Someone you never heard of died on Christmas day. John Rankin was a pro-life leader deeply loved by the people who knew him, but one whose idea of witness put him off to the side of the pro-life movement.
He began as a pastor and then in the early eighties formed a Protestant pro-life ministry in Gloucester, a city on the coast north of Boston. Not the easiest place to do that. Later he created the Theological Education Institute, which mostly presented his classes and published his books. In a weird small-world way, I think I knew him in the mid-eighties when we lived a few miles from each other and I was marginally involved in the pro-life movement.
Rankin was an eccentric among conservative American pro-lifers. He believed very much in persuasion but not in politics. He loved debating and apparently would debate anyone. He went out of his way to understand people on the other side. He did a masters degree at Harvard Divinity School, because he wanted to engage the best and brightest on the other side. He wrote his thesis on the feminist theologians Elizabeth Shüssler-Fiorenza and Phyllis Trible.
Our mutual friend Peter Wolfgang quotes Rankin’s favorite line, “First the Gospel, then politics” in his obituary. Peter, a Catholic, runs the Family Institute of Connecticut. He spends a lot of his time lobbying his state government, usually fighting bills promoting abortion, euthanasia, and reductions in religious liberty. He and the Institute have prevented the state government from doing some bad things. Things that only politics could prevent.
Rankin’s rejection of politics clearly vexed Peter. In the article, he says that Rankin would often point to debates he held decades ago as models for today. He impressed the other side, he said, even NOW leader Patricia Ireland. If only pro-lifers would do what he did, they’d succeed. Without politics.
No, says Peter. “We knew that argument alone would not win the day. No matter how respectful we were, no matter how well we argued, the pro-choice side was not going to change. … We knew the battlefield was not just some big lecture hall. But to John, it was.”
He “didn’t seem to see that the Gospel required politics, that the hard, gritty calculations of politics were necessary to living out the Gospel. That and the former motto made him seem an academic who mistook himself for an activist.”
Rankin did pursue a kind of politics, though. Last year he ran for Congress for a party he invented. The Emancipation Party was not so much pro-life as hardcore libertarian. It wanted to cut the laws by 99% and taxes by 50%. But as he described it on Eric Metaxas’s show, he wanted to witness and argue, not get anything done through the usual political mechanisms. As it happened, he couldn’t get the 1,900 signatures he needed to get on the ballot.
Typical of his attitude to politics, he was running in a district with a strongly pro-life Republican candidate who had a chance to beat the incumbent Democrat. His campaign would only take votes away from the Republican. Apparently he didn’t care, because that was worldly politics. Only the witness mattered. I can see why Peter threw up his hands.
But in Rankin’s favor, he stood for an idea that the mainstream pro-life movement has tended to forget. Politics has severe limits, especially with a matter so intimate and complicated as child-bearing. And it has even severer dangers. You had to stay consciously committed to the Gospel — for secular pro-lifers, some fixed idea of the good — or you would fall into politics in the worst sense.
You take it up as a tool, but eventually you become its tool, and the tool of political forces who care little or nothing for your issues but need your votes and money. And because few of us can support a cause without joining it, you embrace political parties and candidates you should keep at arm’s length.
It’s a little complicated in America because, as I wrote here in August, the great majority of Americans who call themselves single-issue voters would vote Republican anyway. As much as they talk about abortion, abortion doesn’t drive their politics. It’s almost irrelevant.
In either case, the mainstream pro-life leadership, major and minor, fell completely into the tank for Trump. Read their Facebook pages, for example, and you see them cheering him on many other issues. Immigration and the Wall. Racial unrest. The Swamp. Police violence. Taxes. Social spending. The horrible Democrats. Socialism. The Deep State. Anti-masking. Other covid-restrictions. The death penalty. And now his sad, cynical attempt to win an election he lost. You will rarely see a pro-life leader dissenting on a single point. You will rarely see them not actively cheering him on.
As far as I can tell, politically Rankin was as right-wing as they, and with the unfortunate addition of hard libertarianism. But he didn’t see public witness the way they did. I agree with Peter that he didn’t understand the need for real politics, and that was a serious mistake. He meant the “Gospel first” part of his slogan, but not really the “then politics.”
But as conservative as he was, he didn’t fall into Trumpianism the way so many of his peers did. That’s to his credit. It’s too bad his peers didn’t pay attention to his witness. He was a voice crying in the wilderness, though I get the impression he didn’t mind that. He probably saw it as a sign of success. Which it is, and isn’t.
One more thing about John Rankin. As odd as I think many of his ideas were, he did see with unusual clarity how the pro-life witness looked to other people. The limits of the slogan “Choose Life,” for example, which I don’t think I’ve ever a pro-lifer question.
“How can you force someone to choose life?” Rankin asked in a post on his weblog, recounting a conversation years ago with the head of Operation Rescue. He didn’t like it. It said something to vulnerable women we should not say.
“In front of an abortion center, where women are being forced into abortions by chauvinistic and irresponsible men, this language misses the mark since it is in the imperative tense,” he wrote. Those women easily see it “as an ‘in your face’ attempt to ‘force’ them to ‘choose’ not to have an abortion.”
The pro-choice language made “the power to choose” central, he argued, but also “unidirectional.” It means only the power to choose abortion. “We redeemed the language of choice to serve human life.”
His group began using the slogan “You Have the Power to Choose Life.” He explained: “This is gift language, it is empowering language, and it includes the life of the mother and unborn child equally. And unless the woman is empowered to choose life for her unborn child, it will not happen.”
That’s something to remember. Rest in peace, John Rankin.
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