The meeting room was overflowing with students sitting on the floor, standing along the back wall, and spilling out the doorways to the corridor. Our discussion ranged from the failure of the American war in Iraq to the world’s pandemic of HIV/AIDS to the most effective means for global poverty reduction to protection of the environment to...abortion. This was the University of Notre Dame, and these were young Catholic student activists.
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Many Democrats fail to comprehend how fundamental the conviction on "the sacredness of human life" is for millions of Christians, especially Catholics and evangelicals, including those who are strongly committed on other issues of justice and peace and those who wouldn’t criminalize abortion even as they oppose it. Liberal political correctness, which includes a rigid litmus test of being "pro-choice," really breaks down here. And the conventional liberal political wisdom that people who are conservative on abortion are conservative on everything else is just wrong. Christians who are economic populists, peacemaking internationalists, and committed feminists can also be "pro-life." The roots of this conviction are deeply biblical and, for many, consistent with a commitment to nonviolence as a gospel way of life.
And there are literally millions of votes at stake in this liberal miscalculation. Virtually everywhere I go, I encounter moderate and progressive Christians who find it painfully difficult to vote Democratic given the party’s rigid, ideological stance on this critical moral issue, a stance they regard as "pro-abortion." Except for this major and, in some cases, insurmountable obstacle, these voters would be casting Democratic ballots.
Ironically, the Republicans, who actively and successfully court the votes of Christians on abortion, are much more ecumenical in their own toleration of a variety of views within their own party. For example, fellow Republicans have not enforced anti-abortion orthodoxies on their rising new star, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose pro-choice views seem not to be a problem. Indeed, there is now a long list of pro-choice Republicans whose support the party seems to regard as crucial to its success. The Republican Party takes a very strong anti-abortion stance in its party platforms but then allows for a wide variety of opinions based on either conscience or pragmatic political calculations.
But to be a "pro-life" Democrat is to be a very lonely political creature in America, as U.S. Catholic’s Heidi Schlumpf explains in our cover feature. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, a pro-life Catholic, was denied the opportunity to speak at the 1992 and 1996 Democratic conventions. It didn’t matter that Casey was progressive on economic and foreign policy questions and an outspoken supporter of women’s rights; he didn’t have the right position on abortion. Former Ohio Rep. Tony Hall, an evangelical Christian, experienced similar discrimination as a pro-life Democrat despite being perhaps the most courageous congressional champion on issues of hunger and poverty. The Democratic National Committee refuses even to allow a link on its Web site for pro-life Democrats.
ON PRAGMATIC GROUNDS alone, not to mention the issue’s importance as a matter of conscience for many Christians and others, the Democratic Party could take a more respectful and even dialogical approach. Democrats, like Republicans, could still take a strong party stance (their official position being pro-choice) yet offer space for different positions. Such a respect for conscience on abortion would allow many pro-life and progressive Christians the "permission" they need to vote Democratic.
But if the Democrats were really smart they would do something more. And indeed, this is what candidate John Kerry should do. The Democrats could affirm that they are still the pro-choice party, but then also say what most Americans believe: that the abortion rate in America is much too high for a good, healthy society that respects both women and children. They could make a serious public commitment to actually do something about significantly reducing the abortion rate. Abortion is historically used as a symbolic issue in campaigns, and then forgotten when the election is over. Republicans win elections on the basis of their anti-abortion position, and then proceed to ignore the issue (and the nation’s abortion rate, highest in the industrial world) by doing nothing to reduce the number of abortions.
Democrats could vow to change that by uniting both pro-choice and pro-life constituencies around goals that could become the basis for some new common ground, i.e. really targeting the problems of teen pregnancy and adoption reform—so critical to reducing abortion—while offering real support and meaningful alternatives for women at greater risk for unwanted pregnancies, especially low-income women.
John Kerry, while reasserting his pro-choice stance, could also credibly assert his Catholic faith as a motivator to save unborn lives by dramatically reducing the abortion rate. Given the bitter partisan division on the issue of abortion, it may be that the Democrats are the only ones who could initiate a common project to make abortion truly "rare" in America.
But beneath the strong convictions felt by many Christians on abortion is something deeper than politics. The most thoughtful ones speak of "a consistent ethic of life" that derives from the heart of Catholic social teaching. It was Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernadin who coined the phrase "a seamless garment of life" which clearly linked the "life issues" of abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, nuclear weapons, poverty, and racism all as critical components. The Catholic bishops themselves teach against single-issue voting that focuses on only one concern, such as abortion, to the neglect of all the rest.
The tragedy is, in America today one can’t vote for a consistent ethic of life. Republicans stress some life issues, Democrats others, while both violate the seamless garment of life on several vital matters. But the consistent life ethic still serves as an invaluable plumb line by which to evaluate all political candidates and parties.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.