Jim Daly is president of Focus on the Family, one of the country’s biggest and best-known evangelical organizations, a group that considers opposing abortion one of its very top values. Yet Friday will be the first time Daly has come to Washington for the huge March for Life, the country’s biggest antiabortion event each year. March attendees are always overwhelmingly Catholic, but this year an influx of evangelicals will be joining them on the Mall.
Daly co-sponsored the brand-new Evangelicals for Life event, held Thursday and Friday, part of an effort to refocus a generation of young Christian conservatives who have been brought up to prioritize opposition to same-sex marriage, terrorism and, more recently, immigration.
Evangelical leaders say the time is right because the antiabortion cause was given a huge boost by the release last summer of undercover Planned Parenthood videos aimed at showing the group selling what filmmakers called “baby body parts.” The new effort also comes during a divisive political season for conservatives during which concepts of “pro-life” are under debate, and aims to steer the focus back to abortion.
“The evangelical community needs to recognize what the Catholic community has been doing for four decades. . . . It’s critical for evangelicals to wake up to that commitment,” Daly said Thursday at the two-day conference at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. “It’s unfortunate it’s taken 40 years for us to do that.”
Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore — who also co-sponsored the new effort — said the reaction to the videos was “a sobering moment” for the antiabortion movement.
“The moment of the videos demonstrated that there were many Americans willing to turn their eyes away from what they revealed. They showed the pro-life movement what we’re up against in terms of the conscience of the nation,” he said.
Evangelicals have long been opposed to abortion. Just 33 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases — one of the very lowest rates among U.S. faith groups and far lower than the 48 percent of Catholics who say the same. Twenty-five percent of Americans are evangelical Protestants, the country’s largest faith affiliation.
But some leaders fear that evangelical support for antiabortion activism may be shallow. They note that most of the rock stars of the antiabortion movement are Catholic, such as Lila Rose, James O’Keefe and David Daleiden, who have made undercover videos aimed at discrediting abortion providers.
The videos show Planned Parenthood employees casually discussing financial compensation for fetal tissue donations. While activists claimed that the footage proved Planned Parenthood was illegally selling fetal parts for profit, no congressional and state investigations have corroborated the claim.
The reasons evangelicals haven’t been joining Catholics in public activism recently are theological, cultural and political.
Evangelical Protestants were deeply anti-Catholic, Moore said.
“Some thought, whatever Roman Catholics were for, we should be against,” he said. Evangelicals were also divided among themselves on abortion into the 1980s; Catholic teaching has always been opposed. And evangelicals are more politically conservative and come at abortion opposition with a different language. Catholics have long spoken of abortion as a “social justice” cause not unlike fighting poverty, while evangelicals saw the issue through an individual morality lens and were wary of Catholic language that to them sounded liberal, said Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty University who spoke at the new evangelical event.
Prior has been a movement activist since the late 1980s and said that the present feels as if it’s a key moment for evangelicals. When antiabortion figures such as Religious Right leader Jerry Falwell and clinic-protester Randall Terry of Operation Rescue faded and laws about protesting at clinics became more restrictive, evangelical public efforts went behind the scenes and into churches, she said. Other issues got more attention among evangelicals, she said, such as religious liberty and same-sex marriage.
The Evangelicals for Life event, the leadership of someone as prominent as Moore and the interest in the Planned Parenthood videos reveal a new era, she said. Many abortion opponents think the videos were the most important thing to happen to the movement in decades.
“I see this as a symbolic reemergence of the pro-life philosophy as a public touchstone within evangelicalism,” Prior said.
There is also a pragmatic political reason to organize around abortion: It’s something that unites most religious conservatives at a time of intense infighting.
Matt Lewis, an evangelical political commentator who has written “Too Dumb to Fail” about schisms in American conservativism, said the push to refocus evangelicals on abortion is telling. The Republican Party, he said, is becoming divided between people who focus on issues such as opposition to immigration and refugees and who use what Lewis calls “culture war” language, and those who are “compassionate conservatives talking about human dignity.” Focus on abortion now falls into the latter camp, he said.
“There’s a lot of soul-searching of what the conservative brand will be, and a re-ordering. Evangelicals are a huge part of that,” Lewis said.
Polls show, however, that the issue of abortion is not a top priority for voters — even those who strongly oppose the practice. Fears of terrorism and economic inequity have pushed it down the list.
What impact the Evangelicals for Life campaign will have isn’t clear. The conference, which organizers plan to hold annually, had about 500 people registered. There are many thousands who attend the march, which is identifiably Catholic, with nuns and priests in their garb, people praying the rosary and Catholic schoolchildren in matching T-shirts.
There’s no evidence evangelicals get abortions at a lesser rate than other women. According to the Guttmacher Institute, which gathers information on abortion, seven in 10 women who get abortions identify as Christian, and a quarter go to church at least monthly.
Asked what the general mood is among abortion opponents in 2016, Moore said: “As they say on Facebook: ‘It’s complicated.’ ”
The March for Life, he said, gives attendees a huge infusion of energy because it’s so large and so young. There have been recent legal victories in various states, and abortions are becoming increasingly rare in the United States. But Moore thinks that much of the country overall responded to the Planned Parenthood videos with a shrug.
Younger evangelicals — like younger Catholics — have been pushing to expand the “pro-life” label to include causes such as combating sex trafficking, promoting racial justice, and caring for orphans and foster children. This attracts more people but can be divisive.
The challenge was on display at a major conference of young evangelicals last month, when an African American keynote speaker called the antiabortion movement “a big spectacle” for not focusing more on racial justice.
The broadening of “pro-life” to include opposition to the death penalty is a particularly tough issue for politically conservative evangelicals. And some evangelicals are also pushing for mandatory coverage of fertility treatment, while others disagree with that effort.
The Evangelicals for Life event embodied that growing diversity of issues with speakers whose expertise includes disability advocacy, fatherhood and hunger.
Dean Inserra, lead pastor of City Church in Tallahassee and a speaker at Evangelicals for Life, said this year is his first March for Life. The tone among evangelicals around abortion has changed, he said.
“In the past I feel it was seen more as a war, a battle. Today instead it’s a mission field, a ministry. We have to be pro-life also for the woman who just walked out of the abortion clinic, pro-adoption, pro-K-12 education, pro all these things. But unless we’re first pro-life in the womb, we have no credibility to be pro-life in other ways.”