Until recently, I liked Jonathan Van Maren despite his incrementalism. He has written good stuff about abortion victim images, euthanasia, pornography, and other moral issues. He is a skilled communicator and one of two journalists whose work I studied closely when I began as a writer. That makes this whole situation rather sad for me, but the combination of belligerence toward abolitionists mixed with misrepresentation about what abolitionists argue that Van Maren demonstrated recently on Josh Brahm’s pro-life podcast was astounding.
Just about everything out of Van Maren’s mouth in the 56-minute video was a vitriolic attack either on the intelligence or character of abolitionists, and the episode was meant to portray abolitionists as awful people. Sadly, this is the course Van Maren appears to be on. While giving a guest presentation last summer to interns at the pro-life organization where myself and two of my Free the States colleagues used to work, Van Maren was asked by an intern what he thought of abolitionists. His response: “They’re jackasses.” Thankfully, most of those interns know Sam Riley, Rachel Burkey, and I, and they know we’re not jackasses. So Van Maren’s accusations fell on deaf ears and some of those interns are now abolitionists. Praise God. Two of them are friends of mine and they’re the same kind, passionate, Godly people now that they were nine months ago, but I suppose Van Maren thinks they’re jackasses now.
Some of the accusations made in the podcast are so absurd that they don’t really warrant a response. Brahm says there were abolitionists at a Life Chain in Oregon berating an elderly man simply for sitting down. Brahm and Van Maren claim my friend and colleague Russell Hunter believes incrementalists aren’t saved. If I thought there was a readership out there for 98,000 word articles, maybe I would address all of Van Maren and Brahm’s outrageous lines of attack. But there are only so many words that can reasonably be written, so we will focus primarily on the intellectual arguments made against the Abolitionist Movement, with a few exceptions.
One other note before we begin: I can’t say this with any certainty, but I can’t help but wonder if the brutal assault on Russell’s character and intelligence contained in the episode might have something to do with the fact that we are taking back Wilberforce from the incrementalists. I wrote an article rebutting Scott Klusendorf last month irrefutably detailing Wilberforce’s view that incrementalists and incremental bills were what was keeping the slave trade from being abolished; we’ve talked about Wilberforce on recent episodes of The Liberator Podcast; and we’ve announced that Russell is working on a three-part video series to put the myth of a supposedly incrementalist Wilberforce to bed once and for all. A lot of pro-life thought leaders are heavily invested in the idea that Wilberforce was “an immediatist in principle but an incrementalist in practice,” and their historical ignorance and/or dishonesty on this topic is being exposed.
Van Maren is one of the primary historians for the Pro-Life Movement. It’s been near complete radio silence on abolitionism from Van Maren for six years, and now he comes back swinging the sledgehammer against Russell in particular just as Russell is busting the Pro-Life Establishment’s favorite historical myth. It could be a coincidence, but it very well might not be.
Russell has an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a master’s degree in the history of science (where he focused primarily on historiographical issues in the study of 19th century science, sociology, and theology) from the University of Oklahoma where he taught history as a graduate assistant. Van Maren’s claim that Russell is “an intellectual lightweight” who has no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to abolitionist history is so laughable that I think it’s very possible this was simply a feeble attempt to delegitimize him as a historiographer ahead of the release of the Wilberforce series.
1) Van Maren Is Wrong on History and Misrepresents Our Historical Claims
Van Maren boldly and insultingly claims throughout the episode and in other articles on the subject that Russell (who is largely responsible for reigniting the Abolitionist Movement in America today) doesn’t understand abolitionist history. Van Maren’s reason for saying this is partially his own misunderstanding of what abortion abolitionists claim about historical abolitionists, and partially a misunderstanding of history on his part.
Van Maren argues our claiming the abolitionist label as immediatists demonstrates historical ignorance because there were slavery abolitionists who pursued gradual strategies: “What Hunter started doing is saying that ‘abolitionist’ is actually a combination of his version of abolitionists’ historical strategy, which is a fool’s errand because there are so many different wings [of historical abolitionists] and the term encompasses so many different things.”
