After 57 years of living in Juneau with its limited road system, Tammy and I still enjoy driving, putting over 35K total miles a year on our two vehicles, a pace we maintained even during covid. Most of those miles are day trips with occasional longer trips to see family and friends. Assuming we average 55 miles/hour with the bulk of these miles on freeways, then 37K miles/year equates to 670 car-hours or nearly two hours of car time per day.
So, what are we doing during that time? If alone, I’m usually thinking about the flyfishing ahead or the hike I’ve just completed. Or perhaps nothing at all, just taking in the scenery of the Pacific Northwest. (Fun fact: ever heard of the “nothing box theory? It posits an explanation for the vegetative state men exhibit at times through their capacity to think about nothing). But if we’re together, Tammy hand sews bindings on quilts while I drive as we both listen to a variety of podcasts from across the political and religious spectrum.
The Mohler Interview
One of the recent podcasts featured interviews with Ruth Graham and Al Mohler. Graham is a religion reporter for the New York Times with an evangelical background and Wheaton college education. Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and perhaps the most visible and influential Baptist leader today. He was recently in the news for his statement at the Family Research Council’s Pray Vote Stand Summit that it’s “absolutely necessary” for all Christians to vote in the 2022 midterms and that any Christian who votes “wrongly” is being “unfaithful” to God.
Partway through Mohler interview, a fascinating interchange took place regarding the proper priorities of Christian voting in the mid-term elections.
Astead Herndon: “For something like the midterm elections, what do you charge Christians to do this November?”
Al Mohler: “Well, I’ve spoken to that. Christians in the United States, who have the ability to vote, will vote one way or another. Even not voting is no abdication because you just strengthen and weight the vote of those who do vote. There’s no refuge from political responsibility here. I would say we need be good stewards of the vote. And that means we’ve got to know, in our minds, what is first and primary. And that’s going to be the sanctity of every single human life and what leads to the strengthening of marriage and the family as the basic building blocks of civilization.”
At this point, I reached out and stopped the podcast signaling a discussion would be forthcoming. Either one of us will often do this, either to provide feedback or just to explore a topic further.
I asked: what should be our priorities as Christians when entering the ballot box? What should we emphasize when evaluating candidates, recognizing that nobody’s perfect? Do Mohler’s two priorities accurately reflect the Christian faith perspective?
I think about priorities a lot, both now and in times past. In my old position as a science administrator, we prioritized character through advocacy of core values and achievement through a mission focus. We made character foundational as we were “people first and mission always.”
We considered Einstein’s most remarkable quote to be true: “Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.” We then made that perspective foundational to our science organization.
“When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Those words, penned by the Psalmist long ago, spoke of the foundational importance of truth, justice, and character. They were the guardrails which help shape a society’s moral order. They kept society safe, protecting it from existential harm.
Our founding fathers understood this Biblical principle, deeming virtue, the acts of good character, as indispensable to a successful nation. To them, character was foundational. They saw it penetrating every nook and cranny of a person’s life and affecting everything they did and said. It was like yeast permeating a lump of dough and Mohler’s failure to prioritize character would have been unthinkable to them.
To wit: George Washington once declared that “a good moral character is the first essential in a man” and John Adams said “The people “have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge- I mean of the character and conduct of their rulers.”
But What About…
Fair enough, some might say, but then ask: “what about the sanctity of life?” Shouldn’t that too be a priority in Christian judgments?
Overturning Roe was long considered the holy grail of the anti-abortion movement. But setting aside the moral debate for now, restrictive actions such as anti-abortion statutes can only move the needle so far. Hence, the potential impact of repealing Roe was always deemed to be limited (an estimated 12.8% decline in abortion rate) due to the (1) widespread use of pill-based abortion, (2) ability of women with means to travel for an abortion, and (3) prevalence of abortion within populous states where abortion is less restricted.
(Note that since the repeal of Roe in June, an estimated 10,570 legal abortions have been reduced representing a decline in the abortion rate of 6% in just under five months. This is a net calculation, integrating abortion rate declines in states with new post-Roe restrictions with abortion rate increases in states protecting abortion. It also also doesn’t account for self-managed abortions (pills rather than surgery) which now account for more than half of all U.S. abortions and likely to increase in usage.)
Moving the Needle
If you really want to move the needle, then the underlying conditions driving abortion rates must be addressed and this is where a pro-life position really gets defined.
Let’s start by looking at abortion data from the two organizations in America who compute abortion statistics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) compiles voluntarily reported data from most state health agencies. The Guttmacher Institute collects data from every known provider of abortions and computes abortion estimates for non-responding providers. While the Guttmacher Institute supports abortion rights, its abortion data are widely used by organizations on both sides of the issue.
Note that abortion rose steeply following the passage of Roe in 1973 but then leveled off and began a rapid decline until recent years. If you juxtapose presidential administrations over this map, you will see that since 1990, abortion declines have occurred in both Republican and Democratic administrations with the steepest declines during Democratic administrations. The only deviation from this trend occurred in recent years when abortions increased during the Trump administration.
The reasons for this decline are many and chiefly related lower pregnancy rates and household health and economics. Most (70%) women seeking abortions cite financial reasons as part of the why with about half of the women citing the lack of suitable or supportive partners. Regions with higher child mortality rates exhibit higher abortion rates. Hence, when societal conditions improve, such as when Spain and Italy provided cash transfers to expectant mothers, abortion rates declined. Abortion rates likewise declined as day care services became available.
