Saving Your Soul with Rock & Roll
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[Editor's Note: This article appeared originally on CampusProgress.org.]
Late this January, I entered the twilight zone--surrounded by thousands of people rallying against something I think of as settled Supreme Court precedent: a woman's right to choose. Now, it's not particularly strange to see people working themselves into a frenzy over the abortion issue, but the youth participation at this year's March for Life surprised me. I saw an eight-year-old shouting militantly at a 40-year-old pro-choice advocate, scores of high school students in matching hats chanting about baby-killing, a flock of kids dressed as nuns and priests. What motivated tens of thousands of protesters, many of them too young to vote, to spend a miserable, rainy Monday marching in DC?
It seems the Christianist right has succeeded in making anti-choice activism fun for their youngest minions by emphasizing the cool factor of the movement over moral or political necessity. And they have the social infrastructure to mobilize them, making it pretty simple for organizers to turn out bodies to pump up the volume of their event. Word passes through church bulletins and required religion classes, so despite a website featuring outdated, pixilated clip art, March for Life gains street cred among high school Christians. The Christianist right employed this strategy with full force for the March for Life, providing plenty to do for the young anti-choice advocate, including an anti-choice student essay contest and a pre-march rally attended by some 20,000 young people.
Braving the crowds of students hopped up on anti-abortion teen spirit, I talked to about 20 students at the March for Life--most of them were 14 to 16 years old, though a few were in college. I spoke with kids from New Jersey, Michigan, Virginia, and as far away as Florida--they all came in with at least one busload of friends, classmates or church members, and they all emphasized how easy it was for them to hop on the bus for the weekend. For most, attending the march was more of a bonding experience than an exercise in activism. They were here to hang out and revel in the throngs of like-minded students, not to talk about political or personal issues.
"It's so important for us to come together about this since it's such a big issue," said Jose Williams of Florida, representing a sentiment I heard in nearly every group of students I approached. Conversely, neither he nor the group of six freshmen guys from a Catholic school in New Jersey who I spoke to seemed very interested in specifics. When pressed, they lacked personal connections or insights to the abortion debate outside the occasional shouts of "Yeah! Pro-life!" they emitted when particularly creative fellow protesters walked past.
And they certainly didn't care much about other political topics. I asked all the students I spoke with what other political issues they were interested in and got blank stares in response, with the occasional "uhhhhâ€¦" to stall for time, presumably while trying to figure out why I was asking them that at an anti-choice rally. Recognizing that high schools kids aren't always the most politically aware of all demographics, I tried to prompt them by naming a couple other issues--like global poverty and the AIDS epidemic--that, as a Christian, I think Christians should care about, but I still received little or no response.
Their one-issue focus stems from a new crop of anti-choice groups who repackage the anti-choice movement into an appealing product that's both popular and easy-to-swallow for young Christians and their friends.
Rock for Life (RFL), a project of the American Life League, is the largest American anti-abortion group geared toward young people, working to "[spread] the pro-life message through music." Rock for Life's website contains lists of bands that are pro- and anti-choice (the only anti-choice artist I recognized is Nick Cannon of Drumline fame, whereas powerhouses like the Foo Fighters and Madonna fill the pro-choice list), and provides decidedly slanted information about various abortion-related issues. You can pick up helpful hints about the pro-baby-killing "Dark Side" by accessing RFL's information on groups like MTV, Planned Parenthood and the dastardly March of Dimes, whose mission is "to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality."
RFL's merchandise section features relatively hip t-shirts and other anti-choice accessories with slogans concocted by RFL. For the bargain price of $0.50, your car can sport a bumper sticker which loudly declares that "you can't be Christian and pro-abortion." Resounding agreement comes from other young anti-choice groups like Bound4Life, which uses silent teenaged protestors to get attention, and Abort73, whose website features extremely graphic videos to scare people into opposing abortion. The combined effect of modern, appealing websites and down-home Christian values results in a seemingly irrefutable message: cool Christians are anti-choice.
But are they telling the truth? Does being a faithful Christian mean being anti-choice? Of course not, but you won't hear that message because the Christianist right has been so successful in commandeering the abortion debate, making it about nitpicky verse-reading instead of finding true solutions. To take it back, progressive Christians need to reclaim their religion from the conservative spin doctors whose ideal Christian cares more about fetuses and political capital than love and humble servitude.
Anti-choice Christians generally use a couple of carefully selected verses to make their case. Psalm 139:13-16 and Luke 1:39-45 are among the most oft-cited because they seem to say two things that are key to the anti-choice argument: first, God's unborn creations are sacred humans; second, that fetuses are sentient beings and thus fall under the jurisdiction of a largely undisputed Biblical law: "Thou shall not kill." In both cases, the anti-choice agenda is only supported if the passages are read extremely literally and narrowly, which undermines the overarching sentiment of both. This is a common consequence of using select, literally interpreted verses to support particular political arguments: the beauty and spiritual philosophy of the verses are sacrificed to promote a predetermined agenda. In this case, narrow the passages to their literal meanings and they becomes trite and meaningless--open them up, and they gain meaning and significance as jubilant praise recognizing one's origins in God's creation.
Since the Bible doesn't say anything specific about abortion, Christians should turn to what Jesus decisively tells us to do: love God and love our neighbors. Does it demonstrate love to deny options to women who are unable to adequately care for a child? Does it demonstrate love to force a woman to carry a physical reminder of her rape?
Instead of mobilizing thousands of teenagers to make a big fuss at the Capitol, spewing polarizing rhetoric and wearing testimonies of their superior righteousness, Americans--particularly Christian Americans--should combine the organizing power of the anti-choice movement with the conviction that there's a better approach to overcoming abortion than banning it. It's time we stop yelling at each other and actually make some progress toward improving reproductive quality of life in America.
The real message, then, is that our collective priority should be solving this problem in all of its uneasy complexity, not having a concert about it. But can we fit that on a t-shirt?