Two weeks ago, we all bore witness to the spectacular and long-overdue implosion of the Religious Right.
Having had all their moral hopes of the last 20 years dashed, whatever’s left of the movement has evidently settled for venting their anger on the public stage by getting behind the walking, talking, orange id known as Donald Trump. Even setting aside the issues (and the fact that Trump has yet to to take a meaningful position on any of them), Trump is very obviously the sort of person that no one who aims to follow Jesus should be publicly associating themselves with — a thrice-married man who boasts about his adultery and has been officially endorsed by the KKK — and yet there’s been a veritable stampede to bow and scrape before him by most of the Religious Right’s old-guard leaders, including Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Dr. James Dobson. The parade of rationalizations for why Christians ought to be voting for Trump has been as extensive as it is comical. “At least he’s not Hillary!” “We’re electing a president, not a pastor-in-chief!” “And think of the Supreme Court!”
It took the LGBT movement a whole generation to build a culture that shares its understanding of love; it will likely take us even longer to build a culture with a full respect for human life.
It’s this last one that may in fact have the most people pausing to reconsider the wisdom of voting against Trump or staying home on election day. It’s imperative, the reasoning goes, that we stack the federal government with personalities who are opposed to abortion. Never mind that Trump proudly described himself as “very pro-choice” until the moment he decided to run for the Republican nomination; never mind that during the primary he literally took five contradictory stances on abortion in space of 72 hours; never mind that (as CaPC contributor Hannah Anderson helpfully pointed out on Twitter the other day) it’s the sexual ethic of men like Trump that drives women to seek abortions in the first place. It’s just too important, man.
And I won’t deny that it’s an important issue. If the pro-life crowd is right about abortion (and I see no compelling reason to think it’s not — every argument I’ve heard in favor of abortion amounts, as far as I can tell, to a post hoc rationalization), pro-abortion policy allows for mass murder, and there is nothing at all irrational about voting against mass murder. That said, though, I wonder if the Religious Right has considered the sort of irreparable harm that being a single-issue voting bloc can do (and has done!) to the political system.
Abortion is, as they say, a “wedge issue,” and wedge issues are so called because they’re useful for driving people apart. Such issues are convenient for politicians because they entrench people on both sides of the aisle by allowing them to flatter themselves: If you’re anti-abortion, you’re heroically standing up for the sanctity of life; if you’re pro-abortion, you’re bravely standing against the oppression of women. If you want immigration reform, you’re a compassionate soul reaching out to the downtrodden; if you’re a Build-That-Wall sort, you’re nobly fighting for law and order in a world gone mad. If you’re for gun control, you’re just preaching “common sense” and saving lives; if you’re against it, you’re a hero standing up to an overreaching, tyrannical government.
Some of these self-perceptions may be more or less true than others, but in politics, perception has a way of behaving as if it were reality. One need not look any further than the latest headlines to find a clear example of how these controversies play out: consider the recent Democratic sit-in for gun control. Following the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, several gun bills were presented in the Republican-controlled Congress; none of them managed to make it to a vote; the Democrats responded by literally sitting on the floor of the House chamber, nominally until a vote would be allowed on one of the bills; Speaker of the House Paul Ryan refused; then, finally, after just over 24 hours, the Democrats gave up and went home.
You can use that as an example of how broken and ineffective our federal government is if you want, but the reality is that both parties got exactly what they wanted out of the performance. The Democrats got to prove that they Care About Human Life and the Republicans got to show that they are Fighting For Your Rights, and both parties’ constituencies will continue to vote for them. It wouldn’t be overly cynical to point out that this system heavily incentivizes both parties to maintain the status quo. If real change were achieved on the gun controversy — say, a constitutional amendment that repealed or clarified the right to bear arms — both parties would lose their wedge issue. As long as things stay as they are, though, the GOP knows they can count on the votes of the NRA set and the Democrats know they’re guaranteed the votes of the anti-gun bunch. It’s in both parties’ interests to keep you as entrenched, angry, and self-righteous as possible.
As bad as all that may seem, it actually gets worse. In 2014, Princeton and Northwestern universities jointly published a statistical study that showed there was literally no correlation between whether a majority of U.S. citizens wanted a bill passed and whether it actually passed. The best predictor of a bill’s shot at becoming a law? Whether or not it was favored by the top 10% of income earners. We all know why this is: your congressman may need your vote to get elected, but votes are easy to come by. What he really needs is money — money for campaigning, money for himself, and probably a shot at a cushy job as a lobbyist when his political career is over. The real money comes mainly from corporate sponsors and independently wealthy donors, and those types tend to be much more demanding than the average single-issue voter is.
In other words: if you’re wondering how we got to a point where the Republican Party is about to nominate Donald Trump for president, know that we’re here in part because they know they can count on the masses of single-issue voters to fill in the bubble for whoever has put “pro-life” on their list of positions. As long as you are a single-issue voter, you’re essentially a lapdog for corporate interests.
Inevitably, the response to this will be, “Okay, so what can we do, then?” This is a fair question, but I’m likely coming at the issue from a very different direction than most on the Right, since I’m far from optimistic that a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe would actually do much to change things (after all, did Roe itself settle anything?). That said, I can probably offer at least a few thoughts.
At the risk of courting controversy, I think we might consider taking a page from the campaign for gay marriage. Whether you agree or disagree with the goal, the LGBT rights movement understood that culture changes from the bottom up. The gay rights movement got the ball rolling by coming out to friends and family, engaging people one-on-one. They didn’t rush to elect a nominally sympathetic president (in part because there were none); they led by persuading, not legislating. Above all, they kept it positive: this was about love. Gradually, they won “converts,” until they reached a critical mass at which point even large corporations were willing to jump on board. By the time the Supreme Court issued the historic Obergefell decision recognizing gay marriage, it was what a majority of people already wanted.
Some of these ideas apply more than others, but I think the analogy is pretty clear. First of all, we should lead by example, striving to live pious lives, and fully submitting our own sexuality to God (a good start would be not to endorse candidates who openly boast of their adultery). Second, we need to reach out to friends and family in a way that’s positive and life-affirming: we’re pro-life because we believe in supporting and nurturing life (backing a political platform that’s not cavalierly militaristic or teeth-chatteringly gun-crazy would go a long way here as well). Finally, we need to work to protect life in our local communities first. We need to open our homes to adoption and foster care, reach out to at-risk mothers, and serve the needs of our neighbors however we can. Admittedly, the Church is already doing a lot of this (though such activities rarely grab headlines), but we need to do still more of it, and we must also accept that we’re in this for the long haul. It took the LGBT movement a whole generation to build a culture that shares its understanding of love; it will likely take us even longer to build a culture with a full respect for human life.
Such a road is likely to be a long and difficult one, but it is also likely to be far more effective than chaining ourselves to the sinking ship that is the S.S. Trump. And even if his inevitable failure of a campaign drags the old-guard evangelical leaders down with it, at least there will be a remnant of us, faithfully serving our neighbors wherever God has placed us.