On taking the political initiative
The Supreme Court, like a place-kicker in football, serves a function in public life that Americans ignore until, in the most crucial of situations, its performance makes or breaks outcomes. The Courts of the 1960s and 1970s certainly scored wins for the left. In an unprecedented series of legal assaults against the ramparts of the American Constitutional tradition, the Court eradicated “Almighty God” from education with Engel v. Vitale, conjured up a vague right to privacy with Griswold v. Connecticut, and legalized abortion with Roe v. Wade. These headliners, combined with a broader left-wing legal and legislative blitz, ripped down the cultural scaffolding of the United States.
Conservatives of the era rightly perceived that the Court would not only alter the Constitutional order, but also the trajectory of our civilization. Looking back, it’s hard to dispute that the alarm was unjustified. Birth rates, family formation, and church attendance collapsed in the decades following the wreckage of the Warren and Burger Courts. The old sacraments fell away and the new sacraments of secularism, divorce, abortion, and nihilism now sit on the high seats in the temple of our civilization.
How did this happen? Malaise, that defining characteristic of the 1970s (and perhaps our own decade as well), seeped into every corner of American cultural, economic, and ultimately spiritual life. Protestant Churches strained through the cultural headwinds of the 60s and 70s, tacking unsurely in an age of revolution. A series of controversial Southern Baptist Conventions fiercely debated abortion throughout the 1970s. Previously stalwart Christian publications ran pro-choice editorials and clergy waffled. It was, in fact, seven Protestant Justices who ruled for Roe. It was, in fact, a failure of Protestant mobilization and leadership that allowed these winds to permanently alter America’s course.
To their eternal credit, it was our Catholic friends who understood the civilizational moment. They quickly organized and their leaders lent crucial moral clarity to wavering Protestants. Entrenched on familiar ground as a committed minority, Catholic conservatives were clear-eyed and prepared to lead a decades-long institutional slog required to overturn Roe. Catholic activists including L. Brent Bozell Jr., Phyllis Schlafly, and Paul Weyrich organized the pro-life cause into a counter-revolutionary insurgency, replete with emerging institutions aimed at sustaining the fight. Catholic leaders, cognizant of the need to unite Christians against a common enemy, recruited a small number of conservative Baptists and Lutherans into successful efforts to defeat Michigan’s 1972 Proposal B, a ballot initiative that would have legalized abortion up to 20 weeks. The partnership marked the beginning of a historic new coalition and a new era in cooperation between Catholics and Protestants, cooperation that proved fruitful when Prop B failed by a 20-point margin. By the 1978 midterms, Protestants and Evangelicals especially were aligned with the insurgency and were able to deliver a crucial mass of voters.
Just four years after Jerry Falwell’s first 1978 sermon on abortion, Catholic leaders had already planted the seeds of change at America’s top Ivy League law schools. The now famous Federalist Society channeled Catholic institutional dispositions and built the predominant legal organization of the right.
Even as Evangelicals came to dominate the right’s electorate during the 1980s and 1990s, Protestants largely continued to outsource the bulk of the pro-life movement’s leadership to Catholic-founded organizations like the National Right to Life Committee, the March for Life, and the Federalist Society. Protestant voters delivered three Protestant Presidents that would eventually succeed in placing five Catholic Justices on the bench. Each of the five Justices belonged to the Federalist Society, and each held that the Constitution of the United States does not confer a right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson. Dobbs was truly a victory for all.
But it was Churchill who cautioned: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Dobbs was a remarkable achievement, but it only marked the end of the beginning. The battle for the lives of the unborn was returned to the people and the states by the Court, and this battle must be won by the people and in the states. So far, it’s been a drumming for the unborn.
The first indicator of trouble came from Kansas when a pro-life constitutional amendment placed on the ballot by a Republican legislature lost by a whopping 18-points. Sure, Kansas Republicans displayed a shocking ineptitude for utilizing friendly amendment language, and the state had elected (and now re-elected) a Democratic Governor, but the 18-point margin left little room for wishful interpretation. On cue, the Republican Party panicked, hedged, and abandoned the fight. Pro-life groups in Washington green-lit backtracking, apologizing, and equivocating campaigns. Republican candidates who endorsed strong pro-life platform planks for decades about-faced and retreated. Suddenly, previously pro-life, pro-God Conservatives were pitching European-style abortion regulations, dodging debate questions by misdirecting and exclusively addressing late-term abortion and even trotting out Senator Lindsey Graham to propose an entirely counter-productive and off-message national 15-week ban. The right won the legal battle, but it was not prepared for a gloves-off war to win electorates.
On Election Day, the Republican midterm disaster laid bare the consequences of ignoring James Baker’s 5 Ps. (Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance). GOP post-midterm autopsies have largely focused on Donald Trump, ballot harvesting, and a perceived lack of candidate quality. Nearly all have ignored the glaring role Dobbs played in the shellacking. Pro-lifers lost ballot propositions in blue, purple, and red states. It’s nothing short of disturbing that a ballot measure that would have protected “born-alive infants by imposing criminal penalties on health care providers who do not act to preserve the life of such infants, including infants born during an attempted abortion” failed in Montana (which was +16 for Trump in 2020). Infanticide over-performed Joe Biden by 13-points. It’s results like Montana’s that have left Republicans without a plan, without an explanation, and without a clue.
The institutional warriors who overturned Roe were not prepared to compete with the left’s electoral juggernaut. Republican candidates were crushed by lopsided Democratic margins with young voters in every corner of the country. Abortion only trailed inflation by single digits in exit polls as a top issue for voters, with majority pro-choice sentiment. The left outspent, out-organized, and ultimately outworked the pro-life movement this past midterm cycle. Voters disregarded Republican clamoring for French-style abortion with the same zeal they’ve disregarded the left’s clamoring for Canadian-style healthcare. Moral hedging, it turns out, isn’t popular.
These circumstances leave the pro-life movement, like the rest of the conservative apparatus, in crisis. The battleground fundamentally changed. Existing pro-life institutions, largely concerned with lawfare and lobbying, are not built for a protracted majoritarian project. Certainly not to the scale that defeating the abortion industry requires. The continued battle for life will require institutions of a new nature, institutions that Protestants are in the only practical position to build.
Protestants, particularly evangelicals, remain the single largest pro-life constituency in America. Protestant flocks, still a supermajority of America’s Churched, provide the only critical mass of voters capable of out-organizing and ultimately electorally blunting the abortion machine. Pro-life Catholics will remain an important partner in the coalition, but American Catholics are split between pro-choice and pro-life attitudes. Pro-life Catholics are a minority of a minority, in no way capable of providing the levée en masse needed for electoral combat. Bluntly, the catastrophic midterm results exposed a clear lack of electoral punch. But Pro-life Evangelicals alone make up a fourth of the electorate, give or take. As a whole, pro-life Protestants comprise nearly a third of the American electorate. In a majoritarian struggle, these numbers matter. In a majoritarian struggle, the majority must lead. In a majoritarian struggle, Protestant turnout is the clincher. Post-Dobbs, the buck stops with us.
But how can Protestants become leaders when we’ve outsourced our representation for so long?
Protestants must rekindle intellectual fires and set terms for the emerging era. Serious thinkers, many of whom grace the pages of American Reformer, are well underway with that project.
Pastors must educate their flocks regarding the dignity of life and boldly proclaim truth. Consensus is not a commandment and in times like these, compromise is the language of the devil.
Churches must double down on their efforts to provide family and community assistance. Adoption must be encouraged and facilitated. Cultures of life should reinforce doctrinal commitments to life. Financial assistance programs for young parents must become commonplace. Laws alone will not build a just America.
Protestants must grant each other the same detente they granted Catholics in the 1970s and work in tandem by building mutually organized institutions to maximize our representation and turnout. As has been said, we can hang together or hang separately.
Cohorts of volunteers need to be organized to register voters, knock on doors, and engage school boards, local councils, and state legislatures. The public square is our domain.
These are simple declarations, nothing more than guiding posts for a race that will require our contemplation and our labor. But in the aftermath of Election Day, it is incumbent upon all Protestants who wrestle with the questions of our age to begin the process of reclaiming spiritual leadership in America. And above all, Protestants must recognize that in this new post-Dobbs era, we hold the future of human dignity in our trust. It is our duty to ensure that trust is honored. For keeping his commandments is the whole duty of man.