I know that the Harolds Orndorff (from the letters to the editor link) don’t represent the sum total of our movement, much less all of American Christianity, but their letters go a long way explaining American Christians’ role in the influence of Republicans over the last twenty-eight years or so in Washington. (By influence I mean the fact that, as far as I can remember, they have controlled either the White House or the House of Representatives or both for twenty-six of the last twenty-eight years.) And I’m still shaking my head about it.
First, I must tip my hat briefly to (I assume) the elder Orndorff for not skipping the buildup and hitting us with the Godwin’s Law moment.
Then I will note that, because of the Christian Standard‘s precarious position, circulation-wise (the old guard think it’s “gone liberal,” and the young pups think it’s a dinosaur set to become extinct in the post-denominational-megachurch era) and because I like the Standard (I don’t always agree with its contributors or editors, but we’re having the same conversation), I’m not going to exacerbate their existential danger by making them decide whether or not to put these comments on their web space. So if you Orndorffs find this, respond here, not there.
All that out of the way, Mandy Smith’s article was hardly groundbreaking; all sorts of news organizations have discussed the relative weakening of the link between the GOP and evangelical Christians. (Many in our movement recoil against the evangelical name, but the label, loosely applied, fits.) I figured that her contribution to one of our big-circulation weeklies was, at most, stating what folks more or less already knew, namely that folks should not assume, as they have from the rise of Reagan to the reelection (or first uncontested election, if one prefers) of George W. Bush, that evangelical Christians will always vote Republican. She did take a good step beyond that commonplace by suggesting to Christian Churches congregations an ethos of good faith rather than suspicion of people who happen to vote differently than the assumed elephant. If they can offer theological reasons for their electoral choices, we should assume that they make those choices as Christians. In other words, Christian fellowship should trump partisan nastiness.
Not a bad exhortation, and not unwelcome for those of us who think of ourselves neither as conservative nor liberal. Yet I’m not surprised that the Orndorffs (and likely many like them) are so angry.
I’ve read a fair number of articles decrying the designation “Religious Right” and calling for a more nuanced reading of the American Republican party. On the level of knowing human beings, I applaud those calls and attempt in my own writing neither to use the phrase nor to imply concepts proximate to it. But in a system where O so much rides on a choice between an elephant and a donkey every four years (people still tell me that I “threw away my vote” because I chose neither in 2000 and 2004), the label does seem to do the work of naming a political phenomenon in which the most vocal within evangelical congregations often imply (even if by law they cannot say directly) that a vote for anyone but an elephant is tantamount to approving of the practice of abortion (even if not equivalent to a vote for Adolf Hitler).
What such protests fail to recognize is that many who have “defected” (I hate to use that word for folks who still confess Christ) do care about abortion a great deal but have lost faith that elephants have the will to do anything about it. After all, they saw eight years of Reagan go by and heard subsequent Republican beatifications of the Iran-Contra president but know full well that abortions became more common, not less so, in his administration. They saw twelve years of Bushes but could only claim a victory when the Supreme Court ruled against a procedure that amounts to less than a fifth of a percent of all abortions. And yet, as the 2008 general election draws nearer, not only letter-writers to the Standard but louder voices like Cal Thomas are sounding the abortion alarm again, telling Christians that if they don’t vote against the donkeys, they effectively wish abortion on the unborn.
The point here (that I keep deferring) is that many if not most of those considering a move away from the (purely election-day phenomenon commonly called the) religious right still care deeply about abortion but have decided that Republicans, far from making any plans to do anything significant about it, are planning to stall yet again, hoping that the phantom of Planned Parenthood can keep them riding down Pennsylvania Avenue for years to come. They have decided to pursue other avenues for resisting abortion, supporting crisis pregnancy centers rather than Washington hucksters. They have realized regarding abortion what Henry David Thoreau knew a hundred fifty years ago about slavery:
All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. (“Resistance to Civil Government“)
They figure (as I do) that if anybody cared much at all about abortion, twenty years in the white house and twelve in control of the legislature (six of those years overlapping), not to mention seven of nine appointees to the court, in other words effective control of all branches of government for a decade or more, should have been plenty of time to do something about abortion more than cutting out one fifth of one percent. Since no states have seceded and no civil war has started, they think (rightly?) that the Washington machine has no will to pursue what is the greatest common crime of the American people. After all, the Washington elephants did not sit idle for these three decades. They built up a nuclear arsenal with enough power to wipe out the entire human race. They cut deals and sold weapons to any regime, no matter how brutal, so long as it could demonstrate antipathy towards Moscow or Tehran. They invaded third world nations. They instituted a regime of perpetual irrelevant testing on America’s public schools. They were not idle.
And for those reasons, the thousand things that are not abortion and that might in fact change when a new president takes the oath, some of us Christians are seceding. For me it happened in my first presidential election, when pro-abortion Bob Dole was the Republican candidate. With abortion off the table, I decided against Dole’s other policies. For the kids now, it’s John McCain, who is talking anti-abortion now after years of doing nothing in the Senate. But some of us aren’t buying what they’re selling any more. After twenty-eight years, we just don’t believe them any more that they’ll do anything about abortion. They’re ringing the bell again, but some of the dogs have stopped salivating. And with abortion not an issue, Christians can and do start asking questions about the party of Paul Wolfowitz and Paul Bremer, of Dick Cheney and of Dick Nixon. I suppose in November we might just see an answer.
So please, Orndorffs and Cal Thomas, don’t pretend that abortion is really at issue in this election. And elder Orndorff, go look up Godwin’s Law.