Abortion, Culture, and Cool

By Jay Watts

In an interview with Josh Brahm of Central California Right to Life I was asked what is the one thing that the pro-life movement ought to be doing better.  I responded in great length, as I am prone to do, that we need to be more deliberate in how we connect our message and movement to our culture.  In the most brief summary possible, I said that the pro-life movement was not cool.  I will attempt to briefly discuss that view in the following paper which includes a correction to something I said in the original interview.

Pro-lifers need to critically examine what we are doing to reach our culture.  If we are right in our arguments that the unborn are fully human and of full moral worth, which I am certain to my core that we are, then the necessity of being equally certain that we are adequately advocating on behalf of that innocent human life within our culture is of paramount importance.  Simply put, there is no more important task before us.

The moral importance of our subject may tempt us to consider certain aspects and discussion trivial by comparison.  We all understand that we are discussing the loss of human life on a devastating scale.  The proper moral reaction to this is to lose our minds and scream at the top of our lungs the need for our culture, a culture that has embraced the ways of what Christ and the scripture refer to as “the world,” to repent and turn away from the evil that is abortion.  So when I say something to the effect that it is a problem for the pro-life movement that we are not cool, it is understandable that the response is righteous indignation that something so stupid and undefinable as “cool” has been introduced to the discussion of the greatest moral issue of our time.

Here is the problem though.  We already know that this is the greatest moral issue of our time.  The question of the unborn is unarguably the single question of the greatest moral significance no matter what answer an individual reaches as to the question of the identity of the unborn.  It is either the willful and brutal destruction of over 50 million American lives since 1973 in the United Sates alone, or it is nothing more than an elective medical procedure to remove tissue.  It is either a moral monstrosity that dwarfs every other moral concern, or it is the greatest and most evil distraction of the people of God this nation has ever seen.  The pro-life advocate is either a champion of the unborn and a defender of the defenseless, or he is a raving lunatic on par with the person who wails and bemoans the emotional and spiritual trauma of molar extractions.  The issue has decided presidential elections, judicial appointments, government policies, and the allocation of public funds.  At the center of all of this discord, vitriol, and passion are the unborn.  If they are of no moral value and simply an inhuman thing that will develop into a full human person as some abortion proponents suggest, then all of this protestation is nothing short of madness.  However, if they are fully human and endowed with all rights due to human persons by virtue of their nature then all of the outrage is painfully inadequate given the incalculable evil of this institutional destruction of life.

Abortion defines us in ways that make many people uncomfortable, and that realization encourages people who are not personally invested in the arguments to wish the issue would just go away.  It will not go away.  It is not a discussion of taxes and differing market approaches.  The identification of the unborn impacts far more than the legality of abortion.  It casts a shadow on the very moral nature of the civilization that stands by and does relatively nothing in the face of such inhumanity.  The identification of the unborn as fully human is the identification of mothers and fathers as the agents of death of their own children.  It identifies grandparents as the killers of their grandchildren.  It identifies those who convinced a friend to look after their own interest and abort their unborn child as counselors of brutal destruction of life.  It identifies doctors and medical professionals that perform abortions as people in league with some of histories most gruesome, horrible, and morally insensitive medical miscreants.  The identification of the unborn as fully human requires that we radically reevaluate and reassess the very nature of our current way of life.

If you think that is an exaggeration then consider the following statistics from the Guttmacher Institute:

  • 35% of American women will have had an abortion by the age of 45.
  • Nearly 20% of pregnancies in the United States end in surgical abortion.
  • The United States has one of the highest abortion rates in the developed world, with women from every socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, religious and age-group obtaining abortions.1

For every woman there is a corresponding man involved.  Our culture is not cleanly split into pro-life and pro-choice people.  Our culture is comprised of people that have had abortions, people who have encouraged or funded abortions, or who know a close friend or family member that has had abortions.  Abortion has impacted our mothers, our sisters, our friends and their lives.  A generation of Americans has been raised with abortion as so normal a part of the common decision process that high school guidance counselors feel empowered to help young women get abortions in secret and religious leaders and pastors endorse it as a fundamental right.

The purpose of this discussion is not to paint a discouraging picture, but to recognize that abortion is a part of our culture.  Here I feel I need to point out that I differentiate in this discussion our culture from “the world” as mentioned earlier.  If you do not make this distinction, then my position sounds as if I am encouraging compromise with the world that Christ and the scriptures identified as at enmity with God.  Culture here is broadly defined as the works of man in contrast to the naturally occurring world as Richard Niebuhr describes it in his book Christ and Culture2 as opposed to more narrowly understood definitions of culture like Allan Bloom’s in  The Closing of the American Mind that separate culture from politics and commerce.3  Though “the world” as condemned in the scriptures is certainly a part of culture, in fact I think that the powers and principalities of this age are unquestionably the greatest influence within our culture, it is by no means the sole element.  There are now and always have been Christian artists, philosophers, poets, musicians, architects, and writers that have used their cultural expression and influence deliberately to serve the Kingdom of God.

