Monday, February 27, 2012

The March for Life, evangelicals, and the pro-life cause

Last summer, my wife and I both got airline vouchers while traveling to see family, and I got the idea to use mine to travel to Washington DC and take part in the annual March for Life. It was very inspiring and only further convinced me that I need to do more for the pro-life cause (notice my new Pro-Life tab and that five of my six posts related to abortion so far on this blog, including this one, have been published since the march).

There's a lot that I could say about what the March for Life was like, but there was one thing that was very, very striking: everyone there was Catholic.

I don't mean among the speakers: among those that spoke at the rallies/events there were Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, and Jews, in addition to many who didn't identify their religion. In fact, probably the most rousing, passionate speaker at the rally immediately before the march was an african-american protestant preacher.

But in the crowd - which was several hundred thousand people - it appeared as though almost every single person there was Catholic, and I'm not exaggerating. Every single thing (with one exception, explained below) that I saw that identified a group or a person's religion was Catholic: Knights of Columbus signs, hats or sweatshirts with the name of a diocese or parish, buses with the names of Catholic schools on the side, banners representing Catholic universities; people holding rosaries, crucifixes, or images of our Blessed Mother; more priests in collars and monks and religious sisters in habits than I've ever seen before in my life. And it's not like there weren't many things around that identified a person's religion; the crowd was saturated with these things.

Among the tables in the March for Life exhibit hall, most of the organizations were overtly Catholic, with some of the tables being manned by monks or religious sisters, and some selling icons, rosaries, and other Catholic things; and many of the people working at the tables that I spoke to were Catholic (some of whom were converts to Catholicism like myself). None were overtly identifiable as being related to another Christian denomination or religion that I can remember.

The rally before the march; one can see signs
for Knights of Columbus, St Jude Catholic
School, Holy Sepulcher Parish,
and the Archdiocese of Hartford, et al.
In addition, because I traveled there by myself, I talked to a lot of random people that weekend who were also in Washington DC for the march: in my youth hostel, in museums, and at various events connected to the march, even on my plane ride home. Every single person I spoke to who was there for the march was Catholic. In my youth hostel, I spoke to a few people who were there with a big group from the Catholic ministry at the University of Kansas, and one of them mentioned that, while the trip was organized by the Catholic ministry, a couple protestants had come with them. That's the closest I got to any indication that there were any protestants in the crowd at the march at all.

Am I exaggerating when I say that every single mark of religion was Catholic? Ok, I admit it, there was one exception: I saw one person holding a Jewish pro-life sign in the crowd at the march. But that's it (and I'm not exaggerating here).

And I looked, too. Since I was there by myself, I could move freely throughout the crowd to get a bigger perspective of who was there. When it became obvious that every hat, sweatshirt, bus, sign, and banner that I had seen so far was Catholic, I spent the rest of the rally and march actively looking for any marker of other religions or Christian denominations. The one Jewish sign is the only thing I could find (this of course does not prove no other signs existed).

As I've been slowly delving further into the pro-life movement in the last year or so, it has certainly come to appear as though the majority of the people in involved are Catholic (please feel free to correct me on this in the comments).

The main pro-life activist organization in the Twin Cities near where I live is run by a Catholic, and once when I heard him describe the organization, he indicated that, although the organization is non-denominational, something like 75% of the people involved are Catholic. The big ecumenical prayer service in the Twin Cities held on the anniversary of Roe v Wade every year is held in the Cathedral of St Paul (granted, it's a big space and just down the street from the state capital where they do a march afterwards).

A local ecumenical prayer service (for those who can't drive down to the Twin Cities) on the same day is run by one of our parishioners. Our local Life Chain event is also run by one of our parishioners. My wife recently started volunteering at a local Birthright office after being encouraged to get involved by one of our parishioners, and she has often commented at how many of the volunteers are from our parish.

UnPlanned, by Abby Johnson
Many prominent pro-life leaders are Catholic: Nellie Gray, founder of the March for Life; Lila Rose, founder of Live Action (convert to Catholicism); Abby Johnson, pro-life speaker and author of UnPlanned (convert to Catholicism); Bryan Kemper, founder of Stand True Ministries (convert to Catholicism); Joseph Scheidler, the national director of Pro-Life Action League; Fr Frank Pavone, national director of Gospel of Life MinistriesTheresa Karminski Burke, founder of Rachel's Vineyard; Mary Ann Kuharski, director of Pro-Life Across America: "The Billboard People"; John-Henry Weston, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Life Site News; and the late Bernard Nathanson (convert to Catholicism); and many, many more.

