Last Friday hundreds of thousands of pro-life ninjas marched on Washington and were so stealthy that news cameras completely missed them. Yet a march for gun control with barely 1,000 people became front-page news. What can we do to change the media blackout that has enabled forty years of legal abortion?
If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em!
First, pro-life advocates must make it a top priority to get talented pro-life advocates employed with either news organizations like CNN or in major Hollywood studios. We can’t just shout “Not fair!” and cross our arms in defiance. Instead, our movement must consider a long-term strategy to renew the arts and media and get them to serve the Church again. This does not mean we should sacrifice orthodoxy for ratings. You can have both. After all, one of the most popular television shows of the 1950s was a bishop standing in front of a chalkboard!
In the nineteenth century, the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard lamented that divine truth is often passed over in favor of popular entertainment. He wrote in Works of Love:
Whereas, alas, the Christian proclamation very often is scarcely listened to, everybody listens to the poet, admires him, learns from him, is enchanted by him; whereas, alas, men quickly forget what the pastor has said, how accurately and how long they remember what the poet has said, especially what he has said with the help of the actor!
We too have a duty to present the truth in a compelling way. As St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law. . . . I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 20, 22).
Two great programs I recommend for any faithful Catholic interested in working in media are Act One and John Paul the Great Catholic University.
A Lesson from the Other Side
Second, rather than retreat from media, we must find a way to present the right narrative for the media. As an example, consider our culture’s shift in views on the topic of homosexuality. In 1996, 68 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while only 27 percent supported it. By 2012, only 46 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while a slim 53 percent majority supported it. What explains this dramatic shift?
In their 1989 book After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the '90s, Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen used their knowledge of psychology and public-relations marketing to guide the so-called gay-rights movement toward its legal and social victories twenty years later.
They argued that the gay-rights movement needed to transform itself from being perceived as a group of promiscuous aggressors to normal people who are victimized by powerful heterosexual groups. Instead of the 1980s motto, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” the movement became, “We’re here, we’re just like you, let us love each other.”
In this past election, same-sex marriage became legal in the state of Washington through the support of women (men actually opposed the measure) who identified with the campaign's language of "commitment." I guess in an age when average men can't be counted on to commit to anything, women would be thrilled to support someone who was willing to commit himself to another in a legal union (but that's a whole other issue).
Today, the millennial generation has for the large part accepted homosexuality as a norm that is on par with left-handedness. In fact, most Americans believe that 25 percent of the population identifies as gay or lesbian, but, according to Gallup, only about 3.5 percent of the population self-identifies as either gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Since bisexuals make up the majority of this group, this means less than two percent of the population identiifes as either gay or lesbian.
Having the Right Message
So what does this have to do with the pro-life movement? If our movement is going to have the same cultural transforming power as the gay-rights movement, it makes sense to co-opt its tactics whenever possible. Is this a Christian approach to winning the culture wars? Well, Jesus says, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).
Just as the gay-rights movement crafted its language so that the public would be more receptive, we must be prepared to do the same. Our message can’t simply be we want to ban abortion. Banning things just seems un-American. Instead, we must promote a narrative that encompasses topics like fairness. For example, it’s unfair that unwanted children can be aborted while the killing of wanted unborn children in dozens of states and under federal law is a crime.
Our narrative must also highlight equality. We want only for unborn children to be given the same rights their newborn brothers and sisters have. Why should we treat the unborn children unequally because of their age when we abhor treating other people unequally because of their sex or race?
Pro-choice advocates recognize the power of this approach and warn their supporters about it. Former NARAL president Kate Michelman and Catholics for Choice co-founder Frances Kissling wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “[W]e rarely hear them [pro-lifers] talk about murdering babies. Instead, they present a sophisticated philosophical and political challenge. Caring societies, they say, seek to expand inclusion into 'the human community.' Those once excluded, such as women and minorities, are now equal. Why not welcome the fetus (who, after all, is us) into our community?”
By having both a powerful message and friends in mainstream media, the Church can turn the tide in the culture wars, provided we trust God to guide us in each step of the process.