Pro-life Voters and Pro-Choice Politicians

Roy Moore, GOP Senate candidate and former chief justice on the Alabama Supreme Court speaks during the annual Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit at the Omni Shorham Hotel on Oct. 13, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Roy Moore, GOP Senate candidate and former chief justice on the Alabama Supreme Court speaks during the annual Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit at the Omni Shorham Hotel on Oct. 13, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

In the wake of another tension-filled election for pro-life voters--one in which I, as a pro-life person, advocated for supporting a pro-choice candidate in Doug Jones--I thought it would be helpful to explore why and how a pro-life voter might choose to support a pro-choice candidate. This post is meant to be of help to both pro-life Christians and Democratic advocates and leaders who are befuddled by the notion (in the case of the latter, they are sometimes confused not just about why people are pro-life, but why they would even “waste time” reaching out to people who are pro-life in the first place).

The first point I would make is that the problem for many Americans is not that they take politics seriously, but that they take politics seriously in all the wrong ways. Voting and civic participation, like most everything else, is considered primarily as an individualistic and consumeristic enterprise, rather than a primarily social endeavor that ought to be directed toward the social welfare, not just one’s own personal good. I have extensive thoughts on this matter, and it serves as the central subject of the new afterword for Reclaiming Hope that will be published on January 8 (you can pre-order now!).

As an outflow of our individualistic and consumeristic attitudes toward politics, the moral focus of our political participation is placed primarily on politics as an expression of our identity. How this expresses itself in some pro-life voters is actually, and ironically, an equivalent of the very kind of fusion of the personal and the political that conservatives critique on the left. For the pro-life voter of this kind, a vote for a pro-choice politician is indistinguishable from support for abortion. For the pro-life voter of this kind, voting is primarily an expression of conscience.

There are several things wrong with this view of politics and political participation. First, as I argue in Reclaiming Hope, politics is a forum for loving your neighbor. A Christian’s vote should not be motivated primarily by self-expression, but by love of God and neighbor. The question a Christian should be asking as they enter the voting booth is “how can I best use my vote for the peace and prosperity of the political community in which God has placed me?” When we vote, we do not think only of what we have at stake, but what our neighbors have at stake.

Second, political choices are imperfect. Always. If the voter is morally responsible—in a way that is indistinguishable from the moral responsibility of direct action—for every vote a politician takes, how could one ever morally vote apart from making their intellect and conscience subservient to a political ideology? In what political election is there a perfect moral choice? So, you might respond, that is the answer: we should never vote! But this kind of moral reasoning reminds me of those who accused Jesus of sin because he broke the Sabbath in order to heal the sick. One can keep their hands clean while letting their heart rot.

Also, at a time when many white evangelicals are raising rhetorical support for a politics that combats racism, misogyny, xenophobia and other social ills, it is a fair question as to why their morally charged rhetoric does not lead them to the same kind of moral reasoning on those issues as it does on abortion. In other words, why does a politician's support for pro-choice policies prohibit one's support, but a politician's support for racist policies does not? 

Fortunately, pro-life and conservative intellectuals themselves have provided the answer to this question by refuting themselves that voting is an act of total endorsement. In the same way that many have rightly explained that a vote for Donald Trump--who they would acknowledge ran a campaign that drew on the social, cultural and political capital of racism--did not necessarily mean that every Trump voter was racist, one can vote for a pro-choice candidate without being pro-choice themselves. The fact that pro-lifers are willing to grant this for voters who support a campaign that traffics in racism, but not those who support a pro-choice candidate is one of those unquestioned assumptions that reflects the vicious circle created by a public theology that has been infected by partisan motives and a political tribalism that has been facilitated by shallow public theology.  