First, in the American context, abolitionism and immediatism are often treated as synonymous by leading scholars and historians in the field. There were people who might have labeled themselves abolitionists who pursued gradual strategies prior to the rise of William Lloyd Garrison and The Liberator, but from the 1830s onward, the label “abolitionist” became increasingly synonymous with the adoption of the doctrine of Immediatism. For this reason, historians categorize abolitionists in the American context almost exclusively as immediatists. Pulitzer prize-winning civil war historian James McPherson defines abolitionist “as one who before the Civil War had agitated for the immediate, unconditional, and total abolition of slavery in the United States.” History.com defines abolitionist as “a person who sought to abolish slavery during the 19th century. More specifically, these individuals sought the immediate and full emancipation of all enslaved people.” The Abortion Abolitionist Movement began in the United States, and in our context, “abolitionist” and “immediatist” are two ways of saying the exact same thing.
Second, abortion abolitionists do not claim that every historical abolitionist everywhere was completely perfect or impeccably immediatist at all times and in all ways (we are talking about human beings here). In England, there was a substantial group of gradualists. (William Wilberforce wrote in no uncertain terms that the gradualists were the bad guys in the story, but more on that later). Wilberforce wrote often of himself as an “immediate abolitionist,” contrasting himself against the “gradual abolitionists.” We do not deny in the slightest that both of these groups existed. Back then, the linguistic distinction among British anti-slavery factions was between the immediate abolitionists of the slave trade (ie. Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson) and the gradual abolitionists (ie. Henry Dundas and William Dolben).
Today, the incrementalists have chosen the label “pro-life” and the immediatists have chosen the label “abolitionist.” That is the linguistic distinction. Abortion abolitionists work to maintain that linguistic distinction not because there was no “gradual abolitionist” label in history, but because of the importance of keeping separate those two differing ideologies. Had the pro-lifers instead chosen to call themselves “gradual abolitionists” for the past 50 years, we would have been happy to refer to ourselves as “immediate abolitionists” to create the contrast and preserve that particular linguistic distinction. They wouldn’t choose that label, however, as it is a phrase used by immediate abolitionists such as Wilberforce in a derogatory manner. “Gradual abolitionist” was something of a slur to the abolitionists of slavery.
Van Maren’s harsh insults of Russell for supposedly not understanding history have nothing to do with anything on Russell’s part. They are based entirely on Van Maren lack of understanding of history and on his lack of understanding of what abolitionists argue about history.
2) Do Abolitionists Switch Back and Forth on Wilberforce?
Van Maren said: “[Abolitionists] switch back and forth. If I point out that that’s not what abolitionism actually was, and history is important for understanding context and strategy, they’ll be like ‘Okay, but even if that incremental bill was what Wilberforce did, it’s also unbiblical, so they switch back and forth… You can’t have it both ways.” Van Maren goes on to say that Russell is a “bad-faith actor operating in bad faith,” and Brahm adds that “Any time someone is doing that, it’s like, these are not people doing honest reasoning.”
Switching back-and-forth between arguments is a dishonest tactic if one is doing so to avoid having to concede defeat on the first discussion. People who are skilled at slithering out of admitting when they’re proven demonstrably wrong are some of the most frustrating people to deal with. But that’s not what abolitionists do. Abolitionists argue that:
- As a matter of historical record, Wilberforce was an immediate abolitionist and there are things we can learn from his writings such as A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade where he explains that the gradualists were “the real maintainers” and “most efficient supporters of the Slave Trade,” and
- While we can learn from historical abolitionists, God’s word is our ultimate standard. Even if Wilberforce and William Lloyd Garrison and all the abolitionists were incrementalists (they weren’t), we firmly believe that God’s word prohibits the writing of abortion regulations which allow children to be murdered and which teach injustice to the culture.
There is nothing dishonest about making both of these arguments simultaneously, yet Brahm and Van Maren accuse abolitionists of being dishonest, bad faith actors for doing so. Their accusation is completely false.
3) Van Maren Misrepresents Abolitionism as Overnightism
Van Maren said, “[The abolitionists] had grown based on a lot of people who were really frustrated that abortion was still legal. There was a lot of this where people were impatient, they were frustrated. And a lot of people were like ‘Okay, can somebody please give me the magic bullet here? What’s the Hiroshima or Nagasaki of the abortion war so we can get on with our lives?’ When in reality, fighting abortion is going to be a lifelong thing where you have to be faithful. You have do it day-in and day-out.”
This is a common misrepresentation of immediatism. Immediatism is not overnightism. Abolitionists are not under the impression that the culture will necessarily drastically change overnight or that the object of our protest will necessarily be abolished overnight. We understand, as our 19th century abolitionist predecessors did, that the fight to abolish a great societal evil is a struggle that will take years in most cases. As Garrison wrote in the August 13, 1831 edition of The Liberator, “Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be we shall always contend.”
