This week, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson criticized a two year old speech by Barack Obama, characterizing the candidate’s citation of archaic scriptural examples from Leviticus as “confused theology” that seeks to bolster Obama’s own worldview. And, perhaps more pointedly, since the press immediately leapt for counterexamples of Dobson citing Leviticus to bolster his defense of Jerry Falwell, Dobson settled on the charge that Obama’s “fruitcake” interpretation of the Constitution was intended to bar religious conservatives from the public square. To Dobson’s ear, what Obama said was:
“I [Dobson] can’t seek to pass legislation, for example, that bans partial-birth abortion because there are people in the culture who don’t see that as a moral issue. And if I can’t get everyone to agree with me, it is undemocratic to try to pass legislation that I find offensive to the Scripture. … What he’s trying to say here is unless everybody agrees; we have no right to fight for what we believe.”
Will Jim Wallis expect a tit-for-tat for coming to Obama’s aid?
The founder of Sojourner’s responded to Dobson’s interpretation in a press release, arguing that actually Obama “was very strong in defending the right and necessity of people of faith bringing their moral agenda to the public square, and was specifically critical of many on the left and in his own Democratic Party for being uncomfortable with religion in politics.” Seems like a good set-up for what Wallis then proposed as Obama’s thank-you note to Wallis’ mushy evangelical center (which all too often passes for the country’s religious left): dramatic “abortion reduction.” We’ve heard this song before.
To be fair, Wallis argued for a somewhat sublimated Christian politics, where Christian politicians are guided by their religious beliefs, but are required to translate their faithful convictions into Scripture-free moral arguments that can apply to everyone in a religiously plural democracy. But his real driving point came at the end of his defense:
In making abortion the single life issue in politics and elections, leaders from the Religious Right like Dobson have violated the “consistent ethic of life” that we find, for example, in Catholic social teaching. Dobson has also fought unsuccessfully to keep the issue of the environment and climate change, which many also now regard as a “life issue,” off the evangelical agenda. Older Religious Right leaders are now being passed by a new generation of young evangelicals who believe that poverty, “creation care” of the environment, human trafficking, human rights, pandemic diseases like HIV/AIDS, and the fundamental issues of war and peace are also “religious” and “moral” issues and now a part of a much wider and deeper agenda. That new evangelical agenda is a deep threat to James Dobson and the power wielded by the Religious Right for so long. Many evangelical votes are in play this election year, especially among a new generation, and are no longer captive to the Religious Right. Perhaps that is the real reason for James Dobson’s attack today on Barack Obama.
But while Wallis regularly peddles this expanded list of evangelical voting issues as admonishment to the old religious right establishment, and bait for hungry Democratic strategists, the diversity of the list shouldn’t confuse pro-choicers about abortion’s staying power as an issue among moderate evangelicals, in play or otherwise. Wallis’ Sojourners is distinct from Dobson’s Focus on the Family, in many ways surely, but in large part, because abortion is not the only “life issue” they care about. But, vote-drunk liberals should remember, that doesn’t mean they’re marching with Planned Parenthood. In fact, when I interviewed Wallis for an article several years ago, the young intern who sat in on the conversation proudly told me how he’d come to Sojourners by way of his college’s pro-life chapter.
Concurrently, Wallis lobbied Obama and DNC chair Howard Dean to put his “abortion reduction” suggestions into practice as a plank of the party platform:
“This is going to be a big Denver conversation,” said Wallis. “You don’t have to call for criminalizing anyone. You don’t have to take a different stance about a woman’s right to choose. But you begin with the need for reducing abortion dramatically.” …
“Taking abortion seriously as a moral issue would help Democrats a great deal with a constituency that is already leaning in their direction on poverty and the environment,” said Wallis. “There are literally millions of votes at stake.”
Scott Swenson of RH Reality Check makes short work of Wallis’ argument, reminding the centrist pastor that “many Democrats and moderate Republicans are already doing the hard work such a plank would call for,” and that his energies might be better directed against the far right actively opposing pregnancy prevention plans and programs than yet another round of triangulation against vocal abortion rights advocates.
But the “millions of votes at stake” argument is a strong one, and one that Wallis, along with many centrist Democrats, has been making for years, as he tried to convince numerous Democratic politicians that the pro-life voters he’d like them to court are those of faithful-but-reasonable Catholics and evangelicals, “who wouldn’t criminalize abortion even as they oppose it,” but who currently “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.” That pro-life Democrat, says Wallis, is a “very lonely political creature” who just needs a show of respect from the Party at large; a little more Democratic emphasis on how bad the Party feels about abortion rights. Hillary Clinton rather famously delivered in 2005, declaring abortion “tragic” and calling for common ground with the other side on prevention, though it doesn’t seem that got her too far with pro-life voters. But so, in a way, did Obama, in the same speech that currently has Dobson riled up. At the end of his Sojourners talk, Obama recalled a letter he received from an anti-abortion doctor who was offended by language on Obama’s website that vowed the senator would fight “right wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose.” The doctor chastised Obama:
“I sense that you have a strong sense of justice… and I also sense that you are a fair-minded person with a high regard for reason… Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded… You know that we enter times that are fraught with possibilities for good and for harm, times when we are struggling to make sense of a common polity in the context of plurality, when we are unsure of what grounds we have for making any claims that involve others… I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words.”
I checked my Web site and found the offending words. My staff had written them to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade.
Re-reading the doctor’s letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in reasonable terms – those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.
The fact that, as Scott Swenson noted, pro-choice Democrats have already been working on prevention methods for years—in the face of direct opposition from Republican and Democratic abstinence-only advocates—should underscore how unmoved most anti-abortion voters are by Democratic efforts to modify their abortion position. As a representative from the Family Research Council told me while reporting the same story I interviewed Wallis for, anti-abortion organizers will continue to dismiss “common ground” calls for prevention as “just another condom give away,” and make sure that their followers understand that conciliatory Democrats are still off-limits, until they prove themselves with a voting record the FRC can approve. Let’s hope the Democratic politicians being tempted by Jim Wallis’ “millions” recognize that as an olive branch too far.