The Kids are Religious Right: Punk Rock & Pro-Life

You may wonder where they come from/

But I just wonder what compels them all

– “Operation Rescue” by Bad Religion, 1990

With Operation Rescue we helped create social tension that ensured child killing would not be swept under the rug. But right now, to be honest, things are flagging. We need a revival of social tension.

– Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, in Playboy, July 2008

The issue of abortion is never as close to the surface of American culture as it is during the run-up to a presidential election. Newspapers, nightly news programs, and the now ubiquitous blogosphere engage the pro-choice/pro-life rhetoric of candidates and their surrogates, taking great care to illustrate the necessity of either stance depending on a particular presidential hopeful’s base. Since the 1970s, right of center Republicans have relied on the grassroots organizing power of evangelical Christians—functionally synonymous within the media as the “religious right”—to propel them to the White House, with mixed success. While both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush reaped the benefits of a socially conservative domestic stance in their run to the White House, neither delivered on the hope that they would be the president to end legal abortion in America.

Of course, this doesn’t mean they haven’t tried. It seems, in fact, that failure has galvanized the religious right in a way success never had a chance to. The clamor for John McCain to choose a running mate was met with an increasingly divisive debate among the leaders of right-wing social activist organizations over whom the Republican front-runner should choose. The Washington Times reported on July 29 that prominent social conservatives such as Phyllis Schlafly and Focus on the Family’s James C. Dobson would abandon support for McCain if he chose former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry described the difficulty McCain faces in maintaining a relationship with the religious right as well as conservative Republicans: “Their attitude is, an enemy outside your camp makes you vigilant and unites you, but an enemy inside your camp makes you dead because he can cut your neck in the night or poison your food by day.” Happy in the past to support the socially conservative candidate no matter who they were, today the religious right is threatening the presumptive nominee directly: do what we say, or else.

[Editor’s Note: This article was written just before the nomination of VP candidate Sarah Palin. We may well have witnessed just how effective this threat was…]

The religious right has always been a coalition of socially and politically conservative religious groups, of which evangelicals were only a part, albeit a very vocal one. Much of the confusion over where the religious right ends and evangelicals begin is due in large part to the popularity and political significance of evangelical luminaries such as James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others. During the 1990s Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition became a powerful force in American politics, managing to shape the focus and goals of a resurgent Republican Party. The Christian Coalition built up Republican support at the grassroots level, mobilizing churches and religious groups in national voter registration campaigns. And even though the Christian Coalition, like the larger religious right, was made up of a number of churches and faiths, evangelicals were the face the national media associated with the movement.

The failure of the religious right to overturn Roe v. Wade has also led to a new kind of pro-life organization. Originally formed as offshoots of larger, adult-led organizations, pro-life youth activist groups have become increasingly more vocal in their own right. Unfortunately their importance and impact has been obscured somewhat by a media eager to swap the terms “evangelical movement” and “Religious Right” in an attempt to clarify the issues. Lost in it all is a simple unmediated truth: not everyone in the religious right is an evangelical Christian, and they’re not all over the age of 40.

There has been little opportunity for younger members of the movement to voice their own opinions. But they’ve been watching, and they’ve been learning. A new generation of young, politically and socially conservative youth has taken it upon themselves to open up the abortion debate in a particularly American way. Combining the tactics of their parents’ pro-life movement with a strong sense of political urgency, pro-life youth activist groups such as Rock for Life openly challenge what they consider to be a degraded, liberalized mainstream culture. Anchoring their worldview is a perspective born of the unique struggle of American Catholics to maintain both a secular and religious identity within a society which demands political and social participation.

New Pro-Life Youth

Let us consider this scene. We are standing on a corner, and approaching us from the opposite side of the street is a young man. At first, all we can make out is his black leather jacket, torn fatigues and neon pink mohawk. As he waits across the street to cross to our corner, we catch a glimpse of his T-shirt. A message stands out on the black cotton background: “You will not silence our message. You will not mock our God. You will stop killing our generation.” The message is powerful, but a little confusing. “God” seems a little incongruous in light of his aggressive punk style. After the light turns and he crosses, he strikes up a quick conversation and hands us a flyer and a pamphlet. The flyer is for a show his band is putting on at the local Christian youth center, and he’d love it if we came. The Rock for Life pamphlet includes some statistics on abortion and the message on his T-shirt. As he walks away, we think we’ve never seen anything like that before. What, exactly, do the seemingly contradictory images of punk style and pro-life activism mean?

