Voting for Obama, Part 5: What About Abortion?

October 30, 2008

For some Christians, only one issue matters in this election. And for reasons that I will articulate shortly, I am glad that their voice is being heard. I respect their decision.

I chose to vote for Obama for the reasons I’ve given in my previous posts on this subject (linked below). However, because I know many of you are curious about – if not even disturbed by – my choice because of Obama’s position on this issue, I feel like I should speak it directly.

I realize that Obama is not a “pro-life” candidate. He has stated very clearly that he favors abortion rights, as set out in Roe v Wade. Planned Parenthood considers him to be one of their best allies. There is no question as to where he stands.

Furthermore, I agree with Christians who find the act of abortion to be immoral, at least under normal circumstances. (I do not speak here of situations where the health of the mother, for example, is in danger or where there is no ultimate hope for a viable fetus). I believe that human beings are made in the image of God (we are “eikons”). I’m not sure we can really say when “human” life begins, but the development of the fetus within the womb is the process by which eikons are created, and – if I risk being wrong one way or the other – I prefer to “err” on the side of preserving the sacred image of God-in-people.

Having said that, I also have great sympathy for the women who feel like abortion is their only way out of a very difficult situation. Statistically speaking, they are typically poor minorities, most of whom characterize themselves as Christian. For the most part, the very difficult decision to have an abortion is made because of financial and personal concerns that relate to the mother’s ability to care for the child.

What, then, can government do to curb abortions? Two potential solutions seem fairly obvious: (1) try to force people who want to have abortions to stop having them and/or (2) try to improve the conditions that cause people to have abortions.

We’ll come back to (2) later. For now…lets focus on (1). How can the government force people who want to have abortions to stop having them?

Because of Roe v Wade, which recognizes a woman’s constitutional right against governmental interference with her reproductive decisions, and which refuses to recognize “personhood” for a fetus, there are only two paths to accomplishing option (1): (a) we can press for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, or (b) we attempt to identify and appoint Supreme Court justices that would overturn Roe v Wade.

You can forget about (a) immediately. Though there is some indication – from past interviews – that he might support it, McCain isn’t even talking about it in his campaign, nor does it seem even remotely plausible that the conservative minority in congress and/or the states could muster the political force necessary to pass this initiative.

So…what about (b), overturning Roe v Wade? McCain says that he will do this. However, the reality is, it is virtually impossible that he will get this done. Here’s why:

1. Setting aside the precarious ethics of appointing a justice to the most powerful court in the world based on his/her commitment to a single issue, its not nearly as easy as you would think to identify judges who will overturn Roe. Just ask the advisors for Reagan and Bush I. They helped appoint Anthony Kennedy, Sandra Day O’Connor, and David Souter. All three of them decided to uphold Roe in Planned Parenthood v Casey, a landmark 1992 case.

2. The nominee would then have to survive the Senate approval process. Since we are looking at Democratic majority in the Senate, and the potential for a supermajority (effectively giving Democrats full control over the Senate), it is unlikely that an obvious pro-life judicial candidate will survive the appointment process.

3. Even then, the best that could happen is that – upon overturning Roe – the issue would be returned to the states. Many states would continue to allow reproductive rights, and the reduction in abortions will probably be minimal. Pro-choice organizations will quickly rally to make it possible for women who want abortions to get to the places where they are available.

Furthermore, even if all 50 states banned abortions, it will not prevent all women from having abortions. As we learned from prohibition – and as we continue to learn from the bans of various controlled substances – you can never completely eliminate the availability of goods and services that are in high demand.

In short, I have concluded that there is no point in voting for McCain based on his claim that he will attempt to overturn Roe because he will never get it done.

But…we have only talked about one “route” to reducing abortions so far. Overturning Roe is not the last hope for those who are concerned about the unborn. Option (2), taking action to reduce the circumstances that give rise to abortion, is still on the table.

