In response to my recent Post-Apocalyptic Musings, my friend Ben Miller asked an earnest and important question: “given his [Obama’s] strong pro-abortion stance, isn’t it the case that a vote for him was clearly a vote for abortion? I’m not saying that everyone who voted for him was consciously pro-abortion, but it’s an unmistakably prominent part of what he stands for. I don’t see how a Christian can support a leader who’s a vocal proponent of holocaust.” A similar sense underlay my friend Daniel Alder’s post, where he felt confident that if pastors were doing their job right, almost no church member would vote Democrat, because it was unthinkable for any faithful Christian to support a pro-abortion agenda. In this, of course, they speak for millions of American Christians, deeming that there is simply no way to conscientiously vote for a pro-choice candidate, however preferable he might be on a range of other issues.
In my post, I lamented the “chasm of mutual incomprehension” that had opened up in American public life, and I am convinced that nothing is so paralyzing to life together as incomprehension. Disagreement can be extremely fruitful and edifying, but incomprehension is sterile and provokes only frustration. When we cannot understand why something has happened or why someone would say or do something, we are prone to become angry, and impute the worst possible motives as a way of trying to make sense of the situation. Unable to comprehend why any rational person would do something, we find ourselves increasingly unable to think of them as a person, and thus unable to love them as a person, although we have little difficulty loving even our worst enemy if we understand what motivates him.
It is probably safe to say that no single factor has contributed as much to the creation of this chasm of incomprehension, at least for Christians, as the issue of abortion. The politicization of abortion, I believe, has been deeply harmful for American public life—for it has done very little in the end to mitigate the abortion problem, but it has done a great deal to dissolve the possibility of rational debate and mutual understanding in American politics and society. So, although I am deeply sympathetic to Ben and Daniel’s concern (it was indeed one decisive reason that I did not vote for Obama), I would like to make a stab at trying to dispel a bit of the fog around this issue. As I want to be thorough, I will confine myself primarily to the narrow question, “How could a Christian vote for a pro-abortion candidate, even while disagreeing with his policies?” Such is the spectrum of opinion on the matter of abortion that many Christians will see this as a silly discussion with an obvious answer, and will be far more interested in discussing whether the pro-choice position is a viable one. To other Christians, this latter discussion seems almost unthinkable. Unfortunately, I will only touch on it briefly in my conclusion, though perhaps I can try to address it more fully another time. But hopefully this inquiry, at least, may constitute a small baby step toward mutual understanding among Christians on this issue.
Before proceeding, let me first reassure my readers that I view abortion as a grave moral evil, tragic and disgusting, and consider many of the campaigners for abortion rights to have deeply compromised moral sensibilities, to put it delicately. The following may seem like a dry academic argument to the effect, “It’s not that big a deal after all.” That is not my purpose. Abortion is a very big deal, and the task of saving lives from it is an urgent one. But neither is it the only moral issue confronting our society, so there is no virtue in so single-mindedly dedicating ourselves to its opposition that we become incapable of making sound moral and political judgments on other fronts.
So, let’s first untangle the question, “How could a Christian vote for a pro-abortion candidate?” or, to use Ben’s wording, “Given Obama’s strong pro-abortion stance, isn’t it the case that a vote for him was clearly a vote for abortion?” The contention here is that one cannot really say, as many Christians clearly have said, “I am voting for this candidate who happens to support abortion, but I am not voting for his support of abortion.” Now, I would suggest that in Ben’s case, this question contains a couple of unvoiced premises. Without those premises, and as it currently stands, the conclusion is not at all compelling, for it would seem to imply that our British, Canadian, Australian brothers and sisters—indeed, many foreign Christians, of many nationalities—are necessarily wrong whenever they vote for a pro-abortion candidate in their elections, as they often do. Is that really the case? And if so, why not? Although I think Ben’s claim was much more specifically targeted, let me take some time to say why not, since I think many American Christians have not bothered to think this through, and I think it will help illuminate what’s really at stake.
