Abortion and the Church: What Happens Now in a Post-Roe v. Wade Culture?

26 Minutes

Abstract: This article seeks to apply the major tenets of James Hunter’s critique of American Christianity’s cultural engagement to the contemporary abortion debate in the United States and, by extension, Canada. In doing so, Hunter exposes potential blind spots of individual Christians and their churches, offering a way forward with the application of faithful presence.

Keywords: abortion, culture, engagement, politics, church, pro-life


     On June 24, 2022, Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling of the United States Supreme Court that affirmed the constitutional right to abortion, was overturned. Pro-life groups celebrated this victory as decades of lobbying, strategic voting, policy-making, and publicly advocating finally produced results. Now in the United States, abortion policy and access are left up to the governance of each individual state, which has ushered in a “new age” of the pro-life movement.1 While much can be said about Roe v. Wade and the pro-life cause, this is not an essay about abortion and its ethics. Instead, this essay will examine James Hunter’s critique of American Christian cultural engagement and his advocacy for faithful presence as a better means of cultural engagement.

A (Brief) Introduction to Hunter’s Argument

     Although James Hunter’s To Change the World (2010) is now 12 years old, it is still relevant today. Space does not allow for a thorough summary of the 350-page volume, but I will do my best to touch on the most important ideas that apply to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Hunter starts by stating, “the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed…based on both specious social science and problematic theology. The model on which various strategies are based not only does not work, but it cannot work.”2 Essentially, Hunter’s central argument rests on the idea that the way in which many Christians and their institutions go about engaging the outside world and its culture is deeply flawed and founded upon a bad reading of Scripture. Hunter argues that Evangelicals see evangelism of individuals as the primary means of changing the world.3 The logic here is that if people’s hearts and minds are converted, they will have the right values and beliefs to make the right choices.4 Notice the assumed pattern: spiritual renewal happens, and then the right values and choices automatically follow. If bad laws come into place, it is because unethical and bad choices were made by unbelieving individuals in public office.5 To change the culture and the world, individual Christians must vote into office those who have biblical values and beliefs that can influence political decisions to align with Christian values. As Hunter points out, this has made politics the primary way Christians engage the outside world, to a point where the Church’s public witness is mostly a political one.6

Applying Hunter Today

     If Hunter was right ten years ago, then he is most definitely right today. The term “Evangelical” is better known for its political beliefs and policy than its Christian doctrine and ministry expression. This has come to a point in which many are dropping the label “Evangelical” due to the political connotations.7 But how does Hunter’s critique play out in the abortion debate and the fight for the pro-life cause? To begin, the 2022 Supreme Court decision was celebrated as a victory. The years of strategic voting and getting the right Senate and President led to a conservative Supreme Court that had the right moral values to make the right moral choice. Thus, political engagement has effectively changed the culture in the United States. At least, that is what is hoped for.  

     But what did overturning Roe v. Wade accomplish? By and large, it left the decision about abortion up to the individual states. Some states will see no change in abortion access, and others will limit access severely. In other words, access to abortion has become more complicated, but the values and ethical practices of individuals and institutions outside of Christianity have not changed. This was seen when major US companies announced that they would be offering emergency employee benefit packages to cover their employees’ cost of out-of-state abortions.8 In a matter of days, thousands of articles were written mourning the Supreme Court decision and discussing the next steps to bring back safe access to abortion for all. Protesters gathered in most major US cities decrying the recent decision and demanding change.9 Rather than reflecting shifting cultural values toward Scripture, the Supreme Court decision reveals the exact opposite. Nothing has changed regarding how Americans value the unborn; that is, the unborn still are not seen as made in the image of God and worthy of dignity and respect. And this is where Hunter sees the tragedy in political engagement by Christians. He argues that politics is not about moral values but power.10 Politics does not change moral values but represents the values of those in power. Thus, the Supreme Court decision does not represent a change in morals and values but demonstrates who currently has power. Additionally, it exposes the limits of idealism. Even though individual elected leaders may have the right ideas, it does not lead to the cultural change Christians hope for.

     In essence, applying Hunter to the recent development of Roe v. Wade and the abortion debate has exposed the failure of Christian political engagement. Not only does political engagement fail to transform the moral fabric of a culture, but it also abdicates responsibility of the issues around abortion to the realm of politics and the state. Hunter writes, “[It’s] much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for a referendum that would expand health care benefits for seniors than to care for an elderly and infirmed parent…Political participation, then, can and often does amount to avoidance of responsibility.”11 In the same way, it is much easier to vote for a candidate that bans abortion or writes heartbeat laws into policy than to care for a single mother or adopt a baby with health complications. The point stings; political engagement can be and often is a sorry substitute for the Christian call to care for the poor and oppressed among us. Political engagement is not only an abdication of responsibility, but also a failure to achieve what it is meant to do: change the world. 