By providing adequate education, health care, and support for women in poverty – and by assuring them that those resources would also be available for their children, we can discourage abortions by taking on the conditions that lead to them. These are simple issues of public policy that can be readily implemented on a bi-partisan basis.

Indeed, I believe that a staunch anti-abortion position requires equally staunch support for policies that care for women and children in poverty. If one is going to be an advocate for an unborn child, one should have no less commitment to making sure that the child is adequately cared for once it is outside of the womb. Without an adequate proposal to deal with millions of children who would be born into poverty in the wake of a ban on abortion, the argument against abortion carries no moral weight.

The good news here is that both candidates have publicly stated that they are ready to implement policies that will improve the conditions that lead to abortions. As such, the issue of abortion doesn’t factor into my vote. Other issues, many of which also involve the sacredness of humans-as-eikons – whether it is that of an Iraqi child who is threatened by US bombing raids, a prisoner of war who is being tortured, or a starving child in Africa – factor much more significantly into my vote.

Having said all of that, I am glad that some of you are willing to vote solely based on this one issue. By doing so, and by speaking out about your motivations, you are effectively helping to keep this important issue in the forefront of the collective consciousness of our nation.

I hope that you, too, will respect my decision. Like you, I am doing my best to translate my faith into a vote, and – in so doing – to let my voice be heard on a number of other important issues. To borrow from the Apostle Paul, for those of us who are fully convinced that a vote for McCain is preferable, let them do so for the Lord. For those who regard  Obama as preferable, let them do the same.

Up next: Why the outcome doesn’t matter that much to me

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4]


Voting for Obama: Part 4: Of Fear and Hope

October 28, 2008

Lets have a look two TV ads. One for McCain and one for Obama.

Notice the way McCain (very politely) denounces those who want to “spread the wealth around” and asserts that “your savings, your job, and your financial security are under siege.” Notice also how this ad is directed at those who already have: they have savings, jobs, security. There is some mention about how his policies might create new jobs for others, but the driving philosophy is clearly to protect those who are already secure.

I don’t think that this ad explicitly plays the American exceptionalist “card,” but it seems designed to appeal to that demographic.

Now…lets have a look at the ad for Obama:

Notice the emphasis on themes like the need for quality health care and national unity. Obama’s vision of the America of the future, overidealized though it may be, is not about preserving and protecting the privileges of those who already “have,” but finding a way where we can all share in the American dream.

I picked these ads, because I think they are typical of each candidate’s overall political philosophy, based on everything else that I know about them.*

They tell two very different stories of America’s future. The first story goes like this:

People want to take from you. If you don’t act quickly and decisively to stop them, then you may lose your financial security.

In short, this is a story about fear – fear of losing what you have.

The second story goes like this:

Instead of “cashing in” on the things that we have, what if we take them and devote them to making people’s lives better? Rather than dividing ourselves against each other, lets find ways to move in a new direction so that we can all share in the blessings that our nation enjoys.

It is a story about national hope. It takes pride in our culture and system of government, to be sure, but it doesn’t seem geared toward the ideas of national privilege that dominate exceptionalist thought.

There is no guarantee, of course, that either candidate can accomplish what they promise. With a recession looming, with the potential for layoffs and declining values in investments, and considering that he may be working with a Democratic majority in the legislature, McCain may not be able to do much to prevent the erosion of personal assets for most Americans. Likewise, Obama may find that it proves much more difficult than he imagines to implement meaningful social change in a deeply divided country.

However, if I have to take a chance on one or the other, and in light of my new, provisional political philosophy, it is not difficult for me to know which “story” I will pick. I choose the one that provides hope for everyone, including those who have less than I do – or even nothing. I will take that chance when I vote.

I could continue to break things down on an issue by issue basis, but I wouldn’t be adding much to what I’ve already said. Both candidates have good ideas about dealing with the Iraq war, the financial crisis, the environment, and health care, among other things. If he loses the election, I hope that McCain will continue on as an important voice in the Senate. He is needed there. However, if I have to pick an overall vision for the future of the country, I pick a vision that is about inclusion, openness, and care for the vulnerable.

