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The last Tuesday in April is Pro-Life T-Shirt Day. Each year, Rock for Life, a youth-oriented pro-life group whose statement of purpose says it “works to bring together bands who stand for the truth—that life is sacred from fertilization until natural death—with no exceptions, no compromise, and no apologies,” encourages public-school students to wear some of its most provocative shirts to class. Almost without fail, at least one principal asks one of these kids to change his shirt or sends him home.
Rock for Life director Erik Whittington is the point man for Pro-Life T-Shirt Day, which recently celebrated its fourth anniversary. His job is to get kids who are culturally predisposed to being pro-life to step up their political involvement—to the point they’ll wear their convictions on their chest.
Immediately after a kid in a Rock for Life tee gets sent home, the organization publicizes the incident and, with the help of the Thomas More Law Center, a conservative-Christian-oriented firm from Ann Arbor, Mich., threatens to sue the school system. To Whittington, winning the case isn’t as important as getting it in the papers: Controversy, he likes to say, “just causes more education.” And provocation is only good insofar as it starts a dialogue.
“If you wore a shirt that says abortion is homicide or abortion kills kids, then that provokes discussion,” says Whittington, “and if this girl is, you know, ‘Well that’s really lame, I’m gonna tell the principal,’ and the principal says, ‘That’s really lame that you offended her,’ it provokes a lot of discussion, and that’s what we really want, because the bottom line is that abortion does kill children.”
Whittington, 36, believes that any honest dialogue about abortion will bring people to Rock for Life’s way of thinking. He also believes that most objections to his group’s shirts are functions of school officials’ subservience to unions that are in the pocket of pro-choice organizations. “Principals and teachers get upset, because, you know, the teachers’ unions endorsed the March for Womens’ Lives, which was a pro-abortion march. So we know that in the public school system, it’s just infiltrated [with] people that are abortion advocates.”
Erik Whittington and I had been talking for a while before this subject came up. I first became aware of Rock for Life at the Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Ill., a giant Christian-rock event where I kept seeing shirts with a singular inscription:
you will not silence my message
you will not mock my god
you will stop killing my generation
On the front of these shirts was the Rock for Life logo, which shows a fetus playing electric guitar in the womb. Now that’s something you don’t see every day, I thought. And so I found myself in Stafford, Va., at the headquarters of the American Life League, Rock for Life’s parent organization, located in the former headquarters of the Stafford County sheriff’s department.
All summer long for the past 11 years, Whittington and a couple of Rock for Life staffers have traveled to Christian-rock festivals, where they staff a booth at which kids can pick up pamphlets and buy T-shirts, silicone wristbands, and CD compilations of pro-life bands that Whittington oversees. The booth also has videos and a three-ring binder of gruesome photos of aborted fetuses that they show kids who aren’t sure whether they’re pro-life. Usually, they have a handwritten sign stuck on a wall that says, if you’re pro-choice, tell us why!
It’s all part of a strategy born of the realization that, while many Christian kids say they’re pro-life, few do anything about it. “We know from the Gallup Poll a couple years ago that 72 percent of kids age 13 to 17 believe abortion is immoral,” he says. “The opposition comes from adults. So we have abortion advocates teaching pro-life kids, so we need to balance that out.”
Rock for Life doesn’t use only extreme slogans. One of the group’s most successful T-shirts says simply, i survived. “That provokes someone coming up to you and saying, ‘What does that mean?’ ‘I survived the abortion holocaust,’” Whittington says. “That shirt isn’t gonna cause any controversy in a school, obviously. But that would cause a lot more one-on-one conversation.”
Another softer slogan RFL uses is 1/3—the number of U.S. pregnancies Whittington says have ended in abortion since Roe v. Wade. That figure relies on what Whittington himself admits is imprecise math. He starts with figures from the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the Centers for Disease Control. The most recent state that 24 percent of all U.S. pregnancies end in abortion.
Whittington says that because there are no standards for reporting abortions, those numbers are likely low. But in any event, he says, they also don’t count what he calls “chemical abortion”: “You know, the number of babies aborted via birth control pills or the patch, IUDs, Depo, Norplant, the morning-after pill, Plan B, emergency contraception.”