Of course, Garrison is by no means espousing principled immediatism but practical gradualism here. Rather, he is describing what the culture and those in power will do as a result of the call for immediate abolition going forth; they will give ground gradually in an attempt to satisfy us, as we have seen in Oklahoma recently with legislators passing the most pro-life bills in State history this year as a result of abolitionist calls for the immediate abolition of abortion. Over time, the call for total and immediate abolition will win converts among the populace and among those in power, and even those who resist the call will gradually be forced closer and closer to the abolitionist position by the weightiness of the truth which we proclaim. We refer to this as the steel ball effect.
The immediatism-incrementalism debate does not revolve around how long the battle takes (though the immediatist strategy will certainly achieve the desired end more quickly). The debate revolves around what our demand should be. The immediatist demands the immediate abolition of the evil. They call the evil what it is, watering nothing down and grounding their demands in God’s word. The incrementalist asks for a compromise with the evil. The tragic consequence of this is that the incrementalist cannot ground their argument in anything substantial.
For instance, the immediatist demand for abortion to be abolished can be grounded in God’s word (“You shall not murder”) and in the US Constitution (“[No state shall] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”) An incrementalist’s demand for a 20-week abortion ban or a heartbeat bill cannot be defended from God’s word or the Constitution, as these laws – by implying the legality of abortion prior to the arbitrary standard they set for who counts as fully human – violate both.
Because incremental laws and the incremental arguments made in favor of them cannot be grounded in anything substantial, they are weak and impotent to shift culture and politics. In some cases, these bills and arguments actually serve to change culture in the wrong direction by dehumanizing the preborn children left unprotected or classified as non-humans by the arbitrary law (more on this later). Compromise bills mean compromise messaging; compromise messaging means compromised foundations; compromised foundations mean no powerful prophetic witness from our demands; and no powerful prophetic witness from our demands means no positive cultural shift from our demands. This is one of the many reasons immediatists demand the immediate, and not the gradual, abolition of the evil.
The immediatism-incrementalism debate revolves around a difference in what we call for. Van Maren has once again strawmanned abolitionists by making immediatism out to be overnightism.
4) Van Maren Thinks Abortion Can’t Be Abolished Quickly
Following up on his conflation of immediatism and overnightism, Van Maren argues that the growth of the Abolitionist Movement is due to people’s desire to be told good news even if there is none: “There’s a huge audience out there for people who want to be told it can be over quickly if we can just do this thing now. And it’s based on a dual ignorance of the history of the Pro-Life Movement and the history of abolitionism.”
The idea that abortion can’t be abolished any time soon might be true in Van Maren’s Canadian context, and pro-lifers claim this is true for every State in the Union, but it is not actually true in many States.
As detailed in the previous point, immediatism does not necessarily go along with the belief that the evil will be abolished quickly. It all depends on the context. Can abortion be abolished in the next five years in Canada or California? God can do amazing things, but abortion being abolished that quickly in those places is very unlikely. Can abortion be abolished in Oklahoma or Missouri in the next five years? Absolutely. All that would have to happen is for a fraction of the pro-lifers who make up the overwhelming majority of the population in such states, the overwhelming majority of the legislature, and who hold every single statewide elected office to view abortion rightly and understand their Biblical and Constitutional duty to stand up to federal tyranny.
If the delusive scheme of gradualism in submission to the supreme court lost its grip on the minds of Oklahoma Christians, abortion could be abolished before the legislative session is over. If Oklahoma Senators woke up tomorrow with a correct view of abortion and abolition, they could suspend the rules about committee deadlines and voting twice on the same bill, and pass a bill to abolish abortion. If the House woke up in the same fashion, and Governor Kevin Stitt and AG Mike Hunter had the will power to stand up to the supreme court, child killing would be abolished in Oklahoma. But alas, the delusive scheme maintains its grip for now. So abortion remains legal and the pro-life politicians standing in the way of abolition get reelected by pro-life voters who don’t yet see that they’re being played.
5) Imprecatory Prayers
Van Maren first example of Russell supposedly being mean is a video he made years ago responding to slanderous accusations against abolitionists. Three prominent Christian men were calling the Abolitionist Movement “terrorists” and “jihadis” because two Christians who had attempted to set off a molotov cocktail at a construction site for a church building before they were saved became abolitionists. These two men became Christians and pacifists while in jail, before learning about and joining the Abolitionist Movement after they got out. People who would use their actions before they were born again to slander the whole Abolitionist Movement as terrorists were acting wickedly and they were denying the power of the gospel to renew men’s souls and minds.
