Abortion will always be the most divisive issue in the wider American right. It is the overarching issue of our age.
“America is not and, please God, will never become Nazi Germany, but it is only blind hubris that denies it can happen here and, in peculiarly American ways, may be happening here.” With these words about abortion, which appeared in a symposium titled “The End of Democracy?” in November 1996, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus almost destroyed First Things, the magazine he had founded in 1990.
Almost immediately after the issue appeared, Peter Berger and Gertrude Himmelfarb resigned from the board. Other friends who did not abandon him expressed their displeasure, and in the years that followed, Neuhaus’s relations with many of his fellow neoconservatives became uneasy and equivocal. One could argue very plausibly that if it had not been for the unifying events of George W. Bush’s election and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, neoconservatism would have severed itself from Neuhaus’s ecumenical religious project and from the wider American right decades ago.
For many years I have thought that responses to Neuhaus’s words remained instructive. What they remind us is that abortion will always be the most divisive issue in conservative circles—not because there is any serious disagreement (at least in public) about whether it is a bad thing but because of the relative importance assigned to it by various factions.
For most Republican politicians, and I daresay voters, to say nothing of what I take to be the median right-of-center journalist or commentator, abortion is one social ill among many—eminently regrettable, tragic even, almost certainly demanding some degree of restriction. But it is not the be-all end-all; it is something that must be weighed alongside the rights of police officers and payday lenders, the enormity of paying taxes, the horrifying reality of the EPA’s continued existence and so on in assessing the priorities of the so-called conservative movement.
For a small minority, though—exactly how small is something that remains unclear to me—abortion is not simply among the most important issues of our age. It is the overarching political issue, the “burning question,” to borrow a phrase from Pope Pius XI, every bit as much as the rise of Nazism was in the 1930s or chattel slavery in the antebellum United States. It is an issue about which neutrality is unthinkable, and on which it should be impossible to have moderate views.
If you really believe, as Neuhaus certainly did, that each abortion is a state-sanctioned murder and that every single one of the 62 million infants aborted since Roe v. Wade was a victim of genocide, the largest ever carried out by a nation, much less an apparently free and prosperous liberal democracy, you are not going to adopt the view that there are certain mitigating circumstances that make the killings less regrettable. You are not going to settle for apparent exceptions involving rape or incest. And you are certainly not going to argue against the use of bizarre procedural gambits like the one recently attempted by lawmakers in Texas, who have attempted to ban abortion while placing the enforcement mechanism in the civil rather than the criminal law and thus outside the scope of previous pro-abortion jurisprudence.
But that is exactly what has happened in neoconservative circles, which have already fractured over Donald Trump in ways that are almost indescribable. For contributors to websites like the Bulwark, there is just something icky about actually trying to restrict abortion that somehow trumps—no pun intended—the actual moral horror of generation-spanning infanticide. Of course it is nice for people inclined to that sort of thing to go to marches or volunteer at pregnancy centers or what have you—but I mean, really: How could you actually be one of those people who cheers on the governor who declared a statewide ban on mask mandates? How could you not vote for the party that stands for the preservation of our constitutional norms (e.g., colluding with a general in the waning days of the last administration to subvert his commander-in-chief)? Priorities, people!
Some of the people I have in mind never particularly cared about abortion or other socially conservative causes and made no secret of the difficulty they felt in holding their noses when they were forced to associate with anti-abortion barbarians. But many had previously mouthed along with the argument that our moral duty was to elect Republican presidents who would in turn appoint originalist justices who would no doubt overturn Roe v. Wade. Apparently this argument—which had long been open to criticism from principled social conservatives: I have always rejected it myself—did not apply when it was the bad orange man.
In that sense, the fault lines on the American right have not moved much since “The End of Democracy?” symposium. Neuhaus saw his beloved United States sub specie aeternitatis and it filled him with gloom and foreboding. For many of us, those feelings have yet to subside.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.