You head down the road of public life in America, and you run up against religion. From the conversations in the barber shops and the coffee klatches, through the aldermen’s offices and the town halls, the school boards and the zoning commissions, the campaigns and the columnists, and eventually to the state houses and even, perhaps, to that white-domed Capitol building, far off in Washington—somewhere along the line you come to the crossroads where religion cuts across your path.
You travel the long road of religion in America, and you find the Bible chapels, scattered along the prairie like tumbleweeds that have somehow grown white vinyl siding. You drive past the green-lawn suburban churches with cutesy messages on the brick-framed signs placed out near the street. You pass the exhaust-stained marble fronts of the old city congregations, the yellow taxis inching angrily by. You visit the grand cathedrals and synagogues, announcing their people’s success in America, this newfoundland, and you see the pulpits and the choir lofts and the pews and the Sunday schools—the church basement halls, with their dented aluminum coffeemakers and styrofoam cups, their book tables, their after-service conversations burbling away. And somewhere down that highway you come, again, to the crossroads where the public life of the nation confronts you.
There is a marker at that place, naming its many promises and dangers for travelers, with the word abortion at the top. Even now, abortion remains what it has been for more than thirty years: the signpost at the intersection of religion and American public life.
Of course, there are those who think this shouldn’t be so. Personally, I cannot see how abortion could not rank first. We eliminate 1.3 million unborn children in this country every year, a number that dwarfs, by far, the impact of every other activity with which the moral teachings of the churches might be concerned. For that matter, the story of abortion is a tale of blood and sex and power and law—I do not know what more anyone could need for public significance. The people who say they are uninterested in the issue of abortion have always seemed, to me, to be trying to suppress the imagination that most makes us human.
Nonetheless, even in the churches some do not see things this way, and they want the whole issue simply to go away. But the fact that they wish abortion didn’t matter shows that abortion does, in fact, matter. It’s proof that the social observation remains true, for good or for ill. Whether one approves or not, the issue of abortion is here in America—the signpost at the crossroads.
One person who wishes things were different is Mitch Daniels, Republican governor of Indiana and candidate for president. He has made some news for himself, among conservatives, with the successful governorship that managed to keep Indiana out of the oceans of debt that, once the recession came, swamped many other states. The coming 2012 presidential election, he says, is the most important of his lifetime—for it primarily concerns “survival issues.”
And so, he told Washington Post columnist (and former Bush speechwriter) Michael Gerson, “If there were a WMD attack, death would come to straights and gays, pro-life and pro-choice. If the country goes broke, it would ruin the American dream for everyone. We are in this together. Whatever our honest disagreements on other questions, might we set them aside long enough to do some very difficult things without which we will be a different, lesser country?”
Gerson pursued Daniels for a statement because of the long, brilliantly constructed feature about the man by Andrew Ferguson in the Weekly Standard. It’s a sign of how attractive Daniels is that Ferguson, one of the right’s most wry and skeptical essayists, should write something so taken with the man.
But, along the way, Daniels told Ferguson that the next president will “have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while,” until the nation’s economic issues are resolved. And one has to wonder, a little, about Daniels’ political sense. Did he think a reporter as good as Ferguson wouldn’t quote the line? The backlash started almost immediately, with loud growls from the family-values groups, while rival Republican candidate Mike Huckabee seized on the blunder to declare the openly pro-life Daniels insufficiently pro-life.
And blunder it was to use that word truce—for several reasons, beginning with the guilelessness of Daniels’ statement. Even if you thought it were true, why would you say it? By the measures of the last several elections, being recognized as the pro-life presidential candidate gives a net political gain of about 2 percentage points: 6 percent of actual voters are close to being single-issue voters on the pro-life side, and around 4 percent are at least somewhat close to being single-issue voters on the side of legalized abortion.
It’s a pretty easy guess that calling for a truce will buy a Republican not a single vote from among that abortion-supporting 4 percent: Every one of them voted for President Obama in the last election, and they remain a firm base for him today. Governing might be made easier for a president if he were able to impose an unannounced truce once elected, but any talk about that truce will ensure only that the abortion-opposing portion of the electorate will have no enthusiasm for him.
In any event, I’m not convinced that avoiding “all divisive issues”—the awkward explanatory follow-up Daniels gave Mark Hemingway in an interview for the Washington Examiner—will actually make governing easier. “Never allow a crisis to go to waste,” White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel declared at the start of President Obama’s presidency, and the overwhelmingly Democratic House and Senate have—in the midst of the same economic crisis that so worries Daniels—set aside no part of their social agenda. Why, then, imagine that dodging battles on social issues will allow a Republican president to gather Democrats for cuts in budget items? Lots of those budget items are the divisive social issues: in health funding, and education entitlements, and marriage tax reforms, and welfare payments, and all the rest.
