It's abortion, stupid. For conservative Christians in this election the most important religious issue isn't gay marriage, stem-cell research or Christmas trees on courthouse lawns. It is abortion (as it has been for at least the past 35 years, since the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade). When they walk into the voting booth on Tuesday, can they look beyond their fundamental, conscience-driven opposition to abortion as a moral evil? Do they want to? If yes, they may vote for Sen. Barack Obama. If not, they will, despite any reservations, vote for Sen. John McCain.
With a real war abroad and recessionary anxiety at home, abortion rhetoric has been unusually quiet in this election season. Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput made some news in August when he told the Associated Press that he hoped pro-choice Democratic vice presidential pick (and observant Roman Catholic) Joe Biden would "refrain from presenting himself at communion." But that was nothing compared to the small war a group of bishops waged on Sen. John Kerry in 2004 when they said he should not be given communion—an assault that put the Democrat on the defensive and, in the end, led to his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., religion speech, an awkward maneuver that the senator himself has said was too little, too late. News channels have played no b-roll of abortion supporters or protesters holding up their obligatory offensive placards, showing perfect fetuses on the one hand and coat hangers on the other. As I've written in previous columns, the silence of Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren on the subject of abortion in this election has been notable. In 2004, Warren sent an e-mail around listing the five "non-negotiables" for any evangelical voter, and abortion was of course high on that list. This year, he has made no such pronouncement.
This relative silence on the part of religious conservatives, along with the well-documented broadening of the evangelical agenda to include issues like poverty and the environment, has led some to speculate that conservative Christians don't care about abortion the way they used to. This assumption is not true. While just more than 50 percent of Americans call themselves pro-choice, according to recent polls, just over 40 percent call themselves "pro life"—numbers that have not changed much in a decade. Among the very religious, though, opposition to abortion remains as strong as ever. Seventy percent of evangelicals who go to church weekly or more oppose legalized abortion. For Roman Catholics, the number is 60 percent. According to research by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, young evangelicals are as conservative—if not more so—than their parents on abortion.
The vitriol is still there too, if you scratch the surface. Last month, the conservative Catholic theologian George Weigel wrote a piece for NEWSWEEK in which he dissected the arguments by a number of Roman Catholics who said they could remain faithful to their Church and still pull the lever for Obama. While Weigel's tone was professorial, the thousands of comments on his piece were not. "People need to understand that abortion is the root of all this evil that is going around," wrote one reader. "In 20 years as a doctor I don't think I have ever had one woman who requested abortion do so without crying," wrote another. Weigel's piece was among the top stories read on Newsweek.com that week; emotions among commenters ran as obstinate and as vehement as ever. Late last week, Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family predicted that an Obama administration would result in more abortions nationwide. Clearly, abortion as an issue for the faithful is not going away.
What's new, then, is this: A few—a very few—prominent Christians and Catholics (like Douglas Kmiec, one of Weigel's ideological opponents) have been making arguments that allow a conservative Christian believer to vote for Obama in good conscience. These, in summary, are:
None of these arguments is perfect, and none releases a Christian voter who was raised with and believes in the evil of abortion from his moral obligation to oppose it. But they do provide Christians who are leaning toward Obama with a rationale and an escape from the divisive, mean-hearted rhetoric of the past three decades. On the far right, these arguments won't change anyone's mind. In the middle, they might.
It is impossible to overstate, however, the potency of the anti-abortion movement among conservative Christians in America, especially since the galvanizing days of Jerry Falwell and the moral majority in the early 1980s. Young evangelicals, especially, who were raised in that environment talk about how difficult it is to see abortion in anything but black-and-white terms. Gov. Sarah Palin, whose family portrait contains the silent but not hidden message, "I didn't have an abortion and neither did my teenage daughter," speaks directly to these Christians and echoes the messages they've heard their whole lives—at home, in Sunday school, at youth group and at church. In September, Cameron Strang, the 32-year-old publisher of the Christian magazine Relevant told me how frustrated he was that the selection of Palin put the abortion debate back on the table—and in such an old fashioned way. "All of a sudden, it's us versus them and you have to pick a side," he said. "With abortion as a wedge issue, it's going to be harder and harder for moderate Christians to feel OK supporting Obama."
This next data point refers to Catholics, but it broadly pertains to conservative evangelicals as well. According to a study by William D'Antonio at Georgetown University, 70 percent of American Catholics say they are willing to oppose their bishops on abortion. But that doesn't mean they will.