Which is more effective?
Political activist and journalist Lawrence E. Alba wrote this morning to opine on the most recent installment of The Abortion Matrix. I am always amazed when liberals tell us to “change the law!” in response to our pro-life street activism. This is a response I’ve heard for over 20 years. Of course, when laws are about to be enacted in response to the abortion epidemic, we hear: “Keep your laws off my body!” I have always argued for the importance for cultural change followed by political action. Christian social reform must be from the bottom-up, not the top-down. I also find it interesting that Alba, if he is being honest here and not merely patronizing, is an example of the rare life-long liberal and Obama supporter who sees abortion as a “social plague.”
Although I appreciate your commitment to the elimination of this enigmatic modern social plague, I don’t share your sense of off-putting militancy. The problem is that the culture of “choice” did not come about through aggressive hectoring and militancy, but through the courts … one test case at a time. I battle it there and find I’m making more effective progress. – Lawrence E. Alba
Thank you for your reply. Which is more effective in bringing social change — direct action or indirect action? It’s an interesting controversy to say the least.
I would never state that we should not use the courts or political solutions and concentrate only on evangelism, sidewalk counseling and other forms of direct action at abortion clinics — or what you call “militancy.” Both are used, and we have used both effectively in the pro-life movement.
We need to beware of the either-or fallacy here. If we study history, we will find that it is a combination of direct action and indirect political and judicial action that accomplishes social change. However, most often it is direct action that begins the process and is most effective in changing cultural attitudes. Many years later we see the laws changed.
By way of example, the underground railroad and civil disobedience over slavery resulted in the negative outcome of the Dred Scott decision. But that set off a chain of events that finally resulted in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. Slavery was not eliminated through the federal courts. Quite to the contrary, it took the direct action of those who defied the law and brought social conflict. It was the so-called “militancy” of the anti-slavery and abolitionist movement – that drove the work of great figures such as the Beecher family, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas.
Ironically, what is often called pro-life “militancy” is a peaceful campaign for public awareness. In contrast, the “effective progress” of many years of trying to overturn Roe v. Wade might never end abortion simply because abortion laws would revert to the states and cultural local attitudes would influence laws at the state and local level. Thus local direct action is needed whether Roe remains in place or not.
In the civil rights movement, we see the same principle at work. A world-changing essay everyone should read at least once is Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail. I read this letter with my classes every year as a comparison to the direct action parable-drama Antigone, by the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles. In both examples, the question is asked: How do good people respond when man’s law violates God’s law? In “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” King outlines the steps that must precede direct action. He also proposes the axiom that “politicians don’t see the light until they feel the heat.”
Although one might criticize the unorthodox theological positions of some of the above figures, I find the idea of direct action is soundly based on biblical principle. King argued that the Apostles did not lobby to change the law before they preached the Gospel, but they immediately resolved to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Ultimately when the Gospel spread over several centuries, the laws were changed.
It’s also untrue that the “pro-choice” side did not use militant direct action. This position shows an ignorance of the tactics Margaret Sanger employed. Sanger used direct activism in being arrested at least eight times for defying birth control laws. Her direct action finally resulted in the change in public attitude toward the so-called “right to privacy,” which many decades later resulted in Griswold vs. Connecticut, which in turn resulted a decade later in Roe v. Wade.
A wonderful book, which shows how abortion has been defeated several times in the annals of Christian history, is George Grant’s The Third Time Around. Grant chronicles how both direct and indirect action working together brought the reforms – when abortion and child sacrifice proliferated in the time of Basil of Caesarea in the fourth century and then again in the Middle Ages. Now we are fighting abortion the “third time around.” We can expect the same reforms if we follow the tried and true biblical model.
In my personal experience, we saw in Brevard County Florida the number of abortions fall over a nine year period (1988 to 1997) by 52 percent, while the state average of abortions went up. Finally, the last remaining abortion clinic in Brevard county closed and one has not since returned.
Florida Today, our local liberal newspaper, in a front page, above-the fold headline, interviewed central Florida abortion clinic owners and our local direct activists. They asked the question: What legislation caused the number of abortions to drop? What court cases were the cause of eliminating Brevard county’s only blood mill?
None we could see.
In the final analysis, all observers agreed that although a variety of factors contributed to this, the presence of street evangelists and sidewalk counselors creating awareness through direct action based on the principles of God’s Word was the primary cause of that trend.