by John Reasnor and Joel McDurmon
As Christian Reconstructionists and abolitionists, Douglas Wilson’s recent article on incrementalism and the so-called “abolish human abortion now” mentality is disconcerting. This is not his first article on “incrementalism,” but it has been some time since he has been this clear in his support for it. In fact, in previous articles, he expressed a need for “hardliners,” though he still advocated for incrementalism. Now, however, he appears for some reason eager to distance himself from hardline abolitionists. It is lamentable, therefore that he does not address the real positions of modern abolitionists, and writes very little that could be charitably called an argument. In light of this, it seems that Doug Wilson’s most pressing goal is to let us know he is opposed to these “abolitionists.” We’re glad he’s at least taking notice, but not so glad that he is failing to engage the actual ideas or ideals held by abolitionists. We are left with little argument and a lot of fallacies, and both of these realities are worth exposing.
A few introductory comments: In his defense of incrementalism, he (naively in our opinion) seems to place the main hope of any future abolition of abortion in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. We’ll return to this, but it really isn’t even incrementalism, unless by “incrementalism” you mean throwing yourself against a brick wall over and over again. Honestly, no one is technically opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade based on ethical grounds.
Second, Wilson suggests an association between modern abolitionism and John Brown and violence. This is about the lowest level of fallacy in which one can engage—less characteristic of man who coauthored a book on logic and more so of the same exact same type of arguments used against Abolish Human Abortion by, say, Jordan Hall. Not only is it a disgrace to treat brethren so, it can come back to haunt a person. After all, it was just a few days ago that Douglas Wilson affirmed the death penalty as a potential civil punishment for some homosexuals. Would a critic therefore be justified in holding New Saint Andrews students in suspicion as potential perpetrators of the next Matthew Shepard event? By Doug’s logic here, they would.
Also, Wilson refers to the non-incremental hardline position as the “abolish human abortion now” sentiment. This is a conflation (purposeful?) of the names of “Abolish Human Abortion” abolitionists who have joined together to fight our modern holocaust, and the “End Abortion Now” group. Whatever the rhetorical point here, the two groups do share an ideal that abolitionists rightly call immediatism. They are certainly two separate groups, however.
First, we must understand the terms. Because “incrementalism” and “immediatism” are not Biblical terms defined by Scripture, it is important to understand what we mean when we use them. Within the context of abortion abolitionism (the good folks of whom Wilson is speaking), these terms have a well understood historical meaning established first by the British Abolitionists and later the American Abolitionists of slavery. These are historical words, and although words can change meaning over time, if any meaningful discussion is to be had about or with us rascally abolitionists, critics should understand what we mean by these terms.
Incrementalism is not merely change through increments, and immediatism is not merely immediate change. Slapping an “ism” at the end of a term often has dramatic effects on the meaning of the word. Increments are good and fine. Incrementalism, however, is another story.
Immediatism is a primarily spiritual strategy that calls for personal, ecclesiological, and civil repentance as well as the establishment of justice according to God’s Holy and perfect Word. There is and can be no compromise in this standard, in the call to repentance and change based upon this standard, or in the goal at which this standard aims.
Incrementalism is a primarily pragmatic-political strategy that attempts the establishment of true justice by means of legislative compromise and piecemeal regulation that could theoretically, eventually result in the overturning of Roe v. Wade (for example) or other laws deemed unjust.
To illustrate this on the level of personal jurisdiction, exhorting a brother to repent immediately of lust by the power of Holy Spirit is an example of immediatism.
Even though it is possible for that sin to be killed immediately, it is likely and understood that it may take time for that sin to be put to death. However, even while understanding that change may take time, calling on this brother to fully repent is immediatism.
Suggesting to a brother, however, merely to cut down on his porn habit to only a few times a week in order to make breaking the habit easier would be an example of incrementalism. The justification for such a position could be that immediate repentance is unlikely and full repentance is difficult. The problem is, however, that you’re left in the position of actually justifying some sin and putting off repentance. And for how long? Perhaps indefinitely.
