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Democracy and Church on Trial

The abortion debate is not over. It is just starting. This debate will be a stress test for democracy and a defining moment for the church.

The Supreme Court decision is an opportunity for champions of life who celebrate the decision to evidence their better angels in practice. If the church handles this opportunity poorly, we will be responsible for making the problem worse, not better, for a very long time.

Only academic abstractions can be framed in easy black and white categories. The closer one gets to lived reality the murkier issues become. The reality of the ethics of abortion fall into this murky category. One can be solidly pro-life and still acknowledge this fact. The Ethics and Public Policy Center’s conservative Christian commentator Pete Wehner warns, “If we are going to debate abortion in every state, given how fractured and angry America is today, we need caution and epistemic humility to guide our approach.”

Americans are deeply divided on this issue. How we live with our deepest differences in a secular pluralistic society is the central question. Now begins a time for winsome public persuasion. The cultural context for this debate resides against a backdrop of a decreasing appreciation of marriage, an almost absolute disconnection between marriage and procreation, a systemic anti-natalism, a decreasing empathy toward the other, and a moral justification for and habituated pattern of extreme rhetoric and cultural acceptance of anger and violence. In some circles, calls for winsomeness and epistemic humility are viewed as moral compromise. It is self-evidently ironic that church activists are adopting win-at-all-cost strategies amounting to a sanctified version of the functional Nietzscheanism we philosophically decry. To the extent that we do not repent of these ways, acknowledge the complexity of the issue, and understand the fear and anger of those with whom we disagree, we will have lost the cultural debate and squandered the moment even before we start. If we are for life, love, and morality, then it is time to begin to act in a manner that is consistent with them. If we ape our opponents in style, rhetoric, and manner our very approach will be discrediting, even apart from the substance of our arguments. Our how must match our what.

This is an historic opportunity—a generation in the making. The political abolition of slavery did not automatically change the cultural struggle and debate that followed. Over a century later, we are still reaping the consequence of how poorly Reconstruction was enacted. We dare not repeat the same failures of cultural engagement. There are hearts and minds to be won. How we debate our strongest opponents in the coming months will strengthen or weaken American democracy. It will also be a public test for a church that is already facing widespread disaffection from the coming generation. The coming abortion debate will ultimately be about far more than abortion. Democracy and the church are now on trial.


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