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.
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