Were there Christians of other denominations, people of other religions, and even people of no religion at all at the march? I'm sure there were (it was a big crowd). And there are of course many evangelicals, and other non-Catholics, who have fought the evil of abortion courageously, and I do not mean to diminish their work and sacrifice. Neither do I mean to imply that because the pro-life movement seems to consist primarily of Catholics that therefore Catholicism is the one true religion.

But I do mean to offer a challenge to my evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ: where were you? It was my first time at the march, and so I could be asking myself a similar question: where was I before?

I can honestly say that becoming Catholic has brought the pro-life cause much more into my view. At the baptist church I went to with my family in high school and at the evangelical school Wheaton College that I attended for undergrad, many people I knew would have said that they were pro-life, and I knew a few people who were very passionately pro-life and involved in pro-life activities. But frankly, compared to how often abortion has been brought up to me since being in Catholic circles, there wasn't much going on.

And when it's brought up in Catholic circles, it's different too, since the belief that abortion is a very grave moral evil that must be stopped has been a very prominent, clear, authoritative teaching of the Church. In other words, if one wants to take being Catholic seriously, one has to take abortion seriously.

The Holy Family
Of course, it's a great scandal that there are many Catholics that don't take abortion seriously (or even fight for abortion), but in my experience such people tend to not take Church teaching seriously in general (e.g. contraception, womenpriests, homosexual acts, true ecumenism, evangelism, etc), practicing instead a form of cafeteria Catholicism. If a person actually believes Catholic teaching, it's impossible for abortion not to be a very big problem for them.

And so I encourage my evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ to more fully mobilize their great passion, creativity, and resources for the pro-life cause, and I thank those evangelicals who have long been in the trenches. I also exhort my fellow Catholics, that more of us would join in the pro-life cause and that we would better keep our fellow Catholics accountable. Together, we can finally abolish abortion and build a culture of life.

Below is a great video of young people at the March for Life 2012 explaining why they are pro-life; produced by the BadCatholic Marc Barnes


  1. My husband and I are Catholic converts, but the group I was with for the March were all Baptists. It was us, three friends of mine in my age group (20-some) and then a h.s. youth group and the leaders. It was actually from Protestants that I first heard of the March for Life. So they did exist there!

  2. Interesting... one thing that occurred to me was that Catholics may be a lot more likely to have "visuals" that identify them as Catholics. What is a Protestant going to carry around (other than signs, I mean)? There is no Evangelical equivalent to the rosary, or the monk or nun's habit, for example. Sweatshirts with *** Baptist Church would not stand out as much, especially if the wearers have coats on.

    Having said that, though my parents were always pro-life, and I always was also as an Evangelical, it was really my Catholic friends who helped me to become more active about it and to think and pray more deeply about it, even way before I converted.

    1. Hey Sue,
      I thought about that too, whether Catholics would be more likely to identify themselves or not. You're right about rosaries, collars, habits, etc, but I guess I'm not sure there's a reason why a group from a Catholic parish, school, or universities would identify themselves on a hat or sweatshirt or sign or something a a Protestant church, school, or university wouldn't

  3. Brantly in 2011 there were over 1000 anti-abortion measures introduced in state bodies and over 100 that passed, mostly in states with marginal Catholic populations. The US congress has had several high profile battles. Abortion is essentially non-existent in about 1/2 dozen states due to new laws, mostly over the last 5 years.

    The Republican party has completely marginalized and driven out their old pro-choice contingent in the North East, at considerable damage to their electoral success, starting with the Hyde amendment. In both 2000 and 2008 pro-life Protestants blocked pro-choice candidates from getting the nod for VP: Christine Todd Whitman and Joe Lieberman respectively and in 2008 they picked a known pro-life activist to take Joe Lieberman's place. This year, over abortion, they are very likely throwing the state of Virginia to Obama for 2012 in exchange for getting started passing the sorts of restrictions that exist in the deep south.

    Evangelical voters consistently vote against their economic interests over the prolife issue. What's the Matter with Kansas?, by Thomas Frank is the classic work on how much evangelical voters take the abortion issue seriously. At the personal level, evangelicals have very high levels of unmarried pregnancy brought to term as a result of their attitudes.

