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Evangelicals and the Run to First Principles: A Response to Roberto Rivera

Editor's note:
Matthew Wright gives an Evangelical response to Roberto Rivera’s The Depressing Problem With Pro-Life 2.0, published last week. A list of the other responses appears at the end.

I’m not inclined to join Roberto Rivera in his with-friends-like-these lamentations over the current state of the pro-life movement. Maybe that’s because I’m one of the friends, one of the interloping “non-Catholic allies.” I personally feel very much at home among Catholics; quite literally, some of my best friends are Catholic.

Still, I remain an Evangelical Protestant out of theological conviction and from time to time find it hard not to be put off by Catholic attitudes on issues like pro-life ethics. I had this response to Rivera’s tone (for example: “By ‘conservative Christian couples,’ [Williams] doesn’t mean lay Franciscans or the Legion of Mary”).

Nevertheless, he raises some substantive issues that are worth addressing. So I’ll tell you why, in my view, Rivera’s depression is fairly melodramatic. To begin with, the discussion would benefit a great deal from a clearer distinction between the political and philosophical aspects of the pro-life enterprise.

Just because Catholic distinctives aren’t included in pro-life politics, doesn’t mean they’re also philosophically verboten among pro-lifers generally. Rivera is prone to point to the first as evidence—best I can tell—of the second. I don’t see any reason to follow him there. The political goals of the pro-life movement don’t circumscribe its broader culture.

Moving Deck Chairs, Kicking Dogs

Now, if we’re just talking about a limited political platform, it’s hard to see that Evangelicals have had the effect Rivera bemoans. Is it really wide acceptance of contraception and IVF by Evangelicals that keeps these issues out of pro-life politics? Sure, the cause of life has made encouraging advances in recent years, but we still live in a society that turns a blind eye to footage of well-heeled executives negotiating the sale of baby parts.

Forget public policy based on a rich understanding of human procreative powers. Ours is a culture so confused about sexuality that today’s quarterback may be tomorrow’s cover girl—and no one knows where s/he should go to the bathroom. How exactly do you make the argument that Caitlyn Jenner shouldn’t be contracepting? We’re talking about the Titanic and deck chairs at this point. So, politically speaking, it’s hard not to think that Rivera is simply kicking the Evangelical dog.

Of course, the philosophical response to this is that contraception and IVF are not deck chair issues. Giving up on them is like trying to save the ship by dynamiting the hull. How, Rivera asks, can we restore the natural link between sex and procreation when, on the one hand, the “artificial barrenness” of contraception severs it at the root, and, on the other, procedures like IVF enable the commodification of babies?

This is a fair and important point. The fact is, if we are to respond persuasively to the current metastasization of bioethical challenges, we must cultivate a coherent account of the nature of our embodiedness and sexuality. Resisting technologies if and only if they terminate human life is radically insufficient. We must be concerned with deeper questions of human dignity and flourishing—and this means that everything touching on the meaning of sex and procreation is open for discussion. Our present situation requires it.

Encouraging Prospects

So I agree with Rivera on this point, but I still don’t share his pessimism. If you put aside unreasonable political expectations, the philosophical prospects among pro-lifers are encouraging.

It’s important to remember that moral reasoning often runs to first principles, as well as from them. One may reason from an essential connection between sex and procreation to the impermissibility of IVF, for example; or conversely, grappling with the moral implications of surrogacy can lead back to the link between sex and procreation.

All these issues are of a piece, and the pro-life partnership between Catholics and Evangelicals puts them all on the table. Take, for example, the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement, That They May Have Life. Although the members acknowledge their disagreement on the morality of artificial contraception, all agree in condemning the “widespread ‘contraceptive mentality’” that divorces sex from babies. This raises the question, of course: Are both the Evangelical and Catholic positions consistent with this common commitment?

Despite this, Rivera implies that Evangelicals aren’t much interested in discussion. We’re more inclined to a reactionary “Don’t!” than to rational dialogue and consistency. This leaves Catholics in the depressing spot of having sold their philosophical birthright for a mess of political stew. Again, I don’t see it.

I’ll concede that plenty of Evangelicals are not aware of the moral implications of practices like contraception and IVF. At the same time, many of us are alive to Rivera’s concerns and are working to cultivate within our communities bioethical reasoning rooted in human nature and dignity.

