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How Evangelicals Saved the Pro-Life Movement: A Response to Roberto Rivera

Editor's note:
Joe Carter 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.

In a 1971 resolution on abortion, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) resolved that “society has a responsibility to affirm through the laws of the state a high view of the sanctity of human life, including fetal life.” Yet the largest Protestant denomination in America had a peculiar definition of this “sanctity of human life.” In the very next sentence the resolution called on Southern Baptists to “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion‚” under such conditions as “fetal deformity” and damage to the “emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

Three years later—and two years after Roe codified this position into law—the SBC reaffirmed the resolution. It wasn’t until 1980 that the SBC finally condemned abortion as a grave evil, a position that had always been maintained by the Catholic Church.

For thirty years, we Evangelicals have been working to catch up to our Catholic brothers and sisters on issues related to the sanctity of life. Even today, the Catholic Church remains more consistent in its application of pro-life moral theology. Sadly, many Evangelicals are willing to turn a blind eye to the embryo destruction prevalent in biomedical research and in vitro fertilization.

We still have much to learn from Catholics about how to respect the life that God has created. But maybe pro-life Catholics still have something they can learn from us Evangelicals.

Catholics Can Learn From Evangelicals

Roberto Rivera identifies this period when Evangelicals “became, for most Americans, the face of the pro-life movement, and their concerns and priorities defined the rhetorical and tactical boundaries of the movement” as “Pro-Life 2.0.”

In his essay, he expresses concern that this coalition has undermined distinctive Catholic influences:

The problem is that Pro-Life 2.0 is, politically, a subset of the broader conservative movement for whom the kind of government policies and expenditures that the original pro-life movement, overwhelmingly New Deal Democrats, had in mind is, well, anathema. That this state of affairs is largely the result of the captivity of the Democratic Party by second-wave feminism doesn’t make it any less depressing.

Rivera seems to have both correctly identified the real problem and yet placed the blame on the wrong demographic.

As I noted above, in the 1970s-1980s, Catholics influenced the thinking of Evangelicals on the life issues. But have Evangelicals had a similar influence on Catholics since that time? It doesn’t appear so.  According to a Pew Research Survey, fully three-quarters of white Evangelicals (75 percent) consider having an abortion morally wrong, while only about half of white Catholics (53 percent) say the same.

Fewer white Evangelicals (38 percent) say that medical research using embryonic stem cells is morally wrong, though the number is higher than for white Catholics (22 percent). Similarly, white Evangelicals are more likely than white Catholics to say that using in vitro fertilization is morally wrong (14 percent vs 9 percent).

Why the Difference?

Why have Evangelicals become more pro-life while Catholic commitment to the life issues has declined? The answer, I believe, is because Evangelicals connected their faith and their political views to sexual ethics and the defense of the family. Meanwhile, many Catholics connected their faith and political views to the politics of economic conditions and reliance on the state.

Rivera says the issue is one of “politics and economics” and adds, “A woman facing an unexpected pregnancy must be reasonably certain that she will get the help she needs.” While I may be misreading his intention, it seems that he is implying that the state should play a large, if not primary, role in ensuring the economic conditions necessary for the woman to carry on with the pregnancy.

Many Evangelicals, particularly politically conservative pro-lifers, would say that the “help she needs” should be provided, first and foremost, by her immediate social circle, including her family, the community, and the local church. Those safety nets may not be available, though, because of the destruction of the family that was brought about in part by the New Deal economic policies (which Rivera seems to appreciate) and second-wave feminism (which he appears to lament).  

It is not the connection with Evangelicals that is the problem but Catholics near fealty to the Democratic Party. The Democrats have made it one of their highest priorities to ensure that abortion on demand forever remains the law of the land. This should be enough for conscious-bound Catholics to recoil from the party in moral horror. And yet a significant number of  “pro-life” Catholics remain persistently loyal to the Democrats.

Indeed, it is possible that if we Evangelicals had not taken up the life cause from our Catholic brothers and sisters, we would not now be talking about Pro-Life 2.0. The decline of the life issue as a political movement would likely have been set back to Pro-Life 0.