The way some invoke conscience in politics reflects an odd morality that puts one’s conscience at risk for supporting a candidate who opposes Roe v. Wade, but rationalizes away moral responsibility for a candidate who intentionally seeks to disenfranchise African-Americans or restrict the right of worship for Muslims or wantonly breaks up families through deportation or mass incarceration. Perhaps abortion as a political issue carries greater moral weight than these other issues—an idea some pro-lifers seem a bit too eager to accept, I have to say—but is there no confluence of evil that can affect the voting calculation of the pro-life person who believes their conscience requires them to vote for whoever the pro-life candidate happens to be? If there are only pro-choice candidates in an election, is voting itself then impermissible? As I have argued here already, to argue about which issue(s) carry enough moral weight to determine one's vote is to misunderstand the purpose and meaning of voting. The idea is not to suggest that abortion is an unworthy issue of such an emphasis, but that that the act of voting does not demand that kind of emphasis. Voting in a representative democracy is a different kind of thing. 

My aim here is not to add to the moral burden of our vote. Instead, I want to promote greater grace and deference when it comes to how we vote. Politicians and advocacy groups increasingly resort to moral manipulation to raise the stakes of politics and thus drive the financial and other support they receive. If political positions are not just political positions, but the highest expression of one’s very being and morality, then we will tithe to their coffers and worship at their altar. Politics is not detached from morality or faith—they are related—but political judgments are ultimately prudential. We should have great humility in our own positions, and great humility in casting moral judgments on others’ politics. Political discourse is intrinsically one of debate, of trying to convince your fellow citizens that your ideas are worthy of being taken up by broader society, but that discourse must be leavened by the awareness that we might be wrong, that our opponent might have a moral insight that is valuable and true.

Personally, while I will get into political disagreements with fellow Christians, I try to keep from questioning their motives or their ultimate commitments. I am not perfect in this regard. I have failed at this at times, and I regret those failures. In discussions with Christians, my concerns lie not so much with their arriving at a different policy position, but if and when they introduce a break in their logical train of thought. By this I mean that sometimes I will be talking to a Christian who will say something like “God would not approve of X, but I think X is politically necessary.” I recently heard a sermon given after the Las Vegas shooting that referenced a survey in which Christians responded that while they support the use of a firearm to defend one’s property or life, they did not think God would approve of the same. This kind of thinking deserves to be interrogated, not principally for a desired political outcome, but out of desire to see one’s heart and mind more greatly conformed to the intention of their Creator.

Allow me to conclude then with a direct response to the question that I opened with: how and why would a pro-life Christian support a pro-choice politician? My answer, in short, is that a pro-life Christian would support a pro-choice politician if they believed that in spite of the candidate’s position on abortion, a vote for that candidate is the best way to intend their vote for the good of their neighbor.

Again, this is ultimately a prudential decision, and we must come to terms with the fact that because it is prudential, different Christians may come to equally faithful, yet different, conclusions. There are many valid factors Christians might consider when deciding which candidate will better serve the good of their neighbor, but let me briefly raise two.

First, one’s vote can, and perhaps should be, mediated through the experiences and passions God has given them. So, as an example, I believe it is reasonable for a voter whose career is focused on combatting international poverty, for instance, to provide additional weight to a candidate’s position on policies that affect international poverty. Personally, civil rights, particularly for African-Americans, has been a driving motivation for my life for reasons rooted in my faith and my personal affections and experiences. I believe and understand human dignity to be implicated in a wide range of policies, but racial injustice is an area where I put additional weight. I am personally convicted in this regard, and believe my reasons are compelling, but I try not to make my prioritization of this sacrosanct even while I argue for the validity of my positions in a political context. My support for a pro-family agenda is rooted in ideas about human flourishing, but I also understand my passion for these policies is driven both by the prioritization of family in my Italian cultural heritage, as well as the brokenness in my immediate family’s history. I am pro-life because I believe it is an issue of human dignity, but my personal experience as an adoptee plays a role in the nature and priority of my position on the issue as well. The fact that Christian’s political priorities are filtered through their experience is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I believe that God wishes to use our diversity in experiences to strengthen his church, enrich our public discourse and soften our hearts. We can allow others’ passions and experiences to shape and motivate our politics as well!

The second factor I will raise here is that a Christian might choose to vote differently when given the same or a similar choice of candidates based on their reading of the times and what God is doing in the world. What is the principle challenge of our time? Who is in power? Who is particularly vulnerable? A Christian might vote differently in a time of war than a time of peace. A Christian might vote one way if a certain issue is particularly salient, and a different way if another issue is particularly salient.

