Exotic Fruits of Grace

From the front porch, lovely, refined eastern-North Carolina accents glide with the salt air into an Outer Banks beach house. A few of the more provincial matrons from my hometown, cataloguing the lives of their friends’ children, might wrap up the last decade of my life with a wispy, grinning dismissal:

“Well. I understand that after making her debut, she went off from Duke, moved up Nawth, became a Cathlic, and—yes—married a yankee, and then hooked herself up with one of those abawtion groups. And she was such a lovely young thing. Lawww. It’s a shame.”

Well. It’s all true—except that part about it being a shame.

My new home—the Catholic Church—is now the sustenance for my family. And it is my inspiration in leading a new movement of women through a group called The Susan B. Anthony List.

I went from being a pro-choice southern Episcopalian to leading a pro-life political action committee for two big reasons: First, I grew up wrapped in a blanket of God’s genuine love from my family and my culture, and second—and most critically, a few believing, beautiful Catholics refused to believe the worst about me. God pushed me through these people and places to grow as a believer and as a woman.

For me, ignorance was an instrument of salvation. I had no strong biases against Catholicism because I didn’t know what in the world it was. I grew up in Greenville, North Carolina where Catholicism was no more than a rumor. The last statistic I heard was that our eastern-North Carolina Catholic underworld amounts to about 2 percent of the population. Until an embarrassingly late age, I thought Catholics were just another World Religion alternative. And as far as the red-faced question of abortion was concerned, it simply was not discussed.

My mother, literary and independent, was and is my most intimate friend. My father—generous, gentle, a Citadel-trained stoic and Duke-trained physician—was my protector. My church and minister provided a wonderful meeting place for me and God. My world was physically beautiful and perfect in my mind. I was sustained by the adoration of my family. Grannah (my grandmother) wrote poems for me, documenting all my childhood imaginings and curiosities. My two big brothers kept me from being a sissy by tossing me around regularly. Rock Springs Road was my kingdom and I was its royalty.

Later as teenagers, we breathed in mannerly debate (my mother prefers “discussions”) at the dinner table and exhaled opinions at every unwilling ear. We were taught to pursue the truth relentlessly. And so I did. My genetic intolerance of fundamentalism prevented Christ from becoming my “personal Lord and savior,” so I left Him behind while I pursued Truth.

I went to Duke with strong opinions. I was pro-choice. I became the College Republican chairman right off. As my opinions became more strident, the hole in my heart (the “God-sized hole,” says Pascal) stretched bigger. My social life was not very upstanding. The hole got bigger. I was a debutante. Politics consumed me. And the hole almost ate me up.

I went to Washington, DC to—well the truth is—to self promote. I was a summer intern at a think tank and lived in a group house. In that summer, I met God in a shocking encounter through devoted Catholics who took time with me. They didn’t make me a “case.” They made me their friend—incredibly—and let me see the peace that was possible through this active, thoughtful faith. They somehow saw Christ in me. Who can figure? Only Christ.

The first thing to go was my pro-choice position. It was all about the Great Me, and seemed to have nothing to do with what was beginning to fill the wide hole. If I was going to relentlessly pursue the truth, I had to be willing to let go of the obscuring influence of partial truth. It was hard. So what about my social life, my creeping elitism, my tireless self-promotion? Well, this was a beginning.

What was most amazing to me was the visage of this Christ. How could it be possible that I could have a “personal relationship with Christ” without an altar call? How could I be developing this intense desire to spread Christ’s electrifying love without phoning in to buy a prayer cloth? Somehow, Christ, the heart, and the intellect were allowed, and I didn’t have to be tacky.

My heart and path turned slowly toward conversion. I started the pro-life group on campus, graduated after exploring and embracing medieval philosophy, and moved to Washington again. I knew I was doomed. God kept me in the devoted Catholic circle he wanted me in, and led me blindfolded to Mass at Saint Joseph’s on Capitol Hill. I kept wondering to myself, “Why do I keep coming here?”

Gently, an answer began whispering back: God may have given me a free grace ride thus far. But the time had come for me to act—to invite his full mystery inside. He was sitting right there on the altar at Saint Joseph’s waiting for me. So after receiving and receiving and receiving Christ’s thirst-quenching grace, I finally took the ultimate gift—the radical path of peace and wholeness found only in His Church.

Then the craziness started. My conversion bore some pretty exotic fruit. I left the conservative think tank to work for a pro-life Democrat. I was in a position where I had to speak publicly about an issue I would never have brought up in polite conversation previously. Only God’s grace could have shoved me to Capitol Hill to promote the pro-life position. God had to throw me a little off kilter before I could open my mind to think in sometime harmony with him.

I was and am still convinced that the issue of abortion in our culture transcends party lines —that each party has a legacy which calls it to affirm the lives of children in the womb and of their mothers. Democrats are committed to saving the little guy —the weakest, the outcast, the uninvited. Republicans remind Americans that taking responsibility for one’s actions is a prerequisite for a healthy culture.

After a new job directing the bi-partisan U.S. House Pro-Life Caucus, I married my chief collaborator and true love in Congressman Chris Smith’s office, Marty Dannenfelser. When our little girl Hannah was born, I was asked by friends to work from home. Hmmm. The founders of the Susan B. Anthony List had created a new movement I’d been insisting had to happen. This bi-partisan political action committee for pro-life women running for public office had the right ingredients: sound philosophy and political muscle.

Abortion-obsessed feminists highjacked the women’s movement and remodeled it to scream about, “My body. My rights. What do I get next?” The early suffragettes were committed to establishing equal rights for everyone— including the unborn. The Susan B. Anthony List helps elect women who bear testimony to the fact that a woman has something unique to give to our nation. These women attack the abortion instinct as well as the legal structure which allows mothers and fathers to use the weapon of despair, abortion, to “solve” their problems.

So now—from my suburban living room—I’m committed to changing the world along the lines of how I was changed. The closer God pulls me to him, the less cynical I become. The world can be changed. If grace could move me, so others can be moved. The fountain of grace has an eternal spring, so we must believe that if even one radical change of heart is possible, millions can turn towards life. God saved me. He can save the children through us all.


  • Marjorie Dannenfelser

    Marjorie Jones Dannenfelser is President and Chairman of the Board of the Susan B. Anthony List, an American political organization that seeks to advance pro-life women in politics. She was brought into the organization as its executive director in 1993, shortly after its founding.

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