According to some reports, a few tens of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall last Thursday; others reported hundreds of thousands. I’d explain the discrepancy by saying the protesters were as numerous as the sand of the sea: Such an event deserves to be described in biblical terms, anyway. The National March for Life, the country’s largest protest against legal abortion, feels as much like a religious revival as a political protest.
Seventeen Yalies took part in the march last week, funded by Choose Life at Yale (CLAY), an anti-abortion student group. CLAY, unlike many anti-abortion groups, is a non-religious organization. We members of CLAY like to think we accomplish some good at Yale by raising awareness through flyers, table tents and a few events, advocating with our limited means for what is by any account a minority view on campus. We believe we’re in the right on the question of abortion, and we’d like to convince anyone we can, regardless of religious or political allegiance. We try to take the broadest approach we can to the issue of abortion. But ours was a minority approach on Thursday.
Talk of a “real America” (as if there is another, fake America) is stupid even when it isn’t counterproductive, but at the march last week it was clear at the least that I had come across an America very different from the one I was used to. Participants gathered on the Mall to hear speeches before raising their banners and marching to the Supreme Court to protest the decision in Roe v. Wade. But the march felt less like a political protest than like some sort of religious festival — or even a pilgrimage.
The air above the crowd was thick with banners. Some, like ours, announced only the name of a marching group, or a statement of a group’s position on the question of abortion. That’s what one might expect at a political protest. But most of the groups seemed to be advocating for something more. It wouldn’t be right to omit mention of the “Anarchist Agnostic Against Abortion” banner, but to point it out is to prove the rule by the exception. No one at the march could miss the crowds of friars and nuns, or the icons of the Virgin Mary carried high on poles, or the church groups after church groups that passed by in the march. Marchers were as likely to be chanting prayers as political slogans.
I don’t want to object to any of this. Most religious people are wonderful people, and I couldn’t find anything to be offended by in their prayers, especially since they were praying for a cause that I and the rest of the CLAY marchers support. But many of us Yalies couldn’t shake the impression that the pious prayers of the marchers were the funeral rites of the anti-abortion movement as a political force.
It was common at the march to hear complaints of how the “liberal media” would portray the event, with representation of counterprotesters disproportionate to their presence at the march. As far as I could see there were maybe a dozen counterprotesters, and almost every news outlet had a few shots of them. But if anything, such representation tends to overestimate the strength of the pro-life movement, implying that there was actually a live debate.
Very few counterprotesters showed up that day; neither did they need to. Speakers at the march, whether ministers or politicians or full-time activists, did not describe political tactics or recommend courses of action to further the political ends of the march. “Trust in God,” the message of the March for Life seemed to run, “God’s graces will end abortion.” All this is standard Christian talk, and of course it’s a pious trope to attribute all human achievement to the workings of the Almighty.
But from the less theological perspective of a Yale student interested in political change, the choice of words seemed problematic. This was clearly a movement that puts not its trust in princes. Who knows? Maybe God will step in and change our law. But in the absence of a practicable program, it’s hard to tell such faith in God from the most abject despair.
We in CLAY will nonetheless continue our work: It would be a pretty pathetic advocacy group that abandoned its principles when success seemed far away. And looked at in another light, the “other America’s” unshakable confidence can give us a measure of comfort. We can all be inspired by their faith, beyond the power of any practical setback to dissuade, that in the end a just cause can never fail.
Kevin Gallagher is a sophomore in Pierson College and a member of Choose Life at Yale.