It has become a cliché for Christians to ask, What would Jesus do? But as we close out one of the nastiest campaigns in memory, it might be timelier to ask, For whom would Jesus vote? Many Christians think they at least know for whom the Lord would not vote, based on one issue.
In September, Illinois Republican Senate candidate Alan Keyes stated that Jesus would not vote for rising star Democrat Barack Obama, his opponent, because of Obama's earlier vote in the state Senate against a bill requiring doctors to provide medical care to infants born alive after attempted abortions. James I. Lamb, executive director of the pro-life group Lutherans For Life, also thinks he knows. "A candidate who favors abortion should be disqualified from receiving a Christian's vote," Lamb says. "A vote for a pro-abortion candidate implicates the voter in the destruction of children created by God and for whom Jesus died."
Over the summer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, gave such single-issue thinking more nuance. In a memo to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. (McCarrick leads a task force on Catholic politicians), Ratzinger said Catholics may vote for a politician who supports abortion rights if (1) abortion is not the reason for their vote, and (2) they have "proportionate reasons" (in other words, if the candidate's positions on other issues outweigh his or her stand on abortion).
But how do you measure whether a candidate's good on other issues outweighs his or her bad on the question of human life? As Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis said in reaction to the memo, "What is a proportionate reason to justify favoring the taking of an innocent, defenseless human life?" Obviously, no amount of praiseworthy policies on the environment, terrorism, or the economy can atone for the loss of a single human life made in God's image—let alone for the 44 million unborn taken from us since 1973.
However, a vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights does not necessarily translate into more abortions. In some cases, voting for a pro-choice politician may be morally acceptable (especially if the pro-life opponent is otherwise incompetent). Of course, Christians should not vote for abortion ideologues—who reflexively and actively support the destruction of innocent human life at every turn and for every reason—and then claim ignorance.
This summer the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) released a thoughtful draft document titled "For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility." It encourages evangelicals of all political stripes to work together not just for the sanctity of human life, but also for religious freedom, family life, the poor, peacemaking, and creation care. While sanctity-of-life issues will always be of vital interest to Christians, today's context demands that believers engage a broad spectrum of issues.
We continue to believe the classic Christian teaching that abortion is the wrongful taking of innocent human life and a grave sin. We also recognize that many Americans view abortion as sometimes the lesser of two evils, and a complete ban is politically impossible right now. Unfortunately, public opinion tolerating this evil has been remarkably consistent since Roe v. Wade. Last year, 57 percent of Americans said abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances (compared with 54 percent in 1975)—such as to save the life of the mother (88 percent) or to end an unwanted pregnancy (42 percent). Former President Bill Clinton, who apparently never met an abortion restriction he liked, nevertheless captured public sentiment when he said abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare."
As President Bush has said, to make abortion nonexistent, we first need to build a culture of life. Part of that effort surely means educating and making alliances with open-minded pro-choice politicians (those who exist) to work toward reasonable compromise measures, such as parental notification, a ban on partial-birth abortions, funding for ultrasound machines, and waiting periods.
That's the real world of politics. We must make hard choices about using our scarce resources of time and money.
By thinking in terms of single issues, we marginalize ourselves, whether we are Republicans or Democrats, pro-life or pro-choice. A better approach is to think of dominant issues. For most Christians seeking to honor God with their votes, the sanctity of human life is a given. Because of Scripture's clarity on the dignity of human beings, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and like issues should be prime concerns for all of us.
But we can't stop there. Jesus is Lord of all. As the NAE statement says, "While individual persons and organizations may rightly concentrate on one or two issues, faithful evangelical civic engagement must champion a biblically balanced agenda."
The dark side of single-issue politics is that it has forced evangelicals to become ever more shrill and ever less imaginative. Dominant-issue politics shows greater promise in addressing our society amid all the pressing issues our society faces, including terrorism, economic justice, church-state relations, gay marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, and so on.
Abortion is a monstrous tragedy for the nation, but our Christian commitment to a culture of life does not permit us the luxury of abandoning other important issues. While single-mindedness in following Christ is always wise, single-issue voting may not be.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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The Southern Baptist Convention has voter guides at its ivotevalues site.
More of faith and politics is available on our Politics & Law page.
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