And if you ask him whether those methods don’t simply prevent pregnancy, he’ll ask you to define pregnancy. That definition changed in the ’60s, he says. “Planned Parenthood was behind all this. They got the American Medical Association to [say] pregnancy doesn’t start until your child implants his or herself on the uterus.”
So when a blastocyst doesn’t implant in the womb, that’s abortion? Even for conservatives, that’s conservative. “It’s definitely one-third of our generation,” Whittington says. “That’s the concept.”
The American Life League’s informal mantra is “It’s the baby, stupid.” In fact, I saw a handwritten poster that said just that on one ALL executive’s office. ALL’s dedication to the sanctity of human life can verge on the parodic. Browsing through a collection of the group’s press releases, I found announcement after announcement of boycotts. Boycott the 2005 Academy Awards because host Chris Rock once made jokes about abortion. Boycott the rock band Kiss because it sells branded condoms. Boycott Samuel Adams beer because it advertised on the infamous radio show where shock jocks Opie and Anthony allegedly encouraged a couple to have sex in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Rock for Life is no less strident on its own Web site, on which it keeps detailed lists of pro-life and “pro-abortion” bands and encourages disappointed fans of say, Jurassic 5 (“Axis of Justice Benefit CD, America Coming Together benefit”), Le Tigre (“often seen giving Gloria Steinem the mic”) and Pearl Jam (too many sins to mention) to send their CDs back to the artists.
On the other hand, RFL lists plenty of artists that a pro-life kid can enjoy without having to keep a postage meter in his bedroom. Without exception, they’re Christian acts. I ask Whittington if he’s ever able to listen to music without thinking about the artist’s view of abortion.
“I can listen to a good musician regardless of what their political stance is,” he says. “The difficult part is going to the store and financially supporting someone like that. We’re not advocating for a specific boycott right now. I would say that what we’re asking people to do is to watch their money.”
But the thing is, aside from sponsoring stages at Christian-rock festivals, there’s not that much rock in Rock for Life. The group organizes more demonstrations than concerts, and in 2005, it posted a grand total of one record review on its Web site. Five years have passed since Rock for Life last put out a compilation CD, 2001’s The Esther Project (a new compilation will be released this summer). You could cynically view this tenuous connection to rock as a ploy, or maybe the highest expression of evangelical Christianity’s penchant for regarding music as nothing more than a tool. Or maybe you could view it as the simple consequence of the fact that, despite his MySpace and Xanga pages, despite his blog and Rock for Life’s podcasts (which, to be fair, do feature the sounds of pro-life bands such as Here Today), Whittington is, as they say in the entertainment biz, moving out of the demo.
He’s got four kids (he says five: his most recent, a girl, is still “in utero”). He just bought a bigger house for his brood. And this summer, Rock for Life’s chapters and street-team coordinator, Phil Eddy, a 22-year-old vegan from New York state who moved down to Stafford last year, will attend most of the Christian-rock festivals in Whittington’s stead. When I first started talking to Whittington, I was surprised by how much we had in common—typical 30-something music-geek stuff, plus fatherhood and an attraction to hopeless baseball teams. It’s just that on Saturdays, I tend to mow my lawn, maybe grill out and—far too often—pass out drunk in my hammock. He, on the other hand, stands outside women’s health clinics holding a sign that says abortion kills children.
Whittington knows the rules for protesting in front of the Supreme Court cold. You can’t stand, sit, or leave any of your stuff on the steps. Prayer, he says, is considered a form of demonstration in D.C., so you can’t drop to your knees anywhere. It’s a warm September morning in 2005, and I’ve ridden up to Washington with him, a 17-year-old named Matt Wilson who is unofficially famous around ALL for wearing nothing but a diaper and a pacifier to a pro-life rally, and David Bereit, who runs ALL’s anti–Planned Parenthood group, STOPP.
Matt isn’t wearing any diapers today. He’s standing next to Whittington, holding a sign that says abortion is homicide. Whittington’s says planned parenthood steals souls. It’s 7 a.m., and Planned Parenthood had scheduled a rally to oppose the nomination of John Roberts to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The nomination was all but a done deal, but Rock for Life didn’t want Planned Parenthood to be the only group in front of the cameras.
