How young evangelicals are changing the anti-abortion movement

What if “pro-life” were more than a political slogan and entrenched position in the abortion culture war? What if an emerging generation of evangelical Christians were just naïve enough, just idealistic enough, to behave as though the coiners of that “pro-life” phrase really meant that Christians were called to be for life—in all its forms?

What if evangelical America did take this whole pro-life thing seriously?

Suffice it to say it could draw down our endless culture wars—a bright prospect indeed for the future credibility of evangelical Christianity and the state of the common good. The intriguing news is that this is precisely what is beginning to happen as the public expression of evangelicalism continues to evolve in our “post-Christian” culture.

In my study of the changing evangelical landscape, I have been struck by my subjects’ changing ideas about “life.” Like many non-evangelical progressives, I have often cringed upon hearing conservative Christian politicians and activists wax righteous over the “sanctity of life” while evincing little concern, if any, for the myriad ways in which life outside women’s bodies is being damaged, degraded and destroyed. But now, we hear a new tune, particularly among the young. In many circles the evangelical commitment to life is broadening and taking on such problems as human trafficking, poor access to health care, poisons in the environment and inhumane immigration policies. It’s refreshing to hear, too, a different conversation about abortion that is more focused on addressing the root causes of abortions than on criminalizing women and doctors who have and perform them.

The course change is motivated in part by the recognition that the abortion issue has become a scarlet letter “A” on evangelical Christianity’s reputation, seeming often to obscure the cross. As one evangelical anti-trafficking activist told me, when people “hear the word Christian, they think of hateful, divisive people who want to control women’s bodies. There’s so much anger and misconception that you have to wade through before you can get to a conversation about Christianity. Abortion—it’s destroyed the conversation about Jesus.”

Many evangelicals I interviewed in my research, or whose writings I read, are correctly identifying the ways in which the abortion argument in this country has gone wrong, and tarred their faith movement in the process. There has been, in sum, a huge sincerity deficit—does anyone outside of traditional evangelical subculture really buy that ardent pro-lifers are earnestly committed to “life”?—coupled with a lack of evident concern for the complexities and human consequences of criminalizing abortion.

“When you push for the rights of someone (i.e., an embryo) with which the public has no real relationship at the possible expense of the actual people they see every day (i.e., the mother), it’s a tough case to argue,” writes author and church founder Christian Piatt. “Had the [anti-abortion] movement begun with a grassroots effort to serve those women in a loving, nurturing way, I think it may have been different. Had the group promoting [anti-abortion] legislation recognized them as more than the carrier of a group’s political agenda in their wombs, things might have turned out different.”

Or as another new-paradigm evangelical put it to me, the endless railing about “life” is sheer noise to the unconvinced and non-converted until well-off megachurch members are adopting and nurturing significant numbers of unwanted orphans.

When religious conviction meet genuine service, the term “pro-life” begins to mean something real. It means something when it’s applied to the fight against the human slavery that exists in our time, an area of impressive evangelical activism and commitment in recent years. Or when it’s applied to caring for “creation” out of principled concern about environmental degradation and the harm it wreaks on human health. As one Idaho pastor says of his church, “Abortion is a huge factor for us . . . but I also see that the environment is killing people, especially young children.”

If anything, young evangelicals are more “pro-life” than previous generations, according to Jonathan Merritt, author of “A Faith of Our Own“: If by “pro-life” one means “a womb-to-tomb ethic that addresses war, poverty, and global hunger, in addition to abortion,” Merritt says.

Some abortion-rights champions might see a downside in all this. If old-school evangelicals’ credibility gap has hamstrung their ability to bring the rest of the culture around to criminalizing abortion, couldn’t the restoration of credibility bode ill for abortion’s continued legal availability?

A valid concern perhaps. But it would be the height of cynicism, even paranoia, to reject evangelicals’ good efforts on these other “life” fronts out of fear of the abortion implications. It’s important to bear in mind, too, that younger evangelicals’ approaches to abortion are not all about Roe v. Wade and enacting ever-tighter abortion restrictions such as those being passed by numerous state legislatures. To younger evangelicals, says Merritt, addressing abortion also means “encouraging adoption, ensuring contraception is available for low-income women, and increasing assistance for unwed mothers who wish to bring their children to term.”

On the whole, there is much for progressives to cheer in this changing dynamic around “life.” Some members of this “new evangelical” movement could be progressives’ new friends for the fight for the environment, for campaigns against poverty and abuse, for more humane immigration policy.

To the Christian Right political constituency, this broadening conception of the term “pro- life” has to be confounding—a case of a once-effective political strategy and slogan that is losing its edge. What, for example, is the political usefulness of the fight against human slavery and sex trafficking? Given its resonance with Christians and non-Christians of nearly all political stripes, it seems the worst wedge issue ever—which, in addition to the very real rescue and hope it brings to the abused and enslaved, is the beauty of it.

Listen to the language of these new evangelicals, and you’re not likely to hear that “pro-life” term bandied about the way it is among their forebears. But watch them in action and you might see something more interesting. You might see idealistic Christians taking “pro-life” at face value—and living it out.

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and author of the new book “The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.”