In an earlier column, I wrote that emotions override thoughtful considerations for many professing Christians concerning the issue of abortion. And some responses proved my point.
However, I want to look more closely at why this one issue, which became a successful tool of opportunistic politicians (excuse the redundancy) cozying up with legalistic Christians (excuse the oxymoron), has become so singularly defining in recent decades.
This analysis doesn’t apply to those who embrace a fuller “pro-life” identification and are deeply engaged in providing services that actually reduce abortions and offer broader care for suffering humanity.
A closer look reveals two distinguishing marks of many single-issue voters who claim to be “pro-life,” meaning in full opposition to abortion above and excluding any other concern.
The first is the sheer obsession with this issue. Nothing else seems to matter or at least to matter nearly as much.
Even truth, justice and compassion are easily sacrificed if this one issue gets the right nod from a politician. Anything else destructive to life can be excused, as long as it is carried out by those branded as “pro-life.”
The second is the irrationality at play. It matters none whatsoever to these “pro-life” voters that their stated goal of eliminating abortion will not be accomplished in the way they are seeking.
Abortion will not be outlawed nationally if Roe v. Wade is overturned. States, in various ways, would set their own laws. Some would be very restrictive, and others would not.
Therefore, changing laws would simply favor those with the resources to get medical abortions where legal while leaving those in poverty with fewer, safer options.
It is an irrational approach, especially since there is overwhelming evidence that the best ways to reduce abortions (the stated goal) come through the provision of health care, education, accessible contraception and less-complicated adoption services.
But facts – as we learned in recent years – don’t matter to those who prefer familiar misinformation to revealed truth. Or those who really support the politics of white nationalism but find the “pro-life” label to be more socially acceptable.
Therefore, these emotional, irrational single-issue voters stick with an oversimplified binary option of being either “pro-life” or “pro-choice” – with the former being a false notion that abortion can be eliminated through court action and law enforcement, and the latter being falsely portrayed as a cruel desire to kill babies.
Fully ignored is any acknowledgment of the medical complexities and political realities that need to be addressed thoughtfully in order to accomplish the stated goal.
But why did this one issue rise so quickly to become the passionate, nothing-else-matters political issue for so many professing Christians?
Astute observers know this was done strategically through political operatives offering some power and prestige to religious fundamentalists in exchange for their support. That’s the “how” part, but what about the “why” part of the equation?
Why would the larger, clearer values of Jesus – who is the way, the truth and the life – no longer define Christian ethics? Why does this one issue, even if it won’t accomplish the stated goal, continue to work so well politically?
Two reasons seem to rise in response to this baffling question, and they will receive no more of a welcome than my observations about the distinguishing marks of emotional obsession and irrationality. But here we go:
First, being “pro-life” in this very limited way is easy. It simply doesn’t require anything except for political positioning.
Bradley Onishi, a religion professor at Skidmore College, addressed this matter on Twitter recently. He asked the question as: “Why is abortion an effective way to create single-issue voters?”
His answer: “Because abstract compassion for ‘the unborn’ is easier than the messy love” – and costly love – for the poor, the sick, the homeless and those treated with cruelty.
This “ad hoc love” and “selective outrage masked as holy indignation,” he noted, are often exhibited by Americanized Christians.
Indeed, it is less risky to promote so-called “pro-life” candidates and to drop “baby killer” comments in social media streams than to address the realities, complexities and proven solutions related to abortion and women’s health.
It is easier to spread “pro-life” memes than to delve into the messiness of post-born lives at risk – from birth to the sick and dying. It is easier to express compassion for an unknown fetus than to show compassion for a traumatized child at the border or in a refugee camp.
Applying a vague, cost-free, one-issue trump card to all politics requires far less of a personal and political investment than actually tackling the real-life – and truly pro-life – issues of poverty and injustice.
Second, being obsessively “pro-life” provides cover for supporting a political agenda at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus. To state the obvious, many use the more socially acceptable “pro-life” position as an excuse to advance a white nationalist agenda with all of its injustice and cruelty.
Studies – such as a 2017 PRRI report and a 2018 Sociology of Religion article – show that white American Christians fear cultural change more than the general population. It is easy to hide a lot of desired discrimination, if not hatred, under a “pro-life” seal of approval.
Candidates who claim to be “pro-life” can garner significant evangelical support for a larger political agenda that is anything but “for life” beyond the womb.
Most so-called “pro-life” politics are really just poorly disguised attempts to defend cultural dominance. They aren’t going to stop abortions, but intentionally inhibit justice, equality and compassion.
Since this end-justifies-the-means excuse many evangelicals use to support dishonest and destructive politics won’t even produce the stated end goal, it would be more honest to just admit that one embraces the politics of fear and self-interest.
Truth is not something we should just tell our kids is important. It’s what sets us free.
Do I think these observations help explain this phenomenon and answer the question of why? Yes.
Do I think it might free up any of those locked into this irrational, over-emotional or deceptive way of thinking? Nope.
Will they simply deem these observations to be judgmental and create false equivalencies or deflect to some other subject? Yes.
Are these observations judgmental? Perhaps. But there must be some way to make a bit of sense out of this strange and senseless reality that doesn’t serve its stated purpose and brings more harm than healing and hope.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.