For those of us who are Christians, however much we embrace biology, logic, and the law as tools to convey to others the right to life of the unborn, a fundamental question looms large: How do we effectively communicate a sanctity of human life ethic developed over the course of 2,000 years in the Christian West, when the societies that Western Christians live in are now post-Christian?
The final clause of that question—“when the societies that Western Christians live in are now post-Christian”—is I think increasingly hard to dispute, particularly if you pay close attention to my wording. To confine ourselves to this country, I am not saying that a majority of Americans no longer identify as Christians. According to a 2020 Pew survey,1 64 percent of Americans identify as Christians (down from 90 percent fifty years earlier, though still a majority). Among young adults (aged 18 through 29), a smaller majority (56 percent), but still a majority, reported identifying as Christian.
Still, even among the declining majorities of those still accepting the label of Christian, many interpret their Christianity in ways that would astonish their spiritual ancestors. For example, a great many Christians, particularly in the younger tiers, speak of “my truth” and “your truth” rather than “the Truth,” which would puzzle past believers of any but the most syncretistic religions. In 2005, sociologist of religion Christian Smith interviewed 3,000 American teens (who would now be in their thirties) and identified a set of common beliefs among them. In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Smith and co-author Melinda Lundquist Denton termed this collection of beliefs Moral Therapeutic Deism. As set out by Smith and Denton, these common beliefs are:
• A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
• God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught by the Bible and by most world religions.
• The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
• God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
• Good people go to heaven when they die.
There is no reason to believe (see Pew, among others) that in the succeeding 18 years most people—including young adults—have grown more doctrinally orthodox or chosen to order their lives more closely to traditional morality. The morally and intellectually undemanding nature of Moral Therapeutic Deism suggests that even many of those Americans who call themselves Christians are following a Christianity that would be unrecognizable to, say, St. Paul.
Perhaps the most we can say is that many of us seem to be in transit, unsure whether to undertake the seemingly hopeless task of swimming upstream against a strong current, or just relax and let the river follow a course along the path of least resistance.
Of course, the moral landscape will vary according to the region of the country we inhabit. Many of those who continue to call themselves Christians, and mean by that a religious belief recognizable in creed and morality to bygone generations of Christians, predominately collect in certain geographic areas—most obviously the South. And the largest concentrations of the unchurched or disaffected-from-dogma, as well as atheists and agnostics, have massed themselves on either shore of the continent and in scattered major urban centers in between. Each concentration is somewhat diluted by the other, but the generalities roughly hold true.
Still, the trendlines are heading in a certain direction. And this reality tugs against the sort of weirdly optimistic view some of us have that we Americans are a God-fearing people captured by the infidel educational establishment, the news media, the entertainment industry, professional sports, Big Business, government bureaucracy, Silicon Valley transhumanists, the scientific establishment—have I left anybody out? That adds up to a large number of human beings purveying a “minority” view. It seems clear that these institutions are more radical than most of the rest of us, but it is not so clear that most of us aren’t heading in the same direction, albeit at different speeds and with differing degrees of self-awareness and intent.
My tentative conclusion, then, with the caveats entered above, is that we have met the Enemy and he is Us. Consider how many of those outside these institutions—or inside and unhappy—nevertheless repeatedly make peace with a lot of bad notions (bad from both the pro-life perspective and the pre-post-Christian perspective). As the years roll on and the level of publicly tolerated insanity keeps rising—the transgender hormones and surgeries pressed on middle schoolers, the “nonbinaries” proliferating, the neon-blue states pushing abortion privileges to the very threshold of birth (and why stop there?), the metamorphosis of that famed Canadian “niceness” into a kind of horror-movie homicidal mania just a few short years into their plunge into legalized euthanasia—you have to ask why, if we non-post-Christians are so different from all those seemingly dictating to us, we don’t firmly and consistently vote them out or boycott what they are selling or decline to participate. Despite the shrill electioneering every two years, and despite the many closely contested contests, most people, most of the time, don’t seem to live very differently from the norm or object very deeply to their day-to-day immersion in a deeply dysfunctional society. Some people are despairing and think it pointless to protest. But rather a large number (as prolifers know just as well as the pollsters) don’t deeply care about any of the life issues that cause us to lose sleep, even if they are willing to register their disquiet with the most unpalatable aspects of abortion on demand in a survey.
Dobbs, as we know, sent abortion back to the states, to the voters. At long last we are free, for a time, from desperately fixating on Supreme Court nominations as almost our sole hope of victory. Now the end that we have labored so long and so hard for depends instead upon state ballot boxes. (It also depends to some extent on state courts, as we saw some months ago, but that is another and still presumably state-bound issue.)
Certain states are already comfortable with sharply curtailing abortion; others (the usual suspects) are competing with each other for the prize of most progressive abortion law. Most are in between; possibly they will eventually line up more or less on a Western European model that outlaws lateterm abortion on demand. Overall, across the varied expanse of our country, it seems likely for the near term that abortion will be made somewhat more difficult to obtain than in the pre-Dobbs days, and overall numbers will probably decrease. This is a good thing, since each human being is of incalculable value. But abortion is unlikely to be beyond the reach of anyone determined to have one, and the more liberal parts of the country will be encouraging abortion tourism. In addition, there is the game-changing nature of the abortion pill in an era of remote medicine and mail-order prescriptions.
