Back in his days as a youth pastor, Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma spent lots of time begging church members to teach Sunday school.
After hearing this plea over and over, one woman pulled him aside and quietly shared her painful reason for declining, said Lankford, at last week's Evangelicals For Life conference, which coincided with the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C.
The woman told him: "James, I had an abortion years ago. I cannot be used by God." After apologizing for "pounding on her" to volunteer, Lankford said he responded: "Is there any action that God cannot forgive?"
Lankford said the woman's response was unforgettable: "I'm not sure yet."
Debates about the dignity of human life take place in all kinds of settings, from Capitol Hill and the U.S. Supreme Court to church fellowship halls and streets packed with marchers. Arguments about abortion create headlines, fuel fundraising letters and rattle politicos on left and right.
Just before this year's march -- marking the 45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade -- the U.S. House of Representatives voted 241-183 to pass the Born-alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which protects children that survive abortion procedures.
What happens in courts and legislatures is important, said Lankford, echoing a theme heard during many sessions at the conference hosted by the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and Focus on the Family. However, he said the most important discussions of right-to-life issues occur during personal encounters with ordinary people wrestling with hard questions in real life.
At some point, Americans will need to find common ground, he said.
"Where do we find the common-ground issues? Where do we get into those conversations? I will typically start with people who have questions about life with one simple question: Where is your boundary with where life begins? Where is that for you?" Most people, Lankford said, have never really "considered it. They have, honestly, just said, 'I'm pro-choice' or 'I'm pro-life' and they've just flippantly moved on from there."
Debates about the beginning of life combine politics and theology, science and constitutional law. These days, he said, advanced forms of ultrasound technology are providing a clearer window into the lives of unborn children, as they yawn, stretch, make faces and suck their thumbs. This is, in many cases, affecting how people view late-term abortions. Only four nations allow abortion after 25 weeks of pregnancy -- China, Vietnam, North Korea and the United States.
These are tough issues for many people to discuss, Lankford admitted, but it's crucial to keep asking: "Where is your boundary? Where do you define life? Where does that begin? … It is a very difficult topic, but our culture is struggling on this and we should lean into that, not lean away from it."
During the conference, which was streamed online, several speakers stressed the importance of broadening discussions of "life issues" to include topics such as adoption and foster care, as well as the need to assist and protect abused and abandoned women, refugees, immigrants and children with special needs, such as those with Down syndrome. There were appeals for the defense of free speech and religious liberty, as well as continued respect for a free press.
Christians are supposed to believe that "all persons are worthy of value, worthy of dignity and worthy of importance," said Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
"Nationality and ethnicity are never an issue for how I should care for people or how I should treat people," he added. A person's economic status is "never to be an issue either."
Religious believers have to remember that politics, alone, cannot solve any of these problems, stressed Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Protecting life always requires love and compassion.
"Ultimately, as evangelicals, you know the line between good and evil runs through your heart, it runs through my heart," he said. "It would be absolutely, freakishly bizarre to think the really important tribal line in life is American political partisan debates between Republicans and Democrats. …
"When I'm going to try and persuade somebody about the dignity of babies, I'm going to start by thinking about them as a whole person, not as somebody who's wearing a tribal jersey -- because (news) cameras are on and that's the partisan-primary, they-got-elected-into-this-lame-job drill."