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 Keith Miller took a victory lap in these pages when we were proven to be so.

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.

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." 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 Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Greg Herr

    As the Church stated in Her Vatican II documents, and as Cardinal Bernardin more-than-echoed in his 1983/84 addresses on a Consistent Ethic of Life, partial responses are inadequate.

    In the case of the current president, it is worse: it is both cynical and insidious. His actions on compromising water quality requirements a day after the declaration on Sanctity are evidence of that; likely evidence that those attuned to a Single Issue, connected to their Vote, will pay little heed to.

    1984, Bernardin:

    ‘Each of the issues I have identified today—abortion, war, hunger and human rights, euthanasia and
    capital punishment—is treated as a separate, self contained topic in our public life. Each is distinct, but an ad hoc approach to each one fails to illustrate how our choices in one area can affect our decisions
    in other areas. There must be a public attitude of respect for all of life if public actions are to respect it
    in concrete cases.’

    ‘Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.’
    Gaudium et Spes 27 | The Pastoral Constitution on the Church
    in the Modern World of the Second Vatican Council

  • C. R. T.

    I agree with basically all you’ve observed, but I would like to mention what may be an overlooked factor: as you noted, Trump is the first sitting president to address the March in person. How much of the current mutual embrace of Trump and the pro-life movement is due to the malfeasance of a third party: establishment Republicans?

    How much of the rush to Trump was a predictable act of desperation by a people whose supposed-representatives ignored their wishes? There are, absolutely, many Republican politicians who sincerely want to honor and protect the sanctity of life. Some have been effective in tending their own fields; others have lacked the political capital, tactical competence, or moral courage to make a difference. There have been, however, many others over the decades for whom the pro-life mantra was little more than a election or fund-raising slogan. I believe Trump’s allegiance to the movement goes no further than theirs does; for some reason, however, he seems inclined to act on his promises (the single biggest surprise of the Trump presidency, as far as I’m concerned). Political answers are not, indeed, ultimate answers, and it may be that the pro-life movement has over-weighted the value of the political realm. Yet, as you suggest, political goods do still matter, and it is frustrating to be used for votes, and then discarded until the next cycle, without an obvious alternative course. One can fault such voters, perhaps, for naivete, but I think that is generally an unfair charge: of course they kept voting for the candidate who said he or she was pro-life, even without indicia of sincerity. What else were they supposed to do?

    I, too, am troubled at the apparently uncritical embracing of Trump as a figurehead of the pro-life (or, more broadly, conservative Christian) populace. I am nevertheless sympathetic. This seemingly poor fit between mission and man is not so surprising when you consider the unfulfilled promises of prior leaders. Pro-life persons tended to vote for Trump for the same reason as they had voted in earlier elections: because he said he would be a pro-life president. Whether they believed him or not is somewhat beside the point. But is it any surprise they celebrate evidence that he’ll do more about that promise than his predecessors?

    The pro-life movement needs more than an overturning of Roe. And consider this particular lawyer skeptical that such an overturning is even likely. But, for a movement that may feel legitimately ignored by those in the halls of worldly power (notwithstanding some real traction on the ground, particularly on the level of state law), it’s predictable that finding a ready ear and readier pen/finger at the White House would cause some giddiness. Trump is probably insincere and cynical; so too were many who went before. It is perhaps his cynicism that appeals to many, made cynical themselves by prior politicians. Judged on actions, rather than motivation, though, he appears to be a better ally than some. God uses insincere preachers to preach Christ, as Paul rejoiced. He has used insincere presidents before, and insincere Popes. He can use a calculating, narcissistic man to do good in spite of himself.

