On a summer day 150 years ago, General Robert E. Lee ordered his men to storm Cemetery Ridge during the Battle of Gettysburg. To this day, no one quite knows why one of the most brilliant military commanders in American history threw his men across open fields at an enemy entrenched in an easily-defended position. Lee was warned beforehand of the folly of what would become known to history as Pickett's Charge and the high-water mark of the Confederacy, but Lee could not be swayed from his course. It was almost as if Lee thought God himself would be on the side of Lee's men, sweeping them across Cemetery Ridge to victory.
I was reminded recently of futile charges for glory while reading of the latest strategy of pro-life groups to strike a blow against the Girl Scouts of the United States of America (GSUSA) and Planned Parenthood.
The Pro-Life Movement's Futile Charge
A spam email from a national pro-life organization appeared in my inbox recently, pleading with me to join a boycott of Girl Scout cookies. Pro-life groups have been urging for years that culture warriors stop buying cookies from the Girl Scouts to protest the various and sundry ways in which it is alleged that the GSUSA has offended traditional values. The most pressing concerns offered by pro-lifers relate to the dispute over the GSUSA's positions on abortion rights and sex-education for children. According to pro-life organizations, the GSUSA works hand-in-glove with Planned Parenthood. The GSUSA maintains that it does not support Planned Parenthood at the national level, although individual Girl Scout councils may choose to work with Planned Parenthood if they wish.
This year though, the controversy reached new heights when someone using the GSUSA's Twitter feed asked for nominations of influential women of 2013, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Texas Senator Wendy Davis were considered. (Davis came to national attention last year when she filibustered in the Texas Senate to kill legislation intended to more stringently regulate abortions in Texas.) In response, pro-life groups decided to organize a nationwide "CookieCott," urging consumers to boycott Girl Scout cookies this year, in the hopes of both negatively impacting the GSUSA's signature revenue source and attracting media attention to pro-life concerns about the GSUSA.
Personally, I am not a fan of boycotts. They often are the equivalent of using a club on a thumbtack—not because boycotts are overkill, but rather because a boycott is an unwieldy weapon that is difficult to aim at its target. There is also the problem that many people who support boycotts recruit new members through the manipulation of human conscience. Rather than present a boycott as one option for social justice among other legitimate options, boycotts are often presented as moral imperatives that prove one's commitment to a cause. For example, a boycott could be presented like this:
We have chosen to boycott Girl Scout cookies as a means of making known our concerns about the GSUSA's policies. Would you like to join us in this effort?
More often though, this is the type of rhetoric potential recruits hear:
You can't buy Girl Scout cookies! The GSUSA is an evil handmaiden to the Great Satan, Planned Barrenhood. Anyone who buys Girl Scout cookies is not pro-life and is a Christian in name only!
An Alternative Strategy
When I read the email, I remembered an alternative strategy I had tried out a few years ago when a Girl Scout troop was selling cookies outside a local supermarket. It worked well enough that I thought my Facebook audience might like to consider trying it out in their own neighborhoods. I wrote:
It's that time of year again, when pro-life groups are urging people to boycott Girl Scout cookies. I'm not a huge fan of boycotts, so I'm passing along an alternative tactic I came up with a few years back.
The Girl Scouts were outside the local supermarket hawking cookies. It was Lent, I didn't need the calories, and I had heard that much of the proceeds go to the national organization. Local troops get only a small percentage. So I asked one of the moms if I could donate directly to the local troop. She was puzzled and asked if I meant that I wanted to send cookies to military troops (a project that the Girl Scouts undertake as part of their cookie sales). No, I said, I wanted to know if I could give her a donation for the local Girl Scout troop to which they belonged that would stay with their troop and not be sent to the national organization.
The mom suddenly smiled with understanding and said, "Oh! Yes, of course." So I handed her $10. The troop got a small donation, of which they got to keep the whole amount; I got to make my position on the national organization clear in a constructive manner; and I didn't have two boxes of [GSUSA] cookies added to my hips. We all ended up happy that year.