Russell made a video asking God to reveal it against abolitionists if we were wrong, and to reveal it against those calling abolitionists “terrorists” if they were wrong. Van Maren and whoever else can call Russell’s video unhinged all they want. His words were justified a thousand times over and then some.
By using this example, Van Maren either doesn’t understand the context of the video, understands the context and deceptively used it to trick those who don’t know the context, or understands the context fully and wickedly believes that using the past sins of men who have been born-again against an entire group of believers is a legitimate practice for those in Christ. Whatever the case, Van Maren needs to consider the weight of responsibility that teaching others comes with and repent.
As a note, all three of the men Russell addressed in the video who used to call us terrorists are now, to varying degrees, supportive of abolition bills and the Abolitionist Movement. Praise God!
6) Van Maren Thinks It’s Bad That Abolition Bills Repeal Abortion Regulations
Many pro-life groups are opposing bills to immediately abolish abortion, which has resulted in a massive swell of support for the Abolitionist Movement among Christians. Their opposition to abolition bills is a major PR liability for the Pro-Life Establishment, so Van Maren attempts to defend the actions of these pro-life groups, saying, “Here’s why pro-lifers oppose some of these bills. Because if these bills pass… they would wipe all of the other pro-life laws off the books.”
I’ll deal with the strongest possible version of Van Maren’s argument so that abolitionists reading this are prepared to answer when other pro-lifers give a better (though, not all the much better) argument than Van Maren did. Some pro-lifers argue that a court could strike down the part of the abolition bill which abolishes abortion while upholding the part of the bill which repeals pro-life regulations. They argue this despite abolition bills having inseverability clauses which state, “The provisions, words, phrases and clauses of this act are declared to be inseverable.”
Could a court ignore the plain will of the legislature and sever a bill despite an inseverability clause and despite there being no legal reason to do so? Sure. This is America. The courts do literally anything they want up to and including mandating legalized mass murder in every state and no one stands up to them. With that said, it is very, very rare that courts ever ignore inseverability clauses. I wasn’t able to find an example of it ever happening in Oklahoma despite inseverability clauses being a regular feature of Oklahoma laws. But even if pro-lifers want to argue that courts ignoring inseverability clauses is conceivable, that’s all the more reason we have to stand up to the courts as pro-life politicians and lobbyists are so afraid of doing.
The passage of an abolition bill means the tide has already shifted and the legislative and executive branches are taking their rightful powers back from the courts. The passage of an abolition bill like OK SB495 would mean that a legislature and governor are recognizing and acting upon the fact that, “Any federal statute, regulation, treaty, executive order or court ruling which purports to supersede, stay or overrule this act is in violation of the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma and the Constitution of the United States of America and is therefore void. This state, a political subdivision of this state and any agents of this state or a political subdivision of this state may disregard any part or the whole of any court decision which purports to enjoin or void any provision of this act.”
Just as Roe v. Wade would be ignored upon the passage of an abolition bill, a federal court’s striking down and/or severing of an abolition bill would be ignored. As for state courts, some abolition bills (and hopefully all abolition bills going forward) have language establishing that State judges who violate the right to life are subject to impeachment.
With that said, because the pro-life politicians in Oklahoma used this issue of severability as their excuse not to abolish abortion this year, we will be adjusting the language to cater to their insistence on feigned stupidity in a way that doesn’t water down the bill. When that adjustment is made, the pro-life politicians and lobbyists will simply switch to another excuse not to abolish abortion, as they do year-after-year.
In 2019, the excuse was “nullifiers are the villains of history.” We gave public lectures and wrote articles demonstrating irrefutably that it was the slavery abolitionists who were nullifiers, and the slave owners wanted what they called “vile theories of nullification” “put down at all hazards.” We also covered Greg Treat’s district with flyers explaining that he was the author of a bill to nullify EPA regulations. So we took that argument away from them.
In 2020, their excuse was that the bill to abolish abortion was “more about seceding from the union than it is about saving lives.” So for the 2021 abolition bill, we added a clause stating, “Nothing in this act shall be construed as an intent by this state to withdraw from the United States of America. To the contrary, this act is in accordance with and in furtherance of the Constitution of the United States and the principles which made America great. This state urges the federal government to honor the same by supporting this act which equally secures the right to life to all preborn people within this state.” It’s ridiculous that we had to add that, but if we can take their arguments away without altering the substance of the bill, we will do it. We took this excuse away from them, so in 2021, they moved on to severability.
