Last week, in response to some heated discussions I had observed on Facebook, I tried to weigh into the whole discussion over the Planned Parenthood videos with “Seven Thoughts on the Planned Parenthood Outrage.” My post was more a reflection on how we in evangelical communities have responded, and should respond, to the Center for Medical Progress’s revelations, than it was a reflection on the revelations per se (others having already written many fantastic articles on that front). For me, the particularly pressing question is how we, as individuals and communities, can handle this strategic opportunity to unmask evil without blowing it by poor tactics, and without dissipating our energies in internal dissensions, as we are so often prone to do.
I have been wrestling with these thoughts further since my initial post, and two things have prompted me to reconsider, clarify, and elaborate some of the points there, though in rather different directions. There are really two separate posts here, but given the polarizing nature of this subject, I am going to keep them together in one, imploring the reader to have the patience to read through to the end.
First, my friend Jake Meador posted (as something of an indirect response to my post), an excellent “3 Points on #PPSellsBabyParts,” which induced me to rethink some of my cynicism and pessimism, particularly about our political objectives. Second, however, another friend posted this article, which, among many very good points, carries the unfortunate implication that we all have a moral duty to take to social media’s virtual streets and yell and wave our posters. This, together with some other things I have observed, led me to feel that my main concern in my original post—to raise some alarms about our headlong leap onto the Social Media Outrage Bandwagon—needed to be reiterated and elaborated.
Don’t Take Your Eye off the Ball
Before voicing those concerns, though, let me reckon with what Jake had to say. First, he argued that we must not allow undue introspection or hand-wringing to allow us to take our eye off the ball. Yes, the abortion issue is a very complicated one, and yes, whenever we are consumed with righteous indignation about something, sin of one kind or another is probably lurking not far away (whether self-righteous hypocrisy, mere bandwagon-riding, etc.). But at the same time, as my pastor Toby Sumpter emphasized right at the beginning of this whole fracas, “when you are at war, you capitalize on every mistake of the opposition.” Not that we are “at war with women,” as the left protests—no, we are at war with the principalities and powers that enslave women and all of us, as Toby has said in a recent, truly wonderful post, and as we must never stop emphasizing. But the fact remains that there is real evil here, and if we are serious about dealing with it, we must also seriously rejoice at and take advantage of opportunities to drive it back. Yes we need to examine our motives and our tactics and so on. But if we hold back and refuse to press our advantage before until we’ve achieved perfect unity and purity in our ranks, well, we’ll still be waiting around doing nothing when Christ returns, and we know he isn’t too happy with people like that.
A related point here, and one that was pressed home to me in some conversations on Facebook, is that those of us of younger generations shouldn’t underestimate how significant this moment feels for many of our elders, who may have been quietly and patiently campaigning in the pro-life movement with prayer and fasting for decades. For them, to suddenly see the enemy who had eluded them for so long cornered and sweating with fear has been a jubilant moment, and rightly so. When people like me come along and say, “Settle down folks, let’s not just turn this whole thing into a big ‘Down with PP’ Facebook party and pat ourselves on the back, it reasonably feels to them like raining on a well-deserved parade.” Along similar lines, I should emphasize that one value of the recent revelations, even if they achieve nothing else in the short-term, is to prevent any of us who call ourselves pro-life from taking this issue for granted. After all, this battle has been with us for forty years, and those in my generation grew up with the feeling that perhaps abortion on demand, however wicked, was something we were going to have with us for the forseeable future, and we should focus our efforts on other more achievable goals. It became just another general cultural evil, one that we could lament and move on. Now, as I am going to say later on, I do not think that each and every one of us is called to drop what we’re doing and become a pro-life activist. But if the videos have helped many of us (as they have me) recognize viscerally just how profound and pervasive this evil is, and call out to Almighty God for its destruction, then they have done something important indeed.
Jake’s second point, however, is that we should be sobered to recognize that we are not perhaps as well-prepared to exploit this opportunity as we would like. As one of my friends in particular has emphasized, it is not at all clear that the American church would know what on earth to do if abortion were ended, or even if Planned Parenthood’s share of abortions stopped being performed. Are enough of us ready to adopt or become foster parents? Are enough of us ready to go to the low-income communities and seek out desperate women and offer them love and hospitality. Are our churches ready to give enough money and time to support all these ministries? A million extra unwanted babies a year is a lot for any society to care for. Are we really ready?
