A Religion News Service (RNS) story several days ago highlighted how the usually Catholic-dominated annual March for Life, which occurred yesterday, is more deliberately reaching out to evangelicals. One prominent evangelical speaker yesterday was former Focus on the Family chief James Dobson, age seventy-seven but still fiery. Sharing the podium with his adopted son, Dobson exclaimed: “Let your baby live!” Yesterday in DC was even frostier than a typical January, with fresh snow on the ground and temperatures in the teens. Dobson was undeterred: “Your faces are cold but your hearts are on fire, right?”
Evangelicals were mostly slow to respond to the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling in 1973 but momentum eventually grew, especially with conservative evangelical political organizing in the late 1970s. Today evangelicals, according to polls, are the most pro-life religious demographic. A March for Life organizer told RNS that the decentralized evangelical world is harder to organize than the more structured Catholic world. No doubt, but evangelicals have their own vast subculture that once networked should provide a rich vein of support for the March for Life.
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) told RNS that they are not trying to organize evangelicals for abortion rights advocacy. No doubt. RCRC has old-line Protestant, Jewish, Unitarian, and an unofficial Catholic branch. Founded in 1973 specifically to mobilize pro-choice Protestants to counter the Catholic pro-life witness, RCRC was originally and more transparently called the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. For nearly two decades RCRC was based in the historic United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill across from the U.S. Supreme Court but now has separate space. Its new chief is the former head of the Episcopal Church’s LGBTQ caucus who also worked for the Human Rights Campaign. The Episcopal Church is an RCRC member, along with the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, which owns the Methodist Building.
Every year on the morning of the March for Life there is a quiet pro-life witness in the chapel of the Methodist Building, organized by the denomination’s unofficial pro-life caucus. In recent years the caucus has hosted as speakers four United Methodist bishops who carefully dissented from their denomination’s longtime but slowly receding pro-choice stance. Today it was the bishop of Florida, Ken Carter, who participated in the Methodist pro-life “Durham Declaration” over twenty years ago when still a young pastor.
The Gospel is always on the side of life,” Bishop Carter told a small audience. He approvingly cited United Methodism’s gradual move away from pro-choice advocacy in recent years by opposing partial-birth abortion and affirming alternatives to abortion. But he said his church is still in “desperate need of a coherent social teaching” that he hopes would “would look like the Roman Catholic Church’s consistent ethic of life,” emphasizing a “continuum from conception to death.” He regretted that United Methodism employs a language of “rights” rather than “gifts” and that United Methodism’s Social Principles are “silent on the role of Christian community in welcoming children.” True “inclusiveness must include the unborn,” he insisted.
No doubt agreeing with the Methodist bishop were a dozen bishops of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), who convened on D.C. for the second year to march for life. Clad in scarlet and red, and led by Archbishop Robert Duncan, formerly the Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh, the bishops joked about their toe warmers and thermal underwear. Most of these Anglican bishops have emerged out of the old Episcopal Church, which fractured in recent years over teachings about sexuality. ACNA, which has about one thousand congregations, has been especially successful in reaching urban young people with new church plants. And ACNA is determined to steer away from the habits of the old denomination, robustly affirming the sanctity of human life, which appeals to young Anglican churchgoers far more than it did to their Episcopalian grandparents.
Doubtless many others from old-line Protestant traditions quietly joined growing numbers of evangelicals and many Catholics who marched for life today. Forty years ago, too many orthodox Protestants and evangelicals were slow to respond to Roe versus Wade partly because they thought of abortion as a Catholic issue. RNS cited a recent Pew poll showing 54 percent of white evangelicals favor overturning Roe, versus 63 percent of Catholics who favor retaining it. On abortion, evangelicals are more aligned with Catholic teaching than apparently most at least nominal Catholics. Likely the March for Life will continue to expand ecumenically, with abortion increasingly understood as a central concern to all orthodox Christians.
Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.