They jump from excuse-to-excuse every year as a way of delaying the abolition of abortion. That’s all this objection is. It’ll be gone next year, and the pro-life lobbyists and politicians will be touting their new reason why we can’t abolish abortion.
7) Van Maren Objects to the Idea That Pro-Lifers Help Keep Abortion Legal
A number of times throughout the video, Van Maren objects to the accusation that pro-lifers are helping to keep abortion legal. This is going to sound harsh, and Van Maren can call it “blood libel” or whatever he wants to call it, but it just is what it is – Van Maren is helping keep abortion legal in the eight states an abolition bill has been put forward by parroting the excuses of the very people keeping abortion legal. He should definitely stop doing that, to put it lightly.
In A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, after detailing how incrementalists were delaying abolition, Wilberforce writes, “I cannot but believe, that, could [the gradual abolitionists] have clearly foreseen what would be the practical effect of their opposition, it would not have been continued for an hour [p. 295].” We hope and pray that Van Maren, Brahm, and their pro-life associates are open to understanding the practical effect of their opposition and not continue it another hour. Given how deep they’ve dug their heels in, doing so will be difficult, but they need to do so anyway. Our friend and brother Dr. Blake Gideon, who formerly was a prominent pro-life leader who opposed abolition in Oklahoma, has led the way for other prominent pro-life leaders to follow in humbly admitting the error of their opposition and joyfully joining the abolitionist cause. We will embrace them if they do, just as we have embraced Gideon and so many others. Past differences will be water under the bridge.
Van Maren explains that in the pro-life view, they aren’t helping to keep abortion legal when they prevent an abolition bill from passing because they don’t think it’s possible to abolish abortion immediately. Does it take a lot of courage and will power to successfully stand up to a federal court? Yes. But is there some precept of the universe or Constitution which makes doing so impossible? Of course not. States and municipalities do it all the time, which leads us to the next point.
8) Upholding the Right to Life is Anarchy?
The most incredible intellectual (as opposed to ad hominem) argument made in the video is that abolishing abortion without the supreme court’s approval is anarchy.
Van Maren: “In order for it to be true that an abolition bill passing would make abortion illegal in Arizona or illegal in Oklahoma, a number of things would have to happen. First, the state would have to ignore the courts and just say, ‘This is an unjust decree’ and not listen to the courts. Then, the federal government would have to decide, ‘We’re just going to let the states do whatever they want, because apparently Oklahoma is just not cool with the way things are done.’ I also am not cool with the way things are done.”
Brahm: “This would be like a pro-anarchy move. It would have to be like a pro-anarchy move from the federal government, which would be just really odd, right?”
Van Maren: “Basically, it would be like, different states can make different decisions based on what they want to do, which doesn’t render Roe null and void. It renders the court null and void.”
Once again, Van Maren and Brahm might yelp that this section is super duper mean and libelous, but it’s true and has to be said – their view presupposes that there is no authority above the supreme court. SCOTUS’ power is unconditional. The justices are entirely unconstrained by any law of God or man. According to pro-life leaders, there is no line of immorality or illegality the court can cross where we would be justified in defying it. How do we know that they believe this? Because the court has already done the most evil and unconstitutional thing imaginable by legalizing murder and Van Maren and Brahm are telling us to submit, lest we be anarchists who make null the court’s rightful authority.
If the supreme court someday rules that parents have the right to murder toddlers up to four years old in the privacy of their own home, there will be a movement of Christians telling the states and the other federal branches to ignore the supreme court. There will be a few brave legislators, governors, or congressmen who take their oath to the Constitution and their duties before God as His deacons of justice seriously. They will put forward bills to uphold the right to life in defiance of the supreme court. And then there will be pro-life leaders like Van Maren and Brahm accusing those faithful, law-keeping Christians of being anarchists and demanding they bend the knee to Hitler.
There are people, even some who are now abolitionists, who object to the fact that abolitionists seek to draw a line of demarcation between the Pro-Life Movement and the Abolitionist Movement. The reason we do so is because the foundational principles of the two movements are so wildly different. Abolitionists believe that the right to life is a gift from God that is both unalienable and Constitutionally protected. The Pro-Life Movement’s position is that the supreme court has the authority to take away God-given, Constitutionally guaranteed rights. They may ask the tyrant to change his mind, but they will submit because they believe the tyrant has the authority to overrule God and Constitution. We think that God’s deacons of justice in the State governments should uphold the right to life, even if a federal court tells them to allow genocide. In a sane society, that would be the most morally basic and unobjectionable statement in the universe, but Brahm and Van Maren think the idea that State officials should uphold the right to life without federal approval is anarchic and an example of everyone “just doing whatever they want.”