The media has struggled to place Rock for Life in the common evangelical/religious right context. In 2003 The Nation ran a short article entitled “Holy Rock ‘N’ Rollers,” written by Lauren Sandler. The report is indicative of the difficulties journalists have in reconciling the style, rhetoric and rambunctiousness of new pro-life youth with the evangelical movement. She describes the scene at a local Rock for Life show:

In Hicksville, Long Island, on any given Sunday afternoon, pierced and tattooed teenagers in black clothing gather to listen and watch as groups of kids like themselves tear their fingertips on guitar strings and scream unintelligibly into microphones. All the elements of the indie scene announce themselves: the spiky haircuts, the leather, combat boots, the wide eyes, the acne. At one recent show, Matt Koldinski… took the mike and did something that would be unthinkable at most hardcore shows. Panting and solemn, he appealed to his audience of peers to come up to him after the show, to talk about their problems and their confusion, to open their hearts to him.

Sandler goes on to describe the leaflet tables for Rock for Life set up in the venue, and the focus on youth and music that sets Rock for Life apart from other pro-life organizations. Rock for Life chapter leaders, usually local teenagers, hold protests at abortion clinics, hand out literature at high schools and set up tables like the one at the show in Long Island. The ‘indie scene’ trappings Sandler describes are an integral component in setting Rock for Life and its members apart from the larger pro-life movement, situating the group as a youth-friendly organization resistant to mainstream youth culture.

Sandler’s interest is to describe Rock for Life in terms of the evangelical Christian movement. She describes evangelicals as motivated by the belief that their whole way of life should be dictated by their personal faith, with the expressed intention of strengthening their relationship with God. Koldinski’s otherwise “unthinkable” act is a telling indication of how pro-life youth actively position themselves as separate from their peers, but it isn’t the best evidence to support her claim that Rock for Life is solely grounded in the evangelical movement. But for Sandler, the connection between religion and politics in Rock for Life can be explained in these terms. “Whether you’re praying in church or at a club, or screaming on a stage or at the doors of an abortion clinic,” Sandler writes, “it’s all just an articulation of the oft-repeated ‘way we live.’ Is it a political movement? Not in the usual sense. But it is a massive and exponentially self-replicating cultural movement that binds itself inherently to politics.” Rock for Life certainly positions itself as politically active, but Sandler’s contention that this activism is tied directly to an evangelical Christian tradition of political involvement does not tell the whole story.

Central to Rock for Life’s group identity is the Pro-Life Youth Pledge. Available on their website and reprinted in Rock for Life literature, the Pledge is aimed at pro-life youth activists and serves as an affirmation of individual values, a way of identifying as pro-life to other youth, and as a statement of opposition to the culture at large. It reads:

We are a loud and determined voice for Truth and Life in this culture of death. We stand on the truth of Jesus Christ whom all of our strength comes from. We stand for the protection of all human life from conception (fertilization) until natural death, with no exceptions, no compromise, and no apologies. We are fed up with the lies that MTV, Planned Parenthood and our government are pushing down our throats. We will no longer sit silently by as our generation is being systematically slaughtered through surgical and chemical abortion. This is OUR generation, these are OUR brothers and sisters and we commit to fighting for their lives. You will not silence our message, you will not mock our God, and you will stop killing our generation!

Not only a critical position statement, the Pro-Life Youth Pledge is also a demand, a call to action. It is an open challenge to the institutions of American culture and a promise to fight against them.

The positioning of pro-life youth, and Rock for Life in particular, as the vocal minority against a “culture of death” calls on a heritage of American youth activism in a time of social and political distress. The identification as part of a targeted generation and the unity of such implied by “brothers and sisters” also supports an “us vs. them” position. There is also a powerful spiritual undertone to the phrase “brothers and sisters,” as it references themes of fellowship and solidarity. Such themes are capable of cutting across denominational boundaries and appealing to Catholics and Protestants alike. The direct reference to Jesus Christ is also decidedly neutral, betraying no particular denominational bias.

