Monday, August 17, 2015

Abortion Litmus Tests and the Presidential Primary Voter

There have been a number of occasions over the years when I have debated with friends the question of if there are times when Christians are morally obligated to be "single issue voters." More precisely, the question we have debated is the question of whether there are times when Christians ought to exclude certain candidates from consideration solely on the basis of certain "litmus tests."

Most of us don't usually apply such litmus tests, of course. For most issues we are quite comfortable with the idea of setting aside some areas of disagreement we might have with a certain candidate and voting for them anyway. 

We might do this for a variety of reasons. For example, we might think that the issues about which we disagree are less important than those concerning which we agree. Or, even if our areas of disagreement with the candidate are important ones, we might decide that the candidate wouldn't have power to make any changes relative to the issues concerning which we disagree with them. For example, we might decide to vote for a certain candidate for dog catcher because the candidate is good at catching dogs, despite the fact that we know that the candidate disagrees with us in favoring decreased federal defense spending. We would feel comfortable doing this since we know that dogcatchers have no influence over federal defense spending budgets.

In short, we make these trade-offs all the time, and it's often not very easy to explain to others, or even to ourselves, how we justify the trade-offs that we make.

So, in this post I'd like to focus on a narrower issue. In particular, I'd like to very briefly discuss the question of what trade-offs between the issue of abortion and other issues Christians can allow themselves to make when deciding whom to support for the office of President of the United States.

Most conservative Christians would agree that abortion is a grave moral evil, and that we are morally obligated to fight against its practice in any ethical way we can. Nevertheless, the question of abortion is also a controversial and closely contested one, and the battle lines between those for and against abortion have not moved a great deal since Roe v. Wade. A consequence of this apparent stalemate is that most of us don't expect any President to be able to make much difference with regard to the issue of abortion in the near term. Because of this, we tend to just assume that change on this issue is impossible, and to choose our Presidents based on which issues we think they can actually do something about.

The problem with taking this tack, though, is that it seems to foreclose the very possibility of change. It seems to foster a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, we assume that change is impossible, so we elect candidates who are guaranteed not to change anything.

Therefore, if we are ever to change the laws about abortion in this country, it is necessary that presidents be committed foes of abortion: men and women who will take every legal action open to them to limit the practice of abortion, and who will only nominate candidates to the Supreme Court who can be relied upon to overturn Roe v. Wade. Further, if we are to have a President of this type, it is necessary, in turn, Christian voters must have a very strong preference for pro-life presidents over non-pro-life presidents.

Given that every Christian is morally obligated to use every reasonable ethical means at their disposal to combat the practice of abortion, it follows that Christians ought to have a good ethical reason to justify their voting for any President who is not a committed pro-lifer. 

An example of such a reason might be that there was some other immediately obtainable moral good of a greater order than making progress toward saving the lives of over one million babies killed every year, and which could be obtained in no other way than through the election of a non-pro-life President. 

Another example of such a reason might be that a situation exists in which there is no electable candidate who is strongly pro-life, but there is one who is moderately pro-life, and who would make some progress toward protecting the life of the unborn, without foreclosing on the option of further progress in the future.

In any case, though, the point is that abortion, since it is an issue of life and death which affects over a million baby human beings per year, is so serious a moral issue that it cannot be considered just another ordinary issue to be weighed against everyday issues such as immigration and tax reform. 

To bring the issue even closer to home, those GOP voters in the 2016 Republican primary who are considering supporting Donald Trump should ask themselves (leaving aside the questions of whether Mr. Trump can in fact be counted upon to keep his word, and whether he is able to do the things he says he will) whether immigration reform of the sort that Donald Trump is proposing is so important that it justifies electing a President who has no intention of making any changes whatsoever relative to the practice of abortion. 

Some have argued, for example, in supporting such a view, that both legal and illegal immigrants generally become Democratic voters, and that Democratic voters are anti-life, so that if we want to maintain the political strength to fight anti-life Democrats, we need to reform immigration to keep the nation from becoming Democratic.

This sort of argument is weak, in that the issue of abortion is, properly speaking, not a partisan issue. That is, despite the fact that today, generally speaking, Republicans are pro-life and Democrats are not, the issue itself is not a political issue, but a moral one, and the task that faces is not first and foremost a political task, but a moral one - to persuade people of both parties of the evils of abortion and to muster majorities to roll it back. To use immigration as a tool in this way has the negative side effect of making abortion hostage to one political party. If our goal is to persuade people of the evils of abortion, we are better off helping people understand that there is nothing Democratic or Republican about wanting to save the lives of babies.

In short, I would argue that Christian voters ought not to think of themselves first and foremost as Republican or Democratic voters, but as Christian voters. And with regard to life this means participating in party politics without making our Christianity captive to it. And it means that whenever we vote for a candidate for the Presidency we must do our best to support candidates who will do what is right.

So what should a Christian do when there are no candidates on the ballot who support their point of view? Is choosing the "lesser of two evils" acceptable? Yes, I think so. If there truly are no other alternatives, then we have a constrained choice and we must use the gift of a vote of conscience to choose the lesser of two evils. But even here we must make sure that no politician or party ever makes the mistake of taking the "Christian" vote for granted because they are just a little better than the other party. Christians should continue to use whatever means they have to put forward Christian candidates who actually are real alternatives. They should force parties to take account of them in the making of party platforms. But above all, they should pray for God to open the eyes of their fellow-citizens and for Him to provide them with leaders who will do justly, and love mercy, and encourage people to walk humbly with their God.

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