Many Christians are single issue voters on the issue of abortion. And I understand that. For Christians who have convictions about human life and personhood beginning in utero (convictions I share) abortion at any point is the taking of a human life; the death of a person. These convictions about human life aren’t just Christian convictions, there are good scientific reasons to see a foetus as materially human, so now the debate about the morality of abortion in philosophical circles (rather than scientific ones) tends to focus on when a human is a person. Non-religious definitions of personhood tend to come from a mishmash of convictions or ideas about what life is and what makes life have some sort of dignity or worth — these positions are occasionally non-integrated or non-coherent positions. Sometimes these positions draw on certain ideas from our Christian heritage in the west, where persons have a sort of ‘sacred’ God given dignity (historically because of Christian belief about humans being made in God’s image, but in the secular west this dignity just ‘is’. The abortion debate is primarily framed around the rights, dignity, and self-determination of the woman as an individual who is sovereign over her body, and so even if a foetus is a person, there’s a philosophical question about that person’s sovereignty.
Christians are perhaps more inclined to push back against individual autonomy and-or sovereignty because we understand that ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ is a claim that God is sovereign over human bodies, as creator, and as Christians in particular we believe ‘we are not our own’ and that our ‘bodies have been bought at a price’… plus a reasonably orthodox view of sin is that it’s essentially a declaration of independence, or self-sovereignty, rejecting God’s rightful sovereignty over our lives and bodies. This is all to say the Christian worldview is fundamentally at odds with the worldview that makes abortion both a woman’s right and a human right. This also means when the Christian worldview (or its Jewish counterpart) does not inform or shape the view of a culture our position isn’t simply a contested position, where there are other views, but a minority position. Navigating this minority position while believing that abortion is the taking of a human life is a particularly fraught thing for Christians, especially those of us committed to a certain sort of pluralism in a modern, secular, democracy where perhaps the most we can ask for is to be heard and accommodated, because we’ve destroyed our social capital or any sense that we might be a coherent moral voice because our institutions have been found to be corrupt (ala the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse, and the recent Pell conviction), we’ve developed a reputation for being against affording human rights to minorities we disagree with (ala the same sex marriage debate), and we’ve done this while agitating for our own rights and freedoms (the religious freedom debate).
Politically, abortion is actually regulated by the states, so the Federal Labor party raising it as a policy issue in a federal election is an interesting move, and one that seems more about heat than light — more about turning up the heat on their ‘regressive’ opponents by painting themselves as ‘progressive’ than about a policy platform of substance. In short, it’s a classic ‘wedge politics’ move, and the temptation for us as Christians — not simply the challenge for politically conservative people who may oppose abortion on more than just religious convictions — is to not be wedged. Wedge politics needs a villain. A bad guy to point to to say ‘don’t be like these dinosaurs’ — and the classic Christian response to discussion around abortion plays straight into this divisive political strategy. The Labor Party’s number crunchers have obviously decided that the social capital of single-issue voting Christians (typically conservative theologically and politically) is currently so low that not only is there no political loss for wedging us and painting us as the villains, there is a political gain in the wider electorate for doing so. Our conservative Christian Prime Minister was savvy enough to refuse to be wedged on this issue, the question is, can the rest of us respond with similar wisdom.
I can totally understand single issue voting on abortion. I can understand wanting to belt out a hasty statement or letter to paint the proponents of the law change as evil… but I’m not sure it serves the political cause any more than it serves the mission of the church in proclaiming and living as an alternative kingdom following the true king. I’m not sure it even brings our neighbours closer to truth and morality in a way that restrains evil (which is a more classically reformed, Christendom, position than the political theology I’m advocating). It’s possible that jumping into what is clearly a wedge politics style trap is the right and noble thing to do anyway, but I’m not sure it’s being ‘as wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ in the face of a wolf like culture.