The institutions identified in the Pledge form the backbone of Rock for Life’s construction of dominant American culture as a culture of death. A section on the Rock for Life webpage entitled “The Dark Side” details Rock for Life’s issues with each of the institutions named in the Pledge, with different degrees of criticism. Planned Parenthood in particular is referenced by Rock for Life as the face of what they call the “abortion industry.” Rock for Life states: “for over 60 years, Planned Parenthood has worked to convince young people and adults that contraception is something as simple and as healthy as brushing our teeth, and abortion is a procedure as normal as a physical checkup…These lies have made a mighty healthy profit for Planned Parenthood. They cashed in over $50 million on the sale of abortion and birth control to teenagers just last year.” MTV’s inclusion in the Pledge is a direct reference not only to popular culture’s role in the creation and support of a culture of death, but recognizes MTV’s position as an influential youth media outlet. Rock for Life cites MTV’s College Invasion Tour, which included safe sex information, as “another example of the sick, twisted morals that MTV pushes on young people!” Rock for Life’s admonition of the government is a direct reference to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, but also refers to government policies and laws in support of reproductive education. Rock for Life describes the government’s role in maintaining a culture of death thusly: “the U.S. has made the ability of a woman to obtain an abortion one of the most accessible and protected rights of this century!”

Planned Parenthood, MTV and the government can all be considered stand-ins for much larger movements, institutions or aspects of American culture. MTV represents youth-oriented popular culture, especially music. Planned Parenthood is perhaps best understood as representing the larger successes of liberal feminism, the movement primarily responsible for legalizing abortion. Rock for Life does not see abortion as a women’s rights issue; to them it is a social and cultural issue which affects everyone. Even though the group readily engages the issues of unwed mothers and teen pregnancy, they frame their argument squarely within the confines of monogamous, heterosexual relations.

Rock for Life’s position in regard to the government is more complex. Rock for Life has sponsored voter registration drives to mobilize pro-life youth, and has actively petitioned Congress. They also recognize some government officials and politicians as allies. During the 32nd March for Life, held in January 2005, George W. Bush addressed pro-life supporters via telephone, saying: “we are working to promote a culture of life.” The president’s language is certainly in line with Rock for Life’s rhetoric, and the group’s willingness to work within the system runs counter to the militant overtones of the Pledge. Interestingly, the Pledge makes no mention of the legal process, despite the reference to abortion as a protected right in “The Dark Side.” By keeping the message of opposition strong and the targets general, the Pledge is a site where self-identification as a supporter of its message can also have meaning. The Pledge is less a practical mission statement than a badge of support and understanding. Still, we can understand Rock for Life’s use of the government as including pro-choice legislators and the legal system which has consistently upheld the 1973 decision.

The Importance of an American Catholic Influence

Much of Rock for Life’s rhetoric, style and tactics can be traced to a single person, pro-life activist and Rock for Life founder Bryan Kemper. The group was founded in 1993 and was originally headquartered in a rented basement in Portland, Oregon. Spurred to form the group in light of what he saw as a rash of pro-choice events in the early 1990s, Kemper was particularly interested in the relationship between pro-choice groups, musicians, and the media. His specific motivation was the creation of Rock for Choice, a project of the Feminist Majority Foundation. Begun as a way to raise money to support pro-choice campaigns, Rock for Choice put on concerts and released CDs, getting the support of popular bands such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana along the way. Kemper founded Rock for Life to counter this alliance of pro-choice advocates and popular music. Kemper hoped to raise money to help fund crisis pregnancy centers and pro-life organizations.

A former roadie and musician, Kemper was uniquely suited to handle the music side of things, putting on shows and releasing Rock for Life compilation CDs. His experience as a pro-life activist also gave him credibility. Kemper was a part of Operation Rescue, and by his own count has been arrested at least 10 times for violating the Free Access to Clinic Entrances Act. Kemper also displays an alternative aesthetic, proudly showing off his piercings and tattoos, including a homemade knuckle tattoo that reads “God Rules.” In a very real way, Kemper can be seen to embody the style, mission and attitude of the organization he founded.

Kemper’s influence extends far beyond tattoos and activism, however, informing a cross-denominational stance which privileges a pro-life philosophy over religious affiliation. In 1999 Kemper accepted an invitation from Judie Brown to move Rock for Life to Stafford, Virginia, and join forces with her own national organization, the American Life League. Although the American Life League takes great care to maintain a largely non-denominational public face, Brown is a staunchly conservative Catholic. Kemper, on the other hand, leaned much more heavily on the side of evangelical Christianity. However, such cross-denominational cooperation is not unheard of in the pro-life movement—in fact, it has often been the norm. Scholar and author Michael W. Cuneo notes that the early alliance of evangelicals and Catholics during the first years of Operation Rescue was remarkable “considering their inherited theological and cultural differences.” And while Operation Rescue has been consistently portrayed as an evangelical organization, the group’s adoption of direct action and civil disobedience was informed primarily by the tactics of smaller groups of conservative Catholic anti-abortionists.

