Four observations from the Cunningham vs. Hunter debate

By Jonathon Van Maren

On Saturday night, I had the pleasure of watching Gregg Cunningham of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform face off with T. Russell Hunter of Abolish Human Abortion on a question that is as old as the pro-life movement: Pro-Life Incrementalism versus Immediate Abolitionism. The exchange was fiery and extraordinarily lopsided. Since Hunter had months to prepare, I was genuinely surprised at the out-and-out mauling that he received. I knew Gregg Cunningham was a talented debater. Although I was well aware of Abolish Human Abortion’s selective historical cherry picking and theologically immature underpinnings, I thought Hunter would put up a better fight. I didn’t plan on writing a debate summary at first, but the sheer vitriol being directed at Gregg Cunningham on social media as well as the misrepresentation of his remarks made me change my mind.

A few observations:

1. As I noted in articles previously here and here, Hunter is an extremely deficient historian who fundamentally misunderstands a number of things. First of all, he quotes the absolutist denunciations of many abolitionists and then pretends that their rhetoric and their oratory were a reflection of their strategy. This, of course, is nonsense. One’s profoundly and sincerely held views are not the same as the strategies one takes to have those views implemented on a social level, especially in a post-Christian society as we have today. In this sense, the pro-life movement reflects the abolitionists (especially the British abolitionists) almost exactly—openly and unequivocally condemning, in countless books, speeches, presentations, and columns, the heinous crime of abortion, while taking every step available to restrict and abolish that practice.

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An honest analysis of history shows us that there are no social reform movements that have ever managed to do away with an injustice in one fell swoop. Hunter’s so-called “strategy,” to play it fast and loose with the word, has no basis in historical fact and is, for the most part, based on his misunderstanding and in many places misrepresentation of the historical record. For example, during the debate he noted that Lincoln (a politician that those in AHA would not have been able to vote for, based on their pronouncements of the last election cycle) credited the Garrisonian abolitionists with contributing to the end of slavery. Certainly. But the rest of Lincoln’s statement is quite indicative—it was the abolitionists, and the army. Any historian with a modicum of honesty would not be claiming that it was the abolitionists who abolished slavery when in reality, years of political maneuvering culminated in a bloody Civil War that cost the lives of more than 600,000 people—this war, incidentally, provided the context for Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln’s clever incremental strategies following that, detailed so well in the fantastic book Team of Rivals, made use of this tragedy to ensure that the scourge of slavery was entirely abolished. Lincoln had a deep theological understanding of what was going on, as well—a cursory reading of his brilliant Second Inaugural Address illustrates that beautifully.

2. Hunter is under the misconception that the ideology of abolitionism as it pertains to the pro-life movement is new—in short, his ideas. As Lincoln once noted, “History serves to remind us that our new ideas are not new, and are not ours.” The debate over immediatism versus incrementalism is as old as the pro-life movement. Additionally, when Hunter claims that the pro-life movement is made up of swarms of unfaithful Christians, I wonder if he realizes that many of them are veterans of the Rescues? I wonder if he is even aware of that time when pro-lifers responded to the statement, “If abortion is murder, act like it,” and put their careers, their possessions, and their livelihoods on the line to place themselves physically between the babies and the killers? More than 70,000 arrests resulted before the FACE Act passed and pro-lifers were forced to “count the cost.” I’ve had the privilege of spending many long evenings with veteran pro-lifers as they told of the jobs they lost, the imprisonment they bore, and the hardships they faced because they were willing to stand for children created in the image of God. For Hunter to say that the pro-life movement has simply produced forty years of unfaithfulness, apostasy, and failure is both indicative of his almost palpable arrogance (watch the debate and hear him explain that if people read books like he did, they’d be on his side) and again, the fact that his claims to being a historian are farcical.

To Hunter, it seems the complexity of our movement’s history is an enemy to be ignored, but full of facts to be cherry-picked and forced into the immature, binary worldview that he has imparted to large numbers of frustrated activists eager to think his intellectually feeble repackaging of age-old strategies is the magic bullet that will release them from the hard, day-to-day slog that is the culture war. It brings to mind a writer who noted, “An immature man wants to die for a noble cause. A mature man realizes he must live humbly for one.”

3.  The reaction of the “abolitionists” to the debate is all anyone needs to illustrate their inability to actually reasonably assess the arguments on the table. Hunter took to Facebook immediately to first half-apologize for his performance, but then quickly become snarky and sarcastic again as his supporters assured him that he was, of course, the visionary they all knew him to be. Hunter was soon posting things like this: “Because it is quite difficult to explain the difference between immediatism and incrementalism while someone is constantly calling you a pharisee, accusing you of hating babies and repeatedly telling you that they regulate abortion better than you do, I have decided to finish this powerpoint presentation and put it up in its entirety for people to evaluate and assess.” Unbelievable, considering Hunter had a twenty-minute uninterrupted opening statement in which to make his case, in which he failed miserably and managed to lay out no coherent or succinct view of immediatism as he sees it. The most mind-boggling post surely goes to the “International Coalition of Abolitionist Societies,” who actually posted a fake apology for Gregg Cunningham being “a jerk” and for his so-called “ad hominem attacks.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a stunning display of immaturity and sour grapes, with the exception of the out-and-out character assassination that the “abolitionists” across social media, in a series of adolescent temper tantrums, have launched against Cunningham, all the while accusing any and all respondents of “slander.” I haven’t seen any “abolitionists” come out to defend Gregg yet, but then again, they only ever reproach (and humiliate) people in public if those people have attempted to leave their clique (and then, they might actually release private-phone recordings among supposed friends onto the Internet.) Hunter and his followers have one of the few examples I’ve ever seen of both a martyr complex and a superiority complex simultaneously—they relentlessly attack and malign pro-lifers on social media, and then complain of persecution when anyone responds, promptly citing it as evidence that they, like the original abolitionists, are clearly also the maligned prophets.

4. Finally, the binary worldview of AHA that Cunningham highlighted again and again was also visible in the way Hunter delineated “secular arguments” from religious ones. I wrote a whole column on the error of this binary approach to the abortion debate some time ago, but here’s the most relevant passage:

There is another point to be made here, one made by pro-life apologist Scott Klusendorf: “I would categorically reject the premise that there is God's truth, then, man's truth. Truth is truth, and if reasonable arguments can be made for the pro-life view, those are God's reasons.” Thus, to try to draw a differentiation between using explicitly Christian arguments versus, say, an appeal to the pre-born child’s humanity and the inhumanity of abortion, is simply a false dichotomy.

Hunter, of course, is already calling for a second debate, probably hoping to somewhat redeem himself. But with the full theological illiteracy, historical inaccuracy, and philosophical bankruptcy of AHA’s cherry-picked ideology on display for everyone to see, I think that activists of good will can get back to the hard, day-to-day work of changing the culture without responding to this minor irritant. The attacks on the pro-life movement, we can assume, will continue on relentlessly. But one day, perhaps, they will take a lesson from the pro-life movement and decide to focus their full energy on fighting abortion.