Political Witness Misses the Goal of the Church

     While Hunter goes to some length to demonstrate how, practically-speaking, political engagement cannot change the world or even the culture, he then explains that this is not even the central purpose of the Church: 

“To be sure, Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace in the world. Don’t get me wrong: these are goods we should care about and pursue with great passion. But for Christians, these are all secondary to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all they do.”12 

     Applying this to the witness of the Church and the topic of abortion, what the secular culture sees is a religion obsessed with politics, specifically voting pro-life and ushering in policy that restricts access to abortion. Critical to understanding Hunter is that advocating for certain policy and voting for particular political candidates is not wrong in and of itself. The issue arises when they become the only witness Christians and the Church have. Making Christ great gets put aside.

Faithful Presence

     This is what leads to faithful presence. Hunter proposes that instead of political engagement being the default witness to the world, Christians and the Church should be faithfully present. Faithful presence has three facets. First, faithful presence requires us to pursue, identify with, and labour toward the flourishing of others through sacrificial love.13 Second, Christians are to be fully committed to our tasks, which include everything from working at our jobs, to raising our kids, to helping build the community around us.14 In other words, we do the work that is set before us well and with effort. And third, Christians are to be fully present in our spheres of social influence, whether that be at work, school, sports teams, neighbourhoods, families, or social settings, with a “dialectic between affirmation and antithesis” of cultural values, artifacts, and social practices.15 Hunter argues that adopting faithful presence and its three tenets more properly aligns with the call to worship and glorify God. What Hunter is trying to capture is the ethos of exiles in Jeremiah 29, which is also modelled in the life and ministry of Christ.16 In doing so, the Christian joins God in the work that He is doing to redeem the world by drawing people to salvific faith. 

     The shortfall with faithful presence is its vagueness. How does faithful presence play out in our lives and in the context of abortion and the pro-life movement? In a post-Roe v. Wade world, how does the Christian engage with culture and be faithfully present with the unborn?

     First, it does not mean that the Christian gives up their political activity in fighting for the unborn; it just means that politics is not the only means of being faithfully present and glorifying God. Faithful presence does require individuals and institutions to look at their own sphere of influence and see how they can sacrificially love and care for the unborn as well as the women who seek abortions. As one Christian author put it, “our response to an issue like abortion is something communal, social, and political, but utterly ecclesial.”17 Recently, I spoke with an individual who found she had extra time now that all her kids were in school and so decided to volunteer at a local Christian pregnancy centre. She soon found herself mentoring a new mom twice a week leading up to her due date and after the baby was born. This progressed to helping the new mom cook and clean, driving her to appointments, and helping care for the new baby. This same pregnancy centre also offers free counselling to women post-abortion if needed. A few years ago, a family at the church I work at sought prayer as they had committed to adopting the unborn baby of a family member who was considering an abortion. They have kids and careers and did not plan to have more children at the time. But to be faithfully present in their circumstance and sphere of influence, they decided that caring for both the mother and child in this way was the right thing to do and would honour and glorify God. Likewise, years ago, a local church realized they had an opportunity to serve single mothers, especially those who decided to keep their babies despite the economic and social hardship of raising a child. Over the years, this church has built a community, organized meal trains, provided financial assistance, held clothing swaps, and even given away cars to support single mothers and their families. 

     While these examples may be helpful in leading us to think about what it could look like to be faithfully present, it illustrates that being faithfully present is highly contextualized and requires wisdom, discernment, and ultimately a commitment to sacrificial love. In the above examples, individuals, families, and institutions have committed to using their time, energy, and resources to love and care for the unborn and their mothers.

     1 Peter 3:8-17 offers a biblical basis for faithful presence and Hunter’s “dialectic of antithesis and affirmation.”18 Peter commands that we honour Christ as holy and as Lord, and that we are prepared to give a reason for the hope that we have, abstaining from what is evil. In our glorifying of Christ, slander, hate, and reviling will come, but our response is to bless those that hate and revile us and respond with gentleness and respect, even if it leads to our suffering. (1 Pet. 3: 9-15.)19 Remarkably, it means that Christians will be reviled for their views on abortion, yet the revilers will be attracted to Jesus as the Christian offers blessing, peace, and a commitment to their flourishing. Meaning, Christians and the Church see the unborn as image-bearers of God Almighty, worthy of dignity and respect. This is the antithesis of the pro-choice cause and the cultural values and ethics on abortion. The Christian offers blessing not just to the woman who decides to have the abortion but to the doctor and team that performed the abortion.20 