The American Life League was founded by Brown in the wake of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC)’s refusal to take a public stand against birth control in the 1970s. In an attempt to remain politically relevant and prove that opposition to abortion was not simply a Catholic preoccupation, the NRLC alienated its base. At the time Brown was one of the many conservative Catholic members of the NRLC and as such viewed both the pill and IUD as abortaficients. The NRLC’s neutral stance on birth control was simply too glaring a contradiction to reconcile with Brown’s faith. She commented that “Ninety-nine percent of the time, contraception results in abortion. How could they claim to be dealing with abortion when they refused to deal with this basic reality?”

The American Life League and Rock for Life both actively campaign against birth control as well as abortion, aligning themselves closely with Catholic doctrine. But Rock for Life also shares a uniquely American perspective about the role of religion in public life that is directly related to an American Catholic tradition. The political and social forces condemned in the 1880s by Leo XIII as detrimental to the conveyance of true faith are now integral to the execution of a social and political agenda informed by conservative Catholic belief. As a pro-life organization, the American Life League actively engages in the type of social and political action which Leo XIII felt undermined Catholic doctrine. The American Life League fights for a conservative Catholic voice in the abortion debate by openly supporting large-scale social actions such as the annual March for Life. The group describes itself on its website as “the nation’s largest pro-life educational organization” and claims over 300,000 supporters.

Rock for Life’s willingness to operate within the institutions of American culture is in line with American Catholic attempts to create space for their voice within the liberal democratic system. In 1999, Kemper initiated a bold plan to counter a pro-choice petition drive sponsored by Rock for Choice. Rock for Choice gathered some 50,000 signatures in support of abortion rights on petitions which were then delivered to Congress and the White House. In response, Rock for Life planned to submit 100,000 signatures to their Pro-Life Youth Pledge. The pledge was circulated at Christian music festivals and other events and, significantly, organizers lobbied the Vatican for their endorsement. Rock for Life’s willingness to work within American cultural institutions (petitioning Congress and the White House), while simultaneously recognizing the importance of their link to religious doctrine, is indicative of the kind of balance between civic and religious identity American Catholics have sought to achieve.

In his essay “Notes on Catholic Americanism and Catholic Radicalism: Toward a Counter-Tradition of Catholic Social Ethics,” Michael Baxter notes that “Catholics working in the field of social ethics have been positioning themselves with what can be called a ‘Catholic Americanist Tradition,’” grounded in the assertion that “there exists a fundamental harmony between Catholicism and the political arrangement of the United States.” This tradition is claimed by “neo-liberals” and “neo-conservatives alike,” according to Baxter, and can be defined by its relationship with the polis (53). Catholics who act in line with the Amercanist Tradition identify the polis “with the modern state, in particular the United States of America,” and rely on it “as the primary mechanism of the implementation of justice.” Both the American Life League and Rock for Life actively pursue a social and political agenda informed by their shared pro-life position, seeking legislative and legal solutions to bring American culture in line with their moral belief. In this way, we can see both groups as operating within a Catholic Americanist Tradition as defined by Baxter. As Judie Brown has said, “The practice of religion belongs in the public arena. It is so wrong to suppress this. We should be able to say that abortion is a sin against God and God’s law.”

Rock for Life has taken Brown’s opinion and run with it. When Nancy Pelosi was named Speaker of the House in 2007, Rock for Life members attempted to join her inaugural breakfast meeting in the hopes of directly addressing her stance on abortion, an event documented at length on the group’s blog. Rock for Life has an air of righteousness and entitlement born of their decidedly middle-class roots and membership. Their voice is meant to be heard. And their political and social action is related directly to a belief that a person’s religious and public identity should not be separated. The conflict between themselves and mainstream America is largely a cultural one, and misapplied terms and simplifications can only muddy the water. At a time when the religious right is attempting to exert more power than they ever have before it makes good sense to know exactly where pro-life youth stand, and why. After all, they vote.