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.