Therefore, rendering the womb safe for unborn children will once again come down to changing minds and hearts. And this is where the significance of living in a post-Christian society lies. It determines what hearts and minds need to be changed from so that they can be changed to a view of human life that acknowledges its sanctity “from conception to natural death.”
In the Christian tradition, the underlying moral philosophy identifying our duties to one another is, despite the uncomfortableness of using a phrase long weaponized by the left, something like a “seamless garment.” The Christian injunction to love our neighbor as ourselves and to see Christ in each person enjoins us to relieve suffering and battle injustice on many fronts. Over millennia, that underlying Christian philosophy of the human person slowly and very partially and imperfectly began to permeate many aspects of Western society, grappling in different eras with each age’s hallmark moral challenges. The past few centuries have seen a strengthening counter-pattern of deconversion, or of intentional movements to shed traditional Christianity and with it (unavoidably, regardless of whether or not that was the primary intention) the moral and physical protections afforded by the philosophy of the human person underlying it.
Christopher Dawson, in his profound book on The Formation of Christendom, explained the early Christians’ relations with a not-yet-converted pagan Roman Empire in this way:
To Cato the slave is a chattel, to be sold when he becomes old and sickly, he is purely an economic instrument to whom even the practices of religion are forbidden—all that must be left to the master. St. Paul sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to his master to be “received not now as a slave, but instead of a slave, a most dear brother, especially to me. But how much more to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord?”
This contrast is not economic. The old legal rights are the same in either case, but an inner revolution has been effected which must necessarily produce in time a corresponding change in all external social and economic relationships.
Consequently, the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, when it came, marked a revolution not only in the history of Christian culture but in the history of the world.2
What then should we have expected—what then should we now expect— from the Western world’s deconversion?
In our own time we find a host of peculiarly modern forms of human exploitation, such as egg donation, frozen embryos, surrogate mothers, and various forms of genetic research. In addition, an economic and productivity-based valuation of people partly underlies campaigns to legalize assisted suicide. The calculation of the “quality of life” of the old and infirm, the senile and handicapped, tends almost inevitably to focus on productivity, working intelligence, and financial independence.
Those calculations coexist with other, individualistic measures of “quality of life” as personal autonomy, which is not so much a status or condition as an emotional and psychological reaction to perceptions of one’s status or condition. After all, the same set of circumstances can strike one person as unacceptable and another person as acceptable, though far from ideal. While all of us fear pain, incapacitation, loneliness and depression, our personal preferences and temperaments and our beliefs about the meaning and destiny of human life will enter into how insupportable we find each of them.
And because these varying reactions to all sorts of human deprivations are (in our ranking of them and in the intensity of our response to them) personal and even idiosyncratic, they cannot tell us with any rigor or objectivity where the preciousness of human life lies. Instead, they resemble the “reasoning” we undertake to decide whether to euthanize a beloved family pet. “Fido is suffering,” we think, “and he can no longer do the things he used to enjoy.” If it is true that human beings anthropomorphize animals, the reverse is also true: We frequently find it easy to identify our own conditions with theirs.
If someone threatened us with extinction unless we could explain why our life was precious and valuable, why it should be preserved and sustained and honored, as human life, how would a devotee of such personally derived markers of quality of life respond? A feeling-based defense of our continued existence does not prepare us for an objective and morally and logically binding defense of our continued existence to an outside observer.
And it is precisely someone outside ourselves that we are concerned with in the case of abortion, even though that “outside” person is actually, for a period of several months, “inside” the mother. If our ideas about what would make or break our own quality of life are not generalizable but personal to us and emotion-based, so too are the ideas about the unborn’s current and future quality of life to the post-Christian or post-Christian-influenced or disaffected-from-dogma woman who finds herself in a crisis pregnancy. The child’s fate rests on the mother’s emotional and psychological reflections about whether the child would be better off dead or alive, whether the mother feels capable financially or psychologically or emotionally of undertaking motherhood, whether she wants a child (and whether she wants one now), whether prenatal tests indicate a problem—so many questions and concerns and emotions, but none of them building on the question of what the unborn child is and whether that child qualifies ontologically, by his or her status as a human being, to be born, and subsequently fed and clothed and cared for, even if the mother herself is not in a position to do so.
Abortion is always an emotional decision, even when it takes account of reason. A woman who considers abortion is clearly unhappy about her pregnant condition. She or her partner or family and loved ones don’t want a child (now) or don’t feel they can care for this one or provide for it. Tsunamis of emotion will normally be passing through almost anyone entangled in such a situation. The natural inclination to be drawn in the direction of our feelings, like a log surrendering to a rushing stream, is very strong—in both the woman who believes in the sanctity of human life and the woman who does not.
