Abortion: The Silent Issue in 2008 Campaigns

November 4, 2008 at 9:03 am Leave a comment

nuns-abortion-vote-mccain.jpgIt’s abortion, stupid. For conservative Christians in this election the most important religious issue isn’t gay marriage, stem-cell research or Christmas trees on courthouse lawns. It is abortion (as it has been for at least the past 35 years, since the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade).


When they walk into the voting booth on Tuesday, can they look
beyond their fundamental, conscience-driven opposition to abortion as a
moral evil? Do they want to? If yes, they may vote for Sen. Barack Obama. If not, they will, despite any reservations, vote for Sen. John McCain.

With
a real war abroad and recessionary anxiety at home, abortion rhetoric
has been unusually quiet in this election season. Denver’s Archbishop
Charles Chaput made some news in August when he told the Associated
Press that he hoped pro-choice Democratic vice presidential pick (and
observant Roman Catholic) Joe Biden would “refrain from presenting
himself at communion.” But that was nothing compared to the small war a
group of bishops waged on Sen. John Kerry in 2004 when they said he
should not be given communion–an assault that put the Democrat on the
defensive and, in the end, led to his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., religion
speech, an awkward maneuver that the senator himself has said was too
little, too late. News channels have played no b-roll of abortion
supporters or protesters holding up their obligatory offensive
placards, showing perfect fetuses on the one hand and coat hangers on
the other. As I’ve written in previous columns, the silence of
Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren on the subject of abortion in this
election has been notable. In 2004, Warren sent an e-mail around
listing the five “non-negotiables” for any evangelical voter, and
abortion was of course high on that list. This year, he has made no
such pronouncement.

This relative silence on the part
of religious conservatives, along with the well-documented broadening
of the evangelical agenda to include issues like poverty and the
environment, has led some to speculate that conservative Christians
don’t care about abortion the way they used to. This assumption is not
true. While just more than 50 percent of Americans call themselves
pro-choice, according to recent polls, just over 40 percent call
themselves “pro life”–numbers that have not changed much in a decade.
Among the very religious, though, opposition to abortion remains as
strong as ever. Seventy percent of evangelicals who go to church weekly
or more oppose legalized abortion. For Roman Catholics, the number is
60 percent. According to research by the Pew Forum on Religion &
Public Life, young evangelicals are as conservative–if not more so–than
their parents on abortion.

The vitriol is still there too, if you scratch the surface. Last month, the conservative Catholic theologian George Weigel wrote a piece for NEWSWEEK
in which he dissected the arguments by a number of Roman Catholics who
said they could remain faithful to their Church and still pull the
lever for Obama. While Weigel‘s tone was professorial, the thousands of comments on his piece
were not. “People need to understand that abortion is the root of all
this evil that is going around,” wrote one reader. “In 20 years as a
doctor I don’t think I have ever had one woman who requested abortion
do so without crying,” wrote another. Weigel’s piece was among the top
stories read on Newsweek.com that week; emotions among commenters ran
as obstinate and as vehement as ever. Late last week, Dr. James Dobson
of Focus on the Family predicted that an Obama administration would
result in more abortions nationwide. Clearly, abortion as an issue for
the faithful is not going away.

What’s new, then, is
this: A few–a very few–prominent Christians and Catholics (like Douglas
Kmiec, one of Weigel’s ideological opponents) have been making
arguments that allow a conservative Christian believer to vote for
Obama in good conscience. These, in summary, are:

  1. A
    pro-life Christian can look at a candidate’s policies on behalf of
    children–for isn’t it as urgent for a nation to care for its born
    children as its unborn ones?
  2. A pro-life Christian
    needs to look beyond abortion to other types of needless killing, like
    war and torture and care for the neediest. Which candidate will better
    promote life, when considered this broadly?
  3. After
    35 years, anti-abortion activists have accomplished very little,
    politically, to end legal abortion. Why not try something new? Work on
    the state level for restrictions? Work with political opponents to find
    common ground? Work to achieve justice on behalf of other, less
    intractable issues, like AIDS, literacy or childhood disease?

None of these arguments is perfect, and none releases a Christian
voter who was raised with and believes in the evil of abortion from his
moral obligation to oppose it. But they do provide Christians who are
leaning toward Obama with a rationale and an escape from the divisive,
mean-hearted rhetoric of the past three decades. On the far right,
these arguments won’t change anyone’s mind. In the middle, they might.

It
is impossible to overstate, however, the potency of the anti-abortion
movement among conservative Christians in America, especially since the
galvanizing days of Jerry Falwell and the moral majority in the early
1980s. Young evangelicals, especially, who were raised in that
environment talk about how difficult it is to see abortion in anything
but black-and-white terms. Gov. Sarah Palin, whose family portrait
contains the silent but not hidden message, “I didnt have an abortion and neither did my teenage daughter,”
speaks directly to these Christians and echoes the messages they’ve
heard their whole lives–at home, in Sunday school, at youth group and
at church. In September, Cameron Strang, the 32-year-old publisher of
the Christian magazine Relevant told me how frustrated he was that the
selection of Palin put the abortion debate back on the table–and in
such an old fashioned way. “All of a sudden, it’s us versus them and
you have to pick a side,” he said. “With abortion as a wedge issue,
it’s going to be harder and harder for moderate Christians to feel OK
supporting Obama.”

This next data point refers to
Catholics, but it broadly pertains to conservative evangelicals as
well. According to a study by William D’Antonio at Georgetown
University, 70 percent of American Catholics say they are willing to oppose their bishops on abortion. But that doesn’t mean they will.

Source: Newsweek

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