Van Maren and Brahm believe, in no uncertain terms, that public officials must disregard their Biblical and Constitutional duties if the supreme court tells them to. Call me mean, call me whatever you want. That idea is insane, it’s evil, it’s idolatrous, it’s leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths annually, and it must be called out as such.
9) Was Wilberforce an Incrementalist?
Van Maren said, “[Abortion abolitionists] are not Wilberforce abolitionists. They talk about him a lot, but Wilberforce was by definition an incrementalist.” He then goes on to cite the Dolben Act and the flag bill as evidence of Wilberforce’s supposed incrementalism.
The flag bill was not an incremental bill in the sense that pro-life incrementalists use that word. It was a war measure put forward with the intention of taking away economic and geopolitical arguments that the slave lobby was making against abolition. A comparison to the fight against abortion would be a state sovereignty bill such as Arkansas SB298 which recognizes and acts upon the facts that “Whenever the United States Government assumes powers that the people did not grant it in the United States Constitution, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force,” and “The several states of the United States are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to the United States Government.” Abolitionists support bills such as that because they take away the argument from pro-life incrementalists that we can’t stand up to illegal federal overreach. Abortion is easier to abolish after the passage of such a bill. Unlike the bills put forth by pro-life incrementalists, this sort of bill is not implying the acceptability of murdering some children, and it doesn’t delay abolition (rather, it would speed it up). Abolitionists support this sort of legislation. Russell will have much more on the flag bill in his Wilberforce series. (If you don’t want to miss it, make sure you’re subscribed to our YouTube channel and like our Facebook page!)
It’s actually very surprising that Van Maren also cites the Dolben Act. In his 2014 article on the subject (which focuses on the error refuted in point 1 of this article), Van Maren concedes that Wilberforce condemned pro-life legislation like the Dolben Act and relies more heavily on the incrementalism of the British gradualists such as Equiano to make his case. But in the podcast, Van Maren goes full bore on Wilberforce’s supposed incrementalism, including referencing the Dolben Act.
In his 1807 book A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Wilberforce says that the Dolben Act, which regulated the way slave ships could carry slaves, strengthened the slave trade: “the Slave-carrying bill [was] a measure which a very few years after was acknowledged, as it is still universally confessed, to have been beneficial to [the West Indian Body] [p. 275].”
In the podcast, Van Maren seems to grant that Wilberforce believed this, but then asserts that it doesn’t matter that Wilberforce believed it. He then says “because” as if he’s about to explain how Wilberforce was still an incrementalist despite arguing that incremental bills benefitted the slave trade, before leaving the topic of Wilberforce’s actual beliefs to repeat the standard pro-life talking point which contradicts everything Wilberforce has said on the topic. It was very emblematic of the whole podcast – bold, nonsensical assertions followed by absolutely no evidence of the claim: “[Abolitionists] will point out like, ‘Oh, he said he wished he hadn’t done this thing,’ and be like, ‘See, he repented.’ And I’m like, ‘No, doesn’t work that easily,’ because the Pro-Life Movement, like the abolitionists, are absolutists in the way they speak, and they’re incrementalists in the way they move.”
There’s no getting around the fact that Wilberforce clearly wrote in his book, which was written to teach future abolitionists the lessons he had learned from two decades in the trenches, that:
- Incremental bills strengthened the slave trade, and
- Incrementalists were “the real maintainers” and “most efficient supporters of the Slave Trade.”
Given that reality, it’s no surprise that Van Maren would fail to give any evidence to back up his claim, despite beginning the clause as if he was going to. He bit off more than he could chew and he knew it, so he resorted to the canned, pro-life talking point that cannot in any way be reconciled with Wilberforce’s actual stated beliefs.