Thinking that a brand new Christian becomes perfect as soon as he is regenerate is simply unrealistic. We could call this particular naivete “overnightism.” But this view is a strawman of immediatism.
Immediatism is not overnightism. Immediatism understands the reality that abortion will most likely not be abolished overnight. This, however, does not justify preaching or demanding any goal less than total and absolute repentance and change. Our call is for righteousness and strategies that do not conflict legally, rhetorically, and theologically with this end goal. We understand that while we keep demanding and working to accomplish this goal, society may advance only in increments in the meantime. We do not denounce such advance, but we also continue to demand the full reality, and only the full reality.
Just as we would not settle for a Christian watching porn only part of the time, so we would not settle for a nation only partially outlawing abortion. Just as we would not begin by calling the porn-addict only to partial change, so we do not support calls only for partial solutions to child sacrifice and murder. And just as we begin only with the call to full repentance, so we must proceed, maintain, and end only with the same standard. Even if our call, agitation, and work result only in partial change along the way, we still only advocate full repentance, and never sanction partial as a goal.
Immediatism, then, is nothing more than the Christian doctrine of repentance applied to all spheres of life.
When Doug Wilson writes in favor of incrementalism, he speaks of a different standard. Wilson makes a distinction between principled incrementalism and unprincipled incrementalism—a distinction not made by the individuals he is criticizing. But tactics that do not rhetorically and theologically compromise on the Law/Word of God are not incrementalism, they are actually considered immediatist tactics by these “abolish human abortion now” abolitionists. If any “incrementalist” law, bill, or decision were truly principled according to God’s Word, then it would actually be consistent with the Christian doctrine of repentance held by immediatism. This is because true and godly increments can occur, but only if they honor the boundaries of God’s Word.
Please note that this is true even if the strategy is not an “overnightism” strategy—which we do not expect or teach anyway. Overnightism is the favored strawman the compromising incrementalists continue to burn down again and again. Immediatism, however, has yet to be singed.
Compromise and capitulation
Practical examples of the compromised incrementalism are not difficult to find. Seeking justice only for those older than twenty weeks, for example, is not seeking justice at all. Attempting to protect a fraction of the innocent unborn is no more the establishment of justice than acknowledging the value of only half-whites would have been under antebellum slavery. It is not justice at all. It is not even a step in the right direction. It would have been a continuation and reiteration of gross injustice against blacks. It would in fact have been worse than before because it soothes the conscience with the false impression of justice, while actually justifying the previous standard of black slavery with the same facade of goodness. Same with abortion today.
Any initiative that makes exceptions is discriminating. It discriminates against children under twenty weeks, preimplantation, conceived in rape, and so on. Such a standard must necessarily rely upon the philosophical and legal presupposition that the unborn themselves are not human beings created in the Image of God and thus not worthy of equal protection under the law. Although the motives of pro-lifers are often admirable, good intentions are the devil’s playground. Someone once said something about a certain highway to a certain place being paved with good intentions. Any bill that functionally could end with “and then you can kill the baby” reinforces the dehumanizing and godless nature of abortion, and it is on that very highway.
There is one reason why abortion is still legal in the all fifty American states. That reason is because pro-life conservatives and politicians do not treat abortion like murder. Even in laws written by pro-lifers and laws that were meant for good, the laws treat abortion like a right. Yes, they treat it legally as a right that needs to be regulated, but that still means they assume it as a right nonetheless. Abortion, according to incrementalism, is treated like healthcare. This is the linchpin of the pro-abort position, and pro-life incrementalists have unwittingly adopted it as their own. When folks like Doug Wilson defend their incrementalism, they are implicitly defending abortion as a human right like any other market freedom.
