Advice to an Aspiring Pro-Life Speaker

There’s a crying need for pro-life leaders who are in it for the long haul.

Good ones convey the right message, avoid disqualifying character flaws, and plan for vocational impact. If you win on those points, you will inevitably lead and direct a great many people. Your influence will be felt for decades.

But it won’t (and shouldn’t) happen right away.

Sadly, pro-lifers are notorious for immediately platforming their latest “rock star” before the new convert has mastered the moral logic of our view or demonstrated virtuous character. The results can get ugly.

Seven years into my own career, I participated in a panel debate on the use of abortion pictures. My colleague Gregg Cunningham and I presented a carefully argued case affirming their use as tools of persuasion. Our opponents did not challenge our major premise—namely, that visuals restore meaning to the word abortion in ways words never can and erode support for late-term abortion. Instead, they asserted that if we expose the horror of abortion, people won’t like us. Gregg replied with the incontrovertible historical fact that “liked” reformers are seldom effective and effective reformers are seldom liked.

Debate over, right?

Um, no. The “celebrity” moderator for the event was a recent convert to the pro-life cause who eleven months earlier ran abortion clinics in several states. A week after his alleged “pro-life” conversion, he was sharing his testimony in churches. Six months later, he was the hero of the pro-life speaking circuit. Now he was moderating a debate on pro-life messaging! At the conclusion of the exchange, the moderator was asked to weigh in with a verdict. Without offering a shred of evidence, he replied, “I feel pictures are not helpful.” As a new convert, his mastery of the pro-life position was minimal. He had no working knowledge of the debate topic. And yet, just like that, my colleague and I were implicitly declared losers in the exchange. How many in the audience assumed the moderator was right simply because he was the pro-life rock star of the moment?

His fame didn’t last. A few months later, he fraudulently took advance payment for speeches he never showed up to make. His drug habit was back, along with his homosexual lifestyle. Soon after he renounced Christianity. Pro-lifers had a PR disaster on their hands.

In sharp contrast, you want a trajectory that is slow and intentional. Before building your speaking platform, you must master the moral logic of the pro-life position. Begin with Peter Kreeft’s The Unaborted Socrates and my own book, The Case for Life. Consider them basic training for your mind. Next, tackle Francis J. Beckwith’s Defending Life, Christopher Kaczor’s The Ethics of Abortion, and Patrick Lee’s Abortion & Unborn Human Life. Don’t just read these books. Devour them. Mark them up again and again. It’s tough going, but the rush from stretching your mind is great. You should also read the best work from our opponents, most notably titles by David Boonin, Peter Singer, and Michael Tooley. A year from now, your working knowledge of the debate will exceed anyone at Planned Parenthood or the ACLU. Greg Koukl is right: The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle.

After your season of study, it’s time to present. However, you will die on the launch pad if you don’t invite yourself to speak. This is precisely why the vast majority of aspiring pro-life communicators go nowhere. They want to speak, but they are unwilling to do the unpleasant work of securing speaking events in the first place. Instead, they sit around like the Maytag repair man waiting for calls. They are living in a dream world. Gatekeepers terrified of controversy control access to the audiences who most need our essential pro-life message. These petrified men and women wrongly assume you will alienate everyone present with divisive rhetoric. They wrongly assume you will misuse visual depictions of abortion, causing those present to vomit their lunches. They worry you will drive people away from the gospel. Given those (faulty) assumptions, why on earth would anyone invite you to speak? You must learn to artfully overcome their fears and win the right to speak. It’s tedious work, but nobody is going to do it for you.

Start small. Forget the keynote address at the elite pro-life fundraising dinner. Your target audience is a classroom of 20 students. Get to know the theology teachers at your local Catholic and Protestant high schools. Offer a 20-minute classroom talk followed by Q&A. Spend an exhausting day repeating your presentation to seven successive classes. Then, do it again at ten other schools within a 100-mile radius of your home.

If you hang with it, you’ll change from a rookie pro-lifer to a powerhouse communicator. You will take the best pro-life arguments and make them understandable to lay people, just like you did in a hundred classrooms. Your objective is to persuade with an essential pro-life argument, not get your face on TV.

As your platform grows, you must categorically reject celebrity status. Pursue leadership instead. Celebrities use followers to enhance their own fame and exclusivity. A leader calls followers to a better future and transfers his own influence and power to help them get there.

At times, you will play hurt. The tension between your outer gifting and indwelling sin will haunt you and check your pride. Consider it a God-send. More than once, you will depart for a speaking event after a difficult exchange with your wife and think, “Who am I to offer anyone anything?” Leaders who suppress those gut-wrenching moments with visions of adoring fans are headed for disaster. Let the pain be there. Call your wife and repent. A healthy shudder over fallen leaders might just spare you a similar fate.

You are about to enter what Hugh Hewitt calls “the great shuffle.” No matter the size of your platform, all earthly power fades. Always. With your gifting, and a little luck, you will have a good run near the top of your field. But it will be a run and it will end.

Celebrities mourn loss of status. Leaders rejoice when an army of young guns they’ve trained to be better than themselves take over prime speaking slots. Thirty years from now when your status fades, throw your hands heavenward and thank God for using you as an imperfect vessel to accomplish great exploits for His kingdom.

It never was about you.