By Marcia Pally
It’s political gospel that evangelicals are a solid Republican bloc because they vote only for candidates who oppose abortion. And on the whole, this is true–as they’ll likely again show in the upcoming Iowa caucuses. But something’s up: wiggle room. While evangelical opposition to abortion is firm, the evangelical vote is not fixed.
“We were shocked in 2008,”one evangelical Iowan told me when I traveled around the country, “when so many people came out for Obama. Something had really changed.” Indeed. The 2006 midterms showed a significant white evangelical vote for Democrats; 41% were “happy” with Democratic wins. 2008 saw a five-point rise in Democratic votes and a remarkable 32% vote for Obama by white evangelicals under 30 (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life).
Since then, evangelicals have been developing nuanced ideas about ending abortion that will appeal to Americans across the religious and political range. They begin with the idea that getting rid of abortion means providing an alternative. If we don’t, we drive abortion underground, where we lose the babies and risk losing the mothers too. There’s no win there. As Shane Claiborne, the Elvis of younger evangelicals, put it, “if I am going to discourage abortion, I had better be ready to adopt some babies and care for some mothers.”
Look at what happened last month with the Mississippi vote on abortion. The proposal to give fertilized eggs legal status as persons failed in this heavily evangelical state—not because it was too radical but because it was not radical enough. Whatever that proposal would have done, it would not effectively reduce abortion because it provided no resources to enable women to have and support their babies. It was, so to speak, all hat and no cattle.
This argument is usually made by feminists. But this time it’s coming from “new evangelicals”–those who have left the right for a focus on economic justice, environmental protection, and immigration reform. Theologian Scot McKnight calls it “the biggest change in the evangelical movement at the end of the twentieth century, a new kind of Christian social conscience.” Richard Cizik, President of The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, calls it a “slow earthquake.”
Because seventy-three percent of US abortions are economically motivated, (Guttmacher Institute), abortion would drop significantly if medical, financial, and emotional support were provided during pregnancy along with day care post-partum. It would drop further if we re-thought our adoption policies and dealt with the values taught to our kids about the worth of others and of intimate relationships, and–especially for boys–about using others for one’s own pleasure.
Moreover, there’s no reason why evangelicals should not join with other faith groups, secular organizations, and feminists in developing such programs. “I am decidedly pro-life,” southern megachurch pastor Joel Hunter says, “But by working together instead of arguing, both sides [for and against legal abortion] can get what they want.”
That, according to many “new evangelicals,” is the pro-life position. What’s radical about it is that it means money, lots of it, and time and personal effort. Forming supportive relationships—with women in crisis pregnancies, with our kids—is a contact sport.
Many “new evangelicals” have been putting their money where there their mouths are. That’s not only free medical clinics and day care centers but also politically confonting the link between abortion and economic need. Midwestern megachurch pastor Greg Boyd explained it this way, “A person could vote for a candidate who is not ‘pro life’ but who will help the economy and the poor. Yet this may be the best way to curb the abortion rate.”
And that may be the beginning of the end of glue between evangelicals and Republicans. If effective abortion-reducing programs were indeed everywhere, abortion would cease to be the cement between evangelicals and the G.O.P. Voting Republican wouldn’t be the way to be pro-life; there would already be a powerful way in every neighborhood.
How would that affect votes in Iowa–or elsewhere? People who feel passionately about ending abortion could actually work on doing so, without tying up their vote. Evangelicals would be able to look at other Republican policies and judge the party by them—not on the single issue of abortion. As Richard Land, president of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “If that issue [abortion] were taken off the table, then other issues get oxygen, issues where evangelicals are not nearly as certain that Republicans offer the best answer. Issues like economic justice, racial reconciliation, the environment.”
With a dramatic drop in abortion, would white evangelicals nonetheless remain Republican? Perhaps. Economic policies might furnish the glue, but with the “new evangelical” emphasis on poverty and the environment, that’s no longer a guarantee. At present, neither creationism/intelligent design nor gay unions will serve as a glue-substitute. The National Association of Evangelicals, for instance, says there is little consensus among its 45,000 churches on teaching Genesis as science. A majority of evangelicals under 30 supports gay civil unions and support among older evangelicals increases yearly.
“New evangelicals” are “values voters” who believe in economic fairness, environmental protection and stopping abortion. Who represents that? Though a sizable voting bloc—about 24% of the population (Pew Forum)–devout Christians not in the religious right have, incredibly enough, no candidate. Moreover, since we know how to stop abortion, it looks like the nation faces a choice: we can build the programs that will or we can continue to use babies as political glue. One doesn’t have to be evangelical to know the pro-life position.
Marcia Pally is the author of the newly-released The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good (2011, Eerdmans).