It may help if we abstract from politics for the moment. Let’s ask then whether it would be appropriate, if one were a stockholder, to vote for a new member of a company’s Board of Directors if one knew him to hold pro-abortion views (assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is not a company directly involved in the abortion industry)? Or, how about, at the risk of trivializing too much, to vote for an American Idol contestant whom one knew to hold pro-abortion views? Few would argue, I think, that these views should in any way constitute an automatic bar to a Christian endorsing such a candidate. If anyone did argue that, on the basis that a Christian should never offer support to a person of such obviously depraved morality, I would suggest that this would be a very arbitrary stand to take, given that the other candidates might be of equally depraved morality on other issues (e.g., greed, toleration of adultery, love of violence, whatever). Indeed, it is on this basis that I have little patience with Christians who go on boycotting crusades against any company that, say, gives money to Planned Parenthood. I understand the sentiment, but why single out this single moral issue, while turning a blind eye to companies that engage in complex tax evasion or exploitation of workers?
Now, it would not be arbitrary if abortion did indeed constitute a uniquely grotesque perversion of morality. For instance, I can imagine someone plausibly arguing that even for something as inconsequential as an American Idol contest, one could not support a contestant who advocated, say, rape or pedophilia or the torture of innocents. Merely holding such views would render a person morally repugnant to a degree that no Christian should want to identify with them. Is abortion such an issue? I believe not, though I shall only have time to touch on this for a moment in the conclusion.
Assuming, then, there would be no automatic bar to supporting a pro-choice American Idol contestant or corporate board member, there might still be a contingent bars, of at least two types. First, let’s imagine that one knew that this board member did not merely privately support abortion, but was an activist, and hoped to use the resources of the company to advance the cause of abortion—perhaps by giving very generously to pro-abortion causes. In this case, one would be opposing the candidate not on the basis of his private failures of moral reasoning, but on the basis of the harm likely to be done from his gaining a leadership position. In such a situation, voting for him might be construed as material cooperation in evil, just like knowingly providing a getaway car for a bank robbery. Unlike the getaway car, however, it would probably be judged far, rather than near material cooperation—you would be supporting a man who probably, given the opportunity, would allocate funds to help support organizations that might well use those funds to offer more abortions—in many cases, to people who were already trying to get abortions anyway. Even if it were merely far material cooperation, though, one would be forced to judge just how much harm he might actually do, over against the other goods he might bring. For instance, perhaps he was committed to generous philanthropy in general, and would also try to give large donations to very good causes; or perhaps the other candidates, while not supporters of abortion, might be inclined to donate to other wicked causes; or perhaps he was the only candidate with the business acumen to keep the company running (assuming, for the sake of argument, that it were an otherwise good company doing a service to society). Perhaps, in short, great good would come from his election; might this outweigh the harm that might come from his use of company funds to support abortion? Possibly, possibly not. Or perhaps the company’s policy was already to fund abortion charities, and there was little evidence the other candidates would change it. In view of such uncertainties, this would be a matter on which Christians could quite plausibly disagree. Some Christians might support the candidate on the grounds that he would do much more good and less harm on the whole than the other candidates; some might support the other candidates on the opposite grounds; some might conclude that when they were all such bad apples, one should just keep one’s distance and vote for none of them. So the first contingent bar is: likely to materially advance the abortion agenda by means of policies to an extent that outweighs any foreseen other goods. (Before moving on, it’s worth pausing to notice that although this seems like a rather silly example, given that almost no stockholder ever bothers to vote on their Proxy ballot, or to research the candidates at all, perhaps this just shows to some extent our inconsistency, or unhealthy fixation with politics. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the Board of Director choices that I’ve had the opportunity to weigh in on as a stockholder were actually more consequential, in terms of the harm that might be done or averted, than some of the political candidates I’d had the opportunity to vote for.)