…which will bring me – in the next post – to what I know for many of you is the most important issue in the election: the very difficult issue of abortion.


*In selecting these ads, I’ve specifically avoided the so-called “attack” ads – those that are designed to motivate the voting base of the candidate by creating hostility toward the opponent. The distortion of the opponent’s positions and affiliations in such ads is often deplorable, and both sides seem to be equally talented at generating these abominations.

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]

Voting for Obama, Part 3: Rethinking "Christian Values"

October 26, 2008

What does God care about?

This strikes me as the most obvious place for a Christian to begin, when considering his/her vote.

I can’t say that I have a complete answer to this question, but I believe that I have better answers today than I did – say – two or three years ago.

I have always felt that American exceptionalism, which holds that God cares about preserving the American way of life at all costs, does not answer it properly. However, until recently, I have been at a loss to translate any other understanding of God’s purposes in the world into a political philosophy.

Now, a few ideas have begun to form – though, I consider them to be a work in progress and, therefore, provisional in nature.

As regular readers know, I have devoted a lot of energy during recent years toward developing my own understanding of the overarching story in scripture. I have wanted to come to an understanding that makes all of the pieces fit together neatly.

During this process, I have come to agree with those voices within the Christian community which say that the Christian scriptures act as a critique of human power and authority, showing that God – and only God – should hold authority over creation.

Almost all of scripture is written from the perspective of the oppressed. Ethnic Israel, throughout much of the narrative, is either a nation in bondage or under the threat of imminent bondage. Nations, such as Egypt and Babylon, which were the powerful global forces of their day, are normally characterized as enemies of God. For a short period, Israel rises to become a powerful nation – but it is in that state – when it becomes a powerful, oppressive regime, that the prophets of God begin to speak out against it.

Similarly, the New Testament is written during a period in which the Roman Empire dominates the world. Much of the language that is utilized, both by Jesus and – later – the apostle Paul, to describe the ways of God are borrowed from the language of the Empire. This language is used to proclaim that Jesus, rather than Caesar, is the true ruler of the world. The “good news” of the Gospel can be summarized like this: the brutality of world powers is coming to an end, and the God of peace and justice is moving to reign in our world. Followers of Jesus are therefore called on to become examples of what that reign looks like: they love their enemies, feed and clothe the poor, and look out for the interests of those who are weakest among us.

I could easily list a dozen political issues that I believe Christians might care about. However, based on my understanding of scripture, I believe that in the forefront of our political philosophy should be a concern for the oppressive acts of the powerful and for the needs of those who are poor and powerless. If you take all of the teachings and actions of Jesus and try to condense them into a readily digestible form, most of them will at least touch on this theme. The same thing is true for a great deal of the Old Testament.

This means, of course, that Christians, who also happen to be American citizens, are in a very awkward place. After all, we play a role in governing a nation that stands alongside Egypt, Babylon, and Rome as the great world power of its day. As such, it seems rather obvious to me that our primary concern should be about the way our government treats those who are the weakest and least powerful, both within our midst and around the world.

This way of approaching “Christian Values” is in stark contrast to American exceptionalism. Exceptionalism says:

Our God-ordained way of life is threatened by liberal politicians within and by terrorists and immigrants without. We must act to preserve our way of life from these threats by electing those who will resist social reforms and by taking aggressive military action against our country’s enemies.

But the philosophy I am suggesting would go something like this:

God has indeed blessed us with great wealth and influence in the world. However, we believe that with these great privileges come profound responsibilities. We should speak out when we believe that our government is abusing its power, and we should elect people who will help find ways for all people – both within our borders and without – to share in our prosperity.

There is room here for debate over whether conservative, market-oriented economies or liberal, socialized economies can better realize this philosophy. (More precisely, I think the question goes to the appropriate mixture of the two). I also allow room for a “just war” versus “pacifism” debate within this framework, though the “justness” of war should be considered in the context of the philosophy that I set out above.

