I spent the first three months of this year phone banking for Ben Schmitz, an American Solidarity Party candidate for Wisconsin State Senate. It did not go well.
“I’m reaching out on behalf of Ben Schmitz, a candidate running for State Senate in Colorado,” I began one encounter. Before I could get any further, the man on the other end of the line interrupted me.
“Student loan forgiveness.” He barked. There was not a complete sentence attached to the hanging phrase. He just said, “Student loan forgiveness.”
“Ben Schmitz has not declared an official position on student loan forgiveness, but his platform is deeply involved in—”
He interrupted again: “When he comes out in support of student loan forgiveness, then we’ll talk.”
In another encounter, I was yelled at by what sounded like an elderly man. “You can dress it up however you want, but I know Marxianity when I see it!” I’m not sure what he was going on about, but give him credit for inventing a catchy new term – “Marxianity.”
One episode stuck with me above all the rest. After making my way through the entire campaign script (one of the relatively few times I was able to do so), I asked, “Would you like to hear more about Ben Schmitz’s platform?” The woman on the other end of the line agreed.
One by one, we began walking through the candidate’s positions on healthcare, the environment, the necessity of implementing an Alaska-style “Citizens’ Dividend” funded by the revenues from the state’s commonly owned natural resources, etc.
“I’m not crazy about his pro-gun positions,” she said, “but I have to admit I’m impressed.”
Then it happened: We got to abortion.
“I believe in the dignity of every person and support protections for all from conception to natural death,” his campaign platform read. “I support compassionate policies that address the root causes of life denying decisions.”
I’m pretty sure I heard a record scratch.
“I have to stop you there,” she said. “I can’t vote for an anti-choice candidate.”
If you’re involved at any level in pro-life activism or politics, you get used to hearing things like this. The rest of your policy goals are largely irrelevant once people find out that you’re anti-abortion.
I tried to steer the conversation away from the usual gridlock and find some common ground. “I can understand why you’d be wary of any candidate looking to restrict abortion, but can I walk you through a little bit of how we ended up anti-abortion?”
“Fine,” she said.
“As a party, we like to say that we’re ‘pro-life for the whole life.’ That means that we’re against any and all government policies that dehumanize or devalue people. So we push hard against systemic racism – in the form of racist police violence and beyond. We march against the death penalty. We fight for universal healthcare. We campaign to strengthen local safety nets so that people don’t fall through the cracks and suffer from malnourishment. We wage war on the military industrial complex that ties America up in endless overseas missions to topple other countries’ governments and often ends with dead civilians killed by drone strikes. The list goes on. The way we see it is that all of these things are ultimately rooted in one thing: dehumanization. We dehumanize black and brown people, so we tolerate unjustified state violence against them. We dehumanize criminals, so we allow the state to execute them even when countless studies have shown that the death penalty has virtually no deterrent effect on future criminals. We dehumanize the poor, so we refuse to put our resources together to subsidize other people’s medical bills, or we continually raise the barrier of entry to prevent people in need from accessing necessary safety nets. We dehumanize foreigners, so we look the other way when our own government destroys the lives of Middle Eastern civilians in conflicts that have nothing to do with defending America’s sovereignty. Dehumanization is the thread that runs through all of these things. But if you keep pulling at that thread, eventually you arrive at abortion.”
“Our convictions rarely shift as the result of one extremely convincing discussion, but rather as the result of countless low-key, friendly, winsome conversations with someone we admire or enjoy.”
I paused for a moment to try and think of the gentlest way to phrase my next point.
“Most abortion doctors are good people, they’re trying to help struggling women. Most women who get abortions are good people, they’re scared or overwhelmed and don’t believe that they can take care of the baby growing inside them. Most pro-choice folks are good people, they believe that terminating a pregnancy is more or less the same thing as practicing birth control, or using contraceptives. They think of it as a way to avoid bringing a new life into the world when you aren’t ready or able to do so. But all of these well-intentioned reasons for why people tend to be pro-choice neglect that a new life has already been brought into the world. When a person becomes pregnant, that new life has already begun. A new person has already arrived. That means that terminating a pregnancy doesn’t stop them from coming into the world, it ends a life that has already begun. It kills them. That’s why we’re pro-life. We believe – and the science seems to back us up on this – that a fetus is already a life, it’s already a person, it’s already a human, and so we want to advocate for the unborn in very much the same way we advocate for victims of racist police violence, victims of the death penalty, people without health coverage, people with low or no income, victims of American military imperialism, and beyond. We’re not a party that is progressive on these other economic issues but then conservative on abortion. We’re a party that is pro-life for the whole life, so we try to tackle abortion with the same consistency with which we tackle everything else. I know that was a lot, but does that make sense?”
I could hear her sighing on the other end of the line.
“It makes sense,” she said. “I need to think about it.”
“That’s fine.” I replied. “You have my number, we can talk through anything else that’s on your mind.”
After we hung up, I looked at the clock. My lunch break was ending, so I went back to work.
The next day, she texted me: “I’ve considered what you said. I get it. But you can’t take away my choice.”
“Keep considering,” I texted back. “Maybe one day you’ll change your mind.”
This is how these conversations usually go. To paraphrase the famed social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, we politick with our hearts, not our heads. Most of the time, we don’t reason our way to a set of policy goals or political commitments; we feel our way to them. We get captivated by some image of the world we want, or – in a much darker scenario – we reactively grasp for policies that assuage our fears. Good-natured conservatives often reach for models of “limited government” that have been tried-and-found-wanting out of a deeply-rooted fear of tyrannical government. Good-natured progressives often cling to philosophically incoherent notions of “abortion rights” out of the primal fear of an unwanted pregnancy and the inevitable loss of autonomy that comes with it. It is difficult to argue a person out of these gut-level political impulses, because they’re exactly that: impulses. And impulses die hard.
Nevertheless, to paraphrase Haidt again, our largely unconscious political bents can change – and, in fact, they often do. Based on decades of research, Haidt notes that the kind of seismic shifts in our deepest convictions – such as our political or religious biases – tend to occur slowly and quietly. Our convictions rarely shift as the result of one extremely convincing discussion, but rather as the result of countless low-key, friendly, winsome conversations with someone we admire or enjoy. You convince people of your viewpoint, more often than anything, by openly espousing said viewpoint while also positively figuring in their lives. If someone associates you with goodness, safety, sincerity and admirability, those positive associations will gradually begin to trickle down to the viewpoints that you present to them. That’s less euphoric than OWNING THE LIBS, but it has the noteworthy benefit of actually working.
So have conversations – this magazine exists largely to help you do exactly that. Talk to your friends. Don’t worry about getting results. Just lend yourself to the causes you deem worthy, and do it like a normal human being rather than a walking campaign ad. We can begin to change minds by rehumanizing our political discourse.
Ryan Ellington is a pastor in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Grindhouse Theology and The American Commons. He has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a M.A. in Ethics, Theology and Culture from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is distantly related to Johnny Cash, but not in a cool way.