2014 March for Life Expands Beyond Catholic Base to Bring Evangelicals Into the Pro-Life Rally

Dunia Minnium of Voorhees, N.J., holds a cross during the 2013 March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 25. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks.
Dunia Minnium of Voorhees, N.J., holds a cross during the 2013 March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 25. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks.

Evangelicals are the most likely religious group to say that abortion should be illegal in all cases. So why would organizers of the March for Life, the annual demonstration on the Washington Mall, hire someone to reach out to that group?

The 41st march, scheduled for Wednesday (Jan. 22), has traditionally had a strong Catholic presence, with priests and nuns marching on or around the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. Its founder, Nellie Gray, who died in 2012, was Roman Catholic, as well as is her successor, Jeanne Monahan.

“The march has a very Catholic feel to it with lots of rosaries, Virgin Marys and crucifixes,” said Jon Shields, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “It hasn’t been particularly savvy about reaching broader audiences.”

But that’s changing. Monahan met with evangelicals last year to shore up support, and she hired Bethany Goodman, an assistant director whose job includes reaching out to evangelicals and other religious groups. This year the march will feature one headliner most evangelicals can recognize: Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.

One of the challenges Goodman has faced in rallying evangelicals to the march is the lack of formal structure and organization, compared to the Catholic Church, which has offices of “pro-life ministry” both nationally and in each diocese around the country. Catholic schools will often bus youth to the march.

Goodman said she has started working with parachurch organizations such as the Family Research Council, the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Alliance Defending Freedom.

“The Catholic Church does a fantastic job of coordinating the bus trips when there’s obviously not that structure in the Protestant realm,” Goodman said.

This year’s march will feature a mix of parties and religions. Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, and Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski, who is Catholic, will be among those speaking at the rally. As abortion opponents seek to capitalize on gains they have made in restricting abortion at the state level, it is natural that they would try to bring in more evangelicals at their most public event of activism.

Organizers are also exploring other strategies, including the use of technology. They hope to use the success anti-abortion activists had on Twitter during last year’s trial for abortion provider Kermit Gosnell, hoping to get #whywemarch to trend and draw in more attention — and eventually marchers for the future.

Last year, Pope Benedict XVI surprised marchers by tweeting his support, and observers are watching for whether Pope Francis will do the same.

The consensus among historians has been that Catholic doctrine provided a teaching on abortion long before evangelicals came around on the issue in the 1970s, Shields said.

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SOURCE: Religion News Service
Sarah Pulliam Bailey