     In the end, Hunter argues that the Church has misdirected some of its effort in engaging with culture by largely focusing on political engagement, which has come at the cost of making Jesus great. And when it comes to abortion, it is easy to see that Hunter is right. While the overturning of Roe v. Wade is remarkable for the pro-life movement, the call to be faithfully present embodies much more than simple political witness. Rather, faithful presence requires the Christian to wisely and prayerfully discern their own context and sphere of influence in order to uphold their convictions, as well as to care for the unborn child and the expectant mother both before and after the birth of the child or its abortion. This tension—indeed, this apparent paradox—is only possible with the Gospel as Peter writes, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” (1 Pet. 3:18a.) In light of what Christ has done, Christians respond in the same way. Being faithfully present will cost the Christian. For one, Christians will suffer scorn and reviling for what is perceived as unprogressive, misogynistic, and hateful views founded upon God’s very Word and character. Yet, this suffering points to Jesus, as His suffering brought blessing to the entire world. In a small way, Christians can expect God to do the same thing in their own spheres of influence—and this is ultimately what faithful presence calls the Christian to. Hunter writes that “faithful presence calls believers to yield their will to God and to nature and cultivate the world where God has placed them.”21 As the Christian submits their will to God, looks outward, and pursues peace in their little slice of earth and network of people, they fulfill their identity as Peter lays it out in his first letter:

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”(1 Pet. 2:9-10) 


1 David French, “The Pro-Life Movement’s Work Is Just Beginning,” The Atlantic, last modified June 24, 2022, accessed August 3, 2022,https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/06/pro-life-dobbs-roe-culture-of-life/661394/.

2 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5.

3 Ibid., 9.

4 Ibid., 26-27. Hunter argues that the dominant working framework Christians have when engaging the world is idealism. In idealism, if you can change the conscience of individuals in a social group, you can change the rules, values, and social practices of the social group. This is far too simple and is a feeble attempt at imputing logic and rationality to individuals and social groups where such simple linear thinking and reason do not exist.

5 Interestingly, this is also why someone whose character seems contrary to Christian values and ethics, like Donald Trump, can be elected as the representative of Conservative values in the United States. Trump had the right values for the issues of abortion, taxes, defense, and foreign affairs, making it possible for him to be a candidate that the Christian Right can vote for. Hunter demonstrates the plausibility structure for what seemed like an impossibility and what truly baffled many political commentators in the 2016 American Presidential election.

6 Hunter, To Change the Word, 12-15. An important caveat here is that Hunter does acknowledge that this is not the only way Christians engage in the outside world and its culture, but is the tactic of choice for many. What Hunter argues is that the political witness is what is perceived by outsiders of the Church. This leads to outsiders seeing the local church primarily as a political institution rather than a community and place of worship.

7 Josiah Hesse, “‘Exvangelicals’: Why More Religious People Are Rejecting the Evangelical Label,” The Guardian, November 3, 2017. https:// www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/03/evangelical-christians-religion-politics-trump.

8 Edward Helmore, “Many US Companies Move to Pay Travel Costs for Employees Seeking Abortions,” The Guardian, June 26, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jun/26/us-companies-pay-travel-costs-for-employees-seeking-abortions.

9 Shawn Hubler, “Thousands Protest End of Constitutional Right to Abortion,” The New York Times, June 24, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2022/06/24/us/roe-wade-abortion-supreme-court.

10 Hunter, To Change the World, 172. Hunter goes on to argue that moral values and absolutes are derived outside of the political system. That is to say, moral values are derived from internalized criteria embedded in our institutions and individual moral leanings. In other words, the political realm does not decide that murder is wrong, rather people in politcal power enforce already existing moral values.

11 Ibid., 173.

12 Ibid., 285.

13 Ibid., 244.

14 Ibid., 246.

15 Ibid., 247.

16 Ibid., 276–277.

17 Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014), 81.

18 Hunter, To Change the World, 247.

19 Unless otherwise stated, all biblical quotes are taken from the ESV translation.

20 Douglas Wilson, Empires of Dirt: Secularism, Radical Islam, and the Mere Christendom Alternative (Moscow: Canon Press, 2016), 90. The radicalness of the Gospel is that Jesus not only attracted and welcomed the oppressed, the disadvantaged, and those that could not speak for themselves like lepers, prostitutes, and children; Jesus also welcomed the oppressors and the rich. Jesus had dinner with the tax collector, and even a Roman Centurion was drawn to Him. Applying this to the abortion debate, the Gospel means we cannot vilify the elected official who votes for pro-choice legislation, or the pro-choice protestor. Both need the Gospel and grace of Jesus.

21 Hunter, To Change the World, 253.

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