Legally and philosophically, this admission is all pro-aborts need. They need, both legally and philosophically, only this sole admission—whether explicitly or implicitly—that abortion is healthcare, or any form of lawful human right, in any way, and not murder. If they have that one tiny foothold, abortion continues indefinitely. Christians routinely hand the pro-death lobby the one thing they need on a silver platter. When Christians refuse, for example, to call abortion-guilty mothers what they are, murderers, we reject justice and deny these mothers the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If these women are victims, they have nothing to repent of. This is a dangerous position masquerading as compassion. Love calls murder what it is. When legislators and Christian leaders support legislation that only regulates the murder of abortion, they are cooperating with the paradigm that claims that murder is not murder. Does Christ have fellowship with Baal? Apparently so, if we accept the traditional incrementalist’s standard. Operating within this legal and philosophical paradigm, there can never be a step in the right direction. It is not a path to a slow victory, but rather it is a confession of defeat. You may be walking, but you’re walking on a treadmill. You can never hope to reach the goal of abolition if you only aim for regulation. When murder is regulated, murder can never be called murder, and thus in can never legally be murder. Such compromise means in practice full capitulation to the pro-abort standard.
For incrementalism to be accepted as ethically justifiable, its proponents, like Wilson, must assume moral neutrality for our civil magistrates and their actions. Such neutrality is, of course, a humanistic and antinomian myth. There is no neutrality. God’s law is the standard for all men in all times and all places. Murder is murder no matter who does it or sanctions it.
When it comes to government, ends are not ethically neutral either—but neither are the means we employ to reach those ends. But incrementalists deny this in different ways. Wilson, for example, advocates it in part on perceived pragmatic grounds:
Also, in the abstract, incrementalism is not necessarily ineffective in cultural battles. It has been the central tactic used against us by the Gramscians, and with devastating effect. They have managed their “long march through the institutions.” So incrementalism does not necessarily mean “lose slowly.”
An immediatist would acknowledge the historical reality here, but would never settle for adopting anything like “the abstract,” because that leaves one subject to moral neutrality. There are no such abstractions in the reality of God’s creation. Only created realities over which God is sovereign. Therefore, one can only understand the “abstract” to which Doug here appeals by putting it back in its proper and real ethical context. To, “incrementalism is not necessarily ineffective in cultural battles,” we need to add, “for these godless pagans.” For more on this perspective, see the abolitionist talk given in Austin in 2016. After all, “Gramsci made me do it,” is not a much better argument than blaming any other slithering beast.
When a pastor such as Wilson is quick to suggest, therefore, that we mirror the tactics of quasi-Marxist Gramscians, the terrorist Saul Alinsky, and the pro-death liberal lobby, one must ask if he actually believes the ends justify the means. That only the results are judged, not the actions. The Christian incrementalist, assuming this standard, must necessarily rely on this mythical neutrality of the state and the myth of its special immunity in its processes. He must not attempt to discern the justness or unjustness of specific laws, or else it becomes plain that to regulate murder is no justice at all. Instead of examining the law itself, such a baptized pragmatism sees only the possible effects of the law.
What if we apply the same incrementalism to other issues? Many Christians—Douglas Wilson not least among them—boldly condemned the Obergefell decision on same-sex marriage as unjust and wicked. Let us imagine a rather pessimistic future: years from now, marriage to multiple partners, children, and animals is legalized and institutionalized. Would, then, a decision or a law defining marriage as between only two adults of any gender be seen as a great victory to the horde of evangellyfish Christians and their advocates at the Big Evangelicalism establishments, à la “Gospel” Coalition, conservative seminaries, popular blogs, and denominations? Considering the enthusiastic support they give today for abortion incrementalism, we could have no confidence in writers like Doug Wilson to stand against an Obergefell-esque law that rolls back pedopheliac marriage, polygamy, and zoophiliac marriage to mere homosexual marriage. But as long as if it could be seen as “a step in the right direction,” such an incremental law that happened to restate the right to gay marriage would be celebrated by such Christian leaders, organizations, and followers. What Wilson and others denounce today would, by their own standard, be a great victory for them tomorrow. That they logically would celebrate a law that would enshrine homo-marriage demonstrates the subjectivism and relativism of their pragmatic views.
(And let us be clear here: no one is saying that Doug Wilson actually celebrates homosexual marriage. We are saying that his position logically entails it, and if the scenario described ever played out, and he remained consistent with his position, he would find himself faced with that reality. This much is inescapable. The only consistent escape from this embarrassment at that point would be to become an abolitionist on the issue.)
