaneously opposing the vast support system such a ban would require. That would include full and free prenatal care of poor and uninsured pregnant women, of unemployed and unwed mothers, so that they might bring their pregnancies safely to full term, along with free neonatal care for their uninsured children. It would further include a comprehensive system of government supported adoption agencies in order to place newborn children in welcoming families… In order to keep children from falling off the radar once they are born, funding and resources will be required, which conflicts with the greed of our country and especially those who don’t think government should build larger social systems of support, which, ironically, are usually the very same people who are most vocal about ‘pro-life’ issues.”

I have people quite close to me who say that anyone who opposes “pro-life” legislation sponsored by the GOP is a baby killer, or a murderer. Yet these very same people consistently oppose measures that are proven to (1) reduce poverty and (2) provide equitable access to education and healthcare. Rejecting such measures exacerbates (rather than reduces!) the abortion rate. If the right truly cared about reducing abortions, they would implement policies that actually do so (as opposed to just virtue-signaling to their base).

Those of us who are not part of the religious right — who actually try to offer concrete policies proven to reduce abortions — are told we don’t care about the unborn, when in fact it’s the policies we support that best protect the unborn, while the policies championed by the religious right actually increase abortions. The religious right likes to shout from the rooftop that they’re pro-life, but their actions — whether deliberate or not — betray their rhetoric.

And let’s be clear. Any cursory reading of history shows that bans on abortion do not stop abortions from happening. Leslie Reagan puts it this way: “Making abortion hard to obtain will not return the United States to an imagined time of virginal brides and stable families; it will return us to the time of crowded septic abortion wards, avoidable deaths, and the routinization of punitive treatment of women by state authorities and their surrogates.”

When Texas recently slashed its family planning budget, it forced over eighty family-planning clinics to close, which in turn led the maternal mortality rate to double in just two years. What’s more, countries that provide safe access to abortion actually have lower rates of abortion, not higher rates.

So we must ask: If the religious right cares so much about the unborn, why do they reject policies that reduce abortions, and support policies that increase abortions?

Part of the answer may simply be lack of knowledge. Folks may not realize the strong correlation between abortion, poverty, and education. This was me at one point in time. (The propaganda of the religious right is persuasive to those reared in it.) So I’m willing to give others the benefit of the doubt, up until they know otherwise.

But when those on the right knowingly refuse to acknowledge this reality, I can only surmise they are more interested in power and control than in compassion and conviction. (This is the one common denominator to all policies offered by the religious right: domination and control.) And until the GOP stops fighting legislation that actually reduces the rate of abortion, they are pro-life in name only. Which may help them win votes, but it certainly doesn’t help them follow through on their promises to care for the unborn. Precisely the opposite.**

* Disclaimer: I recognize this approach fails to acknowledge and frame this conversation from perspectives not beholden to the religious right. However, my interest here is in debunking the most obvious flaw in the religious right’s (stated) logic: that their policies reduce abortions when in fact they increase them.

** I also realize how “pro-life” rhetoric functions (i.e. how it provides a cover to hide the traumatic truth of having to acknowledge one’s support for policies that are utterly inhumane, misogynistic, racist, etc.). If one believes they support the GOP because of their commitment to saving thousands of unborn lives, it sounds more noble and hides the deeper, more unsettling reasons one usually supports the GOP (hint: racism, classism, patriarchy, nativism, cishet normativity, etc.).

Understanding the nuances of NY’s new abortion law

I originally posted this to Facebook, but copied it here for easier sharing.

Wading into a conversation about abortion on Facebook isn’t perhaps the wisest thing to do. But given all of the misinformation making the rounds on FB — especially from Christians who are hellbent on distorting and misrepresenting basic facts — I sense an obligation as a pastor to say something. (Also I’m tired of “pro-life” Christians trying to take the moral high road for political gain even if it means bearing false witness when it comes to the truth surrounding super complex and nuanced situations.)

Be warned, this is a long post. If you wish to comment, please do so only after reading the full content of what I’m sharing here, including the linked articles.

Most of what I’ll be sharing was written by others.* But first, allow me to briefly share a personal story. I grew up in the church. I was always taught that abortion was wrong. Period. No shades of gray. So it’s no surprise that I understood myself to be a pro-life Christian (and still do today, albeit from a much more nuanced position than before). And I carried these perspectives into ministry. It’s not something I ever thought much about. It all seemed pretty simple — until it didn’t. (Life has a way of challenging us.) Many years ago, as a very young pastor, a newly married couple asked if they could privately meet with me. They were expecting their first child, and had been so full of joy. That’s why I was so surprised when they showed up at my office full of sadness and disappointment. The joy was gone. They had just learned that their baby wasn’t developing properly. I don’t remember all of the medical terminology, but the baby was developing in a way that not only threatened the life of the mother, but would’ve brought excruciating, excruciating pain to the baby when born. This family met with me in heartbreak and tears. The last thing they wanted was to lose their precious child; at the same time they had immeasurable compassion and love for their child.