Besides, one way or another, we will come to it: the crossroads where the sign of abortion stands. There will be judicial fights—does Daniels hope as president he never has to nominate someone to the Supreme Court?—and there will be executive orders on the Mexico City policy of banning overseas funding for abortions, and there will be the annual tussle over the Hyde Amendment that bans direct federal abortion-funding, and there will be the fighting and refighting over the recently introduced bill to allow, despite the Hyde Amendment, abortions to be performed on military bases. Abortion is here, and not to take a stand is to take a stand.
Every two years, we seem to go through this. Usually it comes after the election—and often from Republicans. There’s a good-sized section of the conservative commenting classes that seems to blame the pro-lifers if the Republicans lose, and dismiss the pro-life vote if the Republicans win.
We saw a good bit of this after the Democrats’ recent victories. You might have thought, given the economic worries expressed in exit polls, together with voter unhappiness about military progress in the Middle East, that economic and foreign-policy Republicans would have been the two camps blamed for the GOP’s overwhelming defeats in 2006 and 2008. But there were plenty of columnists and opinion-givers at the time willing to blame the social planks of the party platform—despite the fact that the social conservatives were the only constituency that really did turn out to vote for McCain–Palin.
Sometimes, though, the complaint does come before the election. Jack Kemp, back in the 1980s, made noises like this while trying to position himself as a presidential candidate, and his presidential ambitions suffered as a result. In 1996 Phil Gramm thought he could do well, despite his pro-life credentials, by traveling out to Colorado just to tell James Dobson that he wouldn’t campaign on abortion: “I’m not a preacher, Mr. Dobson,” he was reported to have said, and down with a thump went his attempt to hold off the nomination of Bob Dole.
All of this seems to involve a theory that Republicans form not so much a political party as a hotel corridor. Sure, there’s a room down the hall that holds the neoconservatives, and another room that holds the business interests (a pretty sparsely populated room, given the fact that big business donated heavily to Obama instead of McCain in the last election), and another room that holds the social conservatives, and another room that holds the Tea Party fiscal conservatives. If the Republicans close off or hide some of the louder, more déclassé rooms (so the idea goes), then the corridor will be used by a greater number of uncommitted voters, passing through just in time for the next election.
There’s only one problem with this corridor theory—which is that it’s completely wrong. A modern political party isn’t a neat set of distinct rooms off a hallway; it’s much more like a swirling throng at a reception, bunching up awkwardly between the buffet and the bar. You’re never quite sure how someone ended up standing next to someone else. The Tea Partiers aren’t opposed to the social conservatives—because most of them are the social conservatives. And Mitch Daniels is foolish to call for a pre-proclaimed truce on any issue. Truces are what come after battles, not before them. It is a counsel of smallness, not the greatness that Daniels rightly sees the moment needs.
It’s true enough, however, that the pro-life movement is not the Republican party, and the Republican party is not the pro-life movement. They’ve just been standing next to each for a long time now.
And here we get down to it—the real reason, beyond all party politics, that no truce on abortion is possible. One can imagine pro-life absolutisms that are unhelpful and counterproductive. The refusal, for instance, to accept the introduction of pro-life counseling into pregnancy centers because those centers also counsel for abortion. Or the denunciation of small, state-by-state measures because they do not address the central problem of the insertion of abortion as a right into the Constitution by Roe v. Wade. A particularly wrong-headed example, wasting incalculable money and energy, is the attempt made by several states over the last decade to pass state constitutional amendments that ban abortions—hoping thereby to create the silver bullet that would force the Supreme Court to reconsider the abortion license.
But the rejection of Mitch Daniels’ truce proposal is not this sort of absolutism. We should not accept a truce on abortion because the pro-life position is, in fact, winning. With horrifying slowness, yes, but each graduating class of young people is more opposed to abortion than the last, and in the long run the great task of persuasion and argument will prevail.
Here’s one simple and interesting measure: There is hardly a single law professor of real weight or seriousness who will claim anymore that Roe v. Wade was good constitutional reasoning. Oh, they’ll suggest that it’s settled doctrine, made weighty by the generations of women that have placed reliance on it, and they’ll argue that the rest of case law has bent itself so far to accommodate Roe and its progeny that we cannot undo it without major damage to the legal system. But as late as 1990 the law schools were filled with senior academics ready to defend the legal reasoning of Roe purely on its own terms. And today, twenty years later, there are next to none.
More to the point, however, we cannot accept a truce on abortion, because the pro-life movement dies the moment it ceases to move forward. Something terrifyingly providential happened back in 1973, when the Supreme Court stepped in and created an abortion right far beyond anything the American public was ready to accept. Most European countries have today a less-liberal license for abortion than the United States does, and they typically arrived at their abortion laws in gradual steps, each one of which did not roil the culture too much. In America, we got it all at once, and we got it hard, and we got it extreme. And the result is that Europe has nearly no significant pro-life movement, and the United States leads the world in opposition to abortion.
If the pro-life fight ever stops, even for a moment—if we ever accept a truce and let the status quo sit for a while undisturbed—we abandon the terrible path of providence that God has set for this country since 1973. We settle in, like Europe, and we surrender.
No, we cannot halt. We cannot falter. We cannot pause. We cannot agree to wait. No truce—not now, not ever.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.