Sometimes Winsomeness Wins
A lesson for evangelicals from the fall of Roe v. Wade
It has sometimes been observed that the most vocal critics of a particular idea tend to have benefited from inheriting it in some way. For example, the young student who becomes a radical socialist usually waits until after his parent’s tuition money has unlocked a liberal education at a choice, perhaps even private university. The ex-Christian who turns against her faith will say she wanted a more compassionate, more just worldview, borrowing religion’s ethical capital to fund a materialism that cannot produce such values. There’s a tendency in all of us to fixate on the deficiency of inherited belief or practices and turn a blind eye toward the way that inheritance equipped us to see clearly in the first place.
While the rubble of Roe v. Wade is still smoldering, I would like to suggest one more example of this, but within the conservative movement: the pro-life Christian who believes that winsomeness has weakened and compromised his cause.
The Dobbs decision comes at an interesting time for a slice of conservative Christian culture. There is a movement afoot to rethink the gentle, soft-spoken approach to speaking truth in the public, and replace it with something more assertive, less skeptical of pitfalls to the right, and less willing to admit when theological or political opponents have a point. The conservatives inside this movement make some valid observations. “Third-wayism” often sounds good, but it frequently fails to speak clearly (although on the question of just who is advocating “third-wayism,” these critics are often glib rather than precise). Moreover, avoiding offense so as to keep in-roads to evangelism open has its time and place, but it is not itself a cogent political theology. Sometimes offenses against nature and against the common good must be identified as such if people are to flourish.
But a discontent with a timid public posture is one thing; rejecting actual victories because they arrive in a way that doesn’t suit your temperament is another. An example of the latter can be seen in the SBC. In 2021, at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Nashville, an “abortion abolition” resolution was proposed that explicitly called for a rejection of incrementalism in defending unborn life. The resolution rebuked pro-life Baptists for ever considering not prosecuting mothers who procure abortions. Despite opposition from the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission—one of the most common targets of the anti-wisome movement’s rage—the resolution passed by floor vote.
Only twelve months later, in the aftermath of Dobbs, the resolution’s assertion that “traditional Pro-life laws, though well intended, have not established equal protection and justice for the preborn,” feels vapid. In this case, that’s exactly what happened. In overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court applied the constitutional jurisprudence that has been faithfully preserved and transmitted by an incrementalist pro-life movement for the past half-century. Moreover, the Dobbs case itself was a product of a Missisippi law (and not an abolitionist one) that was written and passed under the constraints of Roe. The logic of the SBC abolition resolution would have rejected the very statute that led to this historic moment for unborn life.
Herein lay much of the reason for skepticism toward the emerging neo-Religious Right flavor within Reformed evangelicalism. For all the movement’s fair critiques of big-tent evangelical intitiatives, and for all the various ways that 2016 both created and revealed fault lines that are probably permanent, it remains less a crystallized idea and more of a reactionary mood. It tends to traffic in tweets rather than scholarship. It eagerly seeks out online enemies to occupy itself in the absence of institution building. It is the embodiment of the “horeshoe theory” of ideology, often mirroring the most destructive instincts of wokeness even as it opposes it. And as is the case with Dobbs, it seems destined to be a way for evangelicals to accomplish little except the internal policing that characterizes decadent movements.
Conservative despair at the state of American culture war is understandable. But channeling such despair into a reckless disregard for the value of long-term persuasion and dispassionate debate is precisely the wrong thing to take away from Roe’s downfall. Social media’s rewards for the loudest, most take-no-prisoners content merely reflect the economic logic of technology, not what’s required in our democratic republic.
Over Roe’s defeat triumphantly stands figures like Robert P. George, arguably the most influential pro-life thinker in the country for the last two decades. George’s brilliant jurisprudence and moral philosophy have not only given the pro-life movement a powerful scholarly pedigree, they have kept pro-life judicial thought plausible across generations of American lawmakers and activists. Hours after the Dobbs decision was released, George encouraged his fellow pro-life conservatives to not forget kindness toward our opponents: “Pro-life friends: Please read Lincoln's Second Inaugural and be guided by its spirit. Let us not exult over those of our fellow citizens--good people who are sincerely concerned about women's welfare--who see the demise of Roe as a disaster. Malice towards none; charity for all.”
When pro-choice activists accuse pro-lifers of disregarding women in distress, such a charge is easily disproved. The pro-life movement, especially from within the Christian church, represents generations of crisis pregnancy centers, emergency counseling, and financial support for scared and desperate mothers. But these efforts have existed because pro-life people chose to see those considering or who have chosen abortion not as enemies to be defeated but as human beings to be persuaded and helped. It takes courage to stand outside abortion clinics and plead with mothers to consider an alternative. But it also takes patience, forbearance, the willingness to be ignored or attacked without responding in kind. It takes winsomeness.
And sometimes, praise God, winsomeness wins.