    You can accuse evangelicals of a lot of things, but not taking the pro-life cause seriously, I'd never accuse them of. I think the difference is that Evangelicals are much more plugged into the Republican party, and so see the fight to ban abortion as mainly building enough of a coalition to ban and maintain a de facto ban on abortion.

    1. You may be right. Maybe the difference is that evangelicals are more likely to see their involvement in the pro-life movement as more strictly political and related to voting than Catholics?

    2. I think so. And you saw the exact opposite in the prior to the 1970s when Catholics were a dominant force in the Northern Democratic party. Religious Catholic Democrats (almost all Catholics prior to the late 1960s) were able to keep Northern Republican liberal social issues off the national agenda. In the 1930s when American Protestantism was horribly divided Catholics could as a religious body exercise influence over policy.

      Being able to directly control policy, is far preferable to lobbying. With the exception of the Hispanic community, right wing Catholic politicos can't get Catholics who would otherwise vote Democrat to vote Republican, or vote in primaries or get agitated about particular issues. If you can't deliver the votes you don't get a seat at the table. On the other hand right wing Catholics can turn out decent numbers for protest marches and are willing to do the groundwork, in things like crisis pregnancy centers. But when they could just influence policy that is where they focused their effort.

      The other area worth mentioning is the right's absorption of Catholic theology of pro-life. To this day tens of millions find the Catholic prolife argument phrased in terms of the inherent dignity of people convincing while finding the traditional Protestant biblical arguments completely ineffective. Most right wing Protestant agree with Jerry Falwell's assessment that Catholics are able to speak effectively on this issue in a way that fundamentalist Protestants aren't, to the point that most Protestant groups have adopted as much Catholic language as they can without adopting the underlying sacramental philosophy.

  4. Brant, i have been going to wash dc for the past 5 years , i didnt go as an evangelical btw. I had noticed a similar phenomenon but was afraid to post about it. Honestly I saw a smattering of Orthodox priests, and a couple Lutherans for life but the site of thousands of K of C signs as I walked up to the Supreme Court and looked down on the crowd was very revealing. I saw many praying the rosary singing catholic hymns and hundreds of banners from parishes. No signs of reformed for life or baptists for life or evangelicals for life etc. they may call the Church the $&@? Of Babylon but do they wonder why it comes to issues of life, most protestant religions are minimally involved? Why would satan's religion want to save and protect life?

  5. Do you agree with Santorum that if you are raped and become pregnant you should accept the baby as a gift from God and not have an abortion, or should there be an exception in the case of rape?

  6. Hey Anon,
    This post wasn't about when abortion is or is not morally acceptable, but a short answer to your question: I hold the Catholic position, which is that direct abortion is always gravely immoral, however the child was produced (a human being is a still a human being even if she was produced by a rape); that women in difficult situations should be given maximum support by their communities; and that those who commit crimes (such as rape) should be punished.

  7. I have one observation about this. Could it be that Catholics have more at their disposal that can make them stick out in a crowd? How many people did you see that wore regular clothes and had no sign, or a sign that had no overtly Catholic message? A lot of those were probably non-Catholics, although I'm sure some of them were non-religious folks or less-obvious-Catholics or less-obvious Jews. Speaking as a Protestant myself, though, I don't really have anything that would make it obvious that I'm a Protestant. Nothing that I could wear in chilly weather, at least. I guess I could make a sign that says "I am an Evangelical and I am pro-life," but what's the point in that? Short of writing it out in plain English, I don't even know what I would draw on a sign in order to point toward my specific tribe of Christianity. I don't think I would be particularly inclined to do so at a cause-oriented event that's supposed to bring people together, but even if I were so inclined, I don't really have much that would give you a visual clue- and I think that's how it tends to be with most Protestants/Evangelicals/Independents.

    1. Someone brought this up in an earlier comment. I thought about that too, and I personally didn't have anything identifying my religion either. I guess I don't see a reason why a catholic parish would make tshirts/hats/etc for their youth group but an evangelical church youth group that was there wouldn't do that, etc. (In fact, in my mind, evangelicals do that sort of thing all the time.) And also take into account that every single person I spoke to (randomly) who was there for the march was Catholic.

    2. also, just to be clear, i'd be thrilled to know that more evangelicals were there. i'm just relating my experience of the march