Those Who Are Alive

I would cite the work of my Biola colleague, Prof. Scott Rae, and the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity at Trinity International University, of which he is a fellow. My friend and Evangelical writer, Matthew Lee Anderson, is also a prime example of the care and seriousness with which many Evangelicals are addressing issues of bioethics and sexuality.

I could cite more examples, but I’ll just note that the last year has seen the start of an Anscombe Society chapter at Biola University, as well as an (unrelated) student-initiated reading group on John Paul II’s theology of the body. Anecdotal evidence, I know, but also, I think, more indicative of the possibility for Evangelical and Catholic pro-life dialogue than Rivera is willing to allow.

Of course, this is no guarantee that greater philosophical consensus will strengthen our political coalition, but it does suggest that Rivera’s melancholy is somewhat overwrought. For my part, if I want to be depressed on matters touching the pro-life movement in America, I’ll go re-read some of Antonin Scalia’s greatest hits.

Matthew D. Wright, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Government in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.

Other Articles in This Series

Roberto Rivera’s The Depressing Problem with Pro-Life 2.0

Joe Carter’s How Evangelicals Saved the Pro-Life Movement

Erik Clary’s Strategy, Theology, and Saving Unborn Lives

Mark Liederbach’s No Reason to Be Depressed About Pro-Life 2.0

For Further Reading

Evangelicals and Catholics Together’s That They May Have Life

The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity

Matthew Lee Anderson’s Mere Orthodoxy author page. See also his Why I Am Opposed to Gay Marriage, The System Behind Abortion on “Planned Parenthood’s Dehumanizing Rhetoric,” and Beyond the Abortion Wars, an interview with Charles Camosy



Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Dana Masek

    Study the Theology of the Body – this is the answer. See

  • DavidM

    “Despite this, Rivera implies that Evangelicals aren’t much interested in discussion. We’re more inclined to a reactionary “Don’t!” than to rational dialogue and consistency.” The vast majority of Catholics are also not interested in rational dialogue and consistency. A serious discussion about theology or morality is simply out of the question for most Catholics. They simply lack the requisite formation. Even those who endorse the Church’s teachings on sexuality and contraception are often just Christopher West groupies, not people who actually love the truth, who integrate faith and reason and strive to honor God through the activity of rational contemplation. Perhaps we’re more inclined to a reactionary “Dialogue!” (Joy and Hope, right? – yay!) than to a reactionary “Don’t!” but unfortunately that doesn’t mean the average Catholic is actually interested in the life of the intellect (in philosophy or theology, or even basic Christian doctrine and the Bible). As for our ‘serious’ theologians, they are often seriously corrupt. Perhaps that’s what really ought to depress Rivera. The reactionary eschewal of reactionary “Don’t”s is often just a sign that Catholics are conformed to the spirit of the age and have no understanding of what Christian faith is.

    • arty

      So is your statement that “Even those who endorse the Church’s teachings on sexuality and
      contraception are often just Christopher West groupies, not people who
      actually love the truth, who integrate faith and reason and strive to
      honor God through the activity of rational contemplation” intended to be a criticism of West, or of bandwagon-jumpers? I’ve always thought that West does important work, and if people don’t bother to engage the theology at a particularly deep level, that could be due to laziness, yes, or it could be due to the fact that not everybody has the leisure time to become a part-time philosopher.

      • DavidM

        Well it’s both, actually, in combination: namely, CWest groupies. It’s not that they’re horrible people or that West doesn’t do any good work, but they’re not ‘lovers of wisdom.’ I think CWest encourages people to be devoted to TOB, and that’s it. He says stuff like, “Aquinas is okay, but we need to go deeper”; and then it becomes obvious that he really means shallower and that he doesn’t understand Aquinas himself, partly because he is so obsessed with TOB, and so he encourages his groupies to be the same way. If someone were to be a thoroughgoing JPII groupie, that would be different, because consistently following the full breadth of thought of JPII you would never end up obsessed with TOB the way Westies are. (BTW, everybody I know has the leisure time to become a part-time philosopher. I would love CWest more if he did a better job of helping people to realize (in both senses of the word) that.)