Will Pro-Choicers “Do a 180” Thanks to this Video?

When Ray Comfort comes forward with a documentary against abortion, he must be commended by his fellows in arms against the killing of children in the womb. He has done a service in the fight against the worst evil that the present generation faces. Accordingly, it is not the intention of this article to downplay the value of Mr. Comfort’s efforts.

During the course of the documentary film 180, a comparison is drawn between the Holocaust and the present-day abortions which go on without protest from a vast swath of the American youth. The German youth of the 1930s and ’40s were lied to. Hitler convinced them that the Jew is not human, and has no right to the most fundamental dignities of man. The American youth of today are also believers in a lie: that the fetus is not human, or at least has no right to live. The lie of Nazism enabled Hitler to prey on the nearly 6,000,000 Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust. The lie of “Freedom of Choice” has enabled our government to sanction, and our fellow citizens to perform, over 53,000,000 murders during the last 37 years.

Comfort brings these facts to the attention of the viewer, but his interests extend much further—perhaps, as I will argue, too far. He is ultimately interested in reaching the hearts of all those who will see the film and converting them, not just on the pro-life issue. (The name of the 180 website is www.heartchanger.com.) The intended audience is the youth of America, and the arguments made in the documentary are addressed to non-Christian and pro-choice stances. Most of the video consists of Comfort walking up to random young people (some of them, it seems, on Venice beach) and teaching them “socratically” about first the Holocaust, then abortion. Shortly after its release on the Web, 180,000 copies of 180 were distributed to the campuses of over 100 American colleges and universities. What exactly is Comfort’s mission?

The documentary itself is at least partly based on a book by Ray Comfort called Hitler, God and the Bible. As its title suggests, the book is about the theological tenets of Hitler’s thought. Now there is no doubt that the question of Nazism was a moral one. In the years leading up to the Second World War, the threat of Nazism required that men band together with a common understanding of Natural Law. Nazism also had to be addressed politically; to combat the evils of the Holocaust and political domination. Similarly, abortion is both a moral and a political problem, and accordingly must be addressed morally and politically. The question is, must it be addressed theologically? Was Naziism primarily a theological error, to be debated in terms of religion and faith? Mr. Comfort seems to believe it was, and he applies this belief to the abortion issue as well. As he says in the film’s narration, a voice over to familiar, horrible images from the Nazis’ rise to power:

Adolf Hitler hated Christianity. He called it a disease…. he hated the Ten Commandments and wanted to free people from them. He called the Commandments the Curse of Mount Sinai, and said that the God of the Bible is a tyrant who tells us to do the things we don’t want to do.

Toward the end of the documentary, Comfort makes efforts to convert each of the young people he interviews to Christianity. And not just any Christianity, but his own particular brand of it. His Christianity has a familiar premise: We have all sinned against the Law, i. e., the Ten Commandments, and we deserve condemnation for our sins. “So if you died today and God gave you justice, you’d end up in Hell,” Comfort says to one of the interviewees (a by-now tearful 18-year-old girl with trembling blonde braids). “There are two things you have to do to be saved,” he explains, “you’ve got to repent—not just confess your sins but you’ve got to turn from them—and trust alone in Jesus Christ.”


Mr. Comfort does not do justice to abortion as a political and moral problem. In fact, he seems more concerned with young people’s religious orientation than with their voting behavior or even their native sense of morality. Abortion is an urgent problem. Over 53,000,000 children have already been murdered and that number rises daily. Considering this urgency, Comfort’s efforts to “save” people could be damning to the project of the defense of life.

In the Declaration of Independence, the fact that human beings have a right to life is called a “self evident truth.” The right to life is called “unalienable.” It is in the spirit of this country’s founding to appeal to Natural Law. “…All men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights.” The first among these rights is the right to “life.” In debating against abortion, the common, natural law may be appealed to for a moral grounding. Comfort seems to appeal only to the Divine Law of the Decalogue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say on natural law: “The natural law is immutable, permanent throughout history. The rules that express it remain substantially valid. It is a necessary foundation for the erection of moral rules and civil law.” (CCC, 1979)

At one of the campuses that received a shipment of 180, a interview takes place with a student named Paulina–footage of which Comfort added to 180‘s online version. She has watched the film and found it “offensive.” She tells the interviewer (a friend of Comfort’s) that it was inappropriate to draw the comparison between the “radical idea of Hitler” and the idea of “Freedom of Choice.” It would be neat and easy to see Paulina as an enemy.  It could be said that Paulina is the kind of person that 180 is against. But it is not as simple as that. As a young American who is non-Christian and pro-choice, Paulina is exactly who the film is for. And she is not being reached. What is her complaint? “That’s not how you change people’s minds in the morally right way,” she says, “if you want to bring God into it.” Her complaint is principally against the insistence that the morality of abortion cannot be discussed independent of the concept of a Divine Law which must be obeyed.

Alternatively, she proposes that “you let them decide, you give them a reason, you don’t take them and make them guilty … that’s what [Comfort] did.” The interviewer responds by attempting to convince Paulina to convert and be “saved.” There is a problem here. When Ray Comfort watches this interview later, his comments reveal just what that problem might be. He praises the woman who interviewed Paulina, saying “I think [the interviewer] was marvelous at moving away from the issue of abortion and applying the Lord to [Paulina’s] conscience.”

In his Guide to Thomas Aquinas, Joseph Pieper discusses the characteristics of the good teacher.He writes that “[r]eal teaching takes place only when its ultimate result—which must be intended from the start—is achieved: when the hearer is ‘taught.’ … Being taught,” argues Pieper, is not simply “being carried away,” nor is it “being dominated by another’s intellect.” Rather, being taught is “to perceive that what the teacher has said is true and valid, and to perceive why this is so.” Pieper says therefore that teaching “presupposes that the hearer is sought out where he is to be found,” and that “teaching implies proceeding from the existing position and disposition of the hearer.”

What would “being taught” look like with on the subject of abortion? Well, it must be taken into account that the majority of the interviewees in 180, and of Comfort’s target audience, do not attend church and do not believe in damnation or salvation. According to a recent study (USA Today 08-01-2009), only 59% of Americans believe in Hell, and there is much evidence to suggest that the percentage is much lower among the youth of the country. This is Comfort’s target audience. But his method of approaching them on the issue of abortion is to appeal to the authority of Divine Justice– a concept which is not within their worldview. “Teaching does not consist in a man’s making public talks on the results of his meditations,” argues Pieper. “Even if he does so ex cathedra before a large audience.” At best, Comfort does the equivalent of speaking “ex cathedra,” if only insofar as he quotes the Word of God. But according to Pieper, even that is not true teaching.

Unfortunately, Comfort’s kind of teaching might well lend itself more to offending than to amassing allies. Comfort desires to save souls, in his own idiosyncratic way, as a representative of one of the 33,000+ Christian denominations presently active in the world. The question is simply this: Properly speaking, when it comes to abortion, are we trying to save souls, or are we trying to save lives? If Comfort insists on doing both tasks, then it would at least be advisable to take them on one at a time.

Stephen Herreid

By

Stephen Herreid is currently a Fellow at the John Jay Institute (Philadelphia) and the arts editor for Humane Pursuits. He has been a Contributing Editor to The Intercollegiate Review Online and has contributed several chapters to the latest edition of ISI’s Choosing the Right College.

  • Michael PS

    The whole argument is based on the false, Neo-Scholastic idea (derived from Suarez’s interpretation of St Thomas) of some state of pure nature and, hence of a “political sphere” directed to purely natural “common good,” that can be properly independent of any specifically Christian sense of justice.

    But the “natural end of man” is a pure abstraction; there is only man fallen and man redeemed.

    Thus, St Augustine says “Nisi credederitis, non intellegitis – Unless you believe you will not understand…”

    • John Zmirak

      No, it is based on Natural Law, which the Church has always taught is understandable in principle to the pagan of good will, since it is written on the human heart–being at once the fruit of reason and the contents of the Covenant of Noah. On Michael’s view, you would not even bother trying to convince people in 1931 Germany that Nazism was bad policy. You’d just read the Catechism to them. Beware of Fideism, which HAS (unlike Suarez) been condemned as a heresy by Popes, not just fashionable theologians, however worthy (de Lubac).

