Skip to main content

On Pro-Life Incrementalism

May 24th, 2019 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

I heard a man say once that one’s entire response to Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option hinged on how one thought about the sustainability of the current social order. That the existing social order is hostile to orthodoxy is obvious. But is that order sustainable, such that Christians should head to the catacombs?1 Or, on the other hand, is this order, which is so hostile to orthodoxy, itself incoherent and thus likely to unravel in the near future? If you take that approach, then not only do you not head to the catacombs, you may actually double down in your arguments for a Christian society because you believe it is entirely possible that we could realize some tangible, wide-ranging victories in the not-that-distant future.

Something like the same test applies to the debate over incrementalism and abortion. Unpleasantries aside, the point at issue in the dispute between Jonathan Last, Ramesh Ponnuru, Rachael Larimore, and Philip Jeffrey seems to be chiefly about whether or not we should take small steps working within the system to reduce the number of abortions over time or if we should push more aggressively, in an echo of the left on several social issues, and try to secure a more decisive victory.

As with Rod’s book, one’s general sense of where things are in the republic would seem to be a determinative factor in how one thinks tactically about this debate.

If you suppose that we have a mostly sustainable order with citizens who are mostly persuadable on the issue, then the case for incrementalism writes itself. You win the big battle eventually. You just do it over 50 years instead of whatever highly condensed timeframe the accelerationists in the debate envision, perhaps unrealistically.2

On the other hand, if you suppose that our current order is generally unsustainable, that the prevailing social narratives that shape our life together are incoherent, and that there is opportunity for a better story to replace it in the near future—and thus for fairly radical political change to follow—then the case for incrementalism is much less obvious. Why chase small victories that are only “victories” at all to the extent that they are recognized by a legal system when the ongoing sustainability of that system is in doubt?

Admittedly, this is a more radical critique of the entire debate and one might, understandably, object that arguing on the basis of such radicalism is unhelpful as one can always imagine fanciful revolutions in service of one’s own extremism. Yet though that may be a fair dismissal of accelerationist approaches more generally, I’m not sure it’s a good response to the current situation in the United States.

During a moment of greater upheaval, our nation’s second president, John Adams, wrote to a general in the continental army that, “the middle way is no way at all. If we finally fail in this great and glorious contest, it will be by bewildering ourselves in groping for the middle way.” This is precisely the danger inherent in incrementalist approaches to political reform.

In stable societies, of course, incrementalism often makes sense. But in less stable societies, it probably makes more sense to reject pivots toward centrism3, reject incrementalism, and push for reforms that will more immediately reflect our political vision.

Certainly, it is possible that this all backfires spectacularly and Roberts or Kavanaugh (or both) side with the court’s progressives in maintaining some degree of commitment to legalized abortion.

But the accelerationist response to this is to point out that the risk is not all on one side of the debate. The risk is on both sides: It is equally possible that the incrementalists will move more slowly within a rapidly declining society with a political process that has ceased to function and in so doing cost themselves a chance to call their fellow citizens to a vision of political society that is more interesting, more pervasively Christian, and more capable of addressing the actual crisis before us today.

Given the many crises facing the United States at present—a collapsing birth rate, delayed family formation, fractured social trust, an utterly broken political system, looming challenges posed by climate change, the opioid crisis, and an economy that has left millions of Americans behind—it is not at all clear to me that we win anything by working slowly. Nothing about our current order suggests “sustainability” to me and a great deal suggests “imminent transformation.”

To be sure, our aggression should not be stupid and some of the state-level bills are. So there is a critique to be made there. But it is possible that the problem here is not accelerationism that needs to be corrected by incrementalism, but rather that the accelerationists are right on the big-picture strategy and simply need to get better at executing on their tactics.

If that is true, then the incrementalists are not only wrong, they are “bewildering themselves” in a moment of great opportunity. And if that is indeed what they are doing, then they may well face the same imagined fate described by Adams.

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $0

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).