For the second contingent bar, let’s look at that American Idol competition. Can one imagine a scenario in which (assuming one were a die-hard American Idol fan, determined to vote for one of the contestants, in which case one might have issues worth addressing) one ought not to vote for one on the basis of her advocacy of abortion? Yes, I think so. For let’s consider the fact that an American Idol winner gains a very prominent podium in our society, an opportunity to speak out (albeit rarely very coherently) about what she’s passionate about. Perhaps even more importantly, she becomes an “idol”—someone that people respect, for whatever reason, and want to emulate. That being the case, she is capable of doing a great deal of harm merely by standing for morally depraved behaviors, even if she has little role in practically facilitating them. (Of course, it might well be that she would also practically facilitate them, like the corporate director we saw above, by means of charitable contributions and the like, but we’ll leave that consideration aside here.) If the contestant’s advocacy of abortion, then, were so strong or high-profile that, by supporting her, you were likely to raise up an influential spokesperson for abortion, or a widely-adored symbol of the pro-choice cause, someone who made it “cool” to be pro-choice make the cause of abortion more respectable, this might well constitute grounds why a Christian should *not* support such a person. This is particularly the case in the example we have given, since there is really no reason why one should feel the need to vote for an American Idol contestant…this being so, to take the time to support such a morally compromised contestant would be like going out one’s way to support vice. Of course, there would be other conditions—e.g., a presidential election—in which one might otherwise have very good reasons to support this candidate. In that case, one would have to weigh the goods in question against the likely evils to result from helping to elevate to prominence of a spokesman for abortion. Again, this would be a difficult judgment to make, perhaps even more difficult than the question above, since one would be weighing a very intangible factor (how powerful is this figure as a symbol of the pro-abortion cause?) against other more concrete factors. One can imagine Christians who otherwise largely agreed on a wide range of issues coming to different judgments on this question. The second contingent bar then is: likely to materially advance the abortion agenda by lending it respectability or prominence to an extent that outweighs any other foreseen goods.
(It should be noted that this second consideration loses significance to the degree that the vice in question becomes a cultural norm. That is to say, imagine a pop star who was an outspoken supporter of abortion in the 1950s. At that time, this would have been a very bold and, to most Americans, appalling position to take. Anyone with such views at that time would have been almost certain to stand out, to become a symbol of this depraved cause, so that she was no longer just a pop star, but known as the “pro-abortion pop star.” Nowadays, however, abortion has become culturally accepted enough that it is highly unlikely that an individual pop star’s advocacy of it would be sufficiently striking to merit much public attention. The same, to some extent, is true of political figures. To elect an openly pro-choice president forty years ago, would have been a much more shocking statement than to do so now.)
From this second point arises a closely related concern, which might be thought to constitute a third contingent bar to voting for someone who approved of abortion, and which, I suppose, is a large part of what’s going on when people say that “a vote for Obama is a vote for abortion.” To re-use the American Idol example, imagine if the outspoken pro-choice contestant became so identified with this “cause” that a vote for her could only be considered an endorsement of the cause, a message a Christian certainly wouldn’t want to send. There are no doubt times which such can happen—when a particular issue generates so much heat and controversy that one cannot really separate the individual from the issue, cannot pass judgment one way or another on the individual without seeming to take sides on the issue. In such a circumstance, a Christian would no longer be able to say, “I am supporting this candidate who happens to support abortion, but I am not supporting abortion,” which is the disjunction we have been assuming throughout the discussion thus far. Therefore, no Christian could in good conscience cast such a vote, as it would appear to send a message that they could not send. I think that this is how many on the Christian Right currently think about the abortion issue. However, I think this argument fails, both empirically and theoretically. Empirically, I do not think it is really the case that in America today, a Democratic candidate, even one as clearly pro-choice as Obama, is so identified with the abortion cause as to be almost indistinguishable from it. Or rather, he is, but only in the minds of his fervently pro-life opponents—and perhaps in the mind of his most fervently pro-choice supporters. The majority of the American electorate does not think that way, and would have little trouble understanding the reasoning of someone who said, “I do not support abortion, but I will vote for Obama for other reasons.” Theoretically, I think it fails because one’s own intentions always remain free and separate from others’ fallible judgments about them. Just because someone thinks that when I act in such a way, I must intend evil, does not mean I cannot act in that way, intending something else. We are to avoid the appearance of evil, but that’s the great thing about our voting—it’s private. If I am convinced that I need to cast my vote in such a way that would appear to others to be a vote for evil, then I just cast my vote privately, without broadcasting for whom I voted. Or, if I do broadcast it, I explain my reasoning clearly and carefully. Therefore, the third contingent bar—likely to appear as an endorsement of a position I cannot endorse—fails. (Nonetheless, this is still worth taking into account as one decides how to vote. If one has trouble, in one’s own mind, abstracting the candidate from the morally reprehensible agenda one sees them as representing, then one certainly can determine on that basis that one would rather not vote for them.)
