One of the dominant themes of the modern progressive movement, particularly Christian progressivism, is "disparate parties putting aside their differences and working toward common goals." In many respects, this is a noble undertaking. And as an alternative to the confrontational and schismatic struggles that have plagued Protestant Christianity for centuries, it is certainly a very appealing option.
A little over a century ago, the leaders of both the nascent progressive movement and the mainline Protestant churches situated in urban parishes began to recognize the terrible plight of the poor and disadvantaged living in the large cities of the United States. These people, largely immigrants from Europe, were exploited and tossed aside by greedy industrialists and then cast down as hopelessly ignorant and corrupted by the wealthy Anglo upper classes. Both social progressives, transformed by the writings of Marx and the science of Darwin, and mainline Protestants, driven by the tenants of the Christian Gospel, made the abatement of urban poverty their ultimate goal. To this end, mainline Protestant Christian denominations and secular leftists/progressives have been working in tandem on many social justice issues (community organizing, civil rights, health care rights, living wage, etc.) for over one hundred years.
Yet within this close relationship lies a problem that has continually plagued progressive Christians -- how does the Church prevent the Gospel from being polluted by the anti-Christian ideologies of secular progressives? One could earnestly ask the same question regarding the dangerous relationships between the "Religious Right," big business, and the military, but in this essay I want to specifically focus on how the pro-abortion teachings of the secular progressive movement have affected contemporary progressive Christianity.
The biggest lightening rod in the current abortion controversy is Sen. Barack Obama, a self-professed Christian who has also been one of the most outspoken and dogged foes of any legislation that could negatively affect abortion rights. His stubborn refusal to support the Illinois "born alive" legislation (which would have mandated that hospitals provide medical services for infants who survived abortion procedures) led to Alan Keyes' now infamous quote -- "Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama."
Of course the Christian support for abortion does not end with Barack Obama. One of the nation's most active abortion rights advocacy groups is the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an interfaith association of clergy and lay leaders who support abortion rights and sponsor birth control and sex education programs, primarily for inner-city for teenagers.
And I have had many sincere conversations with dedicated Christians, particularly those who work closely with the poor, where the topic of abortion has been introduced as a "necessary evil," an option that should be made available without stigma to women who know that they cannot provide a safe home for a child, and who simply don't "have it together enough" to endure a full term pregnancy and adoption procedure.
It's a compelling argument, to be sure, but is it consistent with the ethics exemplified by the life of Jesus Christ? Or is it an argument that is actually rooted in the selfish desires of man?
At the end of the nineteenth century, a fascinating assimilation of emerging science and economics (genetics, evolution, microbiology, and Marxism) produced a popular form of pseudo-science known as eugenics. Proponents described eugenics as "the self-direction of human evolution." Its core philosophy stated that through science mankind would eventually develop all the tools necessary to engineer biologically perfect human beings, and that true evil lay in any efforts to hamper the development of those tools. After all, who would oppose a system that would rid humanity of suffering and poverty, and prevent the squandering of resources on the sick and criminally minded?
The majority of the most outspoken eugenicists were agnostics or atheists, and they sincerely believed that their scientifically-based system was far superior to any of the irrational mysticism and dogma offered by organized religion. Their ranks included an impressive array of authors, inventors, businessmen, social activists, and scientists -- Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Margaret Sanger, H. G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes, and George Bernard Shaw, just to name a few.
In the United States, eugenics manifested itself in the large-scale effort to reduce poverty and disease by eliminating or greatly reducing those deemed as "unfit." This effort resulted in a number of laws designed to prevent interracial marriage, limit immigration primarily to Europeans of white Anglo and Nordic descent, and encourage sterilization or abortion procedures for the economically and educationally disadvantaged, and all non-whites. In other words, the "fit" were those of white heritage, free from birth defects, well educated and financially secure. There was no greater proponent of eugenics for the elimination of the "unfit" in the US than Margaret Sanger.
Author Jonah Goldberg writes,
Sanger’s genius was to ... [hitch] the racist-eugenic campaign to sexual pleasure and female liberation. In her “Code to Stop Overproduction of Children,” published in 1934, she decreed that “no woman shall have a legal right to bear a child without a permit...no permit shall be valid for more than one child.” But Sanger couched this fascistic agenda in the argument that “liberated” women wouldn’t mind such measures because they don’t really want large families in the first place. In a trope that would be echoed by later feminists such as Betty Friedan, she argued that motherhood itself was a socially imposed constraint on the liberty of women. It was a form of what Marxists called false consciousness to want a large family.