Immediatism versus unjust increments
As stated above, the SCOTUS overturning Roe v. Wade is not incrementalism. That is, as long as the decision does not replace Roe v. Wade with another dehumanizing policy. Removing a dehumanizing SCOTUS decision is not a form of incrementalism, it would be consistent with immediatism. In contrast to this point, Wilson states,
Now the overturning of Roe, were it to happen, would be a genuine incrementalist victory. Abortion would not become illegal in all fifty states. It would likely be greatly restricted in about 35 states. This would leave 15 states still willing to traffic in human misery. Because it would not be a complete victory, it would be an incrementalist victory.
But this is misleading. Geographically-bounded abolition is not a form of incrementalism. For example, the American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison saw geographical abolition as consistent with his radical immediatism while yet condemning the incremental laws that only pretended to serve the enslaved. He wrote the following helpful distinctions:
We regard, as delusive, cruel, and dangerous, any scheme of expatriation which pretends to aid, either directly or indirectly, in the emancipation of the slaves, or to be a substitute for the immediate and total abolition of slavery.
We fully and unanimously recognise the sovereignty of each State, to legislate exclusively on the subject of the slavery which is tolerated within its limits. We concede that Congress, under the present national compact, has no right to interfere with any of the slave States, in relation to this momentous subject.
But we maintain that Congress has a right, and is solemnly bound, to suppress the domestic slave trade between the several States, and to abolish slavery in those portions of our territory which the Constitution has placed under its exclusive jurisdiction.
On the same page, therefore, Garrison condemned incrementalism while acknowledging state sovereignty and geographical abolition. This can be done.
To abolish abortion in whatever jurisdiction you have authority or power is not incrementalism. If Idaho abolishes abortion, they are not positively choosing to leave abortion legal in Oklahoma. They are bringing full repentance within that particular sphere. Idaho only has jurisdiction over Idaho. However, if Idaho chose to restrict abortion only to certain counties, that would most certainly be incrementalism, and should be opposed.
While Wilson appears to be convinced that overturned Roe v. Wade is a form of incrementalism, he is also convinced it is the best strategy:
Overturning Roe is the way to go, I am convinced.
While we would certainly not be opposed to overturning Roe in general (states simply ignoring it may be even better!), it is surprising to me that Wilson still seems to think the Supreme Court is the best means for abolishing abortion. After all, last year Wilson gave a positive review of Pastor Matt Trewhella’s book, The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates. In this book, Trewhella lays out the Christian idea of resisting tyranny by way of lower jurisdictions ignoring, and thus nullifying, wicked laws, decisions, executive orders, etc. This is very similar to the political strategy of nullification, but the Lesser Magistrate Doctrine is grounded in obedience to God first. When states like Colorado defy the feds with their pot, and states like California defy the feds with their immigration policies, Christians should take note and consider having the same backbone when it comes to abortion.
For over forty years the pro-life movement has adopted some form of incrementalism or other, and for forty years it has failed even to gain any godly ground in the abomination which is human abortion. Incrementalists have lobbied for the next Republican president throughout these decades so that maybe, someday, we may have a pro-life SCOTUS. This is, frankly, a naive and worthless strategy—but one in which pro-life leaders have convinced well-intentioned Christians to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into funding. The truth is that supposedly right-leaning Republican candidates and Republican-nominated Supreme Court justices have proven themselves duplicitous and unwilling to end abortion or even much contradict Roe v. Wade. When so called conservative Justices such as John Roberts join the majority opinion in supporting ObamaCare, should we trust these black-robed tyrants with another abortion case? Republican appointed justices supported not only the majority Roe v. Wade opinion, but also the Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision. It is a vain hope to believe that even a conservative-heavy SCOTUS would overturn Roe v. Wade. That is, if we can even get such a SCOTUS to begin with. Texan attorney and abolitionist Bradley Pierce expertly deconstructs this fantastical hope in the SCOTUS here.
But even if we did, such a strategy would not be incrementalism at all. It would rather be the type of increment that is consistent with immediatist vision and demand to Abolish Human Abortion.