After 30+ years of polarizing single-issue politics, it's time for something more responsible for all who care deeply about life.
Another national election cycle rolls around. That means a number of my fellow Christian friends are again aligning themselves with the Republican Party and its line-up of candidates primarily because of abortion. It means a few friends are again openly questioning my Christianity because I do not fall in lock-step conformity with prescribed partisan pro-life mantra.
Typically, I would quietly endure these assaults and continue to vote my conscience. This time, however, I’m not in the mood to be self-defensive or silent in the face of religious misjudgment and political bullying.
I’ve been on the other side. As a Christian college student, I formed the school’s first pro-life committee in 1979. Having attended the Chicago premiere of the five-episode film series “Whatever Happened to the Human Race?” I brought it to campus. My initial political involvement was voter registration and organizing around this issue. My stiff views moderated, however, when I began to serve neighbors in the heart of the city, to grapple with socio-political realities in an urban pastorate, and to witness hypocrisy in pro-life politicians and manipulative powers behind the pro-life movement.
The six considerations I share below are not for the sake of defending my political choices. Instead, it’s an attempt to open up a different range of considerations regarding abortion and pro-life posturing in elections. And, if possible, to persuade some--who think that if they are against abortion they can only vote for pro-life candidates--otherwise.
1. Most pro-life candidates are primarily anti-abortion, not necessarily life-defending or life promoting. If one thinks voting for pro-life candidates means one is voting for persons and platforms that consistently and comprehensively affirm the value of life, one would be sorely mistaken.
As it has been expressed over the past 30 years, pro-life politics excludes the lives of persons on death row. It excludes the men, women and children living in countries considered to be our national enemies. By policy and investment, it excludes the lives of billions of persons struggling to stay alive in the face of poverty, disease, and scarcity of food and clean water. It fails to connect to creation care, without which human life will ultimately not be sustainable.
More directly and immediately, many pro-life politicians have not supported basic prenatal and postnatal care and early childhood initiatives that are considered essential preserve life and promote health of our nation’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens. In fact, some pro-life politicos have actively pursued the reduction or end of community initiatives aimed at reducing infant mortality and early-childhood problems.
The difference between anti-abortion politicians and those of us who advocate for life is profound. Like me, they find sweeping away the independently viable life of an unborn fetus objectionable. Unlike me, they tend not apply the “made in the image of God” rationale beyond the issue of abortion. They do not oppose the death penalty, unconscionable military spending in the face of domestic and international poverty, or cuts in healthy baby programs on the same grounds. Because I take the Bible and historic Judeo-Christian ethic seriously, I apply the “image of God” principle to all human life and societal relationships.
2. Once elected, anti-abortion candidates have not addressed abortion as the high priority they gave it when they sought the votes of those who care deeply about this issue. Thirty years after first making this a top election issue, anti-abortion politicians continue to wave this flag in election campaigns but put it away after the votes are counted. Their few legislative forays over three decades have produced lots of polarizing rhetoric but negligible movement on this issue. To the point: politicians’ highly divisive approach to reducing abortions in America has not worked. Continuing to elect those who hype this as a wedge issue may well prevent real progress toward effective abortion legislation or policy.
More than a few politicians use anti-abortion campaign tactics in a calculating and cynical manner. Aware that federal-level policy on abortion is defined and upheld by the US Supreme Court, they still posture and campaign as if nothing is more important. All the while, they know there is little they can or will do administratively or legislatively to impact this lingering moral and social quandary. I want to elect persons who are more sincere (or at least less disingenuous) regarding social concerns I care about deeply.
3. When single-issue politics is used, voters give politicians a license do just about whatever they please regarding everything else that ought to matter. If citizens commit to vote for candidates simply because they say they’ll oppose abortion, the politicians are off the hook for the rest of their agendas. Single-issue voters should not be surprised that politicians serve their own and others’ interests on a wide range of issues with little accountability to “values voters.” Why? Because they know they can count on single-issue voter myopia in the next election—no matter what.