All of this should clarify for us what a vote against a pro-choice candidate isn’t or shouldn’t be: it is not a refusal to associate oneself with someone who has morally objectionable views; or a refusal to take any action that may indirectly result in the advancing of wickedness—both of these, consistently advocated, would require a complete withdrawal from public life. On the contrary, it is a refusal to advance the agenda of someone who has morally objectionable views that they are likely to put into practice or publicly advocate to an extent that will do great harm outweighing any other foreseen goods.
This being the case, it should now be readily apparent why many of foreign brothers and sisters need have little compunction in voting for candidates who support abortion. In many of their settings, abortion is in many cases a matter of settled policy, and there are few elected representatives interested in opposing it. If none of the candidates available is planning to make much change to abortion policy, one may lawfully vote for the candidate one expects to do the most good on other fronts. Indeed, in such a setting, voting for a candidate who supports the status quo abortion policy is only in a very distant sense any kind of material cooperation with evil, since the evil being done is quite separate from the actions of the candidate. Likewise, if we turn to the second contingent bar, since abortion is not, alas, highly controversial in many of these societies, even an outspoken supporter of abortion would attract little notice. In Britain, for instance, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which a candidate could become a symbol of the “abortion cause” (there not really being such a recognizable cause) to the extent that one must avoid lending him one’s support. In their circumstances, then, it is rarely the case that a given candidate is likely to materially advance the abortion agenda either by means of policy or by lending it respectability or prominence to an extent that necessarily outweighs any other foreseen goods. Of course, that is not to say it is never an issue. There are still plenty of live political issues related to abortion here in the UK and other European countries, and there may be some candidates vigorously advancing an expansion of abortion rights, whom Christians should avoid supporting on those grounds. But in general, it’s not likely to be a highly relevant consideration. Note also that this is not a call for European Christians to give up on this issue, because they’ve already lost the battle. It merely means that for most of them, opposition to abortion will likely have to take other forms besides political activism, at least until such time as legal opposition to abortion again becomes a viable platform.
So now, let’s turn finally back to Obama. Four basic questions will affect our judgment of the Christian’s duty in this case. The first is, “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by means of policy decisions?” The second is, “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by lending it respectability or a prominent defender?” Ben Miller, I take it, considers the answers to both of these questions to be, “To a great extent,” and it is on this basis that he feels able to say, “Given Obama’s strong pro-abortion stance, isn’t it the case that a vote for him was clearly a vote for abortion?” But we must ask two further questions. The third is, “To what extent are we already like Europe? To what extent is abortion now settled policy, accepted practice?” The fourth is, “What are the other viable candidates (in this case, Romney) likely to do about abortion?”
Taken together, the third and fourth enable us to reframe the first and second as follows: “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by means of policy decisions relative to what would happen if he were not elected?” The second is, “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by lending it respectability or a prominent defender relative to what would happen if he were not elected?” Once framed this way, the difficulty of reaching a clear answer, that should bind the consciences of believers as they consider voting, becomes readily apparent. Because I do not think that any of these questions admit of easy answers, I will not attempt to hash them out in detail, but will merely outline a few points.
Thinking again in terms of four questions, how might we answer the first? Obviously, Obama is pro-choice, and has already as President enacted policies that favor that agenda, most notably the provisions in Obamacare that leave religious institutions having to help fund abortions. Just because abortion is already law in the US doesn’t mean it can’t be made worse by making access to abortions easier and more universal, and unfortunately, many in the Democratic Party, including Obama do seem committed to doing just that. The President’s power to appoint judges is of course also relevant, as his selection of pro-choice justices renders it ever more unlikely that Ro v. Wade could be overturned. I am not convinced by claims that Obama is militantly pro-choice, bloodthirsty for the expansion of abortion in a uniquely sinister way, as many on the Right seem to think, but the general orientation of his agenda is undeniable. It is worth noting, incidentally, that it really matters little for this discussion what Obama’s private views are—perhaps personally, he really does dislike the idea of abortion, and wants it to be “safe, legal, and rare,” and is acting only under pressure from the NOW and other constituencies. It would be nice if that were true, and would affect, perhaps, our assessment of his own moral sensibilities, but it makes little difference to our assessment of the impact of his policies.
