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Lessons of the Pro-Life Blackout: From Pressure to Persecution

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 21, 2014

In describing the annual bout of blindness, Phil Lawler presents a welcome tongue-in-check look at how the annual March for Life in Washington is typically handled by the media. The spontaneous blackout of effective news coverage of this event—which actually creates a very effective non-coverage—tells us much about what it means to be counter-cultural in America. I believe it also effectively obscures major changes to come.

As a general rule, secularists in the West have been smart enough not to make martyrs of pro-lifers. The usual secularist strategy is to use the influence of the dominant culture to so marginalize their opponents as to render them ineffective. This approach generally means pro-lifers are not actively persecuted, for which we ought to be grateful. But it still gives the pro-life movement a major problem: How can it disseminate its message?

When it comes to the abortion issue, the dominant secular culture has been able to take advantage of an inherent weakness in mass societies: The relative ease by which politics can be rendered non-local. Given that citizens can really hold each other accountable only at the local level, the recipe for success goes something like this: First, use court decisions to eliminate the ability to deal with contested moral issues on the local level. Second, implement and protect the desired policy from the highest possible level. Third, use the media to make pockets of opposition appear tiny and scattered. And fourth, enjoy the cumulative effect of screening out all attempts to change that perception.

I do not mean to argue that all of this is a matter of deliberate political orchestration. In significant part, this is simply the modus operandi of the dominant culture which tends to control both law and opinion. Nor do I mean to suggest that the dominant culture represents a small minority of persons who can somehow use these techniques to suppress the collective will of a large frustrated majority. But through whatever combination of deliberate orchestration and natural inclination, this approach pretty much ensures that the battle for life in the so-called Western democracies is never a fair political fight.

This is certainly true in the United States. The annual media response to the March for Life is a stellar example of how step four continues to pay dividends following the successful implementation of steps one through three.

I have suggested that we ought to be thankful that the default response to pro-life activity is not direct, material persecution. There is a great deal of frustration in being pro-life, but there is not (let us be honest) a great deal of suffering. The first lesson of the pro-life blackout, then, is that the greatest gains are to be made by keeping things as local as possible, by changing the hearts and minds of those we actually interact with personally so that they simply do not choose abortion as a way of dealing with their problems. The potential success is far greater at the micro level of personal influence than at the macro level of “public opinion” and politics.

Lesson Two

But the second lesson of the pro-life blackout is that we have thus far been involved in a relatively “soft” battle. By comparing this with other possibilities, we can see that widespread material persecution may soon change the game. By “material” persecution I mean any persecution that goes beyond regarding those with strong Christian or natural law values as rather insignificantly out of touch. Examples include pressure to act immorally, loss of employment, legal harassment, fines and other financial penalties, imprisonment, and extensive mockery or bullying. The issue of gay marriage may be the tipping point.

We already know that many gays tend to be flamboyantly prone to ugly forms of behavior to disrupt the lives of those who oppose homosexual activity on moral grounds. We have seen this again and again in parades, public demonstrations, invasions of meetings and religious services, and even targeted harassment of businesses and private residences. Moreover, gays form a class of adults who seek a wide array of services in support of their sexuality and their “marriages”, a class which the law increasingly protects when it comes to the service of non-gay individuals and businesses. We have already seen therapists, innkeepers, wedding photographers and caterers, printers, and a number of other businesses (including at least one fast food chain) suffer legal and financial attack as a result of both their opinions and their policies regarding homosexual acts and gay marriage. Preachers, teachers, commentators and writers have faced loss of employment, fines and at least potential imprisonment.

The extent of this shift from psychic marginalization to material persecution can be easily imagined with the help of a thought experiment. We know that the annual March for Life in the East (and the Walk for Life in the West) can operate both legally and peacefully, including the requisite permits which guarantee police protection. Now let us imagine an annual March for Marriage designed to signal opposition to gay marriage as rooted in an immoral conception of human sexuality. Is it not virtually certain that permits would be denied and that participants would be arrested for engaging in a hate crime?

As Phil Lawler noted in a previous piece covering both New York and Ireland, defenders of marriage are already being told they are not welcome as neighbors and citizens. I myself documented the tendency on the Federal bench to portray defenders of marriage as irrational (Get Comfortable with Absurdity: Catholics and the Civil Order). Yet this sort of abuse has on the whole been remarkably absent from the battle over abortion.

Real persecution is, of course, a stellar opportunity for grace. The ancient dictum applies that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. But that does not make the contemplation of direct persecution any less chilling. In the United States at least, a mere contrarian could have been happily pro-life over the past forty years. Not so, I think, in the next forty. Instead, we are now called to a role for which we must be not only politically but spiritually prepared.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Dutch01 - Jan. 23, 2014 4:30 PM ET USA

    Evil talks a lot about “tolerance” when it’s weak. When evil is strong, real tolerance gets pushed out the door. And the reason is simple. Evil cannot bear the counter-witness of truth. It will not coexist peacefully with goodness, because evil insists on being seen as right, and worshiped as being right. - Charles Chaput

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jan. 22, 2014 4:17 PM ET USA

    I recognize the fact that "suffering" for the principles of our faith could increase drastically within the near future, but I also agree & find hope in Chestertonian's point of view.Pro-lifers & any number of "other" Catholics have suffered,are suffering & hopefully will continue to suffer for God & His purposes. It is taught as "wisdom" in the Catholic Church NOT to seek out martyrdom. Likewise, it is prudent not to overtly desire persecution,& if enough people choose wisely we will avoid it.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 22, 2014 9:17 AM ET USA

    It is also entirely foreseeable that all schools will be legally compelled to represent homosexual "marriage" as the same in every way to true marriage. This representation will be mandated for all text books, and any teacher or school resisting the indoctrination will be sanctioned on the basis of hate crimes legislation. Catholic schools will NOT be exempted. In Canada and Europe clerics have been incarcerated for preaching the sinfulness of homosexual acts.

  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Jan. 22, 2014 12:09 AM ET USA

    I must strongly disagree with your claim that pro-lifers haven't suffered for the cause. I can easily site examples, including harassment and beatings of sidewalk counsellors, the coerced departure of a VP from a food company in Washington state, because of his pro-life activities, and the blackballing, for employment purposes, of a woman in the Seattle diocese, for working with the state pro-life agency--just for starters. This has been no walk in the park! Where have you been?

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 21, 2014 9:08 PM ET USA

    You are right, but I still object to the (mis)use of the word 'gay'. Why concede even an inch to the nihilists, especially in our way of talking? Why not dub their currently popular charade with a really accurate name, something like "sodomite arrangement" instead of sullying the word "marriage"? (As I tell friends, what these confused people are up to is neither 'gay' nor 'marriage'.) Careful people don't call abortion "choice", so why gratuitously cede linguistic ground to the sodomy lobby?