Here’s the full quote from A Letter on the Abolition of The Slave Trade where Wilberforce details his perspective on incrementalists and incremental bills (emphasis ours):
[L]et me most seriously urge on the conscientious deliberations of those who…by their fatal proposal of gradual, instead of immediate abolition, dashed the cup of happiness from the lips of the wretched African, at the very moment when at last he appeared likely to taste it, and who thus proved in fact the most efficient supporters of the Slave Trade. A vast majority in Parliament were then so much alive to the principles of justice and humanity, that all direct opposition would have been utterly ineffectual. But this kind of half measure, however unintentionally, exactly answered the purpose of our enemies, by giving time for the zeal of men to cool, and providing an expedient by which, aided by a little of that self deception which we are all apt to practice on ourselves on suitable occasions, they might feel the complacencies arising from an act of justice and humanity, without paying the price or making the sacrifice which those principles required.
Let me be forgiven if I speak strongly, where I feel so very deeply. It is not only because the gradual Abolitionists have been, in fact, the only real stay of that system of wickedness and cruelty which we wish to abolish; though that assertion is unquestionably true; but it is trying beyond expression that they should be the real maintainers of the Slave Trade [p. 294-295].
This is not the writing of an “immediatist in principle but an incrementalist in practice.” This is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, a man who believes incrementalists and incremental “half measures” benefit wickedness and delay abolition. Wilberforce speaks of incrementalism with as much contempt as abortion abolitionists do, if not more so. There’s no way to reconcile this fact with what Van Maren claims. None. For their own sake, Van Maren and his pro-life colleagues should stop making fools of themselves on this topic.
Van Maren goes on to cite Wilberforce’s support of colonization, which entailed deporting freed slaves back to Africa. Wilberforce did originally support this strategy, but later publicly repented of ever having done so. After inviting a representative of the American Colonization Society to an abolitionist gathering in England, Wilberforce and other British abolitionists were told by Garrison of the errors and incrementalism of the colonization strategy. After tense deliberation amongst the British abolitionists, James Cropper announced to the gathering, “It is with very great pleasure that I can add the name of William Wilberforce as having changed his opinion. He now deeply regrets that he was ever led to say anything in approbation of the Colonization Society.” Van Maren pretends this repentance is irrelevant, but that’s blatantly absurd. To define someone according to views they repented of is dishonest, unfair to the subject, and bad historiography.
I don’t particularly enjoy speaking this way, and certainly not of someone I have looked up to, but in Van Maren’s vernacular, it could be said that he is an “intellectual lightweight” who has exposed himself as either having no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to abolitionist history, or who purposefully misrepresents it. If pointing out that incrementalists and incremental bills delay abolition makes abolitionists “jackasses,” then Van Maren needs to start calling Wilberforce a jackass too.
10) Did Clarkson Reject Garrisonian Immediatism?
Here, Van Maren devolves into outright deception. He says, “I own a five page letter by Thomas Clarkson – actually handwritten – to an abolitionist in the United States… in which he expressed his concerns about William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist and editor of The Liberator, because he felt like Garrison’s radicalism was actually hurting the movement and hurting the anti-slavery cause, which I found super interesting. Which is not to make the point that Clarkson was right. It’s to make the point that you don’t get to have the Garrisonian abolitionists and the Wilberforce-Clarkson abolitionists. Right? You can say, ‘I’m a Garrisonian and you guys are Wilberforce-Clarkson.’ Fair. I will happily take that.”
From Van Maren’s statements in the podcast, listeners will be led to believe Clarkson wrote that Garrison was too much of an immediatist, thus proving that Clarkson was an incrementalist and that modern abolitionists can’t have both. In reality, Clarkson’s concerns with Garrison had nothing to do with immediatism. (Clarkson, like Wilberforce, detailed his fierce opposition to incremental legislation like the Dolben Act in his writings such as The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament. Russell will cover this in detail in his video series.) Clarkson’s concerns were about Garrison’s rejection of Sabbatarianism.
Garrison grew up a Sabbatarian, and even wrote of the Sabbath as late as 1834 that, “It is a beautiful, though imperfect, type of heavenly rest. It is a rich and special provision for those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. Shall we not remember to keep it holy?” But after years of most churches and denominations rejecting the abolitionist cause, Garrison became disgusted with the hypocrisy of these “Pharisees” for their legalistic observance of the letter of certain laws which made them appear pious on Sunday while turning a blind eye to the torture, rape, and maiming of slaves throughout the rest of the week. This caused him ultimately to reject Sabbatarianism, viewing it as enabling of tyrannical pharisaicalism during the other six days.
