Abortion is murder.
That refrain played in my head as I closed the curtain in the polling booth, the sounds of the social hall echoing around me. The same refrain played every time I convinced myself I’d vote for John Kerry instead of George W. Bush—what would amount to blasphemy in my evangelical world. As a youth pastor at a Southern California megachurch, voting Democrat was not unlikely; it was unthinkable. The few times I garnered the courage to admit my uncertainty to other ministers they looked at me in disbelief. Despite my reasoning that the war in Afghanistan was leading to the deaths of innocent people and that more support for the poor, for single parents, and for education all seemed to align with Jesus’ message, my spiritual elders always repeated the refrain back to me: abortion is murder.
Alone in the booth, the billowing voices and squeaky sneakers on the wood floor and exasperated sighs from nearby voters fell silent. There was only one voice, that of “the unborn,” reminding me over and over: Abortion is murder. Despite being convinced that Bush was a liar and foolhardy leader, when I went to check the box all I could think about was having blood on my hands. It didn’t matter, I told myself, if hundreds or even thousands died in Afghanistan, or if tax cuts would hurt the most vulnerable, or if stem cell research could save lives. There was always the trump card: How could I vote for someone who would allow millions of “unborn babies” to die?
Bush’s second term coincided with my deconversion from evangelicalism. By 2004, I began openly questioning my church elders on matters related to biblical interpretation, church norms, and moral priorities. When I left the church in 2005 to pursue a master’s degree in the UK, the senior pastor’s last words were more of a warning than a farewell: “Don’t go crazy liberal on us so you can come back to visit someday.”
Fast forward a decade and a half: As a professor at a predominantly secular liberal arts college in the northeast, it isn’t fashionable to admit to my colleagues and friends that I voted for George W. Bush twice. My actions came down to a simple logic that absolved me from losing sleep over the fate of babies and bodies under the Bush regime. When concern about the fate of Iraqi innocents crept into my consciousness, I thought about all the angels who would die if we didn’t work to overturn Roe vs. Wade. When immigration debates raged in California, there was no imperative to think hard about how my faith would inform my vote. Whoever and whatever was against abortion would get my support. Problem solved.
A decade later, that zero-sum logic still drives evangelical politics. Many friends and colleagues have asked me when evangelicals will stop supporting Trump. My answer: when he reverts back to being pro-choice. The abortion trump card is the evangelical Trump card. The affairs with porn stars, the stunning lack of empathy and leadership (golfing instead of spending time with families of Parkland victims), the dog-whistle racism, childish tweets, the petty character of revenge. None of this matters because the politics can be reduced to simple refrain: abortion is murder. A vote for the anti-abortion candidate is thus always morally good. Even if it’s Donald Trump.
I don’t want to unpack the details of why evangelical approaches to abortion simplify (and often outright ignore) complex biological, cultural, and philosophical issues. I don’t even want to get into the well-documented fact that race, more than Roe vs. Wade created the current iteration of white evangelical politics. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, my focus is on how such tragedies bring back the dissonance I felt, but couldn’t articulate or act upon as my faith wavered in that voting booth in 2003. When evangelicals fail to wail, cry, mourn, scream, and protest when children are murdered at school like they do when it comes to abortion, the logic of the zero-sum game unravels. Even if one granted the false position that every abortion is equivalent to murder, tragedies such as school shootings reveal that the evangelical Trump card, like many of Trump’s promises and businesses, is built on a house of sand.
Evangelicals carry their guns with them more often than other Americans, and most don’t think gun-control measures are constitutional or biblical. When I measure these components against the willingness to stake political support for Trump (or any other politician), I’m reminded that there’s another component to evangelical care for “the unborn,” one I know firsthand. It provides an escape from the messy responsibility of being embodied.
Defending rights to a handheld killing machine and claiming compassion for “the unborn,” all while flittering past the blood of the born and the bodied, brings to words something I intuited but couldn’t say in 2003: the abstract compassion for “the unborn” is easier than the fleshy, bodily, messy love for those annihilated at the hands of an AR-15 (or a drone). Evangelical love for the innocent is ad hoc; it doesn’t apply to everyone. It’s selective outrage masked as holy indignation.
But it serves a key function. First, you get to deny the messy stakes of loving the born and bodied—those with melanin in their skin, different kinds of hair, genderqueer expressions, immigrant parents, and non-Christian faiths. Second, you get to deny the messiness of the social contract—of the political realm and all its irreducible details and multiple voices. You are absolved of responsibility for the brown skin of Dreamers, the unwashed hair of refugees, the cry of bullied trans teenagers, the mourning songs from families of black men and women killed by police. Myopic and unwavering focus on abortion is the way to avoid the carnality of living, breathing beings. The way to get away from bodies. Away from the bodies of murdered children. Away from the body politic. It’s a way to render love for angels, while pretending you are one.
In retrospect, I am ashamed of my evangelical quietism. While I will always admire the moral determination of my ex-brothers and sisters, I now mourn their unwillingness to engage the complexities of material and political life, and the destruction thereof at the hands of gunmen in our schools.
When I go to sleep at night images of Trump and Wayne LaPierre and dozens of evangelical friends float through my head as a new refrain plays.
Our babies are dying, and they don’t seem to care.