Should Doug Jones Compromise His Positions in Order to Win?

Previously I pointed to the fact that on the front page of his web site, Doug Jones boldly states several of his positions on important issues. Among them is this one: “I will defend a woman’s right to choose and stand with Planned Parenthood.”

Michael Wear has written a thought-provoking article suggesting that, in order to win in Alabama, Jones needs to tone down his language on the kinds of issues that are important to white evangelical Protestants, who account for almost half of the population in that state.

Here’s what you need to know about Alabama: Fifty-eight percent of Alabamians believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases—making it one of the top five most pro-life states in the country. Evangelical voters care deeply about abortion policy, and Jones’ position on this issue could cost him the election.

Wear’s suggestion is that Jones could promise to vote “present” on abortion-related legislation and amendments. Here’s the problem with that: an attempt to pander to white evangelical voters would be seen for what it is at this point, and please no one. If an Alabamian is willing to vote for Moore (despite their issues with his sexual behavior) because of their disagreement with Jones’ position on abortion, simply voting “present” is not likely to be enough. Meanwhile, it would betray the pro-choice voters who have supported him, even if they are in the minority in Alabama.

A better suggestion from Wear is that Jones could talk about how defunding organizations like Planned Parenthood and limiting access to contraceptives would actually lead to an increase in the number of abortions. He could promise to be the candidate that will fight for policies that provide women with the full spectrum of reproductive health care and thereby reduce both unwanted pregnancies as well as the number of abortions. That is what the pro-choice position has always been. It probably won’t win over the hard-core pro-lifers, but it is a position of integrity—which presents a sharp contrast to pandering.

Wear also thinks that Jones needs to modulate his position on what conservatives refer to as “religious freedom.” He specifically points to this exchange during an interview with The Economist as problematic.

The Economist: How can you reassure his supporters that you are not out to take away their religious freedom or their guns, their culture

Jones: I don’t know if I can. I think actions have to speak louder than words, so once I get elected I can try to do it. But look, when you talk about their Christian beliefs and stuff, that’s one thing, but when you talk about their culture, I’m not sure what you mean by that. If culture means that you have to put down people, if your culture means that you would discriminate against somebody, that you would not treat anybody in the same way that Christ would do, then I’m not going to protect that. I’m not going to protect discrimination of any sort, in any way, whether it’s race, religion, sex orientation or whatever. So I’m not going to protect that culture if that’s what their culture is. What I’m hoping to see is that if they are truly religious and they are truly Christian in the same way that I am, that my faith is, well, we take care of everybody…

Doug Jones grew up in Alabama and has lived there for most of his life. In that response, he showed that he understands that “their culture” is a dog whistle for discrimination. Frankly, the integrity he demonstrated is profound—tying his answer back to his own Christian faith.

Reading that exchange in the midst of the point Wear is attempting to make reminded me of the letter Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote to white Protestant ministers from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama 54 years ago. In it, he talked about the concept of “creative tension.”

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue…I must confess that I am not afraid of the word, tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive tension that is necessary for growth… the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

It is important to keep in mind that Martin Luther King, Jr. was an activist and overtly rejected the idea of being a politician. Doug Jones is running to be the junior senator from Alabama. If he can’t win, he can’t pursue the issues he cares about.

But Jones also isn’t engaging in nonviolent direct action. The historical circumstance in which he finds himself running against Roy Moore creates a crisis that presents the people of Alabama with creative tension. I’m sure there are some voters who will prioritize their pro-life position as well as a commitment to their own ideas about “culture” and religious freedom. They will continue to support someone who has demonstrated that he is not only a sexual predator, but has also espoused views that are racist, Islamophobic, and homophobic.

Will there be others who have to wrestle with the creative tension of having to chose between these two candidates? I suspect there will be. That is what Doug Jones is counting on when he goes into one of the most conservative counties in the country and gives a speech in which he asks the question about whether or not this election will be a seminal moment in the history of Alabama.

There are those who, like Wear, will say that this is not a good move politically. They have a point. But what an incredible opportunity Doug Jones is presenting to white evangelicals in Alabama to once again wrestle with some creative tension!

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .