by John Jalsevac
July 15, 2008 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The pro-life movement is an almost exclusively Christian movement. Most pro-life events begin and end with Christian prayer, almost all prominent pro-life leaders are outspoken Christians, and a great deal of the rhetoric of the pro-life movement is explicitly Christian.
Some pro-life advocates, however, are distressed by this. They would like to exorcise open Christianity from the movement, relegating religion to the background. These activists, who are usually devout Christians themselves, are motivated by a sincere desire to see the pro-life cause triumph, and their arguments are not without merit.
Above all, these activists believe passionately in the power of reason. They believe that because religious arguments are not necessary to prove that abortion is wrong, such arguments should not be used. Instead, they say, pro-lifers ought to employ only arguments that are universally accessible to believers and non-believers alike.
This shift in tactic will allegedly accomplish two things. In the first place it will prevent the movement from being painted by the media with the unflattering brushstroke of “religious zealots” or “fundamentalists.” And, in the second place, it will throw open the doors of the movement to followers of all religions and those of no religious creed.
This is an enticing vision. In the end, however, it is an unrealistic one, for it fails to consider the giant wrench that has been thrown into every system that has ever attempted to establish a moral order on earth primarily through reason: human nature.
* * *
Slavery is another social evil that does not require a religious response. If God had never revealed that slavery is a sin it would still be possible to prove that it is unethical through purely rational argument.
And yet, there was a time, not so long ago, when the slave-trade formed the very backbone of the British and American empires. This fact alone should stand as a monstrous warning against too optimistic a belief, not necessarily in reason itself, but in people’s ability to see and accept what is reasonable.
Interestingly, the anti-slavery movement was also a primarily Christian movement. For example, William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, two of the most renowned and successful figures in the British abolitionist movement, both took up the fight against slavery after profound religious conversions. Their anti-slavery rhetoric was heavily religious. What is true of Clarkson and Wilberforce was also true for the abolitionist movement on the whole. It was, with the rare exception, a Christian movement.
As Michael Coren writes in the most recent edition of The Interim, while there were “church figures who supported slavery…What is important is that the only opponents were monks, priests and Christian laity. Secular and non-Christian resistance was almost unheard of.”
The abolitionist and pro-life movements had and now have the same characteristic – a membership made up almost entirely of Christians, and a Christian rhetoric. But, if both slavery and abortion can be condemned without religious arguments, why were and are there not more non-religious people in the movements to fight slavery and abortion?
Is it because the abolitionist movement did not, and the pro-life movement has not done enough to reach out to non-Christians by using purely rational arguments, or is it because there is something intrinsic to Christianity that allows Christians to more easily see the reasonableness of the abolitionist and pro-life positions?
* * *
If ever there was a man who was optimistic about the power of reason, it was the medieval philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, Aquinas has sometimes been criticized for believing too radically in the intellect’s ability to penetrate into the depths of reality. And yet, at the very same time, Aquinas also recognized that reason has its limitations. The most significant limitation, he observed, is not a limitation of reason itself, but of those who possess reason – namely, human beings.
At the beginning of the work Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas observes that God has often revealed certain truths that could have been discovered without God’s help. But God, says Aquinas, has chosen to reveal them because most people are not accomplished scholars; they do not have the time, the natural ability, the proper training, the intellectual impartiality, or the requisite humility to think deeply and clearly enough about the important questions to discover the answers.
As G.K. Chesterton writes in his biography of Aquinas, “I might convince a man that matter as the origin of Mind is quite meaningless, if he and I were very fond of each other and fought each other every night for forty years. But long before he was convinced on his deathbed, a thousand other materialists could have been born, and nobody can explain everything to everybody.”
What Chesterton means is simply this: To think is extremely difficult.
Hence, if there is a problem with the argument that the pro-life movement should be less Christian, and more diverse and rational, it is the same problem that Chesterton criticizes Thomas Aquinas for – it is excessively optimistic. It fails to take into consideration the limitations and foibles of human nature.
