03/27/2013 - 16:46

Disarmament and the pro-life movement: A match made in heaven?

Russ Wellen

Russ Wellen

Wellen edits the foreign policy blog Focal Points for the Institute of Policy Studies. He has written about disarmament for AlterNet, Asia...

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They identify with different ends of the political spectrum, but nuclear disarmament activists and anti-abortion protesters have something in common: A desire to protect innocent life.

That shared interest represents a major opportunity that disarmament activists are letting slip by. Though nuclear weapons pose as great a danger to the planet as ever, the disarmament movement has flagged since the end of the Cold War. It can and should reinvigorate itself by recruiting anti-abortion Christians.

These two groups may not often find themselves in the same room, but joining together is not as unlikely as it may at first sound. Some Christian believers have long integrated nuclear disarmament into an ethical system that includes opposition to abortion. The Christian activist Plowshares Movement, for instance, launched in 1980 when its members infiltrated the General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and damaged the nose cones of nuclear warheads. Many early religious disarmament activists were pro-life, embracing the notion of the "consistent life ethic," a term coined by Archbishop of Chicago Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. Intended to unite conservative and liberal Catholics, the consistent life ethic also incorporated opposition to capital punishment, euthanasia, harming noncombatants in war, and genocide. David Gushee, a professor of moral philosophy at Union University, wrote in 2011 that more recently, "Christians from a variety of spots on the theological/ethical spectrum … have been making their way for some time toward a consistent life ethic."

To many conservative Christians, an anti-abortion stance is the sun around which their other principles revolve. A 2012 survey by the market research firm The Barna Group found that among self-described evangelicals likely to vote in the US presidential election, abortion ranked as the third most influential issue after taxes and health care. Abortion also serves as a proxy for other issues dear to the hearts of social conservatives: Aside from representing concern about the welfare of fetuses, it allows them to express outrage at those they believe demonstrate a cavalier attitude toward sex and its consequences.

Left-leaning disarmament activists often wonder how pro-life activists can oppose abortion, but not the demonstrably greater threat of nuclear weapons. Some conservative Christians, meanwhile, are bewildered by disarmament activists who support the right to abortion. Gushee quotes Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action: "Why do many liberal and radical activists champion nuclear disarmament … and then defend the destruction of one-and-a-half million unborn American babies each year?"

To be sure, some pro-life activists recognize that failure to embrace disarmament leaves them open to charges of hypocrisy and weakens their case against abortion, and at least one evangelical has led a campaign to make disarmament a standalone cause for religious conservatives. The Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, who worked in arms control before he was born again, is the founder of the Two Futures Project, an organization of evangelicals dedicated to a nuclear weapon-free world.

With more than 100 million evangelicals across the United States, according to an estimate in the Economist, disarmament leaders can't help but envy their sheer numbers -- not to mention the zeal they've been known to bring to a cause. But can they entice conservative Christians aboard without being asked to make concessions on abortion?

Maybe, but it will require an open-minded rebranding campaign.

It should begin with vocabulary. When disarmament activists speak of nuclear war as immoral, they frighten a public for whom morality in wartime is little more than an obstacle to national defense. But when attempting to sell conservative Christians on disarmament, they should actually embrace the concept of morality and brand nuclear war as sinful. Do Christians really want to support a national-security policy that imperils the safety of their immortal souls?

Second, disarmament activists who are pro-choice should avoid using the term "choice" when dealing with religious conservatives. To religious conservatives, it's a criminal act to choose to terminate what they think of as a life.

Third, disarmament activists should stop glossing over the reality that, while abortion may not terminate an independent living creature, it suspends the preconditions for life. What may seem like accommodation actually strengthens the pro-choice camp's case by preempting the argument over when life begins.

Fourth, disarmament activists should note that a baby slaughtered in nuclear war and an aborted embryo are both victims.

Finally, conservative Christians sometimes play fast and loose with the concept of genocide by comparing it to abortion. Instead of reacting with outrage, disarmament activists would be better served by pointing out that nuclear war is also akin to genocide. It not only kills untold numbers of embryos and fetuses, but the ensuing radiation harms the next generation.

Maybe then conservative Christians would agree that nuclear weapons present at least as large a threat to families as abortion. Maybe then they could be persuaded to skim off some of the anger they reserve for abortion and decant it into disarmament. It's not as if disparate groups haven't joined forces on disarmament before. Three decades ago, Randall Forsberg, who initiated the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, as well as other leaders succeeded in enlisting a wide range of organizations -- from Catholic and Protestant churches to the AFL-CIO -- in calling for a moratorium on nuclear-weapons production and deployment.

Whether politically engaged people believe in goodness for its own sake, or to attain salvation, they fundamentally want the same things: To protect themselves, their families, and humanity at large. This makes common cause easier to achieve than it may at first look. Disarmament advocates shouldn't pass up the chance to recruit from a robust and likeminded new pool.