The Dobbs decision has revealed fault lines in American Christianity. These fault lines lay just below the surface for a long while, but are now clearly exposed. As long as abortion was legal by Supreme Court decree, it was possible to identify as pro-life but keep that commitment at the level of theory; one could hold pro-life views but not be perceived as a threat. All that has now changed. To identify as pro-life post-Dobbs is not simply to hold an opinion many regard as wrong; it is to be part of an act of political and social “oppression.” And predictably, many Christians are feeling the need to “nuance” their relationship to the overturning of Roe.
The National Catholic Reporter has excelled itself in this regard. The strangest argument in its pages was made by Fr. Thomas Reese. He studiously avoided any expression of gratitude for the decision, and said it is a result of America's domination by big corporations. The response of big business to Dobbs would seem to indicate his case is, to put it charitably, a little overstated.
Then, in an article attributed to “editorial staff,” the Reporter revealed the real reason for its nuance about Dobbs: Donald Trump appointed the Supreme Court justices who made it possible, and Trump was “arguably the most corrupt and morally degenerate president in history.” That claim may or may not be true—the competition for the title is a little stronger than the Reporter acknowledges—but the argument is specious at best. As to the article's later assertion that “women will die without Roe’s protection,” one wonders whether the editorial staff of this prominent Catholic magazine are as familiar with their own church’s teaching on life and personhood as they are with Twitter (which has clearly had a baneful effect on otherwise intelligent people’s ability to construct an argument). It would seem not. By the standards of Catholic teaching, women have been dying by the millions for decades thanks to Roe.
Then there is the Reporter’s patronizing advice to Catholic pro-lifers: “Rather than simply shift from advocating for overturning Roe to promoting a federal ban on abortion, Catholics in the pro-life movement must substantially change their tone and tactics.” Maybe there are some who see the pro-life goal as merely banning abortion, but I have not met any. The pro-life Catholic movement seems highly committed, for example, to adoption, despite numerous attempts by various people in our current president’s party to make that as difficult as possible.
Of course, much of this sneering at the Dobbs decision is driven by the fact that, as the Reporter indicated, it was made possible by Trump. But that does not justify ingratitude and failure to rejoice at the decision itself. If we were to judge every act by the moral quality of its agents or by the subsequent issues that it raises, we would find ourselves in great difficulties.
Nobody of whom I am aware, for example, regards the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945 as a morally ambiguous thing. No child freed that day was particularly concerned that his liberators were members of the Red Army, acting on Stalin’s orders. Yet the Red Army was engaged in a military action that, in the long term, would lead to the notorious Iron Curtain dividing Europe. Nobody regards the fall of Hitler as a morally ambiguous thing, even though it was only made possible by the Americans and the British striking a deal with Joseph Stalin. Yes, Trump is obnoxious, but he isn’t Stalin, and he did deliver on the abortion issue. Dobbs is a moment for joy.
On the Protestant side, Sojourners could scarcely contain its anger at the decision that it sees as enabling yet more violence against black women’s bodies. Of course, Dobbs will disproportionately affect black women because abortion is a scourge of the African American community. But to claim that bodies are in danger and then advocate abortion is to buy into the silliest myth of the pro-abortion lobby, that the baby in the womb is not a body but merely part of the mother. Postmodern feminist gibberish, seasoned with a sprinkling of critical race theory, is these days the Sojourners way.
And then there are the evangelical elites. Late last year, I wrote in “The Failure of Evangelical Elites” that race and Trump were gifts to American evangelical elites, as they enabled silence on other issues such as abortion and LGBTQ+ matters. One of my critics, David French, has to his credit published a thoughtful piece on Dobbs in the Atlantic, where he rightly accents gratitude while pointing to work still to do.
Yet others continue to confirm my fears. The post-Dobbs silence of Russell Moore, official public theologian at evangelicalism’s flagship magazine, Christianity Today, is a case in point. In June 2022, when Roe finally fell and public space in the United States was aggressively queered as never before, neither issue apparently rose to the level of importance that required public comment from the most well-known evangelical public theologian in the country. That is deeply sad and a complete dereliction of duty at a time when so many evangelicals want help in thinking through these matters.
I had always assumed that the LGBTQ+ movement would provide the trigger for the fracturing of American Christianity, not abortion. Yet post-Roe, the early signs are that the latter is performing that task. The coming months will be fascinating, and I suspect rather depressing, to watch. When it comes to abortion, especially after Dobbs, Christians face a choice of social respectability or religious fidelity. And the Christian commentariat already seems divided on which way to go.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Photo by Brian Talbot via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
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