Clarkson strongly disagreed, viewing strict observance of the Sabbath as crucial to the maintaining of Christian principles, even if anti-abolitionists held to the principle hypocritically: “Were the Sabbath and a Ministry to be abolished in less than a Century Men would forget that there was a God & Religious Principle would be done away, and we should fall into Heathenism far worse than the ancients, because from the great external knowledge we possess, we should be capable of doing greater Mischief. Were America to adopt these…Fancies as a Nation, she would be totally without any moral Principle, and civilized Europe would have no commercial Dealings with her because it could not trust to her Word.” Van Maren writes of this letter at CatholicCitizens.com and nowhere does he write that there is anything in the letter indicating that Clarkson took issue with Garrison’s immediatism.
Garrison got wind of Clarkson’s concerns about him and responded in a personal letter to Clarkson (one of many between the two abolitionists): “I know that you and Mrs. Clarkson have been grossly deceived” by false rumors which were “a weak device of the enemy, to destroy our influence and cripple our movement.” Garrison explained that he had not “mix[ed] up any extraneous matters with our sacred cause,” and that “The American Anti-Slavery Society is not, as is wickedly alleged, an ‘anti-Church, anti-ministry, anti-Sabbath, no-government society’ but unswerving in it’s course and single in its object – to wit, the abolition of slavery.” Nowhere did their debate delve into immediatism, as both held firmly to that principle. (Shoutout to Sam Riley for the research assist in finding this letter).
I tend to agree with Clarkson’s position on Sabbatarianism, and that doesn’t make me one iota less of a Garrisonian immediatist. Van Maren dishonestly attempted to pit Clarkson’s supposed incrementalism against Garrison’s immediatism while hiding from listeners the actual content of their disagreement which had nothing to do with immediatism. Van Maren is proving himself to be the last person with the credibility to accuse anyone of engaging in the immediatism-incrementalism discussion in bad faith.
11) Is Implicit Injustice Okay?
Van Maren said, “If someone put forward a law saying, ‘We’re banning abortion at a heartbeat because prior to that, it’s not a human, it’s not created in the image of God, and you can kill it,’ I would oppose that bill. That’s immoral. That’s wrong. [Incremental bills] don’t say that, though. We’re taking what we can get. Either he’s lying and slandering pro-lifers by mischaracterizing our position in a way that makes us out to be justifying murder, or he just simply doesn’t understand these things very well.”
The mistake in Van Maren’s reasoning is that he believes the law can be neutral; that you can write a law that doesn’t also serve the purpose of teaching the culture something. But the law is always a tutor. There’s no getting away from it.
When you write a law saying that abortion is illegal after 20 weeks because that’s when babies can feel pain, you are necessarily teaching the culture that pain-capability is what gives humans value. Because of that bill, you get a woman walking into an abortion clinic in Norman in 2016 saying to sidewalk counselors, “It’s okay. My baby won’t even feel any pain.” Because of the Heartbeat Bill, I was told in 2019 by the aide of an Ohio State Senator who I was exhorting to author a bill of abolition that, “This was very interesting, but it’s Senator Brenner’s personal religious conviction that life begins at a heartbeat.” Because of rape exceptions, Sam was told by a California college student, “Thank you for saying that [abortion is wrong even in the case of rape]. I was conceived in rape and when people talk about a rape exception for abortion, what I hear is that my life is less valuable.”
Laws teach. It is inherent to their nature. Van Maren thinks that by simply implying the legality of killing certain babies rather than explicitly stating it, these laws aren’t teaching injustice to the culture. But they are. Whether a given pro-life law is implicit or explicit in its allowances for the killing of certain children makes little difference. Either way, preborn children are dehumanized.
Van Maren and Brahm’s podcast was really bad morally, historically, and philosophically. It shouldn’t be treated as anything other than an attempt to delegitimize Russell and the Abolitionist Movement using tactics that were at times ignorant of history, at times ignorant of our arguments, at times devoid of solid reasoning, and at times outright deceptive.
It is notable that Van Maren and Brahm did not attempt to make a scriptural defense of pro-life incrementalism or a scriptural critique of abolitionism. On this subject, Van Maren only notes that, “I haven’t quite figured out their theology yet,” before moving to the next subject. Van Maren has clearly spent a lot of time researching the Abortion Abolitionist Movement, so it seems unlikely that he hasn’t come across our Biblical arguments. For Van Maren or anyone else, here they are.
The episode was part 1 of Brahm and Van Maren’s discussion, so another 150 ignorant and dishonest arguments are likely about to be thrown against the wall to see what sticks, meaning there will likely be a part 2 to this article as well. So be checking in on our blog, and make sure you’re subscribed to our email list so that you aren’t missing updates from Free the States!