4. Politicians who say they are anti-abortion tend to deny, ignore, or contradict a wide range of personal, social and economic concerns that reflect a sound Biblical ethic. Perhaps voters assume that if a politician stands against abortion, they will stand for what’s fair, just, and reconciling. Again, voters believing this would be sorely mistaken. Anti-abortion politicians have routinely blocked laws or aggressively argued against policies that would have assured fair wages, curtailed corrupt Wall Street practices, challenged runaway military spending, mended holes in the safety net for vulnerable citizens, addressed workplace race and gender prejudice, reduced deaths of citizens unable to access affordable health care, or ensured life-saving resources for people in the direst situations in the world. So, on the one hand is an eagerness to spend taxpayers’ dollars to defend the rights of the unborn, but, on the other hand, an unwillingness to apply US citizen resources to invest in other critical expressions of giving, preserving and extending life.
Why this contradiction? Conservative political and economic ideology drives more Christian politicians than their personal commitments to follow the way of Jesus. What the Bible declares about social relationships and life, they filter through a partisan ideological grid so that only a limited set of “values” are positively considered for legislation. Conservative political ideology surmises that the above-listed concerns should be left to the whims of free market promoters and individual charity and choice. But the Bible declares that a faithful nation’s integrity hinges on these critical collective decisions.
5. Single-issue politics distorts the Bible’s meaning and message, as well as the life and mission of the Church. It does so by accentuating one issue at the expense of others. It does so by making one issue the lynchpin for all others. It does so by lifting specific Biblical texts out of context. It does so by marrying the Bible and Church with a humanistic conservative ideology in a partisan power play. The Bible’s wide-ranging story of hope, redemption and reconciliation--and the church’s witness to it--is too great to be conscripted to serve one issue.
6. It is worth challenging perspectives of abortion and choice as good/evil, either/or, all or nothing. Regardless of what others have told you, candidates who believe choice is important are not evil. Neither are your fellow citizens who vote for them. Nor are choice-affirming communities of faith, or nonprofit organizations, or political parties. If you have demonized others over the issue of abortion, it is time--for the sake of sanity, an ability to understand others and any prospect of speaking the truth in love--to reevaluate your perspective.
In my decades of work with neighbors who are confronted with the choice to birth or abort, I have not encountered one evil person. I have not talked with a single choice advocate who conveys a cheap view of life. Few take abortion casually or dismiss its ethical implications. Most choice advocates labor to make abortion as rare and safe as possible. Though we may have disagreed—sometimes vehemently—over our views of abortion, I have not found people worthy of the demonic labels and dehumanizing stereotypes that have been heaped upon them.
On the contrary, I have found those who advocate choice do so because of their genuine care for vulnerable women. As much as an anti-abortion advocate expresses care for an unborn child, a choice advocate defends a woman’s ability to make considered choices about her body regarding reproduction and sexual activity. As much as one may see abortion as robbing the life of an unborn child, a woman may feel her own life being used, taken over, and snuffed out by others. The stories of girls and women who have been coerced into intercourse and sexually abused are real and persistent and many. If evil is to be named in this context, it must include men who exploit women as sexual objects, who control them with threats of violence and compel unwanted sexual intercourse even within marriage.
Make no mistake: to me, abortion is lamentable. Whether it is necessary to save the life of a mother, induced after rape, because of unsustainable birth defects, or chosen because a pregnancy was perceived to be inconvenient, to me, at least, abortion is cause for soul-searching decision-making and not infrequently, grieving. But so is the choice to take the lives other human beings, whether through the sanctioned violence of war, death-sentence executions, or withholding available life-giving resources in the face of hunger, disease, natural disasters or the inability to pay for health services. Every preventable loss of human life sends shutters of grief through the human family.
I do not have a satisfactory resolution of the abortion/choice tension. It seems to me, however, that we must explore and carve a new path forward beyond partisan posturing and polarization that politicians cunningly use to gain and maintain power.
With all my heart, I believe that one vital part of moving forward and achieving breakthrough is by unequivocally advocating for human life in all its dimensions. Perhaps we can find common ground in actions that give life, affirm life, restore life, liberate life, give meaning to life, lead to life, cultivate life, preserve life, extend life, provide for life and celebrate life. What candidates will move in that direction? That’s what I’m looking for and casting a vote for in this election.