Culture in this sense is not a universal thing, but an ever changing dynamic.  That is important to recognize for as Niebuhr points out, the admonition and warnings about “the world” and culture in our scriptures would otherwise curiously apply only to that specific culture and world at the time of Christ and the apostles.  We know that this is not the case though, and that we are warned by Paul to beware and battle the powers and principalities of this present darkness and not merely a specific set of cultural issues impacting a certain time period.  Perhaps this is the reason for the absence of scriptural denunciations of government types and political norms.  Instead, we are provided a strong recognition of what constitutes the evil of the world that we are to confront through specific identifiable traits.  Greed, lust, obscenity, violence, and hatred are but a few of the negative features that will be universally present where “the world” is present for there is no good or pure culture so long as the powers and principalities of this age pollute the hearts of man.4  The admonition to beware of “the world” is timeless and not subject to particular cultures.  Puritan cultures and libertine cultures alike will produce evils and display sin, and the Christian is called by Christ to not put his or her faith in the ways of man or any man made convention of governing.  Trust Christ above the world because the world is always at enmity with the calling of God to live in the likeness of Jesus.

Christians contribute to the greater culture when understood in the broader sense of what mankind does, and that contribution changes from age to age as well.  An easy way to look at it would be through music.  In his book Creators, historian Paul Johnson describes the intensity through which J.S. Bach sought perfection in his music and his design of organs as a means of creating work that glorified God.5  The hymn writers arranged music and composed lyrics with the intention of helping others to worship.  An older friend of mine often shared how important Keith Green was to his spiritual experience when he was growing up.  I personally cannot overstate the impact the music of Rich Mullins has had on my life.  Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and Matthew West all have songs that define worship for this generation and have even been arranged and performed by the choir of my church in our “traditional” services.  All of this music was produced by individuals that identify themselves as Christians and state that the motivation for their work is their service to God.

It does no good to protest that their compositions are not a part of culture but a product of the church.  The works themselves are all steeped in the culture from which they were produced.  The ten years of age difference separating my friend and I are the difference between him finding Keith Green inspirational and me finding him a bit odd and dated.  Bach’s work is a product of his time as was his obsession with perfecting organs to create a larger range of sounds that could be produced.  If Bach had a piano that could have fulfilled his requirements, his music might have been radically different, but the organ was the instrument of his time. (A side note, Bach did help in the design of early pianos, but rejected those pianofortes for being insufficient in power across the full range of notes) The hymns are often rejected as being musically odd to many of my friends and can sound forced to the contemporary ear, but the ministry team that I led in a nursing home for five years can testify that hymns stirred the spirits of the residents of the nursing home in an almost miraculous way.

These musical pieces are also subject to cultural abuse and misuse.  I remember my revulsion and anger when the beloved Christmas carol Silent Night was used as the soundtrack for adulterous sex in the horrific film The English Patient.   I never ceased to be amazed at how many odd places the hymn Amazing Grace shows up in and how comfortable people who clearly reject the spiritual nature of the song are in reveling in its familiarity.  Handel’s Messiah, especially the Hallelujah chorus, is routinely co opted for commercial or comedic purposes.  Sublime cultural contributions are degraded and diminished by the spirit of this world that is universally present in all cultures.

By this understanding, cultural involvement is unavoidable.  We are doing things that involve our physical and mental relationship to this world all of the time.  Our loyalties and devotions are properly placed on God, but our lives are lived here and we are forced by necessity and mission to participate in our community while resisting the powers of this world.  We use language, write e-mails, listen to music, buy books, attend events, and purchase goods.  Any attempt to reject culture in totality will force the rejecter to justify or articulate their actions and thereby inescapably draw them back into cultural discourse.  Niebuhr argues that this is the means by which some of the most ardent believers that all culture is evil (e.g. Tertullian and Tolstoy) unintentionally helped spur on productive cultural reforms.6

So when I say that a mistake or weakness of the pro-life movement is that we are not cool, what exactly is my point?  My point is this, I see the pro-life movement in the intellectual and philosophical aspects of culture.  It is plainly present in the political and religious aspects of culture;  however, I am forced to strain to see any genuine presence of the pro-life movement in the realm of popular culture, and that is where the majority of people we wish to reach are operating.

