Pro-Life: From Liberal Catholics to Conservative Protestants

Who are the folks who stand outside of family-planning clinics these days, warning young women that some planning services are nothing but the cruelest form of murder? As historian Daniel Williams argues in a recent article in the journal Religions, the “pro-life” movement shifted from its early roots as a socially liberal Catholic cause to a politically conservative Protestant one.

Is this kind of thing inherently "conservative?"

Is this kind of thing inherently “conservative?”

For those of us interested in the historical development of America’s culture wars, Williams’s article is a must-read. As he explains, in 1972 the first generation of pro-lifers pulled from the civil-rights and anti-war wing of liberalism. At the time, Williams argues, “it seemed unthinkable that anyone would equate the pro-life cause with political conservatism.”

What happened?

As anyone with a pulse is well aware, these days the pro-life movement is firmly in the hands of culturally and politically conservative evangelicals.

Williams argues that pro-life Catholicism had its roots in the 1930s. Back then, Catholic intellectuals and activists often tied their theological arguments against abortion to the dominant New Deal liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

After Vatican II’s liberalizing reforms in the early 1960s, liberal Catholics forged even tighter bonds between liberal Catholicism and secular Great-Society anti-poverty programs. As Williams recounts, anti-racist liberals tied new abortion laws to genocide against African Americans.

Around the time of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, liberals began shifting their thinking. Instead of an issue of the rights of an oppressed and voiceless minority, abortion became a question of women’s rights.

On the conservative side, anti-abortion activism lost its connection to anti-war and anti-poverty campaigns. It lost its overwhelming connection to liberal Catholicism. Instead, it became wrapped in the Protestant-dominated language of “family values,” Williams writes.

For many of us who follow culture-war politics, it can come as a shock to read Williams’s re-creation of recent evangelical history. Even up to and during the early 1970s, many conservative evangelical organizations and intellectuals did not take a recognizably pro-life position.

Everyone interested in the full story should check out Williams’s article as well as his other work. It serves as a reminder that the seemingly hard-and-fast positions of our culture-war trenches have actually shifted dramatically over the years.

And for many of us, it prompts important questions:

  • Does pro-life seem inherently “conservative?”
    • Why?
  • Do some SAGLRROILYBYGTH who consider themselves “liberal” also consider themselves “pro-life?”
    • Why?
  • If you are “pro-life” and conservative, do you think the two go together?
  • Would it be possible these days to be a real pro-life liberal?
  • Is there something different about Catholic pro-lifers vs. Protestant ones?
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Liberalism Leads to Campus Rape

Well-intentioned liberal rules—plus “binge drinking”—led us to an epidemic of campus sexual assaults.  That is the equation offered recently by conservative intellectual Patrick Deneen.  Deneen argues that the abdication of control by universities in the 1960s, meant to liberate students, has pushed the federal government to step in.

In recent days, we at ILYBYGTH have wondered about the connection between conservative Christianity and campus sexual assault.  Do overzealous reporters try to use uniformed bluster about “fundamentalism” to smear conservative religious peopleOr does there seem to be something peculiarly dangerous about authoritarian institutions such as fundamentalist colleges?

Professor Deneen has different concerns.  He notes the recent announcement by the federal government that it is investigating fifty-five universities for their handling of sexual-assault cases.  When universities and colleges fail to maintain the safety and security of their students, the Office of Civil Rights will step in.

As Deneen points out, this responsibility for the sexual morality of students used to be the responsibility of the universities themselves.  College graduates of a certain age may remember the elaborate rules that enveloped college-student social lives before the 1960s.  Female students at mainstream colleges—even at public institutions—often had to check in with “dorm mothers” at nine o’clock.  In every aspect of student life, the college took on the role of the parent.  In every way, the college acted in loco parentis—in place of the parent.

Of course, in the 1960s campuses in the US and around the world became hotbeds of political and cultural upheaval.  Students demanded more freedom, and they got it.  At many schools, in loco parentis rules were scrapped.  In many schools, indeed, core curricula were also scrapped in the name of freedom.  For instance, at my own beloved school, Binghamton University, students staged the “Bermuda Revolution.”  Not quite up to the office occupations and shotgun-wielding demands that rocked our neighbors at Columbia University or Cornell, but Bearcats managed to come together to protest strict student rules.  At Binghamton, the Bermuda Revolution brought students out to our Peace Quad clad in Bermuda shorts.  At the time, this was against the stern, traditional dress code that required shirts and ties for men and skirts and blouses for women.  As a result, the university changed those rules, giving students more freedom over their own lives.

Campus Revolutionaries, Binghamton Style

Campus Revolutionaries, Binghamton Style

One unintended consequence of this freedom is that more young people on college campuses have been exposed to sexual violence.  When students have more opportunity to drink alcohol and stay out late, more students find themselves in situations that lead to sexual assault.  As a result, the federal government has stepped in to investigate the way universities respond to charges of rape and sexual assault.

Professor Deneen argues that this tale of freedom gone awry can be seen as the history of liberalism in a nutshell.  As he puts it,

Longstanding local rules and cultures that governed behavior through education and cultivation of certain kinds of norms, manners, and morals, came to be regarded as an oppressive limitation upon the liberty of individuals. Those forms of control were lifted in the name of liberation, leading to regularized abuse of those liberties. In the name of redressing the injustices of those abuses, the federal government was seen as the only legitimate authority for redress and thereby exercised powers (ones that often require creative interpretations of federal law to reach down into private institutions) to re-regulate the liberated behaviors. However, now there is no longer a set of “norms” that seek to cultivate forms of self-rule, since this would constitute an unjust limitation of our freedom. Now there can only be punitive threats that occur after the fact. One cannot seek to limit the exercise of freedom before the fact (presumably by using at one’s disposal education in character and virtue); one can only punish after the fact when one body has harmed another body.

Conservative Christian colleges may have a unique set of challenges when dealing with the issue of sexual assault.  But Professor Deneen argues that sexual assault on other campuses has been a result of liberalism, not traditionalism.  Loose rules and permissive attitudes, Deneen notes, have led to an anything-goes culture.  The resulting “sexual anarchy” has left victims vulnerable to attack, with little recourse after the fact.