To move from the abstract to the topic at hand, while making clear that I deeply disagreed with Doug Jones’ position on abortion, I advocated for supporting him with a vote because of my view on what was most salient in the campaign; my understanding of the levers available to a Senator to influence abortion policy relative to the president; the broader political context (namely, that Donald Trump is in The White House); the egregious misuse of faith and Christian rhetoric by Roy Moore; Moore’s deeply questionable moral character and the existence of deeply disturbing criminal allegations of sexual assault; Moore’s explicit, disturbing record of both rhetoric and policy approaches that undermine the dignity of African-Americans and Muslims, in particular, among several other prudential considerations.

Finally, I do want to just address the idea that was advanced in recent weeks for Alabama Christians to either not vote or write-in a candidate. I was relatively forceful in my rejection of such an approach, but I hope it was clear then--and I want to make it clear now--that this was a prudential argument. My justification for making this argument in this election, when I did not make such an argument in the 2016 presidential election, for instance, was a conviction that the danger of having Roy Moore in the Senate justified not just a refusal to support him, but the use of one’s vote to maximize its power to ensure he did not become Senator—which was a vote for Doug Jones. I can understand, intellectually, the possibility that some voters looked at the candidates, and believed the allegations of sexual assault against Moore and Jones’ seemingly flippant yet strident pro-choice stance were equally disqualifying. And yet, I would argue, again, that this is not the best way to think about voting. 

I had a conversation with one voter recently who told me that his conscience would not allow him to vote for Jones or Moore. I asked if he truly thought there was no difference between Moore and Jones in how well they would serve Alabama, and if Alabamans truly had as much to lose with Jones as they would with Moore? He replied that no, he was relatively certain that Jones would serve Alabama better than Moore, but that did not change the fact that his conscience would not allow him to vote for either candidate.

Because of the vote tally, and because Jones won voters who held this rationale are actually in a great position. They protected their conscience, and they are not to blame for Moore winning. Jones won. Even more, Jones won by a margin of victory that is exceeded by the number of write-in votes, potentially indicating that conservatives who could vote for neither candidate played a pivotal role in Jones’ victory. But what if Moore had won? What would have been the culpability of those who knew Jones would better serve his neighbors, but chose to prioritize following their conscience, as they understood it, instead?

I added the qualifier “as he understood it,” because I would argue that this kind of argument actually relies on an ignorant God. God has numbered the hairs on our heads, and yet we act as if our hearts are hidden to God in the voting booth. Jesus understands our politics. Really. To argue that you can vote for a flawed candidate if you judge that they will better serve your neighbors is not to make an argument for relativism. It is to acknowledge that politics is, inherently, relative. It is the very nature of our system of government, which is at least as comprehensible to God as it is to us, that our choices are not entirely our own, but shaped by our fellow citizens. Sometimes, the choice that is offered will truly leave us with no option but to sit out an election, or “throw away” our vote as a statement of holy discontent with the state of things. I do not put myself forward as a perfect judge for all people of where that line is to be drawn. I feel confident that the Alabama special election was not such a case, that Doug Jones was clearly the best candidate for Alabama despite his flaws, and I am glad that he won. I am grateful for the 26% of pro-life voters in Alabama who made the same judgment. I hope that Senator Doug Jones remembers that the coalition that elected him was not thoroughly pro-choice, and that he represents a state with millions of pro-life constituents.

I have discussed humility, and I want to return to it here only to add that it does not require a lack of conviction to have a healthy dose of humility. I suggested humility is important above mainly because we “might be wrong,” but I can imagine someone responding that they know they are right about this: abortion is wrong. However, humility does not require a lack of conviction. In addition to the concern that one might be wrong on the substance, we should also have humility because we may be wrong on the strategy. While I share a conviction with pro-lifers on the issue of abortion, I am humbled by the fact that so many seem to look at this issue of voting in a different way than I do. Maybe they are right?