In order for us to have a greater impact on this issue, and by that I mean a status quo changing impact, we need to address that problem.  John Hudson of The State, the Michigan State university student paper, wrote an article that asked the question that started my thinking on this.  Where is the Bono of the pro-life movement?  Where is the culturally relevant icon or celebrity that speaks to the value of life?  Years ago, the problem and plight of the homeless inspired Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal to create a show called Comic Relief that utilized comedians who donated their time in a massive fund-raising effort.  The anti-Iraq war movement had Green Day and Sheryl Crowe as its poster children.  American Idol developed Idol Gives Back and held a show that called in some of the most beloved performers in the world to draw attention to suffering in Africa, Katrina ravaged New Orleans, and impoverished Americans across our nation.  Brad Pitt lent his voice and efforts to a documentary focusing on the dire need for affordable pharmaceutical supplies throughout the developing world.  Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio champion global warming and climate change.  And the aforementioned Bono seems to be concerned about and raising awareness on just about everything.  There are songs, TV shows, books, movies and every other possible cultural expression dedicated to moving people to recognize all sorts of indignities, evils, and issues; however, those focusing on the sanctity of life are few and far between.

So few in fact, we cling to any and every expression of our beliefs in the public arena fanatically.   The films Bella and Juno were both hailed as pro-life, one with more deliberate intention perhaps than the other, but after momentary celebrations pro-lifers go back to sitting and waiting for the next crumb to work its way through the ranks.

Pro-choice individuals complain that the same can be said about abortion from their end and that their own views are not seriously addressed in films or on television.  I fail to see on what grounds they have a complaint.  Revolutionary Road, The Cider House Rules, and Vera Drake are all films that embrace the subject with vigor and all were critically acclaimed and showered with awards.  I have seen episodes dealing with abortion on television shows like House and Everwood.  I remember years ago when a young lady on MTV’s The Real World got an abortion while on the show.  Though there is strong evidence that the entertainment industry sees abortion as something that is not profitable and better to avoid if possible, it certainly is not absent from the mainstream and Planned Parenthood, the nations largest abortion provider, has no lack of celebrities willing to speak on their behalf.

As a result, the pro-life message is implied or more often inferred by eager pro-life consumers while the pro-choice position is explicitly championed when dealt with and its proponents are left to complain they just don’t get to see it enough.  (As in their complaints about Knocked Up, a movie I never saw but that I read irritated abortion advocates because the lead character did not sit down and affirm her right to an abortion before deciding to carry the child.  Apparently abortion advocates do not understand there is very little comedic value in such a scene.)

We also must recognize the intentional influence commercial media has on our culture in general and our youth more specifically.  The contest for the hearts and minds of our youth is not fought on a static field against disinterested opponents.  The forces that work to market and sell to our youth dedicate massive resources and energy into understanding their audience and making certain they package what they are selling in the most effective message.  It is no accident that our youth love the products the media outlets are selling and personally identify with those products.  The PBS series Frontline aired an episode The Merchants of Cool in 2001.  It is a fantastic look at the measure to which huge multi-national corporations are willing to go to profit from our youth by appealing to their basest nature.  The sexual and violent impulses in our youth are intentionally excited for the all important purpose of creating rabid consumers.  There is no thought whatsoever to what this process produces in the character of our youngest generations, only the recognition that the youth want to see and experience certain things and feeding those baser desires while advertising your product will generate the profit these corporations need to feed their massive debts and please their shareholders.

Any message that we are attempting to communicate is in competition with other easier and more popular messages that bombard our culture from the moment people get out of bed in the morning and the advertising onslaught is only getting worse.  When Steven Spielberg was preparing to make his film Minority Report, he asked for the contribution of several futurists, individuals that specialize in forecasting coming technological advances, to make his version of the future more authentic.  As the main character moves about the city retinal scans identify him, his buying habits, his personal interests and immediately advertise directly to him.  If that seems farfetched consider how crazy the idea of ads on the backboards of NBA basketball goals would have seemed just 20 years ago.  When I visit Amazon.com, there are items that are offered for my consideration based on my Wish List, browsing habits, and purchasing history.  My G-mail account has ads running at the top based on words and subjects in my e-mails and my Google searches.  That future is not far off.

This is the incredibly dense field of distraction and marketing that we must penetrate.  Any effective penetration will not happen by accident and must also keep in my mind the nobler aspirations that inspired the effort to begin with.  In my communications classes at Kennesaw State University we were taught a very basic rule; it is the communicator’s responsibility to be understood by their audience.  The communicator cannot blame the audience for their failure to understand the message.  The communicator has a responsibility to understand to whom they are talking and to deliver the message in such a manner that the material will be received.  C.S. Lewis once wrote that if you had a hard time explaining a point to another it is most likely that you do not fully understand your point to begin with.  We have a tremendous burden to understand our position first and then to understand the audience to whom we are appealing.  I believe that we have faithfully served the first part of that duty and are struggling mightily with the second.