Many readers liked the idea, and let me know that they thought it would be a good way to both support neighborhood children involved in local troops and to register their dissatisfaction with the national organization. But I was unsurprised to get some negative feedback as well:
If that [the pro-life cause] was the only reason I don't support Girl Scouts it would [be] a good alternative. Unfortunately [given] their materials [that] they use within the troops, and with other organizations out there that are better alternatives, I can't in good conscience do this either.
Other readers wanted to make certain everyone was informed what the Better Alternatives to the GSUSA were:
There is [a] wonderful Catholic alternative, the Little Flowers. Send a donation to a parish with this group—or [to] the American Heritage Girls, [which supports] true Christian values.
I do not object either to negative feedback or to sharing alternative resources. What made me sigh with frustration when I read these comments is that these readers seemed to be missing my point: That the strategy I was offering was one way among many legitimate strategies to inform people of your concerns on matters of social justice.
Let's make clear upfront that supporting a boycott or an alternative organization are legitimate options. If one of those options is the one you feel is the right one for you and your family, go for it. Don't let me stop you.
But let's also think for a minute on the benefits to my proposed strategy—not because it is the best strategy, but because doing so may provide the contrast to current pro-life strategies necessary to illustrate why I think pro-lifers are losing battles in the culture war.
So, what might be the benefits to my suggestion?
In the immediate moment, you are letting local Girl Scouts know your position on a matter of urgency to you, but in a way that they are more likely to respect and consider than they would CookieCott fliers or lectures on the alleged evils of the GSUSA.
The price of the immediate finger in the eye of the GSUSA is small—$10 per year out of pocket for you. Ten bucks is not going to buy your local troop much. But small though the donation is, it will stay within your community, benefitting only the troop and not the GSUSA. Not only that, as Czech politician and human-rights activist Václav Havel once observed about the power of small moral acts:
Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.
Does this sound hopelessly naïve? Let's suppose more people dissatisfied with the GSUSA took up this alternative. Suppose entire parishes, neighborhoods, and communities decided to give money they would otherwise have spent on GSUSA cookies to their local troops and not to the GSUSA. What would happen then?
Well, then the GSUSA might start to take notice. It might demand a share of the take, or it might forbid local troops from collecting direct donations for their troops during the cookie sales. The troops, in turn, might become upset with the GSUSA, and might decide that the GSUSA is more concerned with its own interests than it is with the girls in local communities.
What you have now created is the possibility of schism between the national organization and the troops. The GSUSA might have to cave to pro-life demands to salvage the nationwide cookie sales. Or, the troops might have to reconsider their ties with the GSUSA. Either way, you have the possibility of real change within the GSUSA—and all because enough pro-lifers decided to give money directly to cute little girls working hard for their troops.
Isn't that a more appealing scenario for the pro-life cause than the alternative that has been proposed by pro-abortion activists of evil anti-abortionists who hate cute little girls innocently peddling cookies door to door?
The Value of Strategy
Trying to convince pro-lifers of the value of strategic planning and incremental steps in the war against legal abortion is at times like beating one's head against the proverbial brick wall. Like General Lee envisioning one grand, sweeping charge that would scatter the enemy before him at Cemetery Ridge, many pro-lifers seem to think that throwing themselves upon Planned Parenthood's entrenchments will ensure complete and total victory in one fell swoop. If God is on their side, then who can stand against them?
Then they bemoan, but never learn from, their failure.
Meanwhile, the other side in the culture wars marches on unimpeded, mainly because they have followed a carefully-plotted strategy. Take, for example, the forward motion of the fight to legalize homosexual marriage throughout the world. It is now widely acknowledged that the modern homosexual civil rights movement has been working steadily since 1990 to implement the strategy laid out by Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen in their book After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the '90s. Only in retrospect have defenders of traditional marriage realized how thoroughly they were routed by the book's strategic six-point plan.
Pro-lifers will not lose the war. Victory will be ours. But we could lose more casualties than necessary before ultimate success. For that reason alone we cannot shrug at the proven success of careful strategy.
Strategic action may be effective, but we do have to ask if it is moral in itself. Can pro-lifers learn from the careful plotting of their opponents? After all, if the means are evil then they are not justified by a good end. In my opinion, strategy in the service of good to oppose evil is recommended by Christ himself:
Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16).