On the other hand, maybe they are wrong? Politics provides a history of unintended consequences. The reason why we have to consider the moral burden of our politics differently, is because if we do not, we are just as responsible for political outcomes as we are for our personal political actions. Let me again return to the Roy Moore race as a concrete example. Some pro-life advocates were making the case that it was every pro-lifers responsibility to vote for Roy Moore because he would cast pro-life votes and advocate for the pro-life position. They made the same case for Donald Trump. It was even suggested that there was a “special place in hell” for Christians who did not support Moore. This argument was sometimes made with explicit disregard for the act of voting for Roy Moore (“this is not about Roy Moore,” they would say, “this is about ensuring the pro-life cause advances in the Senate”).

Thankfully—in my view—because Doug Jones won, we will never find out what Roy Moore would have done in the Senate. But if there is, in fact, a special place in hell for people who did not support Roy Moore (by the way, there’s not), we should consider a hypothetical: what would the moral responsibility of pro-lifers who support a pro-life candidate be if that candidate ended up harming the pro-life cause? There is a very good argument to make that Roy Moore, for instance, would have harmed the Republican brand so profoundly if he had been elected to the Senate that it would have been a drag on other pro-life candidates in the 2018 mid-terms. If there was a special place in hell for people who do not take the right position in an election (reminder: there’s not), would those who supported Roy Moore find themselves a spot in it if their vote ended up harming the pro-life cause? Many pieces of legislation are found to have negative consequences or even exacerbate the problem they were intended to correct after the law has been enacted. The 1994 crime bill looks much different today to many of the people who supported it. What if defunding Planned Parenthood resulted in a drastic increase in the abortion rate? Would they find themselves in hell too? I could imagine some liberal friends saying “yes,” which should indicate to us once again the danger of putting such great moral authority into prudential political decision-making. It has become habitual to us to take God's name in vain in order to advance our personal politics.

There is so much I have not discussed here, and I know that what is I have covered insufficiently. You might have noticed I have not raised the actual issue of abortion at length. I have discussed neither the difference between opposing the legality of abortion and actually reducing abortion—the misdirecting wordplay that those who only want to do the latter are often guilty of or the deep incoherence of those who take the position of opposing the legality of abortion but seem to care little for what would reduce abortion in the meantime. I have not shared that the abortion rate is now the lowest it has been since Roe v. Wade, and explored what it might mean for pro-lifers that this happened under a Democratic president. These are all important issues, and people like Charles Camosy have contributed great thoughts on them, but they are not the focus of this argument.

To summarize: I have responded here to the question “Can a pro-life Christian support a pro-choice candidate?” not by exploring the moral weight of abortion (which I think is great), but of urging a correction of how we think about voting. Our vote is not just, or even primarily, an individualistic act of self-expression, but an act of neighbor love. You can think, as I do, that the pro-life stance is one that is motivated by love of neighbor. This can and should play a role in your vote. Yet, a pro-life Christian who believes their stance is an act of neighbor love, might also be motivated in the voting booth to support a pro-choice candidate because given the choice presented to them, that vote is the option available to them that best advances their reasoned intent to love their neighbor well through their politics in the circumstances of that historical moment. This would have been my decision had I voted in Alabama this past Tuesday.   

These are serious issues, and I offer my thoughts humbly with an open invitation to test and challenge these ideas. But let’s be wary of those who pretend the future we hope for can be realized if only our politics was more dogmatic, who wish to load onto politics the expectation that we might perfectly express ourselves through it, and instead consider politics as a penultimate forum where we can love our neighbors, pursuing justice where we can, until the God of justice comes in His perfect glory to set all wrongs to right.


Note from Michael: This post has been edited for clarity.

David Brooks and This Generation's Moral Vocabulary

Towards the end of David Brook's talk at the Trinity Forum on his book, The Road to Character, Brooks says that his students at Yale are "hungry" for a "moral vocabulary." He lumps both young and old in the same bucket of people who have a paltry vocabulary of productivity and perfectionistic achievement, which is based on external standards, as opposed to a moral vocabulary, which is based on internal ones.