A few young pro-lifers, many of whom have been out all night chalking anti-abortion slogans on sidewalks, are already out front holding signs with slogans such as crusade for the defense of our catholic church and justice for all: born and preborn. There’s one woman among the five guys in Rock for Life’s crew. I ask Whittington if it bothers him that they don’t have more ladies out there. “We just get who we can get,” he says, but adds that he wishes more women had shown up. “Though it’s not like guys can’t have an opinion on this. I mean, we’re supposed to take care of kids.”
At 7:30, some Planned Parenthood supporters arrive and take up spots between the pro-lifers. Whittington jokes collegially with the woman next to him. “I asked her if she wanted a sign,” he says after she has joined the larger group gathering on the sidewalk. “She offered me a shirt. I told her I’d take a small.”
Planned Parenthood supporters in matching pink T-shirts begin streaming up 1st Street NE. “When are the strollers coming by?” an older woman in a green T-shirt that says roberts yes! barks into her cell phone.
Planned Parenthood’s rally rapidly coalesces. Camera crews begin to swirl around the group’s spokesperson, Stephenie Foster, as she unrolls an 8-foot-long petition with 100,000 signatures asking senators to question Roberts on his views on choice. As if a switch has been thrown, everyone takes their game up a notch. Cameras converge on the 30-odd Planned Parenthood supporters, who are hoisting signs that say save roe. Whittington nods at Bereit, and they quickly distribute signs that mimic the typeface and color of Planned Parenthood’s. roe has been saved! she’s now pro-life, they proclaim. Bereit jostles his way into the scrum of pro-choice folks, lifting his sign up for the cameras. Whittington and some of the other Rock for Lifers stand at the back, raising up their signs highest of all.
Rock for Life’s new signs are intended to rub it in that Norma McCorvey, the “Roe” in Roe v. Wade, is now a pro-life activist.
There is an advantage to having mostly men at a women’s-issue rally—men are taller and can get their signs up higher than women for the most part. Some of the male pro-choice and pro-life demonstrators begin trying to block one another’s signs, a competition the women mostly sit out.
As soon as the cameras pack up, the rally begins to lose steam. Cell phones appear, a sure sign that the heat of battle has passed. A few pro-choicers depart, but most move over to the south side of the court stairs, where they form a semi-circle and began chanting.
At this moment, the stroller brigade arrives, too late for TV but still in time for some fun. Four middle-aged women whose heavy makeup couldn’t contrast more with the well-scrubbed look of the pro-choice gals unfold six strollers and begin pushing them in an oval in front of the Planned Parenthood supporters.
The Rev. Patrick Mahoney, a veteran of Operation Rescue who now heads a group called the Christian Defense Coalition, has arrived with the stroller women, carrying a sign that says honor god—honor the constitution. “Shame!” he shouts at the Planned Parenthood folks. “Where are your numbers? Your Web site said there would be hundreds! The Bible gives a pretty good representation of people who are opposed to Roberts!”
I chat with Phil Eddy, whom I can’t help noticing isn’t holding a sign. He is, in fact, on the media side of the demonstration. “Right-wing Christians don’t have it right,” he says. Eddy, a fan of emo bands with mortgages such as Kid Dynamite, is consistent in his opposition to the death penalty, war, and eating meat—he’s against killing, period. “Pro-life is the only thing keeping me in the mainstream,” he says. Eddy moved down to Stafford this summer, having been offered a position at Rock for Life after interning for a few summers. He likes being here because he’s close to PETA headquarters in Norfolk, Va.—many PETA activists, he says, are also pro-life.
Eddy cast his first-ever presidential vote for Ralph Nader, in 2004. “I lean definitely more toward direct democracy,” he says. He has a tape of the 1999 World Trade Organization protest in Seattle that he calls “riot porn.” As a vegan, he finds it tough to travel but can usually find his favorite food, artichoke hearts, in most grocery stores.
“Phil, if you’re not doing anything…” Whittington says tartly as he approaches us and hands him a Kinko’s bag full of signs to hold.
