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Of friends and foxholes

Bethel McGrew | Alliances with Christian-friendly public intellectuals have their limits


Jordan Peterson Wikimedia Commons

Of friends and foxholes
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On July 12, six young pro-life activists were sentenced to jail time for the crime of “trespassing” at a Virginia abortion clinic last fall. Back in November of last year they had carried out what’s known as a “pink rose rescue,” a form of civil disobedience where pro-lifers enter clinics to distribute roses, information, and courage. That day they reported that five women had chosen not to abort. When sentenced, they accepted their punishment cheerfully. It was more than worth it.

Many people first learned about PAAU (Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising) when Lauren Handy, a key leader in the movement, made headlines for keeping aborted fetal remains in her apartment. Lauren and her fellow agitators don’t fit the popular description of a pro-life activist. Some of them aren’t Christians, some of them identify as gay or “queer,” and some of them combine pro-life activism with calls for other radical kinds of social reform, like prison abolition. Yet they have forged an unlikely friendship with figures like Randall Terry, the conservative godfather of abortion rescue activism. Nodding to the group’s founder and president in a Q&A, Terry has joked that “Terrisa and I agree on almost nothing.” But he is proud to share a foxhole with her when it comes to prolife activism.

That word, “foxhole,” came up recently in an interview between Jordan Peterson and Rod Dreher. In context, Dreher was talking about what Christians could learn from an anti-communist dissident family interviewed in his book Live Not By Lies. Vaclav and Camilla Benda were strong conservative Catholics, but not all of their Christian friends were equally courageous. So they made common cause where they could, and found some unlikely allies. Camilla still fondly remembered these “hippies,” some of whom were atheists with “complicated sex lives.” But they had the courage to confront communism, and that was “the rarest quality you ever found under totalitarianism.”

Dreher believes this is a lesson for our times. He says he would gladly “stand in the foxhole” with someone like Bari Weiss or Bret Weinstein, secular liberals who have nonetheless “shown courage” in our cultural moment. Peterson then chimes in and says he feels the same way about atheists Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, because “the thing that we all face now is greater than what divides us.”

The “thing” Peterson is referring to is a creeping post-modern totalitarianism. Post-modernism has successfully captured the institutions that shape our thinking—even many churches and denominations. In such a landscape, a secular old modernist holdout can appear more relatable than a professing Christian leader who preaches through the lens of critical theory. As institutional trust breaks down, people will naturally seek alternative sources of information and allyship, recognizing those sources are themselves less than optimal, but appreciating what they can offer.

Speaking as a successful writer and pundit, Dreher understandably names other figures in his “space”—high-status public intellectuals. As a writer myself, I could also name people in those circles who have been thoughtful, helpful, and personally encouraging to me. And yet, I’m not so sure the image of “sharing a foxhole” is as apt as Dreher thinks. Sharing partial agreement and professional respect is one thing. But “sharing a foxhole” conveys something more. It conveys shared risk.

Risk was shared between the Benda family and their hippie friends behind the Iron Curtain. And likewise, today, risk is shared among pro-lifers in the trenches of gritty activism, who are willing to put their own bodies between victim and perpetrator. Risk unites Randall Terry and Lauren Handy, two people who otherwise couldn’t be more different from each other. Their thankless, unsung work may not appear to be making a difference at the level of best-selling books, conferences, or media platforms. But in our age of cultural decay, as I’m sure Dreher would agree, it is no less vital—perhaps even more so. I find it significant that even among those Christian-friendly public intellectuals we could name, not one has chosen to take a radical pro-life stand. Can you imagine the impact if one of them did?

A shared hatred of post-modernism is not nothing. But a shared commitment to protecting unborn life is a positive something, something that can function as a truly powerful binding agent in the trenches. More than an abstract agreement, it is a shared aim. And for a secularist, it can even point the way to faith—to the yet deeper truths behind the deep truth that a single child is above any price, worth any risk.

This doesn’t render other differences trivial. Important conversations still need to happen. We must still witness to our friend in the foxhole. Still, we do share a foxhole. And that is something to build on.


Bethel McGrew

Bethel McGrew is a high school teacher, math Ph.D., and widely published freelance writer. Her work has appeared in First Things, National Review, The Spectator, and many other national and international outlets. Her Substack, Further Up, is one of the top paid newsletters in “Faith & Spirituality” on the platform. She has also contributed to two essay anthologies on Jordan Peterson. When not writing social criticism, she enjoys writing about literature, film, music, and history. Her edited collection of the World War I letters of Canon A.E. Laurie is forthcoming from the U.K.’s Helion Press.

@BMcGrewvy

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