    The danger, as you allude, is that this unlikely alliance would challenge efforts to make up cultural ground on the pro-life issue, in the full-bodied sense of the term. I don’t think undue criticism of pro-trump pro-lifers is a way forward, however. That’s not to say you are guilty of such, by the way, but some fall into the practice. Calling out apparent contradictions in co-belligerents in love is one thing; blaming them for undermining the movement is another thing altogether, and only serves to highlight to those on the outside our own disunity, providing an excuse to avoid taking all of us seriously. Maybe Trump supporters have caused harm to the movement by their support of him; maybe trump haters have caused harm to the movement by their opposition. Recognizing the sincerity of pro-lifers on both sides of this debate–and of those with widely divergent thoughts on strategy or priority–and extending the pro-life tent is probably more useful than agonizing over how unlikely a champion appears. If the broader culture’s dislike of trump makes them more opposed to life, that is not really the pro-life movement’s fault. Nor is it really Trump’s fault, when it comes down to it (though faults he has, no doubt). If people support the evil of abortion because they hate Trump, the ultimate fault lies with those people–such visceral, irrational, senseless reactions are without excuse.

    Trump is not the representative that many pro-lifers would have concocted in a lab. He’s the one they do have, though, and it is not necessarily a compromise of values, mission, or thoughtfulness to embrace that fact. There are enough reasons for a Christian to oppose Trump; there’s plenty of reason to celebrate his apparent intent to maintain the support of the pro-life voters. Insofar as we remain largely unified, that intent is unlikely to dissipate.

  • Kiyoshi01

    I don’t think it’s an accident that white evangelicals love Trump with such fervor. I grew up within white evangelical circles. White evangelicals are some of the most racist, misogynistic, and homophobic people I’ve ever known. Their embrace of Trump is perfectly consistent with their screwed-up worldview.

    • recursionrecursion

      This is one of the only times I can say I’ve seen a comment utterly exceed the article, and the article was great.

  • I wasn’t a Trump supporter in 2016 for most of the reasons mentioned in the article, but I have been pleasantly surprised by his decisions while in office. While Jake points out correctly that Trump’s past is not consistent with the pro-life message, I believe it is the present that matters most.

    Jake seems to be taking the same approach that the secular media applies to Christians when they gleefully expose them for past sins and then label them as “hypocrites” for claiming to be Christian but not having been perfect for their entire life. They forget that Christians are not claiming to be perfect and immune from sin, but that we recognize our own depravity and need for a savior.

    I do not personally know the current state of Trump’s soul. He certainly needs a relationship with Christ like the rest of us, but that does not mean he should be excluded and shunned by Christians and the March for Life. We have welcomed many at the March for Life – including former abortionists and even non-believers who are willing to acknowledge that Abortion is murder. That does not lessen the “mystique” of the pro-life message. Our message is not based on any politician nor on our own personal perfection. We are all imperfect.

    • RustySkywater

      I agree with you that the present is important to take account; people definitely can change.

      The problem is that the President’s present actions – many of them, at least – are morally evil as well.

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  • I appreciate several of the comments here. I understand the points Meador is making. However, it seems to me in our eagerness to criticize, we sometimes forget how many imperfect — or rather, “bad” — men God has used in the past — Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Ahasuerus. None were “Godly” men by any means, but God used them in different ways and some even became allies of God’s people. Is it “terrible” that Esther enlisted the help of Ahasuerus? Do the ends justify the means? The Biblical narrative seems to suggest that indeed, sometimes, they do.

    Personally, I did not vote for Trump in 2016. However, like many, I have been pleasantly surprised by how many of his promises he has kept. I was very impressed with the speech he gave at March for Life as well. Do I think he means it on a personal level? I will leave that judgment to God.

    Is he immoral? Well, isn’t everyone to some degree? As Meador points out, Clinton was also a friend of Epstein. Did they know he was a pedophile? Or did they just think he went out with younger women — something rich men have been doing literally forever? Who am I to judge? I find Trump’s past comments about women disgusting, and I think he is very impolite. But when I am choosing between an array of politicians, where does the fault of rudeness rank? What secret sins do the other candidates have? I’ve never seen a president more prodded and exposed. I have a feeling if we dug deep enough with most of our past presidents, we would have found many of the same sins. It seems to me that one of Trump’s greatest flaws is his transparency. He has not covered his tracks well.

    I understand concern about Trump, but I don’t understand the way fellow conservatives have judged those who support him. We didn’t have good choices in 2016. I try to assume people did their best. I try not to judge people for wanting to have hope. As 2020 has arrived, I hope we can give grace to one another as, once again, we have to make tough choices.