Culture Eats Abortion Legal Strategies for Breakfast

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Management guru Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He spoke of one’s corporate culture hijacking a new approach in the marketplace or in the office. The adage also applies to any institutional or national culture that seeks to evolve. Leading deep change at my own institution right now brings this truism to life: the deeply ingrained culture of First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, both healthy and unhealthy, challenges any new ministry strategy. The answer? Inspire the unhealthy cultural practices formed in each and every person’s heart to evolve through invitation and challenge; embrace the healthy cultural practices in each and every heart and set it free to expand.

Drucker’s insight applies equally well to contemporary American culture grappling with issues of human life and death. Legal strategies seeking to influence our practices around life and its beginning, death and its end, and the many gray complexities in between, will always be eaten for breakfast by the American culture.

Three recent examples illustrate people using the law to fence cultural practices on life and death issues. The Massachusetts Supreme Court held a woman responsible for involuntary manslaughter of her boyfriend after she sent him dozens of texts encouraging him to commit suicide and failed to call authorities for help. The Virginia legislature killed a bill allowing an abortion up to and during a woman’s labor; New York State grotesquely passed such a bill. Finally, the United States Supreme Court recently blocked a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to hold admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

Each of these very different cases demonstrate the law as the battleground surrounding life and death issues. My question for the many attorneys, civic groups, lobbyists, and donors behind these and so many other legal strategies: what else are you doing to shape the culture besides seeking legal victory? Because culture eats strategy, even legal strategy, for breakfast.

The hearts and habits of the American people may be fenced for a season by a court of law, but the hearts and habits of people will win the day. Attempts to address the law without a broader cultural strategy will always come up short. This is a reason I am a pastor, and not an attorney. I get to focus on forming people’s hearts into the image of God. Heart change lasts generations; legal change lasts until the next decision.

In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Cardinal Timothy Dolan suggests the New York statute allowing for abortion during labor could become a Dred Scott moment in the right to life debate. The Supreme Court in 1857 stated that African-Americans were “unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The case fueled the growing abolition movement such that war soon broke out. Dolan shudders at a similar outbreak of violence today, but demonstrates that the culture’s deep convictions, whether they be about human bondage and forced labor or the nature of life, death, and killing, will win over law in the long run.

The true and best battlefront for changing cultural practices rests with each and every citizen’s heart. The ethical convictions of our neighbors matter. Collectively these sentiments will emerge, get expressed, and become who, how, and what we are as a people in and through law. So, love thy neighbor, and love him as if life and death depend on it.

Case Thorp is moderator-elect of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the senior associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, and leads The Collaborative.


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Case Thorp