“Something in [Aquinas’s] character, which I have called elsewhere optimism, and for which I know no other approximate term,” says Chesterton, “led him rather to exaggerate the extent to which all men would ultimately listen to reason.”
* * *
I have always been surprised at how simple and elegant the rational pro-life arguments are. Start with the premise that human beings possess the right to life, prove that human life is a seamless continuity that begins with conception (a fact which science wholeheartedly affirms), and conclude that the unborn child is a human being and, therefore, possesses the right to life. Answer a few objections, make your clarifications, and the argument is, according to all of the principles of logic, flawless.
And yet, try it some time, and see what happens. Gently but firmly guide a convinced pro-abortionist through this argument, and despite all your best efforts you will always end up at the same place, that pesky “right to choose.” Try as you might to demonstrate that the right to choose is a meaningless concept without the preeminence of the right to life, it is to no avail. The abortion supporter wants abortion to be permissible, and permissible it will be. In this matter they can no longer see reason through the murkiness of their desires.
Those pro-life activists who become infuriated that abortion supporters are so “blind,” however, should think for a moment of the thousands, perhaps millions, who argued in all seriousness against the humanity of the African slave.
The unborn child cannot speak; in its beginning stages it doesn’t even look like a human being. The African slave, however, could speak for himself, could sing, could love, could hate. He looked and behaved exactly like a human being, except that he was black, and not white. And yet many intelligent people, including many respected scholars, argued that the African slave was not human, and did not, therefore, possess human rights.
How can we explain this uncomfortable historical fact? Easy. People wanted slavery to be ethical, because slavery was extremely profitable. And to abolish slavery would have been to reorient the entire economy of the West. Just like most arguments about abortion end up at the non sequitur of the “right to choose,” most arguments about slavery ended up at the non sequitur of “the economy.”
Truth be told, we are all, every one of us, like this. We all, because we are human, and fallen, wish to put reason at our service, instead of serving reason.
There is an old saying, abhorrent to modern philosophers, but almost a mantra to the medieval philosopher, that goes, “Believe that you may understand.”
The simplest interpretation of this adage is this: religious faith, if it is a true faith, clears the darkness of the intellect, and gives us the freedom and the ability to think straight and to see the truth.
Until we depend upon something higher than ourselves – namely the true God – we look at the world through the dirty lens of our own desires, attachments, and weaknesses. Without the light of faith we can rarely be sure that what we think is rational is not simply what we want, dressed up in the guise of reason.
Religious faith puts the intellect in contact with the highest Truth, and the sight of that Truth humbles the one who believes; it leads him to put his intellect no longer in the service of his own ego or desires, but at the service of Truth itself.
Very few people will ever arrive at the conclusion that abortion is evil entirely through the use of their intellect. This is made abundantly clear in the fact that most people who convert to the pro-life cause do so only after experiencing a religious conversion. And then, with the eyes of their mind wiped clean by faith, they look at the world and say (how many times have we heard this before?), “I can’t believe I never saw this before. It is so obvious.”
I do not in any way mean to discourage those who believe that reason will save the day. For indeed, there will always be those abortion supporters who are exceptional thinkers, and who have not had their ability to think clearly corrupted by their ego, and who will respond positively and honestly to well-phrased rational pro-life arguments. There may even be some audiences for which the most effective arguments are those that make no mention of religion, and appeal only to reason. But such as these are few and far in between.
The irony is that most of the pro-life activists who wish to demote Christianity to a mere supporting role wouldn’t be pro-life if they hadn’t first been given the gift of their Christian faith. This doesn’t mean that their pro-life position isn’t rational; what it means is that most people are only capable of clearly seeing reason once they have embraced faith.
The pro-life movement will always be a heavily Christian movement. Indeed, the final victory of the movement will only come when pro-life activists recognize that without the assistance of God, there can be no victory. Any concerted efforts to downplay the religious element of the pro-life movement, while well-intentioned, are ultimately misinformed and very possibly self-destructive. For by downplaying the religious element we may convert a secularist or two, but, at the same time, we may very well find that we have cut the very umbilical cord of the pro-life movement.