By Jonathon Van Maren
Note: This blog post will be my last sortie into the debate, so I’ll add any further notes, additions, or relevant information to the bottom of this article to keep it all in one place.
James Silberman, who works for Free the States, has responded to Part I of my podcast discussion on the so-called “abolitionist” movement with Josh Brahm, which you can watch here. Some of it will be responded to in Part II of our conversation, and other parts don’t need a response. But there are a few things that I thought I’d highlight in the service of noting that we are again talking past each other.
Something several people within the abolitionist ecosystem didn’t understand (or misrepresented) was why Brahm and I talked, at the beginning of the interview, about T. Russell Hunter. That is an easy question to answer. “Abolitionism,” as they often insist, is a separate movement—not part of the pro-life movement, which they claim is responsible for keeping abortion legal. To try and explain this new group without explaining Hunter is like trying to explain Mormonism without referencing Joseph Smith—it doesn’t work. Everything they’ve done in the past decade is building on his initial work.
There is another reason Hunter, as the de facto founder of this group, had to be discussed—because many newcomers to the group are unaware of why so much animosity exists between Hunter and many pro-life leaders. Hunter, as I pointed out in the conversation, is now trying to recast himself as a maligned prophet who attracted bile for his courageous rebuking of the wicked. In reality, many of the things he said were nasty, vile, and deceitful. There is a whole network of blogs by ex-abolitionists explaining their treatment, which included taping private conversations and making them public as well as other abusive behavior.
I could write a long post linking to various blog posts, videos, and screenshots illustrating this point, but I won’t. I don’t enjoy the muckraking aspect of this; referencing the controversy between Hunter and his initial comrades (many of whom left the group in the ensuing years) and the pro-life movement was necessary to explain why the revisionist version of this controversy, believed by many of their newcomers, is false, and why pro-lifers won’t engage with bad faith actors who have proven their character in this way. Anyone who wants to go down the rabbit hole to review the specifics can do so—much of it is easily Googleable.
Silberman also stated that “Brahm and Van Maren claim my friend and colleague Russell Hunter believes incrementalists aren’t saved,” which I did not say. I specifically said that this was stated on social media about CBR founder Gregg Cunningham after the 2015 debate in which Cunningham handily destroyed Hunter. I did not make that general statement, because I assume that this is not a general view on Hunter’s part. I could be wrong. Again, bringing these things up is unpleasant, but Silberman and Hunter spend hours yammering on about the pro-life movement on their podcast, so providing a bit of recent historical context to the controversy between the pro-life movement and abolitionists is hardly a “vitriolic attack.”
What Silberman decides not to respond to is, as always, indicative. A small example is his verbose response to several comments which I made about Garrison by way of pointing out that attempting to impose orthodoxy on abolitionism is a historical fool’s errand. Silberman noted my mention of Thomas Clarkson’s concerns with Garrison’s Sabbatarianism and other views, but ignored my point that Garrison sought seances to communicate with the dead. On one of those two points, of course, Christians can reasonably disagree. I brought up that historical fact not to malign Garrison, who was an exceptional figure—but to illustrate the point that it is easy to cherry-pick. Garrison was far from orthodox—he was fascinated by spiritualism, and his views were complicated to say the least.
Silberman also says that perhaps Brahm and I had discussed Wilberforce and incrementalism because we’d heard that the abolitionists were “taking Wilberforce back,” an oddly incoherent formulation that does have the benefit of being humorous. I hadn’t heard, incidentally, and Silberman doesn’t address the key point I made about Wilberforce. He notes, accurately, that Wilberforce decried the incrementalists who used delaying tactics to stall the abolition of the slave trade. The key point, however, is that the decision by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade to target the slave trade specifically rather than slavery in general was itself an incrementalist move—and one hotly debated among the abolitionists at the time. Adam Hochschild, among others, details that debate in his seminal work on abolitionist movements, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves.
Some, like Granville Sharp, were for seeking to abolish slavery directly; those who thought it wiser to abolish the slave trade first prevailed. The slave trade was abolished in 1807 after two decades of work; slavery itself was not abolished until 1833. Silberman quotes Wilberforce decrying the incrementalists; he neglects to note that the historical context for this was itself an incrementalist campaign that began with targeting the slave trade before moving on to slavery. This key point is consistently ignored by abolitionists, but I suspect I can predict their response. In debate, they are prone to inventing and reinventing to ensure that reality coheres with their ideology (thus “regulationism” and “overnightism” serve as words they made up to describe concepts they made up.) I’m sure that they’re already working on some way of explaining why choosing to attack the brutal institution that enslaved human beings by first banning the trade rather than the institution itself is not incrementalist. A lot of yoga goes on at The Liberator podcast.
In short: The Liberator podcast hosts attempt to conflate those who utilized incrementalism to intentionally delay the abolition of the slave trade as pursued by Wilberforce and the Society with pro-lifers who utilize incrementalist bills because they believe them to be the most effective strategy in the American political context. Casting themselves as Wilberforce, Silberman et al claim that pro-lifers who have been implementing this strategy long before Hunter and his crew showed up are attempting to delay these fresh new folks from doing what Wilberforce did. Thus, veteran leaders who have been working to abolish abortion since before Hunter and Silberman were born are seeking to deliberately “delay” Hunter and Silberman in their quest to abolish abortion. Legitimately disagreeing with them on the most effective strategy is thus cast as nefarious obstructionism. See what they did there?
