Think of me as an accidental iconoclast. I’m a pro-life, Bible-thumping, holy-rolling evangelical Christian and … a registered Democrat.. Even worse, I’m no blue dog. I’m a real-life Roosevelt “liberal” who voted for Obama and wept for joy as the returns came in. I baffle non-church goers when I rebut the politics of Falwell, Dobson, and Robertson. I break their mold. Evangelicals question my orthodoxy and integrity, claiming – at the very least – that I wilted under pressure and swooned before Pied Piper charisma during the 2008 election. I break their mold as well. Witness the dismay from the internet plea of a sincere 21-year-old: “the platform McCain stood on was miles closer to lining up to God’s Word, and in so many cases was spot on.” She adds: “It grieves me that many Christians could not separate the issues from the man.”
She’s not alone. Colleagues at breakfast meetings freeze. It’s as if I’ve breathed ice on their scrambled eggs – although a few pull me aside later, their eyes darting as if they fear spies, and mutter: “Thanks for speaking up. I’m a Democrat too.”
Keep it hush-hush. Otherwise, the Monty Python gang might smash through the door and holler: “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
I stand on the rubble of a thousand molds and wonder: Who crowned the Republicans as God’s Own Party? How did much of evangelical Christianity – which holds to traditional orthodoxy and extols the Bible as God’s authoritative Word – degenerate into civil religion? We’ve deafened ourselves to our own heritage, which has always viewed poverty, peace, justice, racism and the environment as moral issues deeply entrenched in biblical teaching. Our past is crammed with abolitionists, civil and equal rights advocates, and those who give up everything to live in slums. We’re also deaf to Tony Compollo, Ronald Sider, and Jim Wallis – solid evangelicals who’ve resisted the right-wing tide by reminding us of that past – and to Mother Theresa, the US Catholic bishops, and Pope John Paul II, who’ve presented Catholic social teaching as a holistically pro-life agenda that values human beings before and after they’re born.
It was not always thus. I became a Christian in 1973 in the wake of the Jesus Movement. Many of my friends were politically conservative, but they understood the difference between theology and politics: the former informs the latter but recognizes that politics lives in the gray area of a necessarily secular, non-theocratic, pluralistic society – which was just fine with the Baptists among us; they were the original champions of church-state separation. There was wiggle room. We could disagree and remain pals. I understood the compelling, intellectually honest argument for conservatism: reign in government spending; lower taxes to spur innovation; protect individual rights; and maintain a strong defense to fend off genuine danger. As Mark Shields recently put it, classical conservatives and liberals refer to two distinct but overlapping American myths (in this case, a myth is a story that illustrates an interpretation of reality): Conservatives exalt the lone sheriff fighting for what is right; liberals think of the wagon train. Conservatives stress the individual while liberals stress community. Both myths have strengths and weaknesses – and we get that. We can be civil. We can even enjoy one another as we host our coffee houses and study our Bibles together.
Perhaps we had an advantage: Our leaders showed us the way. Senators Mark Hatfield, a liberal Republican from Oregon, and Harold Hughes, a liberal Democrat from Iowa, were “born again” before the term became popular. Both were holistically pro-life: they were against abortion and extremely reluctant to go to war. Each was universally respected. Each reached across the aisle. Indeed, Hughes was a major force in bringing Chuck Colson to Christ.
Evangelicals seemed to lurch toward the progressive when they – along with a plurality of voters – voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976, but then they bolted right. One reason was the Democratic tilt vis-à-vis Roe v. Wade. There were 10 to 20 pro-life Democrats in the Senate and over 100 in the House in 1977. Among them were prominent liberals such as Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, Jennings Randolph of West Virginia, and William Proxmire of Winsconsin. Ted Kennedy, who would eventually support legalized abortion with shrill cries, said this in 1971: “Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized – the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old … When history looks back to this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.”
Alas, the Democrats eventually forgot their identity (we fight for the helpless – and who can be more helpless than the unborn child?) and constituency. Mary Meehan points out that two 1984 polls showed that 46 percent of all Democrats supported a constitutional amendment banning abortion while only nine percent of its convention delegates agreed with it. The party was once the home of unions, working-class Catholics, and immigrants who held to traditional “family values” even while they argued for supervised government participation in the economy. Indeed, Planned Parenthood once feared the Democrats more than it did the Republicans.
No longer. The “big tent,” which would have included pro-lifers who argued their position on a liberal basis, had been folded up.
In walked Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson. Francis Schaeffer and his son, Franky, toured the nation along with C. Everett Coop and helped bring evangelicals into the pro-life fold. They also settled in with the religious right. Franky, who has since lopped off the “y” and fled the religious right, quotes from one of his late father’s books: “There does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate … A true Christian in Hitler’s Germany and in the occupied countries should have defied the false and counterfeit state. This brings us to a current issue that is crucial for the future of the church in the United States, the issue of abortion … It is time we consciously realize that when any office commands what is contrary to God’s law it abrogates its authority. And our loyalty to the God who gave this law then requires that we make the appropriate response in that situation.”