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    My question to Stephen Herried is this: Abortion aside, is the matter of “Divine Justice” of importance to you? Is repentence of personal sin essential for salvation? Is faith in Jesus Christ essential to salvation? Just asking…

  • http://www.thewayofbeauty.org David Clayton

    The question here it seems to me is what is the primary purpose of the video? Is it to try to persuade people to change from a pro-choice to a pro-life position and so save the lives of babies; or is it to convert those who see it to Christianity first? These are not mutually exclusive aims, but the content of the video will be affected, it seems to me, by which purpose you focus on.

    The compaign regarding Proposition 8 in California, regarding gay ‘marriage’, was deliberately framed in arguments based in natural law (none of which were contrary to Christian teaching) by Dominicans, without reference to Christ or the bible. This was done so that it would appeal to people who would not even consider the arguments if they thought it was based in an assumption of Christianity.
    You have to take people from where they are, and sometimes arguments from natural law open the door to a later acceptance of the gospel.

    I really do hope the video succeeds in making many people make a 180 turn, but I fear, with Stephen (taking his description of the approach – I admit I haven’t seen it) may not. You have to take people from where they are.

  • Robert Morris

    Let us find every possible reason to stand with fellow pro-lifers and not separate ourselves from someone who has chosen to give himself to the movement in a different way.

  • Howard Kainz

    “Comfort seems to appeal only to the Divine Law of the Decalogue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say on natural law: “The natural law is immutable, permanent throughout history.”
    This distinction between natural law and the Decalogue as divine law is too sharp. The last seven commandments of the Decalogue are simply natural law, applicable to all religions and pagans. See St. Paul, Romans, 2:14-16, 21-24. One doesn’t need a special revelation from God to know that murder, stealing, etc. are wrong.

    • http://Musings-of-jeb.blogspot.com Jeremiah Evans

      You are correct, but I think the point is being missed. The Decalogue is a shortcut to natural law, in a sense. It is given to us by fiat as opposed to reason.

      What the Church teaches (as I understand) is that the natural law is accessible to all by virtue of reason and intuition, as it is indeed natural as the title exists – a part of what it means to be human.

      As Aquinas said, truth cannot contradict truth, even if it is from different sources, so we would expect that our reason and Divine fiat would align when it comes to natural laws, even without a necessary appeal to the Divine authority.

      So, if by distinction you are perceiving a claim of difference between parts of the Decalogue and Natural Law, I agree. However, it seems that the point being made is that one can reach the natural law by means other than scripture (Deo Gratias!), which allows us a way to speak to those who say in their heart, “There is no God.”

      Side benefit, the ability to reach the Decalogue by reason and intuition, once one has accepted the divinity of scripture, allows one to see and appreciate the intelligibility with which God has created all things. He is not a capricious God who leaves us guessing, but rather an author of order who permits us to learn about His creation without being told explicitly (though He also tells us the important things, again, Deo Gratias!).

  • MMC

    If you listen and watch other videos on Ray Comfort’s site “The Way of the Master” you will find his approach is based on how Christ dealt with people. It’s all biblical.

    Just because someone is young and doesn’t consciously believe in hell doesn’t mean they don’t have a conscience that surely does. Comfort is basing his approach on this fact: that every single human person was born with the ability and inner knowledge of good and evil (see Adam, Eve and the apple from the tree:+)…even if on the surface they say otherwise…each of us knows the truth deep down.

    I applaud him for his efforts to bring logic back into the abortion sphere…it’s been led by emotions for far too long. And yes, the whole goal of ANY of our lives is the salvation of souls…bravo Mr. Comfort!

  • Tony Esolen

    It is typical — please don’t jump on me for saying so, since I speak from 25 years of teaching college students — that young women will, when presented with a position that threatens their world, shift attention from the what to the how. “It’s offensive!” “It’s insensitive!” They don’t want to approach the issue of truth.

    I don’t mean to paint with a broad brush; what I say is not true of most young women, but almost all the students I’ve met for whom it is true have been women. A miserable case in point — and an incident I’ve learned from, I hope: a female sociology student, desperately trying to save her moral relativism, spoke these words to me: “What was right for the Nazis, was right for the Nazis.”

    • Sarto

      As somebody who spent many a year dealing with college students I would have to agree with your observations. I think this is because of a philosophical movement that began generations ago, which stopped stressing the mind and started stressing the will. With the mind, you discover reality. With the will, you create reality.