My point in the podcast—which Josh Brahm and I discuss further in Part II—is that incrementalism (first the trade, then the institution along with reparations for slave owners) ended slavery in the British Empire, and a Civil War brought on by divisions over slavery was utilized by incrementalist president Abraham Lincoln to end slavery in the American Republic. (Lincoln would be rejected by today’s “abolitionists” out of hand; one of them has admitted as much.) Free the States, the political arm of the abolitionists, insists that abortion can be ended by states simply ignoring the courts and claiming (ludicrously) that because states frequently ignore the US Supreme Court on issues like marijuana, the federal government will do the same thing with abortion. The level of cultural disconnect one has to possess to equate those two issues is staggering—suffice it say that I don’t remember people swarming the Court and pounding on the doors to protest the appointment of a pro-weed justice in the last few years. The same people who rightly call abortion child sacrifice somehow think that the federal government will treat it like recreational drugs. This is not serious stuff.
The political strategy of Free the States, in my view and the view of many others, is simply untenable—and falls apart when you consistently ask the question: And then what? Douglas Wilson of Christchurch in Moscow, Idaho pursued this line of questioning with an abolitionist some time ago (the Q and A begins at the one hour and twelve minute mark, and he points out that the abolitionists are simply refusing to face how their strategy would actually play out). Will the federal government permit states to defy the Court the way that some states do on more minor issues—issues that haven’t roiled the passions of millions of Americans for nearly a half century? I think this is very unlikely, and this estimation drives our view of what is the most effective strategy.
It is far more likely that, as in cases involving civil rights and integration in the 1950s and 1960s, the government would send in the National Guard. They could utilize this power to ensure clinics wouldn’t close; or cut off funding to defiant states; or pursue any number of other easily accessible avenues that would ensure that abolition would fail. Yes, they would be in the wrong. Yes, it is wicked. Yes, we wish this were not the case. I wish it were as simple as the folks at Free the States say that it is. But myself and many others believe that these bills would accomplish the task of wiping all abortion restrictions off the books, and then getting stopped cold. The careful legislative strategy of strangling the abortion industry, shutting down clinics, and other restrictions would be destroyed.
The abolitionists insist, of course, that no thinking person could disagree with their view, and thus we are responsible for keeping abortion legal because we believe their strategy to not only be wrong-headed, but one that will result in more dead babies. (More on this in Part II of the podcast.)
As I noted in the conversation with Brahm, the abolitionist response is that these restrictions do nothing anyhow, and spend much time attempting to debunk the only anti-abortion statisticians that do any work on this issue and seek to explain away the fact that the abortion rate is the lowest it has been since Roe v. Wade. The reality is that unlike every other major cultural issue—LGBT issues, porn, marriage—abortion has remained controversial, and the issue is still in play politically. It is nothing short of staggering that the pro-life movement has held as much ground as they have in the culture with every major institution including Hollywood, the media, one political party, and the universities against them. If the pro-life movement had never existed, the culture we would see today would be so hostile that the abolitionists could only dream of getting a bill passed. They are trying to build their house on a foundation built by the pro-life movement. (Douglas Wilson says as much in his own riposte to the abolitionists in the video I referenced to earlier)1. Their ignorance of the history of this movement allows them to pretend that they are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
One final quibble. Silberman noted that I said, in a Q and A after presenting to the interns at Created Equal, that abolitionists were “jackasses.” It’s only a minor thing, but as there are several such folks that I still very much like, I’ll correct the record and note that I was referring specifically (and someone else there has confirmed my memory of it) to folks like T. Russell Hunter, who slander the pro-life movement. I mention this just to ensure that I don’t give the impression that I believe that all of those affiliated with this group are cut from the same cloth. Thankfully, they are not.
 In one of several relevant comments, Wilson notes: “You don’t have to become the general of the whole thing. The one thing I would say is the pro-life movement—millions of people—there’s sin and foibles and corruption and you can’t keep money from doing what money always does, all of that is true. But you not only have corruption there, you also have dedication, integrity, godliness, over generations, over the long haul. I’m really wary of an upstart movement saying everything before us is bad and we’re the white hats. It just doesn’t work that way. If the abolitionist movement lasts for ten years, it, too, will have its grifters, its lobbyists, and its compromising, because its made up of people, and people are sinners. The pro-life movement has sin all the way through it because its got people all the way through it. But I think the abolitionist cause…would be greatly served by being more respectful of those who have been keeping the issue alive for a generation.”
1: Hunter ranting imprecatory prayers at other Christian leaders–some of whom had simply questioned or disagreed with his ecclesiology and strategy of protesting outside churches at Sunday morning services (he calls James White, among many others, “wicked” etc. at the 16-minute mark), you can see the video here and judge for yourself. What’s significant about it is the standard pattern: Launch projects accompanied by searing condemnations of other groups/churches/institutions; face inevitable pushback and criticism; treat disagreement as an attack on the Church itself. A superiority complex infused with a martyr complex. (White’s response here, from 1:09:21 to 1:19:29 and again at 1:22:42 to 1:24:08, provides context–nearly the last hour is on “abolitionism,” including a systematic debunking of one of Hunter’s presentations.)
2: As I predicted, the game of intellectual twister–claiming that incrementally banning first the slave trade and then slavery is not incremental, but immediately banning entirely separate things–commenced in response to this piece. Again, I commend Adam Hochschild’s recounting of the internal debate of the abolitionists over this very question at the time in Bury the Chains to questioning readers. The abolitionists at the time certainly saw it as step-by-step.