Eddy was pro-choice until he argued the pro-life position in a high-school debate. I ask Eddy if he’s a Christian. “Most people would say no,” he says.
“Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! John Roberts has got to go!” the pro-choicers chant. Mahoney, who by this time has set up a portable PA system, uses a microphone as he continues to taunt them. “Where are your numbers?” he says. “Your Internet said there would be thousands! Where are they?”
I’m getting hungry. I ask Whittington how long we’re gonna be out here. “Planned Parenthood is supposed to be here till 9:30,” he says. So you’ll be here ’til when? I ask.
“Nine thirty-five,” he says, winking.
Mahoney gets louder. “Our people are down in Louisiana, helping out in soup kitchens!” he shouts. “Your people aren’t helping the hurricane victims! Planned Parenthood is a racist organization! Did you know that Margaret Sanger was a racist? Where are your hoods? Where are all your people?”
As the pro-choicers wrap up, Mahoney continues his onslaught. “Where are you going? The armory is that way! The armory is that way to help the poor and the needy!” He asks the pro-lifers, by now the only demonstrators remaining, to pause for a prayer, asking God to bless the pro-choice protestors “who don’t know what they’re supporting, oh God.”
Eddy pulls a carrot out of his backpack and munches it. Whittington and Matt go around gathering the signs, which they put in the Kinko’s bag. As they do so, I notice four young women putting red tape over their mouths and standing silently at the base of the steps, behind where the Planned Parenthood rally had been. I go over and ask a guy cutting a few more pieces of red tape what he’s doing.
“We’re a group called Bound for Life,” he says. “We write life on tape, put it over our mouths, and pray silently to end abortion.”
Whittington was conceived out of wedlock, a fact I point out to him is somewhat telling.
“Yeah!” he says, laughing. His grandparents forced his mother and father to get married, but it didn’t last, and Erik grew up in Kankakee, Ill., with his mother and stepfather. It was not a Christian upbringing, and by the time the family moved to Portland, Ore., Whittington, a budding musician, had only a few goals in life: “just have fun, not worry about the future, have a good time.”
He says he was “pro-abortion” at the time. I ask him whether that means he consciously considered himself pro-abortion.
“Well, at the time I really wouldn’t call myself anything. But I know just from living my lifestyle, you know, sexual immorality, there was always a threat of pregnancy. So I was for abortion, because that was a threat. I never had an abortion experience, but I would have had one if a girl had had a pregnancy test that was positive. I mean, it was preconceived—you will have an abortion.”
I express some surprise at this. Would he really have been so matter-of-fact about it? For a lot of people, that’s a difficult decision.
“Being a musician,” he explains, an unwanted pregnancy “would have interrupted my life.”
One October day when he was in his early 20s, Whittington was driving around Portland and happened on a “life chain,” which is when pro-lifers stand holding signs in a long line to mark Respect Life Month. “This was at the tail end of the whole Operation Rescue stuff, where all you saw on TV was, oh, they’re doing a blockade, someone got arrested, someone got shot,” Whittington says. “So my view at the time was that pro-lifers are, you know, crazy. But seeing peaceful people holding these signs, people were smiling, there were kids, there were older people—I didn’t see anything crazy.”
Life chains are painstakingly organized by a group called Please Let Me Live. Participants can have only signs with one of seven approved messages. The one PLML particularly stresses is abortion kills children, which is the one that got to Whittington. “I felt like, Wow, I can’t believe that I believe something else. I can’t believe that I would have aborted a baby if I got someone pregnant. I don’t wanna say that I cried, but I did a bit.”
This epiphany caused Whittington to reexamine his nihilistic existence. “I really just looked at everything. I started meeting Christians that were musicians, Christians that were artists, Christians that were homeless, Christians that were gutter punks, just different people. I was meeting cool people, people who were just like me.”
Eventually, as Whittington puts it, he “caved.”
“I accepted the fact that there is a God and a creator, your basic Christian concept. And I decided to follow it and see what happens.”
