The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I’m a pro-life evangelical. In supporting Trump, my movement sold its soul.

Participants of the 47th annual March for Life rally march up Constitution Ave on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 in Washington, D.C. President Trump, who spoke the rally, is the first sitting U.S. president in history to speak in person at the annual march. (Photo by Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
Participants of the 47th annual March for Life rally march up Constitution Ave on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 in Washington, D.C. President Trump, who spoke the rally, is the first sitting U.S. president in history to speak in person at the annual march. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
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The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court injected new enthusiasm and urgency into the evangelical pro-life movement. Conservatives may soon make up a significant majority on the court, leaving Roe v. Wade more vulnerable than it has ever been, a core objective of our movement since Roe was handed down in 1973. We have been let down before — but never have we been promised so much by the occupant of the Oval Office. In January, Donald Trump became the first sitting president to attend the March for Life in Washington, where he declared himself the strongest defender that unborn children have ever had in the White House. In a letter from his campaign in September, he said that he has “governed as the most pro-life president in our nation’s history.”

The prospect of a Justice Barrett is cause for excitement, and this legal milestone — the chance to overturn Roe — is something I’ve hoped for and worked toward for more than a decade. Yet I feel deep unease at how we arrived at this moment. Pro-life evangelicals threw their support behind Trump in 2016 aiming for precisely this outcome, but I fear it has been to our detriment. Aligning our movement with Trumpism has reduced our commitments to a single goal: outlawing abortion at any cost, putting our reputation (but not his) on the line. 

I watched all of this unfold from the front lines. Until recently, I served as executive director of Ohio Right to Life. When I started there in a part-time role in 2009, I was grateful for the opportunity to change hearts, minds and laws to recognize the humanity of the unborn and the vulnerable. I advised candidates for elected office, advocated for legal protections for unborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome, and lobbied successfully to gain state funding for pregnancy help centers and to end late-term abortions in Ohio.

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I’ve spent my career fighting for a cause I believe in, one in which I could live out my faith as a Christian. Over the past decade, our state saw a 25 percent decrease in the number of abortions, consistent with the broader nationwide decline in abortions over the past 30 years. But as the cause became increasingly tied to Trump, it transformed into something with which I could no longer identify. Every major pro-life organization has endorsed Trump’s reelection. Protecting innocent life is a cause that’s deeply steeped in morality, but with this political choice, the movement has shown itself to be too willing to trade moral character for power.

In 2016 I watched, dismayed, as the Trump campaign gained momentum steadily through the primary season. At the outset, I agreed with the female pro-life leaders who signed an open letter before the Iowa caucuses, stating empathically that Trump was lacking in character, unable to show respect to women and wholly without understanding of the pro-life movement. That same pro-life leadership turned around to endorse him once he secured the GOP nomination. In November, exit polls showed that a third of Trump’s support came from White evangelical voters; I did not vote for him.

After he won, I came to accept that I needed to hold my beliefs in tension. I did not like or trust the president, but ending abortion was important to me, and I did not want to abandon the cause. Our strategy in Ohio was working: By continually chipping at the edges of Roe, we were making headway in restricting and reducing abortion. And however displeased I may have been with Trump’s character, a Republican presidency offered a sense of possibility and momentum, inspiring me to devise new strategies to provide resources to and advocate for mothers and the estimated 20,000 babies who could be born in our state annually if abortion were ultimately banned.  

As with most (though not all) people in the pro-life movement, my beliefs are rooted in my Christian faith. To many of us, being pro-life means abiding by an ethic that goes well beyond opposition to abortion. It’s an ethic committed to protecting the vulnerable, and grounded in the idea that every human deserves dignity, because every human is created in the image of God, including the unborn, Black people, immigrants, the incarcerated and the poor. I am proud to have worked for Republican officeholders, including state Sen. Peggy Lehner and former governor John Kasich, whose dedication to ending abortion was connected to that deeper ethic. They endeavored, for example, to ensure equal economic or educational opportunities for minorities and women (particularly single mothers), and to provide funding for addiction treatment programs that include prenatal care.   

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The Trump administration showed few signs of recognizing that ethic. Instead, it often demonstrated disregard for human dignity — and an appalling willingness to discard lives not considered politically useful. Trump has maligned undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers as “thugs” and “animals,” and backed up that rhetoric with his ramped-up policy of family separation and detention at the border, leaving thousands of migrant children vulnerable to abuse. He has been repeatedly accused of sexual assault and has unashamedly used demeaning language about women.

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For me, the breaking point came this summer. The combination of Trump’s callousness toward those suffering amid the pandemic and his indifference toward the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s death made it too difficult to stay in my position. The organization I worked for remained silent about the pandemic and racism. As protests began in the streets below, we were in our office, promoting a tele-town hall hosted by Pro-Life Voices for Trump, touting his pro-life accomplishments and preparing to endorse pro-life candidates (including some who, like the president, diminished or outspokenly opposed the Black Lives Matter cause). Unable to publicly criticize Trump’s response, and unable to ignore it, I felt that my hands were tied as I saw the protests happening here in Columbus and across the country. On June 30, I resigned, citing my concerns over his presidency and the damage I believe it will ultimately do to the pro-life movement, and to the reputation and witness of the church.

Considerable damage has already been done. Throughout my time in the pro-life movement, colleagues have often told me that the movement does not get involved in other human dignity issues like the death penalty, or issues of immigration or race, because it might dilute our messaging. Under this president, it’s become resoundingly clear that these matters are no longer considered merely ancillary or a distraction: They are now rejected as outright obstacles on the path to power.

Leaders in the pro-life and evangelical movement enabled that trade-off. Marjorie Dannenfelser, the head of the Susan B. Anthony List, has described her support of Trump as “prudential” and told Roll Call, “I literally did not set foot in the White House for eight years, and now our relationship with the president and vice president is so close, and the collaboration means you can have a national strategy rather than being on constant defense.” The chief executive of the conservative Christian group Concerned Women for America praised Trump as a “street fighter” and said that under his administration, “there is no doubt America is experiencing the blessing of renewal.”

Polls suggest that pro-life evangelicals today support Trump even more strongly than during the last presidential election: Eighty-two percent said they would vote for him (compared with the 77 percent who cast ballots for him in 2016), and 64 percent said that he is “somewhat” or “very” religious. The president has frequently claimed to be on the side of God, when in fact what he preaches is a vision of America with himself as savior, a sort of nationalist gospel of his own definition. He has also declared that he “will never stop fighting for Americans of faith” and that under his leadership, “Christianity will have power” — even though our faith does not call upon Christians to seek power. Quite the opposite: We’re called to emulate the love and humility of Jesus’ sacrifice. Unfortunately, by endorsing Trump and defending him at every turn, our movement has placed power ahead of all else. We cannot look to politics and expect to find a savior there.

Should Barrett be confirmed, I would welcome a Supreme Court ruling that recognizes the humanity of the vulnerable, unborn life in the womb. Yet even if such a ruling comes soon, it will be at the cost of the pro-life movement’s integrity. I am confident that, in advocating for this president, we will have lost our soul. The church is meant to be known for our unconditional love of others. By supporting Trump, we show only our love of power.

Twitter: @stephkrider

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