So the jig was up, right? Scamper to the GOP, whose leaders dined with Schaeffer despite his threat of “force” (his son points out that his father’s words were stronger than Jeremiah Wright’s), and who were offering Ronald Reagan and another morning for America. Beat back those godless Democrats …
Inconsistency, Incongruity, and Negation
But wait. There was logical fallacy amid the rhetoric. Why were the Republicans, who usually argue for minimal governmental intrusion, contending for greater control in the abortion arena? And why were evangelicals giving dark hints of “force” when they’d shown anything but consistency until this point: the Southern Baptist Convention had called for abortion’s legalization before Roe v. Wade. And why was Reagan, who did not attend church, being projected as the more “Christian” candidate even though Carter popularized the term, “born again?”
There was a bad smell in this kitchen – and it still lingers in the skewed Reagan fable. He promised balanced budgets and gave us huge deficits; pledged government shrinkage and gave us expanded government through a mammoth defense; assured lower taxes and then raised social security levies to make for history’s largest tax increase. Many still pay him homage. A pastor friend lamented that Reagan was the last president to give us a surplus. I could remain quiet no longer. I reminded him of the Reagan deficits and that Clinton (a Democrat) left a surplus for George Bush (a Republican), who reversed the trend and plunged us even deeper into the red.
It was amazing. My friend changed the subject at the blink of an eye: We were more protected under Reagan. Nine-eleven was all Clinton’s fault.
Morning came to America. Never mind the facts and Iran-Contra.
Which political party is more Christian?
I would never argue that the Democratic Party is more “Christian” than the GOP. My party has draped a misguided Supreme Court decision in such clichés as “reproductive rights” and “the right to choose” while neglecting the life that has no voice. What’s more, it coats the clichés with false debates: Is that “fetus” really “alive”? Is it truly human? The real answer to both questions is an unequivocal “yes.” The fetus’s cells multiply; the heart beats; tests show brain activity. Sample the fetus’s DNA and you’ll find a human. Pro-choice supporters must face their true advocacy: they’re arguing the legitimacy of taking a minute human life. Many of them are deeply humanitarian on other issues (they’re the first ones in line to fight injustice), but they’re blind to the irony: they’re stealing the most basic human right amid their cry for rights.
Indeed, I registered as an independent and did not vote for Democratic presidential candidates during the 1990’s despite my overall agreement with them. I wrote in candidates instead.
But the Republican Party never impressed me either. Its campaign tactics sank into smears and it never delivered on its promises. Peer through the fog of electioneering pro-life marketing: There’s no “there” there. They’ve done little to alleviate abortion. Look further: the first four speakers at the 2008 convention were pro-choice and surveys indicate that a significant number of Republicans support legalized abortion. Behold an August poll done for Republican Majority for Choice: 78% of Republican voters believe that a woman, not the government, should decide whether or not she should have an abortion; 70% agree that women should have the full array of reproductive options, including abortion; 66% of self-described pro-life Republican voters believe that a woman, not the government, should make the abortion decision; and 74% do not support a platform calling to a constitutional amendment banning abortion on demand.
Some question the poll’s findings. A recent Gallop survey found that only 32% of Republican women labeled themselves pro-choice (interestingly, 37% of all Democratic women called themselves “pro-life,” a significant minority). But the supposedly strong pro-life stance has little depth: only 20% of all Republican women said a candidate must share her views; 53% said abortion is just one of many issues and 25% said the issue is not important. Throw in other complications, such as the libertarian value that guards against governmental interference – held near and dear in Western states – and we find a silent covenant: the GOP can use abortion as a campaign issue as long as it quickly shelves it once November is gone. After all, almost all surveys show that Americans don’t like abortion – whether they agree with Roe v. Wade or not – so the anti-abortion stance plays well. The Republicans sound moral; the Democrats sound immoral.
But, for practical purposes, we really have two pro-choice parties.
The meaning of Pro-life
The phraseology sparks a question: How pro-life was it to supply arms to a cruel dictatorship in El Salvador and murderous rebels in Nicaragua? How pro-life is it to cripple gun control legislation? How pro-life is it to ignore the 45 million Americans who cannot afford health insurance? That issue is not academic to me: I endured successful cancer treatment twenty years ago only to find the insurance company refusing to pay the bill. The hospital forgave the debt, but I wonder how many have died due to our health system.
How pro-life is it to ignore the alarming advance of human-induced global warming? Some of my evangelical friends dismiss the evidence as mere media “hype.” Fact: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which claimed in 2001 that “there is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities,” was chaired by Sir John Houghton, a dedicated Christian. Fact: The National Academy of Sciences verified the IPCC. Other warnings have come from the US National Academy of Science and the American Geophysical Union. Even the CEO’s of BP, DuPont, and Electric Power have said that the time for action is now. So has former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican.
The upshot: Millions may die. Evangelicals, who rightly insist on the rights of the unborn, should be the first to affirm sound environmental stewardship. We are, after all, pro-life.