How do we engage?  That is the question that I cannot answer.  I think that one key can be found in an interview contained in The Merchants of Cool.  Professor Mark Crispin Miller of New York University talks about how the process of marketing to the teens has an increasingly isolating effect.  The more extreme the nature of what is cool becomes, the more separated the young people become from the traditions and values of their parents.  That theme of isolation is seen through the absence of parents or authority figures in their shows and media.  They live in a consequence free world.  But there is growing evidence that however good such an idea is to creating a consumer mind set in the target audience the thrill is ultimately short lived and demands more and more sensational imagery and advertising.

This may give a clue as to how to frame a message counter to the strength of the negative cultural pulls of the world on our youth and adults alike.  The message of the sanctity of life is a message that binds us all as one and the same.  It is a message that celebrates and reveres what is common among us all.  It draws people back into larger culture that is greater than the obscene micro culture of the moment.

In J.R.R. Tolkiens The Lord of Rings, the characters live in the shadow of a once great age.  The narrative and battles that embroil their lives are a smaller part of a greater story, and the wiser characters understand this fact.  They are the descendants of men, women, and races that have fought the same evil for ages and there is dignity and honor in that.  How the race of men fell from exalted places to the razor’s edge of annihilation is a subject of conversation in which one character, Faramir, says, “they fell into evils and follies.”  But later in response to Gimli the dwarf declaring the nature of man to fail of their promise Legolas the elf responds, “Yet seldom so they fail of their seed…And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked for.”

If the negative elements of our culture isolate us through indulging our personal whims and prurient desires then perhaps the root of a successful counter movement within the culture is to reconnect through one simple idea.  We are all of us alike in some basic and simple fashion and we have duties to one another.  But the message must be delivered in a fashion that can be understood and that means we must understand the language of our audience.

How powerful are the popular culture elements?  How important are they?  Ravi Zacharias attributes the following quote to Andrew Fletcher, “Let me write the songs of a nation and I care not who writes its laws.”   While preparing to write this article I found this full quote on that sentiment from Fletcher, “I said I knew a very wise man so much of Sir Christopher’s sentiment, that he believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation, and we find that most of the ancient legislators thought that they could not well reform the manners of any city without the help of a lyric, and sometimes of a dramatic poet.”  Can music, lyrics, and poetry truly be that important in reaching people?  Allan Bloom talked at length about the importance of music in the lives of his students back in 1987 as Walkmen allowed them to shut out the community and retreat into a solitary world where they gorged on music in a way never before possible in human history.7  In 2010, how much more prevalent is this habit?  How many people do you see wearing ear buds on buses, at the gym, walking down the street, and even at work?  How does this influence their self understanding and their understanding of their duties to others?

How does being shut out of that world impact our ability to change this culture?

I have often read the story of when Harriet Beecher Stowe visited the White House and a quote that is variably attributed to President Lincoln and his wife, “So this is the little lady whose book started the war.”  The book was obviously Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it spoke the truth of the evils of chattel slavery and the identification of the humanity of the slave in a manner that impacted the culture.  People were more than merely convinced of the intellectual arguments; they were hit where they live and convicted of the nature of that evil as a real part of their existence.

Whatever objections the abortion advocates have to the absence of abortion in the popular mediums of our culture, I am convinced that absence better serves their cause than our own.  It is precisely because abortion does not live with us every day and we are not meaningfully touched by it as a matter of the course of our lives that we are capable of tolerating it.  Where are the songs in protest?  Where are the poems and books that polarize our nation?  Where are the popular cultural heroes with the guts to stand up for the unborn? We had better find them.

I mistakenly attributed a quote in my interview with Josh Brahm in discussing this issue.  Speaking off the cuff I sited General Westmoreland as having said something that he did not.  The actual conversation was between  Harry G. Summers, who was a colonel in the Four Party Joint Military Commission overseeing the exchange of POWs at the end of the war, and a North Vietnamese Army Col. Tran:

  • Col. Summers: “You never defeated us on the field of battle.”
  • Col. Tran: “This is probably true, it is also irrelevant.”

I used that quote to illustrate how extreme the stakes are in this discussion in my opinion.  We are winning the intellectual arguments.  We continue to advance in the legal and political arguments.  Even so, we can still manage to lose this whole thing.  Because the fight that counts must be waged where people live.  They watch TV, read novels, and listen to music.  They surf the web and they go shopping.  I am convinced that until abortion reaches them where they live it will stay where it is how it is.  That is too great a cost for our culture to continue to bear and a grim legacy to leave to our children.


1 The Guttmacher Institute

2 Niebuhr, H. Richard Christ & Culture, 1951 Harper Collins 50th Anniversary Edition p. 32

3 Bloom, Allan The Closing of the American Mind, 1987 Simon & Schuster First Touchstone Edition p. 187 – 188

4 Ephesians 6:12

5 Johnson, Paul Creators, 2006 Harper Collins Chapter 5

6 Niebuhr, Christ & Culture Chapter 2

7 Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind p. 68 – 69