Of course, on this point, I would also emphasize the points I was making toward the end of my post, when I said, “But we who have spent so many years undermining or ignoring the foundations of politics and law find ourselves in a very awkward and powerless situation indeed when we suddenly wish to call upon the law for justice.” I think we are also unready for this battle inasmuch as it cries out to be fought in public, in the legislative sphere, and yet the Religious Right has spent the past few decades squandering its intellectual and political capital, so that very few of us have any clue what a Christian philosophy of statecraft should look like, much less which leaders, if any, we might turn to to show us one in action.
However, Jake’s third point pushes back at my cynicism on the political battle. In my post, I suggested that the whole turn from #PPSellsBabyParts to #DefundPP was at best premature and at worst flawed altogether. We had pivoted rapidly from raising awareness of a broad cultural evil to taking on a highly partisan (this shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but alas, it is) political campaign, whose aims were not at all clear to me. To me, this seemed like just another example of our evangelical pre-occupation with short-term solutions and high-profile fights, and of our unwillingness to dig in for the long, slow business of changing hearts, minds, cultures, and institutions. However, my post also betrayed some less noble concerns: a kind of purism that detested the ideas of having my battles fought for me by icky slimy Republican politicians. (See especially the snarky eighth point I added, in which I betrayed a kind of condescending discomfort at being associated with deeply flawed right-wing media outlets. Part of my point there stands—I think it really is a testimony of the poor condition of the Christian Right that we have to rely on such—but I need to repent of the holier-than-thou attitude.) As Jake told me in private conversation, “If we’re waiting for the perfect politicians to come along to fight this battle for us in public, we’re going to be waiting a long time.” If hypocritical Republicans just trying to energize their base going into an election season are the only ones standing up for the unborn, well I guess we’ve got to settle with what we’ve got. And if this is really an issue worth fighting for, sometimes we’ve got to get out of our mopey Eeyore corner, continually prophesying our own defeat, and have faith that our God really will fight for us, and achieve social and political transformations we can only dream of.
That said, I think some hard questions do still need to be asked about what the #DefundPP campaign aims to achieve. That it is a just cause should be above dispute. Regardless of the long-term goals that might or not be achieved, we clearly ought to want to end the public subsidizing of such a wicked traffic in the lives and bodies of others. It might not be wise or feasible to try to ban abortion, but we as a society can certainly try to avoid actively supporting it, especially on such an industrial scale. If that is all that the campaign is saying—that we have a duty to at least demand the end of public support for this wickedness, a duty that remains whether or not we actually expect the demand will be heard—then I can hardly gainsay it. I do worry about the danger of provoking a backlash, hardening the opposition by making this a political battle, before we’ve had time to soften them up properly and actually win some converts. On the other hand, it may be that making this a political battle is the only way to provoke enough public discussion to have a chance at winning lots of converts. We have seen already the media’s zeal to squelch this story as soon as it came out, trying to shut down the discussion with Planned Parenthood talking points. But the media cannot resist a good political brawl. The defunding showdown in Congress has helped ensure that the broader public, outside of the rabid pro-life camp, is actually hearing about these videos and perhaps watching them, and perhaps even having a change of heart. In fact, it has been documented that the 1996 political showdown over partial-birth abortion had precisely this effect, with some long-term results to show for it, even if they were slow and subtle.
But I get the impression sometimes that people think that if we #DefundPP, then we’re going to shut down PP, and if we shut down PP, then we’re going to shut down abortions, or a large number of them. Both inferences are doubtful. Planned Parenthood would certainly be weakened enormously, even by a temporary defunding, but would probably not go away. And if they provided less abortions, then in general other abortion clinics would pick up the slack—unfortunately, many of them probably darker and more gruesome than PP (like Kermit Gosnell’s infamous Philadelphia clinic). If we took a purely consequentialist logic to the defunding campaign (which we shouldn’t, mind you!) it’s not at all clear the net results would be positive. That said, I think they might well be—I think fewer abortions would happen overall, and as just mentioned, the cultural perception of abortion might shift perceptibly—but we do need to be realistic that what we are fighting here is really one small battle in a long, long war, and not get overly triumphalistic or apocalyptic, as I sense many in our ranks have begun to do.
