I can’t count the number of times that conservative Christians have named “the Supreme Court” as the only deciding question of this election. No matter what else a candidate says or does or will do on any other issue, the only concern some people have is what future Supreme Court justices will decide on one issue — abortion. Things like intellectual competence, moral character, honesty, emotional maturity and temperament — and gospel issues like racial bigotry and the treatment of women — apparently do not matter in the end to some. Really?
As a Christian who truly believes that abortion is a moral issue, I am deeply committed to dramatically reducing them. But criminalizing an often desperate choice is not the answer. We must also be deeply committed to the economic security, health care, and childcare choices that women need, which are critical to reducing abortion. I believe in the sacredness and dignity of life from womb to tomb. But a “consistent ethic of life” also includes ending poverty, human trafficking, the death penalty, ceaseless and senseless wars, and weapons of mass destruction.
But what are the ways to best protect the integrity and dignity of all life? A consistent ethic of life is a moral principle but also involves very human judgments over strategy. In Christianity Today, Executive Editor Andy Crouch speaks theologically and powerfully about the “idolatry of strategy” in an editorial called “Speak Truth to Trump.”
“Most Christians who support Trump have done so with reluctant strategic calculation largely based on the president’s power to appoint members of the Supreme Court … But there is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence.”
Crouch sums up the consequences of the problem in this election by saying, “Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord.” He says that strategy becoming an idol is putting politics over theology, and he concludes, “And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.”
Even on strategy, many self-identified pro-life people disagree. Shannon Dingle, a blogger and conservative mother of a large multiracial family, has voted Republican for most of her life because of her pro-life commitment on abortion. She now says that most Republicans have not delivered on promises to address the issue:
“… [Most Republicans have] opposed or even stalled measures that could prevent abortions by targeting the underlying causes, like poverty, education, lack of access to healthcare, and supports for single parent and low-income families. In fact, I suspect these reasons contribute to why abortion rates rose under Reagan, rose under the first Bush, dropped under Clinton, held steady under the second Bush, and have been dropping under Obama. As such, I’m not sure we can hold that voting Republican is the best thing for abortion rates in this country.”
Dingle, like many evangelical Christians, says she cares most about what will best work to prevent abortions. Let me quote her at length because the voices that will change this polarized conversation the most will have to come from women, and men need to listen.
… why not focus on policies that reduce the demand for abortion? For example, empowering poor and low-income women can make a difference in overall pregnancy termination rates, as this demographic constitutes 75% of abortions. Increasing access to birth control reduces the rate of unplanned pregnancies, especially among low income women. It’s simple: if women don’t get pregnant, then they don’t get abortions. Providing supports for single mothers is also beneficial, as more than 80%of those obtaining abortions are unmarried, most of whom are not living with the father. Family supports in general can be beneficial as well, considering that about 60% of women getting abortions already have given birth at least once. Increasing educational access can also make a difference, as those who have a college degree are less likely to have an abortion while those without a high school or college diploma are more likely. Additionally, racial inequities in all these areas – education, income levels, and so on – lead to higher rates of abortions among black women than any other group and slightly higher rates among Hispanic women. … Honestly, I wish one of our major parties – or a third party, whether viable for winning the election or not – holistically supported life at all stages. My choice would be easier if that were true. It’s not, though. And I can’t accept that being pro-life is simply being anti-abortion. That’s not pro-life. It’s not. What is our Christian witness to those who have been born when we insist that the lives of the unborn matter more in our votes than their lives do?
Looking at the issue as Dingle does, it’s not surprising that many younger Christians, who are still opposed to abortion, don’t like the way the issue has been politicized and polarized. Instead, they are more focused on creating a “culture of life” than criminalizing what are usually desperate and tragic choices.
Katelyn Beaty, former managing editor of Christianity Today, explained the trend in the Washington Post saying that evangelicals are exploring “more creative and entrepreneurial” ways to decrease abortion — including funding counseling and pregnancy centers where pregnant women are treated as “human faces” rather than statistics who need to be changed.
“If life is worse for marginalized communities, it could fuel the number of abortions sought,” Beaty said. “There are more pro-life Christians who feel they can protect the lives of the unborn in other ways beyond just what the Supreme Court rules.”
Of course, even if Roe v. Wade were overturned, which is the ultimate goal of conservatives, that would just send abortion decisions back to the states, whose patchwork quilt of policies, that vary state to state, would hardly end abortions.
“Absent a social revolution, the effort to reduce abortion on the demand side is the only meaningful path forward. This involves creating subcultures of resistance to a culture dependent on abortion. This is the one thing the churches can really do that is meaningful. Teaching sexual restraint without shame. Teaching best practices for birth control when sexual restraint has reached its limit. Creating family and church communities that can support couples who face unwanted. pregnancies and are seeking alternatives to abortion.”
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton once famously said, “I think abortion should remain legal, but it needs to be safe and rare.” But we haven’t heard that from her for a long time; abortion is very far from being rare, and too many on the left seem unwilling to call for a reduction in abortions. This is the common ground we must achieve if both conservatives and liberals could combine together, in mutual efforts, to make abortions truly rare.
All of us, conservative and liberal, must regard abortion as a moral issue and a societal problem and accept the need for its dramatic reduction. We need to address a culture that increasingly regards sexuality as recreational instead of covenantal. We need to agree together — left and right — that abortion rates are an indicator of societal health, and that reducing them should become common goal. We need to advance creative and compassionate strategies that are supportive of women. It’s time to replace the politicizing of abortion — by common sense public policies that seek their reduction, a civil society that advocates cultural values that help prevent them, and faith communities that offer pastoral care and help to those caught in unwanted pregnancies.
The categories of pro-life and pro-choice are outmoded and unhelpful. It’s time to find common strategies that promote the health, sustenance, and equity of women, the sexual integrity of men and women, the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, the transformation of adoption systems, and the care of children both unborn and born. We must de-politicize abortion, and support women, parents, and children in the way a society that values all kinds of families truly should. This is a societal problem to be solved — not an issue to keep screaming at each other about in ways that further distort our electoral politics. Lord have mercy.
Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, is available now.