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute and the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible (Zondervan, 2016).

Other Articles in This Series

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

Matthew Wright’s Evangelicals and the Run to First Principles

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

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


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.

  • Corey McGee

    I think this is close to an accurate description of the history, but the reason for Catholics’ disaffection from the pro-life cause is due less to any kind of characteristically Catholic politics than it is due to another, more unfortunate fact: Catholics characteristic heterodoxy and unbelief. Evangelicals largely support the pro-life movement because they see it as being consistent with both right morality and their Christian belief. But poll after poll shows that Evangelicals actually believe the things that nearly all Christians hold in common, while many who call themselves “Catholics” do not. It should be no surprise, then, that fewer Catholics support the pro-life movement than do Evangelicals.

    As you say, Evangelicals made “Pro-Life 2.0” viable at a time when many so-called Catholics were defecting. Inevitably, that meant that the pro-life movement would look less like Catholic social doctrine. But if Catholics want the pro-life movement to look more Catholic, then perhaps more “Catholics” need to become actually Catholic.

  • @esp712

    Fair. I am the brother and sister of the indigent woman considering abortion. If I, a members of society, act through government to do this, then it is just another political decision in a democratic country. It is not either government or close family, it is both/and.

  • DavidM

    “While I may be misreading his intention, it seems that he is implying that the state should play a large, if not primary, role in ensuring the economic conditions necessary for the woman to carry on with the pregnancy.” Well the state certainly does, necessarily, have a large role to play in shaping economic conditions (for good or for evil). But the more important point here, which Carter unfortunately ignores, is that Rivera seemed to be suggesting that poverty somehow ’causes’ abortion, and so getting rid of poverty will get rid of abortion. Often moral degradation follows in the wake of poverty, but high moral virtue, including respect for life, does not follow upon prosperity. Moral problems should not be conflated with/regarded as economic problems.

  • Eric Scheidler

    Carter’s comparison of the attitudes of Evangelicals and Catholics on abortion is fundamentally unfair, because people identify as either Evangelical or Catholic for completely different reasons.

    To call oneself an Evangelical nearly always means that one has chosen to adhere to a certain kind of Christian orthodoxy and to live according to biblical moral principles. It also almost always means to set oneself apart from merely cultural Christians, or those belonging to heterodox liberal denominations.

    But for many, to call oneself Catholic means merely to have been raised Catholic. Or it means what one attends a Catholic church, whether or not one holds orthodox Catholic views on theology or morality.

    In other words, while there may be no such a thing as a “cultural Evangelical” there are millions of “cultural Catholics,” people for whom Catholicism plays something less than a central role in their lives (even if an important one).

    A fairer comparison would be between Evangelicals and Catholics with a similar level of religious commitment, since so many of those who identify as Catholics are actually pretty lukewarm about their faith, or not as proactive in understanding it as the average Evangelical tends to be.

    That comparison would yield very different results. A devout Catholic will almost certainly reject IVF, abortion and contraception, for example.

    Indeed, as a pro-life activist, I have almost never encountered a Catholic directly involved in the pro-life movement at any level who does not firmly agree with the Church on contraception. Many Evangelicals are coming around to the same view, but a substantial number of Evangelicals directly involved in the pro-life movement embrace contraception.

    Another place to look is in the proportion of Catholics and Evangelicals involved in direct action. Those turning out to pray, protest and offer compassionate counseling at abortion clinics are overwhelmingly Catholic, even if parts of the country where Catholics are very much in the minority.

    I have some theological and cultural theories for why this is the case that needn’t be gone into here, but it’s an observation that both Catholics and Evangelicals on the front lines would acknowledge.

    None of this is to say that Catholics and Evangelicals in the pro-life movement don’t have a great deal to learn from each other, and I’m grateful for the spirit of cooperation between the two groups, and for all I’ve learned from my Evangelical friends in the movement. But Carter’s characterization of the differences between Catholics and Evangelicals fails to take full account of how those two very different groups are defined (and self-defined).

    Eric Scheidler
    Executive Director
    Pro-Life Action League