Regarding the second, too, we must go on the basis of public presentation, rather than private beliefs, whatever they might be. That includes, unfortunately, campaign ads. Of course, everyone recognizes that campaign ads are cynical vehicles of short-term manipulation, and people ought perhaps therefore to put little stock in them. But they are a key way in which a candidate presents himself, his message, and what he stands for to the American people. The fact that the Obama campaign decided to run so many ads defending abortion, and castigating Romney for his opposition to it, unmistakably painted Obama as the representative, the champion, of the pro-choice cause. For him to win under such circumstances meant at least in part a victory for that cause, helping affirm it and lend it respectability. Using someone like Sandra Fluke as a poster-child reinforces the message that “reproductive rights” are cool, and Obama is all for helping women expand them. For some Christians I know, it was this identification with the cause of abortion by the Obama campaign, more than any particular policy decisions on the issue, that was a deal-breaker for them.
If we consider the third question, though—”to what extent are we already like Europe?”—I think many realistic Christians, particularly of a younger generation, take a pretty sober assessment of where America is now at on the abortion issue. Are we really likely to overturn Roe v. Wade now, after forty years? The political prospects are daunting enough alone. But worse, it is widespread cultural acceptance of abortion that constitutes a greater obstacle than any purely political difficulties. There is an extent to which law can affect morality, to be sure, and sometimes, law can outrun morality, as it were, insisting on conduct which does not yet command a general consensus, in hopes of creating that consensus. The Civil Rights movement is a good example of a case where this seems to have generally worked (although some would argue that federal government policy here was too much, too fast, with long-term harmful effects on both races). Many would cite also Wilberforce’s successful prohibition of the slave trade, but we mustn’t forget that this took twenty years of sustained effort, and was only successful when Wilberforce realized that first public perception must be re-shaped, the cultural consensus must be altered, before legislation could ever be successful. There are many other cases in which attempts to ban a practice by law, when the citizenry were not convinced, failed abysmally—Prohibition being perhaps the most notorious. In general, I would say that the trajectory of a society is one of the things that matters most here. In Wilberforce’s time, factors were already at work that were moving English society in a direction that disposed them to be able to perceive and confront slavery as a grave moral evil. Likewise in the Civil Rights movement—the public consciousness, while still stubbornly racist in many areas, was turning already in favor of the cause when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. Because of this, the law was able to succeed, by and large, in requiring people to be moral when they didn’t want to be, and in continuing to reshape the moral consensus. Sad to say, the moral trajectory of the American people right now is not toward a greater condemnation of abortion. Sure, there are some signs that some progress has been made, that a majority of Americans now would consider themselves pro-life, but the majority is slim. And perhaps more decisively, the general worldview of Americans, with the premium value they place on choice, individual liberty and “rights,” and their general distaste of having the “government” dictate anything to them, renders it unlikely that the pro-choice cause is going down anytime soon. Even attempts to restrict abortion piecemeal, by raising the age required, or by requiring parental consent, and that sort of thing, have often run into intractable opposition. That’s not a reason why we shouldn’t continue to fight the cause, and on every front. But it means that perhaps we are not now at the point where we should consider a presidential election likely to make a decisive difference one way or another. It also means that we’re at the point where we’re pretty jaded as a nation, and the mere fact of having a pro-choice President may not materially alter people’s perceptions of the issue very much.
