Dear President-elect Obama: Congratulations on your stunning victory! I guarantee that I'm the only person who worked to get you elected who was also a founder of the evangelical wing of the original pro-life movement. When it comes to the "culture wars" spawned by divisions over abortion, I know what I'm talking about. Please hear me out.
Yes, it's all about the economy. But no one should kid themselves: the culture wars have the potential to sap the energy from your best initiatives. There is no point writing anyone off. You need all Americans supporting you if you are to bring real and lasting change.
Check out this week's New Yorker magazine and you'll find a long quote by me in an article about Senator McCain's loss. The quote is from one of the many pieces that I wrote supporting you. (This one was first published by the Baltimore Sun then picked up here on Huffington.) I demanded that Senator McCain tone down the smear and fear rhetoric of his campaign and I accused him of potentially stirring up violence. Like many pieces I've written supporting you the one castigating the McCain campaign went "viral" and was replicated thousands of times on thousands of blogs.
The reason I'm writing this open letter is because you are going to get only one bite at the apple when it comes to defusing the antagonism of the pro-life movement toward you. But it can be done! I want to help you and your advisors to get this right. And you'll need support from the progressive movement. That's why I'm putting this in the Huffington Post, not just to reach you, but to try to convince your bedrock progressive supporters so they'll back your actions and, more importantly, back the order of your priorities I'm suggesting here that they might otherwise object to.
If you get this right you are in a position to open the door to the beginning of the end of the culture wars. If you get this wrong, you will needlessly instigate another round of toxic division.
Full disclosure: shortly after the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling my late Evangelical leader father Francis Schaeffer, Dr. C. Everett Koop (soon to be Ronald Reagan's Surgeon General) and I collaborated on a pro-life film series with a companion book (Whatever Happened to the Human Race?) I wrote the screenplay for the series and directed the films. We went on the road with a nationwide seminar tour which, taken together with other writings of my father's, launched the Evangelical pro-life movement. We became regular visitors to the Ford, Reagan and Bush Sr., White House, and worked closely with the Republican leadership from Henry Hyde to Jack Kemp. In the mid-1980s I left the Evangelical fold, and have moved "left."
I'm still pro-life, but now believe that abortion should remain legal.
Along with many other pieces that I wrote for the Huffington Post and various newspapers supporting you during the primaries and the campaign was one article where I explained why I'm both pro-life and pro-Obama. I pointed out that you take abortion seriously as a moral issue and that the impact of the social programs for families, children, education and medical care that you are talking about will actually reduce the number of abortions.
Here is what you said about the same subject:
"I think that abortion is a very difficult issue, and it is a moral issue and one that I think good people on both sides can disagree on ... . This is an issue that -- look, it divides us. And in some ways, it may be difficult to -- to reconcile the two views. But there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, "We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby." Those are all things that we put in the Democratic platform for the first time this year, and I think that's where we can find some common ground, because nobody's pro-abortion. I think it's always a tragic situation. We should try to reduce these circumstances."
So here is my advice:
1) If in the early days of your presidency you waive a red flag in the face of the pro-life movement -- and I'm not talking about the fringe crazies, I'm talking about the decent humane thoughtful pro-life folks who would have voted Democratic were it not for this one issue -- you will confirm the worst paranoid fantasies of the people who have tried to use this issue to block out all other considerations. Perception is important. If you start with some sweeping gesture striking down local and state ordinances that ask for parental notification before a minor can obtain an abortion, and make that one of the first expenditures of your political capital you will have initiated the next round of the culture war.
2) On the other hand if some of your early initiatives are boldly proclaimed as specifically aimed at reducing the number of abortions, for instance initiatives to help facilitate adoption, provide care for pregnant women and children, of a kind that will make it easier for women with troubled pregnancies to keep their children, introduce sex education curriculum that teaches responsibility and the sacredness of sex that you have talked about in your campaign... everything could change.
3) Start with bold programs to reduce the number of abortions, while keeping abortion legal, and while protecting Roe, and you'll be surprised at how many Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics who would have voted for you except for this issue, will be won over. You will calm the waters and defuse the situation.
4) Put real substance into programs to reduce the number of abortions, and combine that with talking about the fact that this is a moral issue upon which reasonable and honorable people can disagree, and you will have taken a giant step towards bringing this country together.
If you follow my advice you will find that you have some new and unexpected allies rooting for you on the issues of the economy, service and sacrifice, for instance all those millions of Evangelical young people ready to follow your call. Some of them already voted for you in bigger numbers than for any Democratic candidate for the presidency post-Roe. They already believe in your vision of service, responsibility and compassion. Give them some hope that you have also heard their moral concern on the issue of life.
It's your "Nixon goes to China" moment. As a progressive Democrat you are in a position to defuse the situation and heal the culture wars in a way that no Republican president has been able to do. Surprise the pro-life movement with a sincere, sustained "bully pulpit" for life, and a substantive set of a programs to reduce abortions, while also defending Roe. You can do both!
None of this means that you, the Democratic Party or the progressives movement has to give up principles about reproductive rights. In fact, it means that those principles can better be defended in the long term because you will have claimed the moral high ground.
On January 21 the day after your inauguration there will be a huge demonstration against abortion. That would be a great time for you to announce several programs aimed specifically at giving pregnant women all the help they need if they choose to keep their babies. There are millions of Americans of goodwill (not to be confused with your most rabid opportunists on the right) who could be brought to your side. You'll never convince the cranks, but you can win a new army of good people ready to sacrifice for the massive changes you will need every American's good will to achieve.
Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy For God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back (Now in Paperback)