Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Begging the Question

Last week, Michael Gerson had a thoughtful piece in the Washington Post about how Obama may be able to make inroads with some flaky evangelicals, but that in the final analysis, his poor record on abortion makes him unpalatable for most tried-and-true evangelicals. This is because, opines Gerson, abortion is "the issue that matters most."

I don't question Gerson's analysis of evangelical voting motives, which I think he gets right. What I do question is why and how abortion remains - even for many younger Catholics and evangelicals - the issue that matters most. Mike, can you enlighten me? It can and does certainly matter, but why does it matter most? Gerson seems to make some attempt at an answer by stating that "the protection of innocent life is not one issue among many, it is the most basic, foundational commitment of a just society." Really? So if "the protection of innocent life" = "abortion," then a just society is fundamentally measured by criminalizing abortion. Hmmm... I need to take Foundations of Democracy 101 over again, apparently.

His explanation sounds touching, but even if we grant that this is the case, then I still question how evangelicals somehow make "protection of innocent life" = "abortion first, last and only" at the exclusion of issues like war, torture, and the alleviation of domestic and international poverty. As I pointed out in my last blog post, evangelicals are still the demographic in America most committed to the Iraq war, which has death, destruction, and deception written all over it. Sorry, Mike, but the stands of a majority of evangelicals on other "innocent life" issues don't do much to firm up your touching tribute to their "protection of innocent life" credentials in my eyes.

This equation of abortion with protecting innocent life and this still entrenched sense that abortion is THE evangelical issue again demonstrates to me how insidiously effective the Religious Right has been over the past 30 years in making this THE issue for evangelical voters, even ones who also are starting to care about poverty, the environment, torture, etc. In Randall Balmer's recent book about the Religious Right, he points out that the selection of abortion as an issue for the Right was not the catalyzing factor for its creation, as many believe, but that it was an afterthought in the late 70s, over 5 years after Roe v. Wade. Most scandalous to me of Balmer's evidence is the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention actually voted for resolutions throughout the 1970s that affirmed legal abortions. Apparently "protection of innocent life" and"criminalizing abortion" were not synonymous for the SBC in the 1970s. God may not change, but apparently, biblical interpretations and political strategies do. Balmer rightly accuses evangelicals of selective literalism, and I ask with him how evangelicals, most of whom are biblical literalists, make abortion the core issue when the Bible is silent on the matter. I'll happily concede that the Bible wholly supports the sacredness and sanctity of human life, but there is nothing biblical that restricts that theological concept to fetuses only. Unfortunately, you wouldn't know that from looking at the beliefs and voting behaviors of many evangelicals, and certainly not the beliefs of the tired talking heads of the Religious Right.

The efficacy of the Religious Right in making abortion THE issue for Christian voters, even in 2008, also obscures that fact that many Christian denominations have officially adopted "safe, legal, and rare" and their biblically-based policy (including the Southern Baptists initially; talk about flip-flopping). To listen to Gerson and others, one would think that devout Christians only have one option on this issue, when millions of Christians and a majority of Americans favor "legal in all or most cases" (51%) to "illegal in all or most cases" (43%). That doesn't make most Americans baby-killers or unconcerned with the protection of human life, but it does beg the question about what now is 30 years of Republican political rhetoric at election time and actual public policy that is sensible, holistic, and constitutional.

So Mike, humor me and please tell me again why abortion is and should be THE issue for evangelicals? My Bible and poly sci texts apparently need some dusting off.


Blogger David said...

Hey Bob,

I've been thinking about this issue about abortion versus the Iraq War versus poverty, etc. before reading your blog post.

And, you know what? Abortion is STILL a huge issue for me. Because of a political party affiliation? No. Because I don't think about people dying in a war I don't agree with? No. Because I don't care about people who are poor and needy? No (because I do care). But because I cannot conscientiously agree that any nation can justify legally killing unborn infants.

No, I don't agree with all the times we go to war, either. But we are talking about 4,000 of our troops who have died in Iraq, then add to that around 90,000 Iraqis. Sure, this is unjustifiable if the war in Iraq is unjustifiable. But the number of aborted fetuses since the war on Iraq, oh just 5 to 7 MILLION babies. Anyone could logically see the greater issue here, unless they don't believe killing an unborn fetus is morally wrong.

Funny how if a newborn baby is abandoned to die, it would be considered murder. But if that same baby would have been killed at some time before passing through the birth canal, it could be legal. And again, if someone kills a pregnant woman, and the baby dies... they will face charges for killing both mom and baby.

You say the Bible is silent on the issue; I disagree with you on this.

"For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works and that my soul knows well. My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed, and in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them" (Psalm 139:13-16).

"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations" (Jeremiah 1:5).

"But when He who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through His grace . . ." (Galatians 1:15)

"If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise" (Exodus 21:22-25).

My point here is that yes, poverty, unjustifiable war, environmental issues, etc. are all important issues. But they pale (singularly and cumulatively) in comparison to the millions of lives lost to abortion. Thus for me, abortion becomes one of the MAJOR issues politically.

10:54 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

Dave! I didn't know people actually read and even commented on my blog! Thanks for the two cents. I appreciate your sentiment that we needn't choose one issue over others, meaning that it's perfectly sensible to care about unborn babies AND the war AND the environment, etc. (If only one party gave us that option at the voting booth!) I also think the issue of DEGREE is a good one - that's certainly a lot of abortions, and they shouldn't be taken lightly for anyone - liberal or conservative - who professes to care about life.

I think a big part of my issue with some folks putting abortion first is that it leads to single-issue voting, often for a Republican Party which doesn't do so hot - in my opinion - on most other life and justice issues. Honestly, it's a conundrum. And I get frustrated b/c I think the Republican Party has done a great job playing the issue to the tune of millions of guaranteed votes each election when they produce very little substantive progress on the issue. I think millions of Christians don't vote their conscience on a range of issues b/c they are beholden to this one issue over many and have an attitude that a vote for a party that supposedly "cares" about this issue in theory is worth all other issues.

My last beef with abortion as THE issue is the fact that - even if we say our stated goal is reducing abortions dramatically - I'm not sure criminalizing is the best way. A recent study showed that the rate of abortions between countries where it's legal or criminal is negligible. It just drives it underground into unsafe conditions. And we should also ask who is getting these abortions. Many folks who do are not bad people, but they are poor people and others who are overwhelmed with the emotional or financial responsibility. I am not sure making these folks criminals is the best course of action. I am adamant that abortion not just be birth control, but I also think criminalizing doesn't get us where we think it will.

On this issue, I really like what my own employer, the ELCA, has said. If you ever have some extra time, I think it's worth checking out their statement on this: http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Social-Statements/Abortion.aspx

Peace, my friend!

8:00 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

Here's that site again:


8:02 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

Seems to be cutting off, so go to www.elca.org, and under the "What We Believe" heading is "Social Issues." you'll find their abortion statement there. There is also the question about when life begins, which is a metaphysical and spiritual question science will never answer definitively. The verses you quote are certainly compelling about the value of all life, but I think one could argue that they are saying less about when exactly life begins in a technical sense (given that understanding of biology at the time was seriously archaic) but that's they are poetic statements about God's intimate knowledge of us. I am not explaining the verses away, but just suggesting that there may be more than one way to understand them contextually that would affect one's contemporary view on abortion. Again, I find it fascinating that the Southern Baptists once had a more nuanced position on the matter and actually - I'm told - affirmed Roe v. Wade initially.

Anyway... all for now!

8:12 PM  

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