As I continued in ministry, I encountered more stories like this. I share this story because it’s cruel and insulting to think that mothers and families are cold hearted when making the most excruciating, broken-hearted decisions of their lives. They’re not being casual, callous, thoughtless, or cruel. They are trying their best to do what they think is the most loving and compassionate thing to do, given the heartbreaking moment in which all their deepest hopes feel lost. I know some pastors who say that God can do miracles, and I’m aware that amazing things can happen beyond anything we can expect. But that is also the exception to the rule. I think it’s only fair, at the very least, to have understanding and compassion for mothers and families in these moments. Not to do so says far more about you than them. And the last thing anyone should do to a grieving family who has lost everything they dreamed of is to gloat that God did for you what God didn’t do for them.

The next reflection I wish to share is from Lindsey Erin:

“For all of you who think that New York is allowing these terminations after 24 weeks for people who don’t want their babies, you’re wrong. You are dead wrong. And your posts depicting perfect full-term babies that are supposedly in danger are nothing short of torturous…

I was 17 weeks pregnant when I found out that [my son] had a condition that would make him incompatible with life. It broke me in ways you will never understand until you experience it yourself. I hope you never do.

I wasn’t 24 weeks yet, but I already loved this baby. I named him. I had dreams of holding him, of kissing his little fingers and toes. Dreams of what his giggles would sound like. I wanted him, so very badly. How much worse must it be for women who have made it to 24 weeks or more?

I had to make a choice. As you can see [note from Phil: this FB post contained the last picture taken of Lindsey’s son], he was badly swollen. What you can’t see is that his organs were surrounded by fluid. He was going to drown in the substance that was supposed to keep him safe. I wanted to try to carry to full term so that I could donate his organs to a baby that had a chance. Unfortunately, doing so would have nearly guaranteed that I would have developed eclampsia, had fatal seizures and left my other beautiful sons without a mother. There was only a 20% chance that I would even have made it to full term, because of the severity, and if he had passed before that, his organs would not have been eligible for donation. I made the heartbreaking choice to terminate via induction of labor. My doctors moved quickly, but showed more compassion towards me and my son than many of the people who claim to be pro-life. I was given a chance to hold him and say good-bye.

My story is not uncommon. The stories of the women put in this position through no fault of their own are heart-wrenching. The new law does not allow for healthy full term babies to be aborted. It does not allow for murder, yes a life is ended but it is an act of mercy. The law protects the women who are forced to make the hardest decision of their lives and the doctors who care for them.

These babies are wanted. These babies are loved. These mothers aren’t murderers. These mothers are devastated. You are politicizing their pain and demonizing them.”

The following link is to an article by the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, pastor of the historic Riverside church in the city of New York. (She’s also a contributor to my latest book, Preaching as Resistance.) Here she shares her own heartbreaking and deeply personal story:

The next reflection is from my friend and colleague Yuki Schwartz, who shares her story of being a hospital chaplain:

“If you know anyone who is clutching their ideological pearls over various abortion laws being implemented or under consideration around the US, please send them this article [linked below] and invite them to think with compassion and within the bounds of reality, rather than going along with the hatred of women so many anti-abortion arguments are crafted around. What these laws do is place the authority for a medical decision in the hands of a patient and their doctor, not a governing body that is ignoring science in order to advance a religious agenda. Late-term abortions involve the loss of a wanted and expected child, whose survival is either not possible or whose birth threatens the mother’s life, or both. Anyone who pictures women gleefully lining up to kill a child that’s two minutes from being born are participating in a cruel and heartless politics that fundamentally hates women and disdains mercy and care for those in tragic circumstances. They are also willfully ignoring the fact that making abortions more difficult to get means depriving families of medical care and causing more trauma and suffering.

I did my chaplaincy training on the high-risk pregnancy floor at a hospital. I sat with families and helped them make decisions and funeral arrangements in the midst of a loss of their hopes and dreams for a life that couldn’t be saved. To deny these families and individuals the ability to make a hard decision with the help of a doctor’s advice compounds their grief. These laws lets doctors and patients take back their ability to make the decisions that are right for them in this difficult time, and stops religious fundamentalists from spreading their misery through the law.

We must call out the liars who seek to cause suffering just to satisfy their own sense of twisted self-righteousness. And also demand that people approach issues like this with compassion and education, and not with knee-jerk reactions to sensationalist propaganda.

