The Democrats Got Religion, At Huge Cost

Former NARAL Pro-Choice America president Kate Michelman and our own Frances Kissling have an excellent op-ed in today’s New York Times, arguing that the setback for womens’ reproductive freedom in the Stupak amendment is a result of the Democratic Party’s pandering to religion as much as it is a product of religious right lobbying. In its quest to “get religion” and build a larger majority in Congress by recruiting anti-choice candidates to run in conservative districts, the party has cravenly punted on womens’ freedom and health.

They are absolutely right, and although President Obama came out on Monday against Stupak*, I wonder if he has the gumption to get serious about fixing it in either the Senate or final version of the bill. Both candidate and president Obama have a history of backpedaling on abortion rights.

The religious right’s favorite video clip of Obama — proving, religious right activists maintain, that Obama relishes baby-killing — is his 2007 speech to Planned Parenthood in which he promised to deliver, first thing, on getting the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) passed. For the religious right, FOCA is the devil’s bill, one which would codify reproductive freedom and dash their plans to shackle women to maternity wards.

Obama started softening his pro-choice position in early 2008, when he was feeling the heat from the right’s virulent Jeremiah Wright smear campaign, and continued to do so throughout the spring as he met with conservative religious leaders and strained to make them more comfortable with his position and record.

We were told, repeatedly, that the Democratic Party’s outreach to these religious “centrists” was about a “broader agenda” than the culture wars. They wanted a new president to address poverty, health care reform, and global warming. But it was clear, nonetheless, that these leaders and the constituency they supposedly represented still demanded that Democrats stop being so strident on abortion.

By August, then, Democrats agreed to let Rick Warren be the arbiter of the candidates’ faith cred; Obama cringed at abortion questions and told Warren that the question about whether life begins at conception was “above his paygrade.” Later in the month, at the Democratic National Convention, the Rev. Charles Blake, the head of the Church of God in Christ, lambasted the party for its abortion stance at an interfaith gathering. During one of several faith panels, journalist Steven Waldman declared, “Catholics and evangelicals agree with Barack Obama on 80 percent of issues, but the thing that’s holding them up is they think he’s an extremist on abortion.” Sojourners president Jim Wallis took to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal to ask whether Democrats could count votes, and insisting they had to move to the right on abortion or lose elections.

Warren was rewarded with an invitation to give the invocation at Obama’s inauguration. Blake and Wallis were rewarded with seats on the Advisory Council to Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. More recently, Waldman left his position as editor-in-chief of Beliefnet to become a senior advisor to the chair of the Federal Communications Commission.

Will we see the proud abortion rights supporter Obama, or the tentative one? Will the anti-choice Democrats — the party’s chickens coming home to roost, so to speak — continue to demand this radical provision crafted by the religious right, or will they be satisfied with the compromise (the Capps amendment) that their party’s leaders already agreed to?

The Stupak amendment is so radical that it demands a bold and unequivocal response.

*UPDATE: Speaking of bold and unequivocal, while I said in this post that Obama came out against Stupak, upon re-reading his comments, I note that he didn’t use the phrase “Stupak amendment” and only made vague references to “strong feelings on both sides” and that the final House bill didn’t preserve the “status quo.” What Obama would be satisfied with as preserving the “status quo” (code for no federal funding for abortions) is unclear — and more to the point, what he would be willing to capitulate to is equally unclear.

This morning, Rep. Stupak postured that there would be “hell to pay” for the Democrats if his amendment was removed; will that inspire fear or fight in the party?

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email