People in both categories have aborted their babies under the pressure of circumstances and the strength of their emotions. But the woman who lacks an underlying recognition of the objective sanctity of human life, barring some other strong inclination, will only and always be dragged about by her emotions. The emotions themselves will vary, and so therefore will the direction in which they drag her. A more accepting partner, the unexpected lift of a sunny spring day, even a prolifer’s handout with pictures of the unborn baby at eight and ten and twelve weeks, may tilt the decision toward life. Overall, however, in times such as ours, if a typical young woman detached from traditional religious dogma can accept that men really turn into women and women into men if they think that’s who they are, then such a woman can also consider an unborn baby sentient, conscious, and valuable if the mother wants it, and “a blob of tissue” if she doesn’t.
That’s where believing in, relying on, changeable and individualistic emotions and states of mind gets you when it comes to evaluating the human worth of a fetus, or the gender of a man or woman, or the quality of life of a senile or largely incapacitated adult. Emotions will lead if the mind does not provide the will with reasons to go in another direction. And emotions only lead us right sometimes—usually when they have been properly schooled.
For centuries Christianity has been working to school balky, emotion-driven, self-interested, self-indulgent people into acknowledging and respecting the God-given, imperishable, immortal value of the human being (a value beyond valuing, unless you dare to value each life at the cost of a deicide on the hill of Calvary). Such an endeavor, undertaken with and by and for fallen, imperfect, and often unappealing fellow human beings, has always met with imperfect results, both individually and in nations and eras. But the effort so to value fellow members of our God-touched species is 1) a way of getting onto firmer ground for decision-making than passing emotions and states of mind and 2) superior to the contingency-based or group-based valuations of human beings that preceded Christianity and now rival radical individualism, grading a human being according to a calculus of hierarchy, wealth, tribe, talents, productivity, and chance.
What does all this mean in practical terms for those of us peddling pro-life causes in the post-Dobbs era of the post-Christian age in which we live? In some ways, not much. In the political realm of the states—and where the federal political realm continues to be germane to our efforts—pro-life people who are good at this sort of thing will do what they always have done: They will make the reasonable and the scientific and the emotional arguments for life, and they will make the best deals that they can. Those deals will be closer to the pro-life ideal in more family-friendly and fetus-friendly and life-affirming sectors of the country, which still resist with some success, or less failure, the slide into post-Christianity. The contrary will be true in other regions of the country, but such has already been the case for decades now—even predating Roe.
Meanwhile, on the front lines of baby-saving and life-affirming, in our exchanges with women and families in crisis or with our own families, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, we will also continue to do what has to be done—making arguments that we sometimes “know” will have no effect, trying to meet the needs or allay the fears of each person in their given circumstances, offering personal testimonies that can be ridiculed or dismissed, explaining our understanding of the value of human life in the eyes of God. Will we win all or most of our arguments? Will we inspire and strengthen all or most of those women and families in crisis? No, but that too is not new. Not even the most baptized eras of human history since leaving Eden have done that well. How much harder it will get, and for how long, is unclear. But in a way it is already harder than we may fully realize, and despite that there are and have been and will be a multitude of small (and sometimes not so small!) victories.
Pessimists like me often cultivate odd pockets of hopefulness, even in challenging times. At the close of 2022 someone very dear to me (though he never knew me) died. When he commented on our times, he was something of a pessimist too. But he wrote beautifully on the supernatural virtue of hope, and in 1969, he spoke with ultimate hopefulness of the dark times appearing on the horizon. Father Joseph Ratzinger (who would later become Pope Benedict XVI) explained,
If today we are scarcely able any longer to become aware of God, that is because we find it so easy to evade ourselves, to flee from the depths of our being by means of the narcotic of some pleasure or other. Thus our own interior depths remain closed to us.3
He went on to trace the arc the Church would track as he saw it at this juncture:
. . . . From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
In the days and weeks and months and years following Dobbs, which in turn followed Roe, which in turn followed great ages of sanctity and sinfulness going back 2000 years to the death of Christ, we must keep doing, broadly speaking, the things we have been doing. Many of the specifics and some of the arenas in which pro-life efforts occur will grow or diminish in importance; some opportunities will open, a few close, but much will remain the same.
But we should try to remember, simultaneously with all the striving, that (as Mother Teresa kept reminding us) we are called to be faithful and not necessarily successful. And we should try to become—for ourselves, for our children, and for those around us—what Father Ratzinger foresaw we could be: “A hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.”
1. Pew Research Center, Modeling the Future of Religion in America, Sept. 13, 2022. How the U.S. Religious Landscape Could Change Over the Next 50 Years | Pew Research Center.
2. Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom. NY: Sheed & Ward, 1967.
3. Joseph Ratzinger, “What Will the Church Look Like in 2000,” Faith and the Future. San Francisco: St. Ignatius Press, 2009.
Ellen Wilson Fielding, a longtime senior editor of the Human Life Review, is the author of An Even Dozen (Human Life Press). The mother of four children, she lives in Maryland.