Sanger believed — prophetically enough — that if women conceived of sex as first and foremost a pleasurable experience rather than a procreative act, they would embrace birth control as a necessary tool for their own personal gratification. She brilliantly used the language of liberation to convince women they weren’t going along with a collectivist scheme but were in fact “speaking truth to power,” as it were. This was the identical trick the Nazis pulled off. They took a radical Nietzschean doctrine of individual will and made it into a trendy dogma of middle-class conformity. This trick remains the core of much faddish “individualism” among rebellious conformists on the American cultural left today. Nonetheless, Sanger’s analysis was surely correct, and led directly to the widespread feminist association of sex with political rebellion. Sanger in effect “bought off” women (and grateful men) by offering tolerance for promiscuity in return for compliance with her eugenic schemes.
In her own words, Margaret Sanger sought, "a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring. It is a vicious cycle; ignorance breeds poverty and poverty breeds ignorance. There is only one cure for both, and that is to stop breeding these things. Stop bringing to birth children whose inheritance cannot be one of health or intelligence. Stop bringing into the world children whose parents cannot provide for them. Herein lies the key of civilization."
In introducing her 1939 "Negro Project," Sanger wrote, "The mass of significant Negroes still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase among Negroes...is [in] that portion of the population least intelligent and fit." But being a master social strategist, Sanger enlisted the help of several well-known black leaders and clergy to introduce her program to their people. She wrote, "We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members."
In some twisted sort of way, it makes sense -- eliminate poverty by eliminating the impoverished. Eliminate disease by eliminating the diseased. Eliminate crime by eliminating those suspected of harboring criminal tendencies. Eliminate laziness, slothfulness, and rebellion by eliminating those supposedly with a genetic or racial disposition toward sloth and non-conformity.
Although white supremacy and class envy manifested themselves copiously in state and Federal laws in the Unites States, no nation formally undertook the large-scale elimination of the unfit except Nazi Germany. During its formative stages, Margaret Sanger was an enthusiastic and vocal supporter of the Nazi eugenics program, offering the pages of her Birth Control Review as a forum for various German officials to explain what they were trying to achieve.
After the Holocaust, one would think that the close association between the philosophies of the eugenics movement and the Nazis would serve to permanently doom such callous plans -- along with their biggest American supporter -- to history's scrap heap of failed and deadly ideas. But that never happened. Margaret Sanger (probably due to her lifelong support for birth control as a means of cheapening sexual promiscuity) is still lauded as a hero by American liberals and progressives, and the need to thin the ranks of the nation's poor is still presented with the same degree of urgency as it was a century ago.
When Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, he received a letter from Roe v. Wade counsel Ron Weddington urging him to immediately implement large-scale Federally-funded birth control, including the the RU-486 "morning after" pill. Here is a portion of what Weddington wrote to President Clinton:
Reagan spent all our money on bombs and even if there were money for programs such as pre-natal health care, job training, and day care centers it would be years before we would see any dramatic results. And, as anyone who follows education can see, more money doesn't necessarily translate into better educated kids.
But you can start immediately to eliminate the barely educated, unhealthy and poor segment of our country. No, I’m not advocating some sort of mass extinction of these unfortunate people. Crime, drugs and disease are already doing that. The problem is that their numbers are not only replaced but increased by the birth of millions of babies to people who can’t afford to have babies.
There, I’ve said it. It’s what we all know is true, but we only whisper it, because as liberals who believe in individual rights, we view any program which might treat the disadvantaged differently as discriminatory, mean-spirited and... well... so Republican. (ellipses in original)
... You made a good start when you appointed Dr. Elders, but she will need a lot of help. You will have to enlist the aid of sports and entertainment stars to counteract the propaganda spread by church officials seeking parishioners, generals seeking cannon fodder and businessmen seeking cheap labor that, throughout the ages, has convinced the poor that children are necessary to fulfillment as a person.