We’re also meant to be consistently biblical, which means that poverty is a moral issue. God commanded the Israelites to hold a year of Jubilee every 50 years in Leviticus 25:8 and following. Land, which was the signature of wealth in the ancient world, was meant to be restored to its original families. Indentured servants were freed. Capitalism was reversed: “When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what he is really selling you is the number of crops. Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God” (verses 16-17) Quotes like this fill the chapter: “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants” (verse 23); “if one of your countrymen becomes poor and sells some of his property, his nearest relative is to come and redeem what his countryman has sold. If, however, a man has no one to redeem it for him but he himself prospers and acquires sufficient means to redeem it, he is to determine the value for the years since he sold it and refund the balance to the man to whom he sold it; he can go back to his own property. But if he does not acquire the means to repay him, what he sold will remain in the possession of the buyer until the Year of Jubilee, and he can go back to his property” (verses 25-28).
The outcome: Institutional poverty, which passes from generation to generation, had no place in God’s Land. Subsequent prophets substantiated this teaching. Read God’s charge against Israel in Amos 5:11-13: “You trample on the poor and force him to give you grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offences and how great your sins. You oppress the righteous and take bribes and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Therefore the prudent man keeps quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” Jesus viewed the treatment of the poor as a symptom of real faith. Those entering Heaven clothed Him, fed Him, and tended Him when he was sick. The righteous ones ask him when they did that. “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
Who is moral?
But what about sexuality? Haven’t the Democrats jettisoned traditional principles while Republicans dam the tide? Not really. Both Biden and Obama have said that they are against gay marriage. Evangelicals respond with suspicion, which is probably warranted, but that does not mean we should order haloes for Republican heads. While some conservatives wring their hands over Obama’s three visits to the gay Episcopalian bishop Gene Robinson, they’re ignoring John McCain’s popularity with the Log Cabin Republicans, a homosexual group. McCain twice voted against a push for a constitutional amendment that would ban homosexual marriage, declaring that the proposal was “antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans.” Marriage should be left to the states.
In other words, Obama and McCain hold the same public positions on homosexual marriage.
And as long as we’re talking morality, let’s ask, “Whom should I trust?” Should I trust a man with a vicious temper, known for invoking “honor” and castigating others as “traitors” when they disagree with him? Should I trust a man who had numerous affairs while married to a crippled wife – a wife he left for a millionaire heiress with whom he had yet another affair and whom he married a month after his divorce? Is that traditional morality? Could I point my son to such a man and say, “Be like him”? I would rather have him looking at someone who overcame tremendous childhood odds, got a good education, moved to Chicago to work among the poor, received more education and became a law professor, went on to become a state senator and then a US senator while maintaining an apparently healthy family.
The mark of true leadership
Lost in all this talk about morality is the key biblical teaching on leadership. God offered a young king anything he wanted. The king responded: “… Give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong …” (1 Kings 4:9). God was pleased: “… Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do whatever you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart …” (4:11-12).
Wisdom is key for leaders. We can even say that it’s a moral issue in the light of Solomon’s experience.
I’ll admit to something: Part of me wanted to vote for McCain when the campaign began. It seemed that he was sincere – and, perhaps, he stood in the heritage of Republicans I admire: Teddy Roosevelt, Wendell Wilke, Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, and Mark Hatfield. And yes, I wanted to vote against abortion.
I would at least give him a look.
But then I probed. I discovered the temper. I discovered the hypocritical, dishonorable behavior in his first marriage: a man who constantly invokes “honor” violated his most sacred vow. And I watched him endanger the country by choosing an unvetted and clearly unqualified vice presidential candidate just to placate his “base.”
And then came his erratic campaign and his surly character assassinations.
Was this wisdom?
Meanwhile, Obama remained cool. I don’t like his stance on abortion, but I also realize that abortion would not be solved even if Roe v. Wade were reversed (the decision-making power would be handed back to the states, and the pro-choice flood gates would open in our fifty legislatures). We need to win hearts and minds.
So I walked into that voting booth and filled in the oval above Obama’s name.
Watching the results come in
My tears on election night came not only because I felt that the right candidate won. They came because of images from my past. I remembered the black-and-white photos of lynched African Americans with “respectable” white men surrounding them; I remembered the Life Magazine cover I saw as a child: Alabama state police awaited black marchers as they crossed a bridge, attack dogs by their side; I remembered a woman being hauled into a police van in Watts; I remembered smoke over Detroit and Newark; I remembered King’s assassination …
… On November 4, 2008, at about 11 p.m., an African American walked to a podium and stirred the nation with a call to unity. It actually felt good to be American.
It saddens me that many evangelicals are still sending e-mails with dire warnings of Muslim takeovers. I’m happy, however, that more moderate voices – like those of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels – are beginning to prevail. They know how to forge alliances and disagree agreeably. I’m glad that many younger evangelicals are now more sophisticated than those of my generation.
They’re shattering molds, molds that should never have formed in the first place.