The two most tired phrases of 2008 got a makeover at the March for Life in Washington Thursday, where pro-lifers used the new president’s rhetoric to argue for an overhaul of the federal stranglehold on abortion policy for the past 36 years. It surely didn’t compare to the million-plus at the inauguration Tuesday, but the crowd was fairly packed as evidenced by my failed attempts to break through to the north side of the Mall as marchers started for the Supreme Court.
The basics seemed the same from last year, my first in attendance. Judging by their wardrobes, the protesters were largely lower-middle to firmly-middle class, with plenty of teenagers and baby strollers in tow. There’s still nearly two hours of speeches by politicians and priests before the trudging up the Hill actually starts, so there’s a lot of late-arriving groups and federal workers from around the Mall dropping by. The most noticeable omission was the presidential campaigns – Ron Paul’s had the audacity of hope last year to carry a sign showing him holding a (presumably newborn) baby wrapped in an American flag. I was hoping it would reappear just for a laugh.
Youth snark was on display more so than past marches. I saw several hand-painted T-shirts with phrases like “A Person Is a Person,” “As a Former Fetus I Oppose Abortion,” and “Friend Me if You’re Pro-Life,” the first reference to social networking that I remember. There were green-and-black pro-life stickers reminiscent of poison-control warnings and MoveOn-style demands on signs such as “Personhood Now” and “Justice for All.” A handful of young monks walked by me, looking way too trendy even in their brown robes, as if they walked off the pages of Donald Miller’s hipster Christian tome Blue Like Jazz.
But the biggest change: The words “Change” and “Yes We Can” found their way onto a lot of signs, plus a heady dose of civil-rights rhetoric that has always been part of the pro-life movement but buried under the layers of family values and religiosity. A black pastor gave one of the final speeches, the most rousing and soulful, stirring up a mostly white crowd and reminding our new president that abortion rates in the black community are unconscionably high. If there’s a stagnant status quo that has persisted across four decades, it’s surely the federal antagonism toward any restriction on abortion, where many state laws have never taken effect, held up in court from the moment they passed.
What remains, though, may be the movement’s biggest anchor weighing it down from broader acceptance.
I’m talking about religion, which pervades every speech and probably half the signs that I saw. Catholics are the overwhelming bloc at the marches and against abortion in general, and they’re not shy about asking the Lord, Jesus, and “our lady of Guadalupe” (in the final prayer from the stage before the march itself) to end abortion by convincing their opponents to submit to the Vatican. My friend who works for a religious liberty group, and presumably can identify different denominations with a quick glance, estimated that 70 percent of the crowd was Catholic. (Dozens of signs identified dioceses or parishes.) Conservative evangelicals are about the same in their vocal association of life with Christianity, just without the institutional support.
The moral (not necessarily intellectual) support for the abolition of slavery was largely found in churches, but that was in a time where society largely accepted the Gospels as binding on their lives, if not carried out well. I saw glimmers of hope at the March for Life that a new generation – buoyed by our first black president – may drop the trappings of religion in their appeals for the right to life as fundamental to every other civil right. But it doesn’t look like the religious institutions want to tone down the religiosity with the aim of opening the pro-life tent to those not carrying a cross.