As someone who is a member of the "younger generation" whom he referenced (specifically, the urban and educated youth, which his Yale students would fall under), his statement made me pause. 

Brooks argues that his Yale students lack a "moral vocabulary" because they do not talk in terms of "character" or "virtue." Let us be clear: they may lack a vocabulary of virtue, but they do not lack a moral vocabulary. Brooks himself indirectly points out that when he, a few years ago, notices that when some Stanford graduates were debating the merits of going into finance or consulting, they tended to use a utilitarian logic to evaluate choices based on the outcomes they produced. Brooks pointed out that no one was asking the character-question, “How do I be a good person, no matter what industry I’m in?” That is fair, but utilitarianism is a strand of moral thought. So, really, what Brooks is advocating for is an internal, moral vocabulary.

In his advocacy for a moral vocabulary, Brooks overlooks yet another important way in which we - the urban, educated, young, demographic that both he and I seem to be most familiar with – morally understand our world: power. Just think of our current conversation around #BlackLivesMatter. These days, we are less concerned with internal guilt, and more morally concerned about our privilege, which is shaped by an "external" status (e.g. gender, race, class). To be a white male, for instance, affords you certain advantages in that you do not have to really think about your safety late at night while walking outside, or about how to react to an approaching policeman. We all have privilege to varying degrees, and people accuse each other of “privilege” when it blinds us to the experiences of others and leads us to commit offensive or harmful actions. In fact, having privilege is almost the farthest thing from having guilt, because guilt implies intentionality, whereas privilege is all about having undeserved benefits of power which you are largely not responsible. Our vocabulary of power and privilege is not a vocabulary of internal virtue, but a vocabulary of (ignorant) external oppression.  

In short, our moral vocabulary is caught between the poles of utilitarianism and power, between John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Nietzsche. Brooks may point out that the problem with our vocabulary is that it is almost completely externalized. All moral struggle, from our perspective, is an externalized struggle, and the primary internal growth necessary is that of awakening or awareness. We simply need to become “aware” of our privilege or “awakened” to the negative ripple effects of our actions. We do not have the language to understand, much less have, internal struggles between pride and humility, for instance, or anger and compassion. We mainly know how to do good, not how to be good.

Our current moral vocabulary has real and severe gaps, but I don’t think the answer is to jettison and replace it with a more ancient vocabulary. There is a reason why we have shrunk away from using an internal lens to understand what is good; we increasingly believe that there is nothing that is purely internal, and that everything internal is in relation to the external. We see ourselves as caught up in an interdependent system in which we are all tightly bound together. In such a system, any action could have a myriad of unintended consequences, and so we are hyper-sensitive to how or what we buy, say, do (or don’t buy, don’t say, don’t do) affects others. We believe that we tread on others less out of sin and more out of ignorance. (The troubled history of international development and aid is just another example of the horrors of what can happen when you simply try to “will good,” without a deep understanding of the context in which you are operating.)

Yes, we neglect being over doing good, but we realize that you can’t just be good in a vacuum, without knowing what you are really doing as well. From our purview, we can see how it is entirely plausible to have a church-going policeman who is trying to be a good father and be less prideful, but who makes racist judgments in deciding whom to stop-and-frisk because of how he grew up and the pressure from his unit to hit his numbers. Brooks might see a man who is trying to work on his character, whereas we see someone who is an agent of various systemic forces. Brooks sees the isolated tree, whereas we see the ecosystem that has birthed the tree. The truth is that we sometimes miss the trees for the ecosystem. But the only way to elevate our vocabulary is not by pooh-poohing how our “narcissistic” generation “lacks morals,” as Brooks seems to take pleasure in doing, but by recognizing and acknowledging the moral conversations that do exist and the worldview behind them.  

Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York, she blogs on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses. 



Ad Hoc Justice and #KellyOnMyMind

Kelly Gissendaner has the perfect redemption story--without the ending, as of yet.

She is, for those of who are unfamiliar, awaiting execution by the state of Georgia for planning the murder of her husband. More than 500 Georgia clergy and other faith leaders have signed a petition asking for clemency based on evidence that she has experienced a profound spiritual transformation and has changed her life and the lives of others for the better.

