Christianity has been hijacked by right-wing zealots who have demeaned the teachings of Jesus. When they quote the bible, they take phrases out of context and interpret them with an extreme brand of literalism that distorts or ignores their vast possibilities of meaning. Even worse, they practice a selective literalism – taking literally those words and phrases that superficially support their agenda, but ignoring Christ’s words whenever they do not. As if this were not enough, they then poison public discourse by insinuating, or stating unabashedly, that to vote for policies or candidates who disagree with their program is tantamount to ‘sin’.
Given the insistence of the Christian Right in taking the words of the Bible seriously and living by its precepts, it is rather extraordinary to realize that regarding their major modern battleground issue – abortion – neither Christ nor Moses say anything at all. The Catholic Church skirts around this by noting that they have always considered Church tradition and priestly interpretations of “natural law” as crucial to their doctrines. But the Protestant movement is based on Martin Luther’s break with these Catholic ideas: Evangelicals insist on the words of Scripture alone for their authority.
Of course, there are a few phrases here and there that are pulled out of context and misinterpreted in an attempt to secure biblical sanction. In Deuteronomy, for instance, Moses tells the assembled Israelites that they have been given a choice between “life and prosperity, death and destruction.” He then assures them that if they will love the Lord and follow his commandments they will live long happy lives and be blessed, but if they turn away from God they will just as assuredly meet with destruction. “Now choose life,” he advises, so that they will be blessed and enjoy the land that had been promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Some opponents of abortion have extracted Moses’ injunction to “choose life” and turned it into a rallying cry and bumper-sticker for their unrelated cause. This is typical, but its semi-humorous obviousness serves to emphasize the fact that the Bible itself is neither for nor against abortion. (I should note in fairness that I was recently present at a study group in which several somewhat obscure biblical passages were interpreted in a strained way to support the right of abortion that is accepted by many in Reform Judaism. Both sides need to admit that the Bible is silent on this issue.)
On the other hand, the Bible has a great deal to say about divorce, and a literal reading of these statements does not leave much room for quibbling about their meaning. According to the prophet Malachi, God explicitly says “I hate divorce.” According to Paul, “A husband must not divorce his wife.” And Jesus states unequivocally that “anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” This is pretty clear! So why aren’t the right-wing protectors of morality lobbying to outlaw divorce? Perhaps because a few too many members of the group have ‘selected’ to ignore these scriptural admonitions and have gotten divorced themselves. On the other hand, it is still relatively easy, though becoming rather less so, to imagine that women-who-choose-abortion are not ‘members of the group’: they are ‘other’, and all sorts of potent negative emotion can easily be directed at ‘them’.
Actually, there was a time not that long ago when the divorce issue was important in Republican politics. Nelson Rockefeller, who was divorced and remarried, could not get his party’s presidential nomination at least in part for precisely this reason. But twenty years later, the delegates were fawning over another divorced-and-remarried candidate, Ronald Reagan. Suddenly, the clear biblical injunction against divorce was a matter of no concern. The imagined injunction against abortion took center stage. It has proven to be a very politically-useful issue. Reagan (who had previously signed a bill as Governor of California that legalized abortion) kept the issue very much alive for eight years as did Bush I and II during their tenures. People rallied, and continue to rally, to the cause. What is astounding to me is that so many people with little or no interest in preserving the sanctity of life when it comes to war, capital punishment, discrimination, animal rights, or the degradation of hunger and poverty, become morally outraged to the extreme over this issue. They rant against the Judiciary, the Humanists, the Liberals, the so-called Socialists, and of course the Democrats, and Conservative Republicans do nothing to quiet their fervor. The simple fact behind this, of course, is that these people bring out the vote.
All of this avoids the question of the rightness or wrongness of aborting a fetus. But it would be difficult to find many people who would offer the opinion that abortion is a good thing. No one likes abortion. The issue is not the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of abortion: it’s a sad and dreadful choice with serious and severe moral, psychological, and spiritual repercussions. The issue is whether it would be right or wrong, wise or foolish, to make it illegal. And right here there are grounds for hoping that we can eventually put this question to rest, if the political hacks and media charlatans would just stop riling people up.
Most proponents of anti-abortion legislation acknowledge that such laws will not stop the occurrence of abortion itself, or even slow it down very much if at all. Most understand that making abortion illegal will increase the frequency of botched surgery, terrible injury, and unnecessary death. Most acknowledge that only a serious change in the cultural and moral climate can truly lower the frequency of abortion.
The responsibility lies with us, with our own ‘suggestibility’, the astonishing ease with which we abdicate all efforts to think and reason and choose for ourselves, and believe and do whatever we are told by the media and the cultural environment to believe and do. It’s not that the government isn’t doing enough. It’s that we are passive inside our own selves.
If the Religious Right really wants to stop the tragedy of abortion, and not merely stir people up to vote for their candidates, it would be far more useful to focus their energies on the cultural, moral, and sociological climate: ending poverty; encouraging people to boycott the media exploitation of sex and violence; teaching our boys that treating women respectfully and becoming responsible fathers is the true definition of Manhood; teaching our girls that they are loved for their minds, hearts and souls, not just their bodies; encouraging adoption; and perhaps even remembering that the Gospels are supposed to be ‘good news’ – not a justification for being nasty and punitive.
If the Democrats and Liberals want to help, they have to stop ignoring the moral implications of abortion while focusing exclusively on issues of privacy and a woman’s right to choose. It is just this distinction, between the morality of abortion and the politics of abortion, that the Democrats don’t seem get. Both are important. But by ignoring the religious and ethical implications, they continue to turn off half or more of the electorate while stoking the endless fires of violent discord over the issue.
These fires have been raging for decades. It’s enough. We have to change. Not them. And not the government.