Whittington joined a few bands: Sometimes Sunday—an early signing to the phenomenally successful Christian indie label Tooth & Nail—Tragedy Ann, and Twin Sister. When he wasn’t playing shows, he’d set up a table in clubs with pro-life literature. This was not easy for him. “I was introverted,” he says. “You have to be a go-getter to be pro-life.” If he wasn’t motivated, he did a good impression. Whittington would buy as many used copies of pro-life books such as Randy Alcorn’s Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Questions as he could afford and sell them at shows. He bought bumper stickers and other paraphernalia from pro-life suppliers like Victory Won and Heritage House, “and groups I wish not to mention because I wouldn’t use their stuff again, just too controversial,” he says. He also got literature from the American Life League.
God, Whittington says, was still not answering his prayers—what he really wanted was to be a Christian-rock star. The signs he was getting, though, were different. “I was still trying to find what I was supposed to do,” he says. “I would pray about it and want the answer to be a band, or music, or whatever, and I would get this mailing from a pro-life group. And then I’d pray some more the next day, and then I’d hear a radio program that had some pro-life guy on it. And then the next day, I’d look up and see a bumper sticker on a car. It finally got to the point where I was like, This is totally ridiculous.”
Those weren’t coincidences? I ask.
“It was clear as day to me,” he says.
At a March for Life in D.C., Whittington met Bryan Kemper, who was doing the same sort of thing at rock shows in California and calling it Rock for Life. They decided to combine forces. They started putting on shows, releasing compilation CDs, and attending festivals. They’d been, in Whittington’s words, “courting” the American Life League for a while, hitting the organization up for donations and free literature.
“They called us up and said, ‘You know, we’re looking to expand what we’re doing with young people, and we’d really like to take on Rock for Life as one of our projects,” he says. He and Kemper moved to Virginia. (Kemper has since left RFL under circumstances Whittington won’t discuss except to say the two had a falling-out; Kemper now directs a similar pro-life group called Stand True.)
That was a pretty savvy move, I say of ALL’s youth injection. The only pro-life people I ever saw growing up were elderly Catholic women.
“I think up until then,” he says, “the general consensus with a lot of pro-life groups was, [abortion] is gonna end shortly. But I think people got to a point where they were like, ‘OK, this is a cancer in society and it’s spread—it’s just gonna take a generation or even longer.’”
Attempting to affect a generational change seems like a pretty big job for an introvert, I suggest.
“It’s interesting how if you become passionate about something, it’ll change your whole everything,” Whittington says. “I would say I still am introverted in some ways. I don’t think it’s a black-and-white thing; I think you can be a little bit of both.”
After the Supreme Court protest, I Google Pat Mahoney’s name. One of the hits brought up a photo taken during the height of the Terri Schiavo controversy, when a couple of local dudes walked into the crowd of protesters in front of the Pinellas Park, Fla., hospice in which Schiavo was dying, and hoisted signs that said we are idiots. The photos, duly posted on the self-proclaimed idiots’ Web site, flashed around the world instantly.
Mahoney’s not pictured. But one of the middle-aged women who accompanied him to the Supreme Court protest is there, leaning over the barrier, her face a perfect conflation of anger, sadness, and disgust. But mostly anger.
How strange a lot in life, I thought—recalling the way she conducted herself at the demonstration I saw, when fury filled the air around her like flop sweat—to be professionally angry. I don’t get that feeling from Whittington. I’d seen him banter amiably with pro-choice protesters and even listen empathetically while one woman argued with him. He wasn’t angry. He was even sort of peaceful.
A couple of times during our interviews, I asked Whittington what kind of feedback he’d gotten from the sign on Rock for Life’s festival booths, the one that says, if you’re pro-choice, tell us why! The first time, he told me a couple of conversion stories: a woman who decided to have a baby she’d been planning to abort, for example. The second time, we were in his cubicle at ALL, and he showed me an RFL flyer on which someone had written, “This is not Christ’s way” and another (in the same handwriting) that said, “Christians shouldn’t hate.”
Why do you keep this stuff? I ask him.
“Well, I’m trying to reach this person as well,” he says. “So having it sit here on my desk keeps me thinking about what can I do to be more effective for that person.”
Do you ever look at something like this, I ask him, and say, Gee, do I come across as if I hate people?