Christianity Today published an editorial asking for her life to be spared because she has "turned her life around," citing her confession of guilt, her stated faith in Christ's redemption, as well as testimonials from inmates, overseers and officers. Neither the editorial nor the petition addresses the legitimacy of the death penalty.

The framing is clear: the plea for clemency is not about whether capital punishment is legitimate, but rather it is about making a special exception for those transformed into new persons. It is an intuitive argument, especially for Christians, but it is ultimately incoherent. One cannot plead for clemency for Kelly, without pleading for clemency for all.

First, let's recognize that the only way most of us know about Kelly's story – and thus have the opportunity to petition, protest, and tweet with the hashtag #Kellyonmymind  -- is largely contingent on factors outside of her control. She happened to have access to a theology studies program for prisoners run by several divinity schools in Atlanta. Her teachers have testified to her genuine transformation in her clemency petition, rallied Georgian faith leaders, and have connected her to the renowned theologian Jurgen Moltmann, who became her pen pal and wrote a letter in support of her clemency, resulting in a feature in the The New York Times. We are pleading for clemency for a case that is circumstantially cherry-picked. What about other inmates who have similar stories of transformation but are alone in jail cells with a single bible?

Moreover, what about other stories of repentance that do not look the "perfect" Christian redemption narrative: those who are repentant but who are Muslim or hold no faith, or those who repent but are simply not as saint-like as Kelly, who was described as "an amazing beacon in a very dark place” by a correctional officer? Melissa Browning writes that she likes Kelly’s story because, as a Christian, she "love[s] a good redemption story.” Lets also admit that we prefer redemption stories that fit our faith-narratives, even though repentance is certainly not an exclusively Christian act.  

Of course, one might counter, other stories probably exist and likely merit our advocacy as much as Kelly's does, but it is humanly impossible to fully know them because we are not omniscient and objective. Sure, but if we acknowledge that we do not have the capability to "objectively peer into people’s hearts" and thus cannot accurately determine all those who are truly repentant, then why are we in the business of (selectively) choosing who gets pardoned and a chance at life? Moreover, if we lack the ability to determine who is genuinely repentant, then that throws into radical doubt our ability to "objectively peer into people’s hearts" to decide who is truly guilty (an estimated four percent of defendants sentenced to die are innocent). 

We, of course, have to make judgments about the intentions of others; there is no escaping this fact. But it is quite another matter to do so with life and death at stake, which means we cannot avoid the larger question, in petitioning for Kelly's pardoning, of whether we, through the institution of the state, have the authority to essentially rationally gamble with someone's life in the act of pronouncing them "guilty" or "repentant."

We, through the state, have the authority to mete out punishment for those who break our laws, or the “terms and conditions” for living in our society. Our authority means that we can, as punishment, legitimately exclude people from our society (e.g. deport) or relegate them to the margins (e.g. imprison), but as a society, we do not have the authority to exclude people from the human race. 

Christians have the additional question of what kind of authority God has granted to the state. The debate tends to hinge on Romans 13 where Paul writes that if you "do wrong, be afraid, for [the ruler] does not bear the sword in vain." As Chaplain Dale Recinella points out, the word for "sword" used is "machaira," which means a dagger; it was not used for decapitation. "Rhomphaia" is a broadsword, which was what was used to execute criminals, indicating that Paul was using the word "sword" to indicate the authority to inflict punishment in general, but not explicitly capital punishment. There is still, obviously, disagreement among scholars as to the implications of "machaira" versus "rhomphaia," but it is worth noting that, according to N.T. Wright, "almost all the early Christian Fathers were opposed to the death penalty, even though it was of course standard practice across the ancient world."  

So what are we really asking when we are asking for Kelly Gissendaner to be pardoned? We are asking, legitimately, that she not be executed – not because of her now-virtuous life, but because her life, or anyone's, is simply not ours to take.  

Sarah Ngu lives and works in New York City as a freelance writer for businesses. She was a fellow at the Trinity Forum Academy and a graduate of Columbia University. She writes occasionally for Fare Forward.