Social Media and the Diversity of Gifts
Having said all this, however (and I hope I have said enough to reassure my most passionate and militant friends that I do appreciate the importance of the present moment, and the seriousness of the issues at stake), I must reiterate part of the concern that led me to write last week. I began my post by saying, “Social media outrage is cheap,” and calling folks to examine both their motives, and the effectiveness of their tactics, if their main response to the recent revelations was just posting a dozen times a day with the hashtag #PPSellsBabyParts, #DefundPP, #AnotherBoy, etc. To be sure, I did immediately follow by saying “Outrage over social media outrage is cheap,” and warning self-styled moderates against feeling superior for their refusal to get overly riled up. But still, some people complained to me that I was “underestimating the power of social media.” People who had experience in the marketing world told me that effective use of social media is everything, and a well-orchestrated campaign can change minds on almost any issue. Perhaps so, and to be fair, I did reiterate in the original post that sharing this stuff on social media does matter, and every little share and retweet can be another little slash at Goliath’s legs. I acknowledged in the original post that “outrage does have its uses” and that sheer volume of posts can, in our algorithm-driven world, make an important difference. So I don’t think I was discounting the role of social media. I must confess that I do tend to view social media campaigns more as a way of mobilizing powerful emotions, and thus perhaps stirring up very short-term reactions, than as vehicles of persuasive argument of the sort that will bring about long-term change. Perhaps I do underestimate the power of social media for good, and I will be proven wrong in the days and weeks and years to come.
But I try not to underestimate the power of social media for evil, its power to prey on our baser instincts, our narcissism, our social insecurities, our herd instincts, our short tempers, etc. I’ve written a lot about this before. And so you can count on me, even in the midst of a very just campaign against a very dark evil, to be warning our own troops about the weapons they are using, lest they turn them against one another. And that does indeed seem to be happening.
In my original post, I alluded briefly to this problem—I said that, for some of those sharing posts about PP, “there may be more than a bit of the fear of being left off of the bandwagon, of not sharing the outrageous link when everyone else is sharing it.” I wondered if I was just being paranoid about this particular concern, but several pieces of evidence suggested otherwise. A couple of women I know shared their concern that they felt kinda guilty for not sharing links constantly on social media, when all their friends were doing so—was something wrong with them? A couple people also pointed out to me that it seemed to them that it was only within our pretty tight-knit community of Moscow, ID, and Christian friends with close ties to it, that they were witnessing the manic “ten triple-hashtagged shares a day” phenomenon, which seemed to me the sort of thing likely to do more harm than good among any pro-choice folks actually tuning in. Why was it, they asked, that their other evangelical, passionately pro-life friends were so much more restrained? I checked among some of my own FB friends and verified a fairly similar pattern (mind you, I was looking at folks who really are committed evangelicals and pro-lifers). The only explanation, it seemed to me, was that within certain tight-knit communities (“echo chambers”), a dangerous peer-pressure dynamic was taking hold. People were perhaps beginning to reason (subconsciously, for the most part), “N is posting a lot about this issue, so it must be something I should post about too….Wow, N is posting several times a day, and I only posted a couple times; I guess if I’m really serious about this, I need to post more frequently….Gosh, N and M and O and P are all posting about this issue several times a day, so I’d better not be the weak link!” For the most part, I figured, the fear of being judged was just a fear—a probably irrational one. That is, some people were posting lots because they were afraid that if they didn’t, people wouldn’t think they really didn’t care about aborted babies, but probably, their friends weren’t really looking around and judging in this way. A problematic enough dynamic, but common enough, really, when it comes to social media.
