Every morning when I walk to my office, I pass the centerpiece of Belmont University: the 150-year-old bell tower. From it currently hangs a 20-foot banner advertising “Debate 08,” the Oct. 7 town hall presidential debate hosted by Belmont.
I’m excited to be a part of an institution that seeks to participate in the public square, and I look forward to “little Belmont” (as Duke fans called us) playing a role in the process of statecraft. More interesting, though, is that Belmont is doing so as a “Christian community,” whose employees “uphold Christ as the measure of all things” as found in its mission statement.
Keeping in mind the constitutional concerns over an established state religion or church, I keep asking myself this question: Should it be a surprise that Christian institutions can so easily play significant roles in the national election? After all, Saddleback Church hosted a civil forum just days ago.
Most Christians, according to recent polls, say, “No, it’s not surprising,” because what’s at stake in the national interest are moral issues that are deeply theological. What’s good for God’s people is good for the nation.
Abortion has come front and center again as the most morally and politically pressing issue for evangelical Christians. In the Saddleback forum, while Barak Obama tried to explain that abortion is a complex moral issue that might receive different views from science and religion, John McCain confidently flattened this complexity by stating that life begins at conception, no exceptions. Never mind the point that Obama was answering a subtly different question than McCain, one about human rights.
It makes sense then, as McCain crystallizes his position against abortion, that he and Obama are neck and neck in the polls with the help of none other than evangelical Christians. McCain has recaptured the hearts of the most successful voting block of the past 28 years by stepping into the right moral aisle on the issue of the unborn, an aisle he wouldn’t walk down years ago.
Obama is stuck in the middle of a moral bog in which he might suffer a political death. McCain, for his part, walks the gilded bridge above the moral quicksand. This bridge could possibly take McCain to the White House as it did for Bush.
The ironic thing about Obama’s fate, however, is that his moral position on abortion–similar to Clinton’s formula of safe, rare and legal–appears to serve our national interests more than McCain’s.
The United States depends on the kind of “moral exception” Obama argues in favor of when the life of the mother is threatened by the life of the unborn child. This is a moral rule without which the United States would be in deep trouble, in wars past and future.
If Christians really held fast to their convictions about the sanctity of innocent human life, then our military wouldn’t be able to achieve its objectives. For example, without the deaths of innocent noncombatants, important Hussein/Baath loyalists and al-Qaeda operatives would still be plotting and carrying out their insidious designs. The U.S. wouldn’t be able to levy harsh and devastating economic sanctions with the help of their friends on countries whose people have come to depend upon our commerce for survival.
If I were a Christian who believes God is siding with America and democracy, I would be wary of anyone whose theological belief about the inviolability of innocent human life grounds his political policy. No killing fetuses could turn into no killing noncombatants. That means that Saddam still lives.
Hypothetically, when the difficult decision arises, when a future president must decide to sacrifice innocent lives in order to save American citizens, it will take one simple cabinet voice who very likely will be a Christian to remind him or her of the commitment not to kill innocents. Pro-life McCain will have to face this moment; pro-choice Obama won’t. He won’t have to surrender his core theological convictions because he already makes room for the moral ambiguities that sometimes demand that innocent life be sacrificed.
On second thought, neither will McCain. Given his position in other issues besides abortion, he really does affirm the moral exception. He understands as clearly as Obama that sometimes tough situations demand tough and unpopular decisions. His political character knows too well that sometimes personal convictions must take a back seat to the real situation on the ground. Whether unborn babies or non-combatants in the line of a missile strike, innocent life must be sacrificed and the basic human right to life violated. This is, so the wisdom states, the only moral option available.
This leads to another conundrum, however. Evangelical Christians really don’t like Obama because he threatens the core moral values of their Christian faith with his “moral exception.” Why then does McCain not do the same, given his acknowledgement of the moral ambiguities concerning the value of innocent life in war and economics?
I do not know the right response, but I think I’ll pose that question to my Christian ethics class in a few weeks. Until then, perhaps the only answer that will do is this: American Christians believe in the inviolability of innocent life only when it suits their interests.
Hopefully, one of my students will point out that Obama’s consistency and McCain’s inconsistency are really two sides of the same coin of the realm. When she does, I will perhaps finally understand why it’s not surprising that Christian institutions like Belmont are so active in the national election process. There’s a lot riding on it.
Andrew Watts is assistant professor of Christian ethics at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.
Andy Watts is professor of religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.