Are Democrats Doomed With Evangelicals Over Abortion?

Ben Ray Luján, the DCCC chairman, blew up social media the other day when he said the party would not vet potential candidates according to their position on abortion. While I understand why the minority leader’s remarks drew fire, I sense the intensity of the reaction is partly due to a lying, thieving, philandering sadist occupying the Oval Office. That Donald Trump won would seem to require that much more effort to hold the line on abortion, which many rightly consider to be an economic as well as a women’s issue.

If not for Trump, his comment would probably have been uncontroversial. The Democrats have fielded candidates for years who split the difference between their personal opposition to abortion and their public support of it. Former Vice President Joe Biden is one such case. Another is Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s pick for vice president. Kaine made his name fighting for the housing rights of minorities and the LGBTQ community. Does anyone seriously think a candidate in Tim Kaine’s mold would not battle for reproductive rights?

Splitting the difference between personal opposition and public support is likely to continue as a campaign strategy. What I wanted to do here is offer some thinking on another strategy, especially for Democrats seeking office in districts and states where abortion is a make-or-break issue. This strategy, I suspect, may not be a winner in and of itself, but along with other issues and other kinds of messaging, it might split the vote against said candidate. At the very least, it could blunt campaign attacks.

First some personal history. I come from a very religious family that—as far as I know—does not have a bright line on abortion. Growing up in the 1980s, I don’t remember anyone being explicitly for abortion or explicitly against it. Of higher importance to the grown-ups around me was the hierarchy of authority. Children were to their parents what their parents were to God. Parents ruled over their children just as God ruled over us all. This right of the parents is God-given. As no government could tell my parents what to believe, no government could tell them what was best for their kids.

More precisely, the rights of parents superseded the rights of children. This was the case in my family, and no doubt remains the case in countless families that are deeply, fundamentally religious—precisely the people Democrats must court to win. This view, that parental rights are of a higher order than children’s rights, can be seen in any number of issues that have nothing to do with abortion: home schooling, corporal punishment, etc. And this view was the prevailing view even after Roe v. Wade.

I know. The popular belief is that the anti-abortion movement started with that Supreme Court decision. It didn’t, according to Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth professor and Jimmy Carter biographer. In writing about the religious right in which segregation, not abortion, was its real catalyst, he said:

Both before and for several years after Roe, evangelicals were overwhelmingly indifferent to the subject, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” In 1968, for instance, a symposium sponsored by the Christian Medical Society and Christianity Today, the flagship magazine of evangelicalism, refused to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. In 1971, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, passed a resolution encouraging “Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” The convention, hardly a redoubt of liberal values, reaffirmed that position in 1974, one year after Roe, and again in 1976.

My point here is that within the evangelical tradition, a tradition nearly as old as the republic, there are elements that can be revived and exploited (and I hope respected) to combat the modern-day evangelical view in which abortion is an absolute sin. It wasn’t always the case. The rights of parents, especially the mother’s, are still valued and protected even within a tradition many liberals deem hostile to women.

And this history is alive. Democrats campaigning in red districts and state can point to the tragic case of Charlie Gard, or other children born with a rare condition that marks them for death before they grow out of infancy. That potential Democrat could say, somewhat unfairly, but whatever, this is politics:

“If my opponent had his way, the British government would have forced Charlie Gard’s mom and dad to keep that poor infant child on life support in defiance of God’s will. His parents made the heart-wrenching decision to allow their Charlie to go to Him. No parent wants to make that choice, but all parents should have it. No government should take away a parent’s God-given right.”

You get the idea.

Again, this isn’t winning message. But neither is splitting the difference between personal opposition to abortion public support of it. It’s merely a way, at the very least, to blunt the sharp edge of anti-abortion attacks. It can’t hurt to try.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.