Apparently little has changed except the marketing. We no longer talk about "eliminating the unfit"; today its "a woman's right to choose." Liberals have successfully managed to repackage their own progressive ideas as "Republican" if they involve such distastefully "conservative" elements as racism and discrimination. How convenient. Witness the pummeling received by conservative radio host Bill Bennett when he dared to suggest -- as an exercise in absurdity -- that you could "abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down." What did he say that every abortion advocate has not been saying since the turn of the twentieth century?
Fast forward a few years. In a 1997 speech delivered to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, then-Illinois state senator Barack Obama said,
In 1966, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America gave its first Margaret Sanger Award to Martin Luther King, Jr. And in his acceptance speech, which was delivered by his strong and wonderful wife Coretta, Dr. King wrote, “Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by non-violent, direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her.”
That struggle for equality is not over and now we are at one of those rare moments where we can actually transform our politics in a fundamental way. But it’s going to take people as resolute as Mrs. Sanger and Dr. King—people like your own Cecile Richards—it’s going to take young people like Ariana. It’s going to take millions of voices coming together to insist that it’s not enough just to stand still. That it’s not enough to safeguard the gains of the past—that it is time to be resolute and time to march forward.
There are two levels on which to understand this statement. First, we can look at it simply at face value. Margaret Sanger was, in many ways, the archetype of the modern progressive social activist, a brilliant political strategist who instigated major societal changes through non-violent means. She mobilized civic leaders and used the power of her own voice to raise consciousness about specific issues (poverty and contraception) and, as evidenced by the world we live in today, her efforts were ultimately successful, perhaps even beyond her own expectations. Her concern for the poor, her non-stop efforts even in the face of adversity, and her use of persuasion rather than brute force are certainly admirable traits.
But at the second level, these remarks become difficult to understand. Sanger's solution to the plight of the sick and the poor was probably the most anti-Christian one imaginable -- killing them off, forcibly segregating them in concentration camps, or forcibly taking away their ability to procreate. These are the "changes" that she worked so tirelessly for. Her twisted sense of morality (refusing, for example, to unequivocally characterize marital infidelity or even murder as sinful behaviors) also makes her as unwholesome a role model for Christian leaders as one could possibly find.
This is a perfect example of what I call the Left's "Che Guevara Problem." Certainly Che was moved by the plight of the Central and South American people who suffered under brutal military dictatorships and oligarchies. His concern for the plight of the poor, and his death at the hands of Bolivian special forces, supposedly under orders from the CIA, has made him into a cult figure among those opposed to American-influenced economic and foreign policies. Yet Che was not just a starry-eyed ideologue. He actively conspired with some of the most ruthlessly violent revolutionaries of his time and, via his spoken orders or through the bullets from his own pistol, was directly responsible for the slaughter of thousands of men, women, and teenage boys. Cuban expatriates still refer to him as "The Butcher of La Cabaña." How ironic that so many Che t-shirts are seen at "peace" and "anti-war" gatherings.
But perhaps such an irony cuts directly to the heart of the problem. Secular progressives want to see Che and Margaret Sanger as a heroes, as advocates for the poor and the exploited, and they are willing to whitewash history in order to do so. When Christians are complicit in such whitewashing, they are no longer "speaking truth to power." Instead, they are complicit in the efforts of the secular power system to gain another degree of control over the masses, using the language of liberation as a veil for conformity.
As Christians, we are not called to lives of isolation. The practice of justice requires that we place ourselves directly within systems of oppression. Jesus teaches us to cooperate with all who seek justice, even if we do not recognize them as "Christians." And in the parable of the shrewd manager, Jesus teaches His disciples, "Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings ... if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?" In other words, sometimes it is beneficial to use the systems of mankind in order to advance the Kingdom of God. Jesus also gave these powerful instructions to his disciples: "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."
But in doing these things we cannot pretend that we see no evil. We may study the activism of Margaret Sanger and seek to learn from it, but the moment we begin to look up to her and other twentieth century Anti-Christs as moral role models, we begin a journey down a dark and dangerous path.
If you have time, you should watch this 1957 interview of Margaret Sanger by Mike Wallace. To read Sanger's philosophies is one thing; to hear her articulate them in response to Wallace's pointed and well-researched questions is quite another.