However, no room is left  for self-serving actions that are designed to protect the interests of the wealthy and powerful, to the exclusion of the poor and powerless.

More to come.

[Part 1] [Part 2]

Voting for Obama, Part 2: American Idol(atry)

October 25, 2008

An evangelical Christian in Greeley, Colorado, home of the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family was recently reported as saying he was an “American first” and “then a Christian.” He is not alone. Recent polling data has shown that between 36 and 48 percent of American Christians describe themselves as just that – Americans first, and then Christians. Not Christians who happen to be Americans.

My guess is that the vast majority of evangelical leaders would disagree with this misplacement of priorities. However, they are doing little to discourage it. The Republican Party – whose 2008 Convention featured the theme of “Country First” – continues to be widely embraced by notable conservative Christian leaders across America. In fact, in the late phases of the Presidential campaign, Focus on the Family itself has launched a high-profile attack against Obama, which I will return to momentarily.

The core of the marriage between evangelicals and conservative politics is based on a concept that is often described as American exceptionalism. Closely tied to the concept of the “manifest destiny” of America, it is a familiar idea to most of us. It is usually expressed like this:

America is the greatest nation on earth. It was God’s purpose that we expand and become powerful, so that the entire world can be inspired by our systems of government and economics. We enjoy many material blessings because we were established in the name of God, and because we honor God.

Irving Berlin’s”God Bless America,” while bearing a title that is innocent enough (who wouldn’t want God to bless their homeland?), is weighted with the rhetoric of exceptionalism. The lyrics in this song do not speak of the greatness or holiness of God and his ways. Rather, they extol a particular way of life that some Americans enjoy, characterized as our “home sweet home” and the “land that [we] love.” God’s role in the song is one of “blessing” America, and – more particularly – “standing beside” us, thus protecting us from our enemies.

Under exceptionalism, America is of first importance. God is seen as secondary – even subservient – to our way of life.

Likewise, the recitation of “one nation, under God” in the pledge of allegiance is usually interpreted by exceptionalists as expressing exactly the same idea: since we are “under God,” we possess – literally – a divine right to occupy a position of privilege and superiority.

Those who disagree with exceptionalism are quickly branded as “unpatriotic” and – within evangelical circles – even heretical . The outrage against Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s minister, which grew to a fevered pitch several months ago, is a great example of the powerful influence that exceptionalism has on the political process. In his now infamous sermon, Wright suggested that, rather than “blessing” America, God should “damn” America for the way it has oppressed the poor and – more particularly – the African American community. Whether one agrees with everything that Wright was saying, it is undeniable that retribution from the exceptionalists was swift and sure. As more and more details about Wright’s polemics against American injustices became public, Obama began to publicly distance himself from Wright in order to avoid their ire.

The rather self-serving nature of exceptionalism seems fairly obvious to me. Since our way of life is a divine right, we have every reason to believe that we are justified in protecting it. Among other things, I have heard American exceptionalism associated with efforts to exclude immigrants from participation in our economy and the use of tools of violence – including torture – against our enemies. Similarly, the recent Focus on the Family media blitz speaks to issues that are clearly geared toward the preservation of a particular way of life, implying that aggressive military action and the continuation of a system of private health care are necessary to avoid an evangelical “doomsday” scenario.

The problem that I have found with American exceptionalism isn’t that its too extreme; an idea that expresses some truth – and which simply needs to be balanced or infused with a dose of common sense. My problem is that it is idolatrous.

The first two commandments of the Mosaic law are clear: I am God. Nothing comes before me. Do not make idols. Likewise, the Shema – an ancient creed recited daily by countless Jews and Christians makes the same point: I am your one and only God. Love me with your entire being.

During recent years, I have become convinced that American exceptionalism is a violation of the primary tenant of the Judeo/Christian tradition. By equating the American system of government and our way of life with the will of God, it turns those things into idols.