      Another thought about the “What was right for the Nazis.”
      Something I started to see earlier in highschool was the refusal to “put someone down” by judging their actions. Beginning with their friends, it was hard for them to judge someone wrong. I think students confuse “you are wrong” with “you are guilty.” I used to tell them loud and long, “I know, only God can judge guilt. But if someone is pouring gasoline on a plant instead of water, I don’t care about his good intentions. He is wrong!” Then they would agree. But when we started to get into the vices young people love, suddenly the discussion got hard again.

  • MMC

    Tony-

    Sadly, young women are no longer taught to either manage their emotions nor that objective truth exists. They are also taught that “it’s all about me” with the whole Disney princess junk.

    We have a lot of work to do to help them learn the truth…but they are more than worth it:+)

  • http://confidentlycatholic.wordpress.com Cherie

    I saw this video a few months back, and I was sorely disappointed when the final segment aimed at conversion/repentance began. Up until that point, it was the sort of thing I’d find very useful in conversations with well-meaning friends who are pro-choice. However, virtually 100% of people I interact with regularly either identify themselves as Christians already, or have knowingly rejected Christianity. That last portion would be offensive, or at least a turn-off, to either group.

    Still, as the author noted, it’s commendable that he is engaging the youth on this issue and actually trying to change individual hearts and minds.

  • Michael PS

    Fideism is indeed a heresy; so is Semi-Pelagianism.

    We know from scripture (Heb XI:6) that without faith, it is impossible to please God and Our Lord (John V:24) and St Paul (Eph II:1, 5) teach us that the unregenerate are dead in sin.

    As for the Natural Law, “Having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their hearts…” (Eph 4:18)

    Hence the maxim: Virtutes gentium – Splendida vitia (Pagan virtues – splendid vices). “Modern” French theologians, like Henri de Lubac are merely continuing a venerable Gallic tradition, reaching back, at least, to St Prosper of Aquitaine and the Council of Orange.

  • http://www.vaughnkohler.com Vaughn

    As a recent convert from evangelicalism to the Catholic Church, I felt a bit torn as I read this column. On the one hand, I am now joyfully at home in Rome and am glad that some of the well-intentioned, but schmaltzy (and ultimately ineffective) approaches to evangelism typical of evangelical Protestants are not often practiced in the Church.

    On the other hand, the zeal and concern that evangelicals show for the souls of non-Christians is something that I hope grows stronger among contemporary Catholics. Since it is, in fact, firmly based in Sacred Scripture and the historic teachings of the Church.

    At times, I felt the author of this column casually disregarded the need for conversion, as if convincing someone not to have an abortion was more important than calling them to salvation in Christ.

    Someone mentioned this, and I agree: the problem appears to be that Mr. Comfort was trying to do two things at once, and perhaps that is what confused his efforts.

    That said, I am increasingly convinced that there are limits to the “well, non-Christians have the natural law written on their consciences so we can just reason with them” argument. Maybe I’m too Augustinian on this issue, but what pro-abortionists need is more than a solid argument. Arguments can be acknowledged, but willfully rejected. So, what the pro-abortion crowd needs, more than anything, is a work of grace in their hearts.

    They need to be converted to Christ.

    So, in that sense, perhaps Mr. Comfort isn’t all that off the mark…

  • Jenmarstan

    All I can say is that everyone I have showed this video to, has either had a change of heart or at a minimum, hesitate to claim their “pro choice” belief, willing to reconsider. That is not a bad thing!   
    I understand your point as a Catholic myself, but I disagree with you on Comfort’s purpose to convert viewers to his religion. To awaken in one a desire to search for Christ and Truth, in other words to “save” oneself is a start, for once there the Holy Spirit will continue to guide. As we all know, God seeks us where we are at. This could be the first step towards a conversion of heart. May I add that guilt, used in a positive way is not a bad thing, it often is the “nervous system” of our souls alerting us to spiritual danger. We would be foolish to avoid it though we live in a world that seeks to eliminate it at all costs, seeking instead,  to always build up one’s “ego”. If this video awaken’s a heart to the plight of the unborn and they reconsider their stance, even if it is,  to “save” their own soul,  I commend Mr. Comfort. There will never be just “one way” to reach all people and some may take offense but overall the fruit of this film has been overwhleming.  As a firm believer that the Catholic Church is the one true Church, I have no doubt, that Jesus will use many of my Protestant brothers and sisters in order to bring His flock home.     

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