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I know half of you just saw that title and are ready to take me to task. Learning a lesson on building political coalitions from the right-to-life movement? Baloney. From one of the most stalwart conservative movements of the past 40 years – a movement on an issue that remains one of the most polarizing issues in American society? Good luck.

And you’re right to be skeptical. The polling numbers continue to show stark polarization on abortion, at least in the political realm. And a recent study shows these numbers even hold for young Republicans and Democrats, indicating we probably won’t overcome the impasse anytime soon. But before you check out and retreat to lament the fracture of American religion and politics on this issue, hear me out.

Right-to-lifers worked through their grievances and used the energy to listen to one another.

I’ve now spent nearly six years researching the right-to-life movement. Last month I defended my dissertation on the topic. Most of my work has been devoted to reconstructing the movement as it existed before the 1980s – before it became so closely associated with conservative religion and politics. Much of my research deals with coalition-building – how a politically and religiously diverse group of people came together to form this multifaceted, dynamic movement in the 1970s.

It’s been a fun project mostly because what they accomplished seems novel, even odd, especially given the current political climate, where building any sort of coalition that crosses political and religious divides seems almost impossible. But now more than ever, I think it’s a worthwhile and vital issue to consider. I was reminded of this again after reading Brian Keepers’ essay “Are you Conservative or Liberal?: Moving Beyond Labels” (The Twelve Blog) earlier this week on the limits of conservative/liberal labels. He rightly questions how useful such descriptors are and explains their failure to fully capture our human experience. But I get why people like them so much. Such categories are easy and comfortable. They sort the world into safe and neat groups of who is “us” and who is “them.” But they also keep us from fully engaging with one another and excuse us from the difficult tasks of cooperating, compromising and getting things done.

I’m here to say that it doesn’t have to be this way and that there was a time not so long ago when things were different. Look no further than the right-to-life movement for a clear example of how people with wide-ranging beliefs successfully formed a coalition to work toward a common goal. In the 1970s, these people, spanning religious and political spectra from conservative to liberal and even left-wing, managed to find ways to work together. In reflecting on what they accomplished and where we are now, I present three lessons we can learn from the right-to-life movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

1: HASH IT OUT

Air your grievances, but remain willing to compromise. As I perused my dissertation’s various sources, I was amazed at what right-to-lifers would say to each other. They disagreed, often vehemently, and they were sure to let each other know it. The disagreements between the movement’s Catholics and Protestants were particularly entertaining. Protestants accused Catholics of intentionally keeping them out of key leadership positions, treating them like “lepers,” or ignoring them altogether. Catholics said Protestants were silencing them and bullying them out of the movement.

At the same time, right-to-lifers didn’t let these disagreements derail their cause. Instead, they worked through their grievances and used the energy to listen to one another, reach important compromises and push the movement to expand its aims and strategy. They recognized that there was no progress to be made and no compromises to be reached if they couldn’t hash out their differences.

2: DON’T COUNT ANYONE OUT

In the 1970s, right-to-lifers didn’t limit their options when it came to political or religious alliances. Oh, you’re opposed to abortion but you’re a conservative Catholic and an anti-Equal Rights Act activist? That’s all right – join right in. You’re a left-wing, feminist, nuclear-disarmament peacenik? You can join too! From the labor movement to the women’s movement to the Southern Baptist Convention to the Catholic Church, the right-to-life movement went on a wide-ranging search for allies in the 1970s. Every American was a potential ally; no political or religious group was out of bounds. Even when it came to approaches to abortion – such as allowing exceptions for legal abortions in certain instances – or stances on issues of contraception and family planning, right-to-lifers showed a similar flexibility, welcoming divergent arguments against abortion and proposed solutions.

3: FOCUS ON SHARED VALUES

At the end of the day, although 1970s right-to-lifers disagreed on everything from religion and politics to strategy and tactics, they remained united because they were committed to what they called a “broad-based movement.” By this, they meant that the right-to-life movement should be open to any American who opposed abortion, regardless of his or her political or religious affiliation. Not only did they believe this was the right course, but right-to-lifers also believed it would create the strongest and most effective movement. By focusing on this shared value and their shared opposition to abortion, they overcame major differences in religion and politics that might have undone other movements.

Great lessons, right? But I guess if I haven’t made it clear already, I now should now say, the right-to-life movement ended up failing at coalition-building. In fact, it failed spectacularly, for a number of complicated reasons that will take books and books to explain. But I contend that at least one of the reasons for its failure is that its members stopped doing the above three things – instead prioritizing political expediency over maintaining a broad coalition opposed to abortion. Yet I think we have a lot to learn from these people. Right-to-lifers in the 1970s were a weird bunch, but they embraced the eclectic makeup of their movement. Moreover, they saw their diversity as a strength and a priority. And for a while, they made it work.

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics studying at Boston College. This essay originally appeared inPerspectives’ blog, The Twelve.

Image: William Murphy/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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