The applause might make you think John McCain scored the most points at the Saddleback Civil Forum Saturday. His crisp life begins "at conception" answer to the abortion question left the Rev. Rick Warren looking particularly pleased. As cameras panned the crowd, all the people seemed jubilant.
Compare that to the gasps Obama received with his "above my pay grade" answer, and it seems a cinch for McCain.
But don't count on it. These are church people. What they say and what they do often doesn't match. I'm not criticizing them for that. I'm just stating the facts. None of us meets our highest aspirations. At least they have aspirations. Unlike the rest of us in this anything-goes world, they are under considerable pressure to make sure their lapses don't become public.
As loudly as they may have applauded McCain's straight talk about abortion, a lot of women in that audience have had abortions. A lot of their mothers, their sisters and their daughters have too.
How do I know?
I know because evangelicals who've studied each other have shown again and again that evangelical behavior differs very little from that of the rest of the country. They may go to church more and they do give more to charity. But evangelicals have sex outside of marriage, divorce, take drugs, drink, gamble, lie; they do all the shady things the rest of us do.
At best their young people wait to have sex a few months longer than other young people. And not every study shows even that. It's become a joke to say that evangelical kids have oral sex and don't consider it sex. But oral sex leads to other kinds of sex, the kind even they know is real sex.
Evangelical kids are likely to have had fewer talks with their parents about their true sexual behavior. They're likely to have more guilt about sexuality and as a result they are less likely to plan having sex. If sexually active people don't plan, they don't protect themselves, and they get pregnant.
Evangelicals talk plenty about moral epidemics. Pornography addiction, which appears to be the epidemic du jour, is so bad within the church that treatment programs are being aimed at church members and staff.
There's an epidemic of sex outside marriage. There's an epidemic of abortions.
There isn't, however, an epidemic of unwed mothers in the evangelical churches. Why is that do you think?
It's because evangelicals have abortions. The highly respected Guttmacher Institute's studies show that evangelical women make up one out of every five women having abortions. The true number is certainly higher than that because many evangelicals aren't going to claim their faith on abortion clinic forms. Some of them are getting two and three abortions. They feel guilty. They feel sinful. They're ashamed and secretive. They repent.
And maybe they vote for candidates who crisply condemn them by saying that human life begins at conception. But then again, maybe they don't.
Just as nobody knows how many white people will let racism influence their vote once they're in the privacy of the voting booth, nobody knows how men and women who've experienced abortion will vote once they have the same privacy. Racism and abortion may be the biggest secrets in America.
Women are notoriously willing to vote against their own interests. Evangelical women might be even more willing than other women. They've accepted already that they are to submit to male authority.
But maybe not. Maybe they will consider that if evangelical churches really wanted to cut abortions in this country, they could start honoring women who have babies outside of marriage. They could set up special days to fete them, to bring them forward in the church, to laud them for their courage and fortitude. Churches might have intact families "adopt" those honored women and their precious children, giving them the love and support that women of such strong conscience deserve for their self-sacrifice in the service of human life.
It would not be without precedence. Evangelical families who want to adopt children are happy to give such support to unwed mothers willing to give their children up. Honoring women who elect to keep their children shouldn't be such a big step.
But it won't happen.
Because as much as evangelicals say they care about saving unborn children, making sure women "pay" for what they've done is more important.
Christine Wicker is the author of The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church. Her website is ChristineWicker.com
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