There is nothing new about this. Throughout the ages, the dominant political institutions of the day have invariably attempted to coopt God for their own purposes. In the days of national Israel, such efforts came with the threat of intermarriage with pagan nations – and the consequential commingling of the worship of God with pagan religions. It continued into Constantine’s empire, which conquered in the name of Jesus. Similarly, the brutal crusades of the Middle Ages became possible as a result of rhetoric which justified military dominance in the name of Christ. As I have previously observed, even our current President is not immune to the temptation to equate his own political philosophy with God’s will.

American exceptionalism also strikes me as dangerous because it results in a misplaced investment of Christians’ faith and hope for the future. As Scot McKnight recently observed, our hope can never be that the world will be “fixed” by political institutions. To the contrary, our hope is that God himself is at work in the world, ending war, making poverty obsolete, and renewing creation.  Our job is to join in the movement of God, not to invest time and effort in political schemes and institutions, no matter how noble the objectives of those institutions may be.

Don’t get me wrong. America has accomplished laudable things on the stage of world history, and many of those accomplishments are consistent with Christian values. But it is also a nation with a flawed history of oppression and violence, and one which has the potential to become (if it has not already happened) yet another brutal World Empire of the sort that is repeatedly denounced in scripture.

My job, as a Christian who has been empowered with a role in our system of self governance, is to applaud those things which are good about America, while also speaking out against those things that are not. Likewise, those whom I elect as my representatives in government should recognize that – while many good things can be said of our country – we have no divine claim to privilege.

After all, we are told to pray “thy kingdom come, they will be done on Earth as it is in heaven,” not “America’s kingdom come, so thy will is done on Earth, as it is in heaven.”

For me, this distinction has become critical, and, as I have come to recognize it, the issues and values that influence my vote have dramatically changed.

More to come

[Part 1]

Voting for Obama, Part 1: A New View of Politics

October 24, 2008

During the next few days, I plan to find an early polling place, and – when I do – I will vote for Barack Obama.

This act will represent a significant break from my established voting patterns. Since I became eligible to vote in 1984, I have been nothing, if not consistent in my choice of Presidential candidates: Reagan. Bush. Bush. Dole. W. W.

Like a lot of young, white evangelicals, I was passionate about my politics. For much of my adult life, I was a self-styled “Limbaugh conservative” – always ready to vote for the candidate who was most likely to cut taxes and reduce government spending. (As Sheila just reminded me, I tried to make her listen to Rush when she was in labor with Rachel).

But no longer.

At some point along the way, things began to change. I started to read scripture in a different way. My understanding of Jesus became richer, and more nuanced. And these shifts in my faith, in turn, dramatically changed the way I thought about politics.

Examining this change on the surface, one might conclude that this shift is one from economic conservativism to social liberalism – but that conclusion would be dangerously misleading. Under slightly different circumstances, I might well have voted for McCain.

In fact, what has happened is much more dramatic than a change from right to left. It is, rather, a change that rejects both free markets and socialist policies as adequate remedies for the human condition, and which – in turn – embraces something much more radical, and much more ancient.

At the risk of ruffling some feathers, I hope to spend the next few posts talking about how and why I got to this place, why I am voting for Obama, and why it won’t really matter that much to me if he loses.

I will begin – next time – with an examination of the idolatry of Empire.

Jesus for President/Attack Ad

October 20, 2008

Via Travis Stanley on Facebook: What if the makers of political attack ads were paid to go after Jesus…?

Palin and Complementarian Christians

October 17, 2008

Dan Kimball is asking a great question: What do “complementarian” Christians (those who believe that women should assume places of submission – at least within church bodies) have to say about Sarah Palin?

Obviously, she lines up with them on most of the political issues but… from the complementarian perspective, she is also – shall we say – anatomically deficient (?) when it comes to being qualified for certain positions of authority.

Great observation from Dan – and some great comments that follow after his post. Interestingly enough, what it tends to do is draw out are multiple “shades” and variations on the complementarian perspective.