H/t Violet Fenn

Article referred to by Yuki:

Lastly, there are many who will say these stories are exceptions to the rule, to which I respond in at least two ways: First, these are stories related precisely to the legislation in New York, which has been widely misrepresented. If people are going to try to figure out what they think about New York’s legislation (especially when the right is desperately trying to turn it into naked political gain) they need resources that directly apply to the actual content of New York’s legislation. I’m tired of people on the right saying those on the left are cold and heartless supporters of infanticide, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Secondly, the vast majority of those of us on the left who understand the necessary legal reasons for upholding Roe v Wade also do not take abortion casually. That too couldn’t be further from the truth. Which is why I wrote the following article a while back:

* Please note that each of these reflections were set to public on FB, or shared with the permission of the authors.

Think twice before saying “Merry Christmas”

Here in the Bible Belt, it’s not uncommon for people to think that saying “Merry Christmas” — as opposed to “Happy Holidays” — somehow recovers the true meaning of the season. But this is hardly the case.

I don’t say this as a nihilistic cultured despiser of religion. I say it as a Christian pastor who very much loves the Christmas season and wants to recover all that it means.

The phrase “Merry Christmas,” on its own, expresses a beautiful sentiment of well wishes for others. It can be understood as a shorthand way of saying, “I hope the birth of Christ brings you hope, peace, joy, and love,” which are the Advent promises.

But here’s the thing. Nowadays, the phrase “Merry Christmas” gets used in very different ways, with very different connotations. Instead of saying that one hopes the birth of Christ brings hope, peace, joy and love to others (including those outside the Christian faith), it’s frequently weaponized. It’s fallen victim to the incessant culture wars that mark the increasingly surreal landscape of existence in modern day America. “Merry Christmas” has morphed into a positioning statement that has more to do with establishing one’s identity in the culture (usually as a conservative Christian) than in expressing what one hopes for others living in the culture (whether they identify as conservative Christians or not).

What’s more, “Merry Christmas” is often delivered as an opening salvo to anyone who dares challenge the power and dominance of the Religious Right in the history and culture of the United States. Instead of being connected to what the biblical stories about the birth of Christ actually say, this phrase is unplugged from the biblical tradition; it’s become a shorthand way of thumbing one’s nose at those who don’t celebrate Christmas (even though most non-Christians in the U.S., who comprise less than thirty percent of the population, are not in the least bit offended by those who do celebrate Christmas).

It’s cheap rhetoric. After all, it’s much easier to say “Merry Christmas” than to actually care about what the birth stories teach. It’s much easier to wage culture wars in the name of religion than to actually live by the principles at the heart of the Christmas narratives. It’s much easier to put up nativity scenes, even with big letters that spell “Jesus,” than to follow the way of Christ.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding “Merry Christmas” serves as a mask for avoiding the deeper implications of Jesus’ birth and what it means for us today.

Let’s not forget that Jesus and his family were refugees fleeing violence (recall Herod’s massacre of the infants and the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, as recorded in the gospel of Matthew). Yet in our culture today — in a cruel stroke of irony — it’s the Religious Right that is most hostile to refugees fleeing violence. In fact, conservative Christians in the U.S. represent the largest demographic that supports policies that tear gas refugees and place them in cages. Until we repent from sanctioning such inhumane policies, we can’t begin to say that we take the Christmas stories seriously. You can choose to support such inhumane policies all you want — that offense is on you — but you can’t claim to honor the meaning of Christmas when doing so.

If we wish to conserve the true meaning of Christmas — if we wish to be conservative in our reading of the biblical stories — we must remember that the birth of Christ was never about dominant groups using their religion to discriminate against others. Quite the opposite. Jesus and the Holy Family were marginalized from the beginning by the most dominant groups in society. Contrary to what Stephen Miller and the Trump administration may think, Jesus didn’t do the oppressing. It was the other way around. As O Holy Night recalls, in Christ’s name “all oppression shall cease” — not be amplified.

When reflecting on the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, as well as the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt and the Magi’s visit to them, theologian Carlos Rodriguez summarizes the Christmas stories in a way that would come as an unwelcome surprise to the Religious Right:

“Christmas is about believing what a woman said about her sex life. Christmas is about finding safety as asylum seekers. Christmas is about a child receiving support from the wealthy. Christmas is about God identifying with the marginalized, not the powerful.”

If we wish to offer a Merry Christmas to others, then we at least need to have the courage to honor what the stories actually say. Otherwise it is we, the Christians, who are the true cultured despisers of religion – because we know what the stories say but we refuse to acknowledge them in order to serve our own self-interested goals. Which is the ultimate form of nihilism.