An Acceptable Cost
The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, recently developed a model of abortion rates using data from 23 countries. The biggest factor moving the abortion needle was a decrease in real per-capita purchasing power where a 2% decrease led to a 10% increase in the abortion ratio. The next biggest factor was switching from abortion on demand to banning abortion which led to a 6% decrease in the abortion ratio.
Given these relationships one would think Senator Mitt Romney’s Family Security Action, which, according to AEI’s analyses, would reduce abortion rates through providing a substantive child allowance for every newborn baby, would be welcomed (or at least seriously considered) by the conservative right. For Republicans, it just doesn’t get any better: conservative family and marriage provisions plus abortion reduction!
At first Romney’s plan was well liked across both sides of the aisle. Support soon faded even though Romney’s plan would slash child poverty by an estimated one-third. Support from the White House cooled as Democrats preferred Biden’s plan (which would have dropped the abortion rate considerably lower — by some estimates roughly equivalent to that expected from the repeal of Roe). But the strangest thing was the even cooler reception by prominent Republicans, one of whom said, “I don’t know how many Republican votes there would be for just a direct-payment program, which in my mind is not the direction we want to go.”
Lamenting over this triumph of ideology, the conservative institute’s author concluded: “The simple reality is that conservatives arguing that a rise in single parenthood is an unacceptable cost of a child allowance are necessarily arguing, as a corollary, that some of those children being aborted is an acceptable cost of the current policy regime.”
Martin Luther King once said “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, and the social conditions that cripple them, is a dry-as-dust religion.” Borrowing MLK’s language perhaps we can say that “Any person who professes to be anti-abortion but is unconcerned with health and the financial conditions that invite them, has a defective “pro-life” position.
You Make the Call
So when Mohler says: “what is first and primary. And that’s going to be the sanctity of every single human life…” does he mean that he will be voting for Biden, since Biden’s child allowance plan could possibly reduce abortions by an amount equivalent to the repealing of Roe?
Or when Mohler calls out anyone who votes “wrongly” is being “unfaithful” to God, is he calling out people like Marco Rubio and organizations like Focus on the Family who have come out strongly against child allowances given the expected drop they would bring to abortion rates?
One final question. If opposition to direct payments based on one’s political ideology leads you to treat abortion as an acceptable cost, is reducing abortions really the first and ultimate priority?
A Christian Political Perspective Prioritizes Peacemaking
Few issues divide Americans more than abortion. Yet, despite irreconcilable ideological differences, there’s still the potential for common ground. Legislation to improve women’s health and financial status, for example, could likely produce outcomes beneficial to each side. For the left, it could address their goal of promoting the flourishing of all members of society, independent of race and gender. For the right, it could address their goal of reducing abortion rates in America.
Imagine such a win-win solution through less partisanship and more collaboration. Then consider the extended benefits of people willing to reach across the aisle to find common ground. It lowers the temperature of American politics. It confronts the us vs them narrative that turns our neighbor into an enemy. It lessens the power of echo chambers and the division those chambers bring. All the while adding to the flourishing of people’s lives. You would think then that the quest for such a solution would be a prioritized Christian virtue, pursuant to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount calling of “Blessed are the Peacemakers, no?”
Peacemaking, along with other character traits in the Beatitudes, are part of the instructions that teach Christ-followers about “how we should then live” in this world. Their upside-down vision of human flourishing defines the ethos of the kingdom of heaven. They prepare us to serve in our “salt and light” mission. But for those who reject or ignore these instructions, the warning is clear: “if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything?”
A Christian Political Perspective Misses the Mark Through Partisan Exclusivity
There is more than one way to peel an orange, crack an egg, or, in Mark Twain’s language, to skin a cat. Policies from both sides of the aisle can often lead to complementary outcomes despite differing legislative pathways. An “unfaithfulness” test which hitches one’s wagon exclusively to the Republican party and its policy platform unnecessarily shuts the door on another sides’ potential to yield beneficial outcomes.
Such partisan exclusivity misses the mark and leads to scriptural error. Listen to what the great Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey once said: “the identification of Christian social ethics with specific partisan proposals — ones that clearly are not the only ones that may be characterized as Christian and as morally acceptable — comes close to the original New Testament meaning of heresy.”
A Christian Political Perspective Misses the Mark Without Prioritizing Character
The Venn diagram between character and Micah 6:8’s call to walk humbly, do justly and love mercy overlaps extensively. So does the Venn diagram between character and loving our neighbor — the second commandment which is like unto the first. Likewise for the intersection between character and the Fruit of the Spirit, which is the outward evidence of an inward transformation of “those who belong to Christ Jesus [and who] have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Christ’s modeling of kindness, mercy, submission, and compassion elevates the importance of character even further.
Good character doesn’t equate to the totality of Christian life. But Christian life, when faithful to the teachings and example of Christ, necessarily yields good character. Then doesn’t the lack of character, or even a lack of its prioritization, risk, to use one of Mohler’s words, being “unfaithful” to core tenets of the Christian faith?
Earlier this month we marked the fourth anniversary of my father’s passing. Although I’ve written frequently about my mom and her focus on our spiritual formation, dad was her equal partner. A scripted parchment with the words of Psalms 1 hung above his seat at our dinner table. To him, masculinity stemmed from being a Godly man — like a “tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season.” Character, born of a faith-filled life and witnessed by the fruit of the spirit, served as a foundation in life. It wasn’t an option, an afterthought, or a second-order issue of life. Character was, in both the view of my dad and in the words of George Washington, “the first essential in a man.”