But then I began to wonder if such comparing and judging really was happening, and today I saw hard evidence. In this post, one pro-lifer gives a detailed strategy for how to make the most of this opportunity to weaken Planned Parenthood and the abortion cause. Many of the points she makes there are very good, but in her emphasis on the importance of social media, she suggests that every serious pro-lifer has a moral duty to “Utilize every outlet you have available to you,” especially social media, and thus to use every meme and hashtag and sharing opportunity available to them. From this it is not difficult to draw the implication that any who fail to do so are somehow lukewarm in the fight. In fact, this is precisely what a friend of mine, sharing this particular article, did. She said, “You know who you are, my Facebook friends who are sharing NOTHING about pro-life or planned parenthood. PLEASE read this and light a fire under yourselves.” What was particularly jarring about this was that the friend in question is one of the most mature and balanced women I know, someone who cares about injustice of all kinds, not just the abortion issue. If someone like that was willing to start publicly shaming all “non-sharers,” then presumably lots of people were beginning to do so.
This has to stop. First of all, it needs to be pointed out that some people really aren’t that into social media, or if they are, they only use it for very personal things (sharing pictures of their kids, etc.). Some people (like me) just really hate hashtags. I mean, really; don’t get me started. You can’t go tell such people that they have a moral duty to use this particular technological device as their weapon in the anti-abortion fight, and if they don’t fight with all their strength, their commitment is suspect. I mean, seriously—no one has a moral duty to use Facebook or Twitter, and certainly not to use them as political platforms. You may think they’re a bit shallow, but please, respect other people’s Christian liberty to use their Facebook feeds just for sharing pictures of their cats, if that’s what they find Facebook most useful for.
Second, some people might in principle be open to politicking on social media, but don’t quite see the point in this instance. They might well reason that if 100 of their friends are each posting #DefundPP 5X a day, then one more post from them really isn’t going to make much difference. Indeed, they might rightly fear that too much of a social media tidal wave will turn off anyone they might actually hope to persuade, so they look instead for strategic one-on-one opportunities for productive conversation.
Third, and this is a really important point that I want to jump up and down on, there are a diversity of gifts in the body. Some Christians are really really concerned about environmental justice, and rightly so. We should all be concerned. But they would be wrong to start assuming that the only serious Christians are the ones who send around environmental petitions all the time and dedicate their online lives to exposing the deceptions of climate change denialists. Some Christians (not enough!) are really really concerned about the appalling injustice of our prison system, and the millions who live degraded half-lives behind bars. They should and must speak up, and we should all be concerned, but they had better not assume that one’s Christian commitment is measured by how often one writes about and shares posts about this subject—otherwise they will find very few true Christians indeed. Some Christians have dedicated their lives to campaigning against usury, others against rape, others against sex trafficking, others against unjust wars, etc. All of these are important things to campaign against, and all of them are things that we should all, with the time we have and resources we have, try to become aware of and concerned about, and do our own small part to encourage positive change. But in the nature of the case, these are not things that everyone can be fully dedicated to. Thankfully, God has given us different giftings, and has called some to be warriors against the evils committed against the unborn, others against the evils committed against women, others against the evils committed against the poor, etc. All of us should appreciate and encourage those who have dedicated their lives to these various battles, rejoicing over the diversity of gifts in the body, rather than criticizing the hand for not speaking or the tongue for not picking things up.
Sure, some of these issues are more important than others; I’m not denying that. I agree that the battle against killing the unborn is more important than the battle against the destruction of salmon habitats. But that doesn’t change a fact that God may have called some Christian to be zealously and passionately committed to saving the salmon, to the extent that he has little time or energy to engage with the abortion issue. We must respect this diversity of gifts and callings, even when we are convinced that an important battle is being fought, and wish that we could conscript everyone to pick up our weapons and fire on our preferred target. There are too many battles God has called all of us to for any one of us to demand that everyone fight theirs. Of course, this is where some may retort, “But all we’re asking is for a Share or a Retweet; how much time does that take?” But in this case, you are asking for people to idly share things on social media that they are not really personally engaged in, or prepared to follow up with serious discussion. In other words, you are encouraging the worst uses of social media.
In short, those of us who feel called to speak up on the abortion issue should speak up loudly, insistently, and with confidence, and if they provoke a response from outsiders, they should be prepared to engage patiently, lovingly, and persuasively, rather than alienating any with harsh declamations. Those who do not feel so called should certainly join with their brothers and sisters in prayer, and should, as time permits, educate themselves on what this battle is all about, so that they too can play a part if called upon to do so. But if, in the meantime, they’re faithfully volunteering at the local soup kitchen and posting pictures of their cats on Facebook, then God bless them for it!