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.