It can be tempting to exaggerate the darkness of our current cultural moment. The word “unprecedented” has become a cliché, generally pressed into the service of political point-scoring. One wants to resist over-inflation, appearing to be ignorant of seasons in our country’s past that were no less grim than the present. And yet, as American conservative Christians take stock at the dawn of this strange year, it seems they could fairly call the outlook bleak, and certainly fraught with unique pains for lovers of Church and country. COVID and all its works continue to hang over us like a fog, stealing our joy, our peace, our health not only of body but of mind, and not only of the physical body but of the Church body. Perhaps most tragically, as public counter-measures continue to drag on with unclear end dates in sight, it is dividing Christians who share what should be a unifying commitment: a commitment to the sanctity of life.
Ordinarily, at this time of year, pro-life Christians of all denominations would be preparing to join hands and march on Washington in peaceful protest of the ongoing legal horror that is Roe vs. Wade. Sadly, this too has been stolen by our annus horribilis, not just due to COVID but due to the fall-out from this month’s surreal Capitol riots. The coordinators’ choice is understandable, although it’s been noted that their language of “holding the March virtually” is painfully tin-eared, given that the act of marching is in essence incarnational. It would have been in better taste to say simply that it was cancelled. One is reminded of the similar, even worse pretense that it was possible to “partake in Holy Communion” by virtual means when sacramental churches couldn’t gather in person. (My friend Rev. Jamie Franklin offers a spirited takedown of that nonsense here.)
Reactions to the cancellation have highlighted the growing rift between pro-lifers who strongly favor strict COVID counter-measures and pro-lifers who strongly disfavor them, questioning both their efficacy and their sustainability. In the early phases of the pandemic, there was a tendency particularly among the northeastern coalition to push such measures as the preferred pro-life path. From a certain point of view, one can see how this developed. Taking steps to protect vulnerable elderly citizens is, broadly speaking, a worthy goal, in consonance with the Christian mandate to honor human dignity at the end of life and reject “throwaway culture.” But, as we have come to learn, the devil is in the details. No pro-life Christian would deny that we should take all steps within reason to cherish and protect the most vulnerable among us. Yet we regularly engage in many necessary activities that carry some risk for harming the vulnerable (driving cars being one obvious example).
Naturally, the argument has been made that this is an exceptional situation, that our particular circumstance demands these particular measures, pitched at this particular severity for this particular length of time, and that their benefits will outweigh their considerable societal harms. But these are all empirically debatable points on which one would hope pro-life Christians could disagree without questioning each other’s convictions (or intelligence). Furthermore, even if someone’s individual choice not to distance or mask up were to lead indirectly to the unintended death of an elderly person, this is not remotely comparable to euthanasia. It is intrinsically wrong to kill an innocent man by direct means. It is not intrinsically wrong to attend church or go shopping without a mask, with no intent to kill anyone. Again, one would hope this basic moral distinction could be conceded on both sides of the pandemic debate within the pro-life camp.
Unfortunately, these hopes have proved vain, and the communication breakdown has only worsened with time. Expressing approval of the March for Life cancellation, some have gone so far as to say that holding the March would have been anti-life, an embarrassment for the pro-life movement. How could we have called ourselves pro-life and Christian while participating in a “super-spreader” event that might immediately endanger elderly marchers, they ask. (Never mind that any elderly person in possession of his faculties who joins such a gathering in this season has counted the cost already and freely chosen the risk anyway.) This would have compromised our witness against euthanasia and abortion alike, they say, thus failing to grasp the basic distinction sketched above, as well as failing to reckon with the other side of the COVID coin: elderly people so starved for human connection that they are committing assisted suicide just to have a few moments with their families.
Worse, some people in such circles have already been laying COVID deaths at the feet of conservative Christians whose churches have encouraged members to gather while relaxing the “recommended” measures. On Twitter, Karen Swallow Prior accused such Christians of bringing in a new “culture of death,” dismissing arguments against the counter-measures as a mere venal obsession with “money and freedom.”
This sort of profoundly misguided talk recalls the rhetorical patterns of the “seamless garment” camp, whose “pro-life from womb to tomb” ethic appears first as a warm, expansive both/and, but in practice leads to the hectoring of more comprehensively right-leaning pro-lifers. As seen on Twitter, “If you could end abortion at the price of accepting some socialist policies, would you?” Of course, such questions are never asked purely in the abstract. The clear implication lurking behind them is that a pro-lifer who favors a free market economy must not be “really” pro-life. The questioner does not see the task of managing an economy as a multivariate problem with human considerations on all sides that need to be weighed in the balance. This is the same flawed vision with which he views the task of managing a pandemic. To borrow from Thomas Sowell, it is an “unconstrained” or “anointed” vision, where crucial moral distinctions are insistently blurred, and optional prudential choices are elevated to the level of moral imperatives.
It is especially grievous to see Christians level these accusations of selfishness, callousness and “death-bringing” at other Christians simply for the “crime” of gathering to worship God in a manner that may not accord with a particular set of complex policy proposals. There are all manner of reasons why Christians might judge the hindrance of worship, fellowship and ministry prohibitively great were they to abide strictly by these measures. Elderly people need tangible companionship from the body of Christ, and as mentioned above, many would willingly take the risk of joining a gathering rather than live out the rest of their days in isolation. Little children can’t and shouldn’t be expected to “mask up” and distance as the price of attending Sunday school. Lonely, vulnerable people of all ages should ideally be welcomed by smiling faces, the desire for which I’ve seen trivialized as frivolous and insignificant. (In a similar vein, I’ve seen it called frivolous to encourage unmasking for the purpose of communal singing, apropos of some Christians’ choice to sing carols together without masks over the Christmas season.) All of these things are, in their own profound way, life-giving. They do not lie in tension with the pro-life ethic. Indeed, they are in harmony with it.
The recognition of these sorts of intangible goods is essential to a mutual understanding among pro-lifers who disagree on COVID policy. Without it, the movement will continue to splinter, and erstwhile friends will continue to drift apart in an age when friends are increasingly hard to find. As a pro-life Christian, I am heartily sorry to see this. At this point in time, I can only hope that understanding will be reached and rifts mended on a small, individual level, if not in the movement writ large.