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Public Theology: The Pro-Life Movement as Backlash Politics
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The Pro-Life Movement as Backlash Politics
In his last article for First Things, John Richard Neuhaus is dead wrong on the anti-abortion movement, again.

By Ed Knudson

In what appears to be his last article in the magazine he founded, John Richard Neuhaus, George W. Bush's favorite priest, who died of cancer last week, was, to put it rather irrevently, dead wrong. The article is titled The Pro-Life Movement as the Politics of the 1960s. Neuhaus actually thinks that the anti-abortion movement over the past four decades is an example of participatory politics, just the kind of thing the "new left" of the 1960s advocated, just like the civil rights movement. Neuhaus has been saying that kind of thing for a long time, ever since he decided that abortion was the single most important defining issue of the times. And you will hear the theme repeated by conservatives again and again in their various media. It is completely wrong.

Neuhaus claims anti-abortionists are the true believers in human rights, the rights of the unborn. The real conservatives, he says, are those supporting pro-choice for women, opposed to the rights of the unborn. He does not see that the whole notion of the "unborn" is a complete abstraction whereas the systematic oppression of black people in this country was most real for hundreds of years. The lack of rights for black people resulted in flesh and blood agony and degradation and injustice. These were real human beings who were abused and lynched justified by religious faith and the bible and racist hatred. To suggest that the actually-suffering experience of black people in this country is equivalent to the lack of "rights" for an abstraction such as the unborn, for people who do not even exist, can be made only by one whose mind has been clouded by too narrow a window on history and reality.

It is the very people who fought hardest against Martin Luther King who make up the central political energy of the conservative movement against abortion. That has been clear to anyone who has his/her eyes open through a big picture window of American politics these last years. It is now particularly clear to everyone in the country. The only region in the country unwilling to vote for a black president is the white South. The only people who as a block who would not vote for a black man who believes women should have rights in relation to their own bodies were religious right conservatives which have their base and origin in Southern religious expression, the Southern Baptists and Pentecostalists and so-called television preachers which emerged in the 1980s. Yes, many Catholics probably voted against Obama based on his abortion stance, but it is not Catholics that represent the central energy of conservatism, it is Southern religion which has become an Americanized and commercialized form of Christianity which in many ways cannot be understood anymore as representing traditional Protestantism in this country. Neuhaus explicitly associated himself with this negative, nativist form of so-called evangelical religion.

This Southern religion has emerged as a backlash against the gains of black people in the 1960s. It opposes equality for women and science and all those it claims are those terrible liberals and secular humanists. It is responsible for the culture wars and it is on a warpath esepcially against "Northern liberals" who through the Supreme Court forced the South to integrate their schools and through the federal government forced an end to practices of segregation. Abortion is just a particularly handy issue to use in political and cultural wars; it has been used by Republican politicians to get themselves elected. These conservatives engage in a false empathy when they express their concern for the unborn; they use and misuse "concern for life" in diabolical ways, claiming that if one disagrees with the designation of the moment of conception as the "beginning of life" that one is a baby killer. The very hostility of the religious right wing against "liberals" is an indication that we are not talking about a moral issue here requiring careful deliberation. We are dealing with a racially motivated backlash movement against the gains of black people and other minorities within the nation.

Richard John Neuhaus started off fighting for the rights of black people. He made a serious intellectual mistake when he decided that abortion was so important it was the only window through which to view contemporary politics. His intellectual gifts have served a conservative movement which ignored the continuing suffering of black people in cities across the nation but which now is coming to an end with the election of Barack Obama and the complete breakdown of an economy resulting from fundamentalist economic views. Neuhaus helped elect those now leaving office who have done so much incomparable damage to the country. His life is a tragic story not least displayed in this last article where he completely misreads the real forces at work in politics today and thus placed himself on the wrong side of what morality and justice require of us today.

(Image at top is of New Republic issue featuring Neuhaus on the cover.)


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Date Added: 2/8/2009 Date Revised: 2/15/2009

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