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The Mystique of the Pro-Life Movement: On Trump and the March for Life

November 9th, 2023 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

This piece was originally published on January 24, 2020. Given the election results earlier this week in Ohio as well as other similar post-Dobbs results in Kansas, Kentucky, and Michigan, we are republishing the piece today.

Several years ago Matthew Lee Anderson wrote in these pages that there is no pro-life case for Donald Trump. In many ways the argument has not aged well—Anderson was deeply skeptical that Trump would make good on his promise to appoint pro-life justices. I shared that skepticism. We were both quite obviously wrong on that point—and our friends were happy to remind us of that.

That being said, this portion of Anderson’s argument, which I will quote at length, has held up remarkably well:

If abortions happen because of the breakdown of marriage, then there is nothing ‘pro-life’ about electing someone who is at best a serial monogamist. If the abortion culture has anything to do with the wider degradation of our society’s sex and morals — as pro-lifers have argued it does for as long as I have been alive — then there is nothing pro-life in endorsing a candidate who has bragged about the number of his sexual partners. It matters that Trump is unwilling to answer whether he personally has funded abortions. It matters a great deal.

Let me be as explicit as possible about what pro-lifers supporting Trump means: It means lending their aid to someone who (with Bill Clinton) was friends with Jeffrey Epstein who was eventually convicted of pedophilia. And Trump knew of it and commended Epstein. I mean, look at this glowing endorsement: “I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”

Think about that for a second: Conservative evangelicals and other pro-lifers have rushed to find any justification they can think of to vote for a fellow who almost certainly knew of pedophilia occurring, and, for all we do know of him, did nothing to prevent it. At the very least, he was not the one who went to the police about it. That pro-lifers have been reduced to this beguiles the mind, to put it gently.

And so we come to the March for Life, being held today in Washington. For the first time, a sitting president will address the March in person—and that president is, of course, Donald J. Trump. What should we make of such a thing?

Some, even those who are not Trumpists, are delighted, insisting that the cultural significance of a sitting president addressing the march offers benefits that far outweigh the damage caused by the fact that the president in question may well have paid for abortions in the past. Others say that this is mere tokenism; they echo Anderson’s claim that the pro-life movement’s embrace of Trump cheapens the movement by signaling that it is available for sale to anyone that will offer political support to it, even someone whose entire life seems to display a grievous disregard for life of all forms save his own.

The difficulty here, as in many political debates, is that politique has swallowed mystique, to borrow a helpful set of concepts from French thinker Charles Peguy, cited recently in Sam Kimbriel’s excellent piece in Comment but also deployed in these pages by John Shelton several years ago. The difference between the two is this: Politique refers to the practical work of actually governing—developing policy, passing bills, appointing justices, issuing executive orders, and so on—in a word, power. Mystique is the longing for justice itself. You might say that politique is means, while mystique is ends. We must, of course, attend to both.

This distinction is likely useful in most any political discussion, but it seems particularly significant when dealing with the abortion question. Those who are enthusiastic about President Trump’s support are enthusiastic for a good reason: It is entirely possible that Roe will be overturned in the near future and if it is it will be thanks to two justices appointed by President Trump. To achieve such a political victory is a great good for the simple reason that civil law ought to agree with the moral law. Unjust laws, both Augustine and Dr. King tell us, are no laws at all. And so a political victory that sees our nation’s civil laws move nearer to the revealed truth of the moral law is a real victory and ought to be celebrated as such.

And yet even so we are still, it seems to me, in the realm of politique when we speak of the issue in this way. For the goal of the pro-life movement is not simply that Roe would be overturned but that ours would be a society friendly to life. As long as our laws allow for the killing of the unborn we cannot claim to be such a society. But the erasure of such laws will not, in itself, absolve us of the charge of being a society that is deeply inhumane and hostile to life. Justice is not appeased simply through the changing of civil law; it is appeased when we render to each what they are due. It is achieved, in other words, through repentance, through the acknowledging that we do not render to each what they are due and through a resolution to amend our ways so that we would do that.

And this is what makes the embrace of Trump as a pro-life champion so damaging to the movement: It substitutes politique for mystique and in so doing it diminishes the goals of the pro-life movement, reducing them from the lofty and inspiring ideal of creating a society hospitable to life down to simply overturning a badly argued Supreme Court ruling. And by reducing the ideal in this way it actually drains the life from the pro-life movement, rendering it equivalent to any other political advocacy group whose sole objective is narrowly political in nature.

At its best, the pro-life cause promotes not a particular political agenda item, but a comprehensive way of being in the world, a posture toward reality that is welcoming and exuberant, a vision of life that contradicts on every level the culture of death that has been ascendant in the west for the past century. Our best writing exemplifies this quality about us. Read “Evangelium Vitae.”  Read Perfectly Human. Read “We Shall Not Weary, We Shall Not Rest.”

We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until all the elderly who have run life’s course are protected against despair and abandonment, protected by the rule of law and the bonds of love. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every young woman is given the help she needs to recognize the problem of pregnancy as the gift of life. We shall not weary, we shall not rest, as we stand guard at the entrance gates and the exit gates of life, and at every step along the way of life, bearing witness in word and deed to the dignity of the human person—of every human person.

This is the cause for life. This is why we march. Can we honestly say that Donald Trump resembles such a way of life in any way, let alone exemplifying it? To secure an admittedly significant political victory the pro-life movement has had to give up this broader vision, for how can you credibly claim to resist the culture of death when your champion is Donald Trump?

Of course, that may be precisely the point. There may be no eulogy more fitting for American Christian conservatism than this: That we secured our continued relevance in American society by giving up the things that might have made us a distinctive society ourselves. We have gained a political victory but even if we triumph, what will we have to say? And can we say any of it with even a modicum of credibility?

We have become all things to all men, but not in the way the author of those words meant.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).