Likewise, if we consider the fourth question,”What are the other viable candidates (in this case, Romney) likely to do about abortion?” there were two reasons to be skeptical in this case. The first is that Romney is a weasel and a flip-flopper, who seemed intent above all on getting elected, and once elected would be intent above all on staying in office. That being the case, I don’t have great faith that, if he found confronting abortion to prove too difficult or controversial, he would had quietly shelved the issue. Perhaps that’s overly-cynical, but it is at least an understandable judgment to reach, and remember that our purpose here is simply to show that there exist multiple rationally-defensible answers to these question. Second, we have to be honest about the fact that we have had 24 years of Republican presidency—at least 16 of which made a fairly strong claim to represent the interests of the “Moral Majority”—since Roe v. Wade was passed, and have seen essentially no positive effect from it. We’ve even had a conservative majority on the court, but seen it show little indication to revisit the issue or overturn the decision. Even if we granted that Romney was at least as reliable a pro-life candidate as Bush II or Reagan, that obviously wouldn’t show much. Yes, it is likely, that especially with the appearance of Obamacare and such, there are issues of particular policy where Romney could influence things positively, but we should not expect anything particularly dramatic. It is of course also the case that, thinking in terms of the second question, it might help the pro-life cause to have such a visible public advocate. On the other hand, so entrenched are the two camps now, that it might make little difference.
Where does all this leave us? How do we answer the questions, “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by means of policy decisions relative to what would happen if he were not elected?” and “To what extent is Obama likely to advance abortion by lending it respectability or a prominent defender relative to what would happen if he were not elected?” My own personal answer was that I thought Obama could still do enough net harm on this front that I was unwilling to vote for him, but I was also unwilling to drop all other considerations and vote against him on this basis, as I spelled out a week and a half ago. But I can readily understand arguments in either of the other directions—those who think that, given the weight of other issues, a vote for Obama was defensible, despite his abortion stance, and those who think that Obama’s position on this issue was likely to do so much imminent harm or Romney’s so much imminent good, that they felt obliged to vote for Romney.
I hope that I have succeeded at the very least in demonstrating the complexity of the issues that must be sorted through before a summary judgment on this question is reached. And I hope therefore that we might be more able to comprehend and accept the judgments of fellow Christians who weigh these considerations differently. We may still disagree, but at least we needn’t be paralyzed by incomprehension.
Unfortunately, in this post, I have worked only within the sphere of assumed agreement that, ideally, we should want to legally ban abortion; I have not had the time to address the other, even more paralyzing source of incomprehension, and I shall only touch on it for a brief moment before concluding. This is that there are some people, including some faithful Christians, who would genuinely support not merely a candidate who happens to be pro-choice, but pro-choice policy as such. Perhaps for many Christians on the Right, this position at least remains so morally depraved as to be incomprehensible. Of course, there are two forms that this might take—a belief that abortion should remain legal, although it is immoral, and a belief that abortion is not immoral. Although I believe the former position is flawed, I would argue that a plausible case could be made for it, especially given certain assumptions about the nature of law that are increasingly dominant even among today’s Christians. Even the latter view, I would want to point out, although an example of serious moral blindness, is not a unique or uniquely incomprehensible one. Many of our Christian ancestors defended slavery, and even the slave trade, positions we now find repugnant and in many cases almost incomprehensible. But it was only because their opponents were willing to seek to understand their sinful reasoning, and considered them capable of persuasion, that this evil was overcome. When I hear some Christians railing about evil abortionists, I wonder sometimes if they’ve ever actually known anyone who was pro-choice. A few, I would grant, truly merit the adjective “evil,” and deserve nothing but the most fervent opposition. To most others, however, we owe a willingness to listen and learn, even while opposing. There are some rational links in the chain of logic that would lead one to that position, and we must take the time to understand them if we are ever to successfully win hearts and minds.
All of this, perhaps, has been a rather tedious way of saying not very much—“It’s complicated. It depends. Let’s disagree respectfully.” Perhaps I am merely stating the obvious, but nowadays, it seems even the obvious needs stating. With the conclusion of this third very lengthy post on contemporary politics (making up for my recent neglect of the subject on this blog), I propose to take a blogging hiatus for a week or two, while I’m away at ETS, AAR, and SBL, and then celebrating Thanksgiving and my arrival at the quarter-century mark. I will try to reply to any comments here, but may be much slower than normal.