“I do ask myself that question,” he says. “Because I don’t want to come across hating. But I think generally my perception is that their perception on what hate and love is is different. Because we’re out there trying to educate, and stop the killing.
“So I don’t—you know, what are they trying to do? They’re advocating, most likely, for abortion, which is killing. So if that’s their version of love, then obviously we have a problem with what is love.”
What if they’re taking issue with the way you’re expressing that? I ask.
“Well, yeah, we definitely take that into consideration,” he says. “I know generally what most people that are supportive of us respond to. And those are generally those shirts that have the blatant statements on them.”
You still haven’t told me why you think pro-choice people disagree with you, I say.
“I just think they’re misinformed. I just don’t think they understand the consequences of their beliefs. And they’re for a lofty goal, you know, rights for women, but it’s so detrimental to women. It’s obviously detrimental to the babies they’re carrying.
“They’re just like any other person,” he continues. “We all have sins, we all need redeemed. We’re all humans that ultimately need God, I guess. We’re all human, and we all need help and assistance, and I think that women that are pregnant and scared need someone to hold their hand, they need financial assistance, they need spiritual assistance.
“I think a lot of women just need someone to tell them that everything’s gonna be OK, that I’ll help you out, I’ll love you, I’ll be with you through this whole thing, thick or thin. But if they don’t have that, I can see it seeming like an easy choice to make at the time. It’s just like, after my own experience, you just need someone, one person who has the guts to say, ‘This is the truth,’ or, ‘This is wrong.’
“True love would be being blunt, and being honest. No, you can’t get an abortion because you’re carrying a baby. You can’t kill your child. Sure it’s the easy thing to do, sure it’s only $300 today, but that pales in comparison to what you’ll experience for the rest of your life. If I really cared about you, I wouldn’t allow this to happen. If I really cared about you, I would not let you do this. If I really cared about you, I would let you stay at my house. I would buy you a crib. I would buy you diapers.”
Obviously you can’t do that for everyone, I say.
“You can’t,” he replies. “But that’s why the Christian church has failed. It’s the Christian church that led blacks out of slavery in the South, illegally. It’s the Christian church that traditionally has fed the poor, clothed the naked, visited criminals in jail. But it’s not like that [now].” Whittington is aware that’s especially true in evangelical culture, which places a lot more emphasis on individual responsibility than on societal problems.
When I first talked to Whittington, in July 2004, he told me that registering pro-life young people to vote was a priority of Rock for Life. In a press release, the group said it hoped to sign up half a million kids. By September, RFL had ended up handing off most of the registration tasks to groups that had organized specifically to register Christians, such as Americans of Faith. In any event, politics is dangerous ground for a nonprofit—Rock for Life endangers its tax-free status if it does anything that can be interpreted as campaigning for a particular party or candidate.
Whittington appeared to come pretty close to the line a couple of times during the run-up to the election. “How many of you watched John Kerry’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention last night?” began a July 2004 post on his blog on the RFL site. “I did, and I almost puked. Kerry is for the destruction of living human embryos [because of his support for stem cell research].” During the pro-Kerry Vote for Change tour that summer, the Duluth News Tribune reported Whittington as saying, “Voting for Kerry isn’t going to bring change in this country. I’m saying let’s vote for change, elect a Republican president who will choose judges that can help abolish Roe v. Wade.”
Whittington insists that he was misquoted in the latter instance and would never endorse a particular party. “The bottom line is, we’re gonna be hard on anyone. We’ve been pretty hard on Bush. Really, what has he done? We’ve had other presidents that have said they were pro-life—at least they did something, said more than ‘We need to bring about a culture that respects life.’ That’s nice, but use the bully pulpit.”
Cynics, I say, might argue that banning abortion would be the worst thing that could ever happen to the Republican party, since it would demotivate millions of single-issue voters.
“I don’t think that should be a politician’s main concern, to be honest with you,” Whittington says. “It should always be to do the right thing. If you look back in history, presidents who make unpopular decisions, later on they’re viewed as ‘That was the greatest thing they did.’ If you relate that to abortion, sure, maybe it would be unpopular, but in the future people would say, ‘It was unpopular, and his party went into shambles, and they don’t exist any longer—so what? It was the right thing.’” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.