I’m also equally prepared to listen to those who argue that ‘pro-life’ has to extend beyond ‘pro-birth’ and so should include a coherent platform that supports vulnerable parents, tackles poverty and mental health (some of the social and economic factors that contribute to abortion), a coherent environmental policy that tries to make our environment compatible with human life, and a humane approach to foreign aid, war, refugees, and asylum seekers. No party has a perfect platform on these fronts, so voting is always a matter of wisdom and freedom, and politics is always about much more than where you cast your vote, and, especially for Christians, it’s about how we live our lives and how we organise our community within the community — or our alternative kingdom with an alternative politics that comes from an alternative, and radically subversive, crucified and raised king. Voting is a matter of wisdom and conscience, so if your conscience dictates that you can’t vote for the Labor party, then don’t. But politics is not as simple as ‘single issue voting’ — it’s equally important that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that our vote is our singular contribution on an issue. The nature of democratic parties is that their members shape the policy platforms and ideologies of particular parties, and single issue voting leads to a Christian evacuation from, rather than faithful presence in, these particular political institutions. We want doctors to maintain faithful presence in the public health system, with integrity — and our rhetoric sometimes makes it impossible for faithful Christians to remain, and work for change in, parties that currently have a pro-abortion platform.
Abortion isn’t an issue that wins the hearts and minds of non-Christians, and its often spoken about with passion and a commensurate lack of compassion for ‘the other side’ or charity. It’s a fraught space to speak into as a bloke, especially a bloke employed by a conservative religious institution. But it’s not an issue I’ve been silent about, or not been clear about you can read pieces both on this website — where, for example, you’ll find a piece from as far back as 2011, and as recently as 2018, and from our church, where we’ve preached and written about this topic being sure to consult, elevate, and include the voices of women. What we’ve tried to do is build empathy, imagination, understanding, and compassion into our response and to suggest ways of being political that aren’t simply tied to what our politicians do.
Christians have, since the beginning of the church, had to mark themselves out as different to the world on the issue of abortion. Abortion is not a modern invention; in any society where a foetus or a child was less than a person with less dignity than the adults in the society, abortion, even infanticide, was a common response to unwanted children who interfered with the plans of a family (typically of the father in more patriarchal cultures). There’s one example of a Roman soldier serving abroad writing home to his pregnant wife telling her that if they had a son he looked forward to meeting him, but if it was a daughter, she should ‘expose her’ (leave her to die, or be collected by strangers — usually either brothels or Christians). In one of our earliest Christian documents, a summary of the moral teaching of the Bible — a ‘how to live’ guide for Christians, there’s a paragraph that says:
“Thou shalt do no murder; thou shalt not commit adultery”; thou shalt not commit sodomy; thou shalt not commit fornication; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not use magic; thou shalt not use philtres; thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide; “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods”
This wasn’t simply a list of restated common moral behaviours, it was a guideline for Christian difference. A way of life for a different ‘polis’ — a new politics.
A little later there’s one of my favourite early church documents, the Letter to Diognetus (aka the Epistle to Diognetus) which says:
“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. 2 Corinthians 10:3 They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.”
They don’t destroy their offspring. This was something that marked out the Christians as ‘citizens of heaven’ living in a strange land.
This way of life was contagious. The empire eventually became Christian, and the Christian story of human dignity profoundly shaped the west — even giving rise to the full rights and dignity of the mother, not just the father, so that abortion is now a ‘women’s issue’. And it’s legit to ask questions of our culture and its leaders when it comes to how we understand personhood and whether the new western story of individual sovereignty where other lives are stacked up against our own in a battle of rights is better than the story we’re leaving behind, but one of the best ways to ask that question is to avoid being ‘wedged’ — to not be a political football lined up as ‘regressive’ people to be kicked around, but to be different. Genuinely different.
One of my favourite theologians/ethicists, Stanley Hauerwas, suggests this is a new/old frontier for Christians living in the post-Christian west. In this stunning interview where he critiques the Benedict Option and talks about the (positive) dangers of community to the world we live in and its rampant individualism, Hauerwas notes that it’s not in political victory over others via the power game that our alternative king will be visible, but in our different way of life.
“I say that in a hundred years, if Christians are identified as people who do not kill their children or the elderly, we will have done well. Because that’s clearly coming.”
Let’s not get trapped just offering a negative view to the ‘progressive’ politics of our day — to be painted as the ‘regressives’ who say no. Let’s not be wedged. Let’s live an alternate vision of the kingdom and build institutions that seek to make parenting plausible, and pregnancy and what comes after it something less than terrifying. Let’s make ‘pro life’ something more than jumping into exclusion zones with billboards. Political pluralism isn’t about silence, or ceding the case, but about clearly making the case that we live the better story; that our vision of what gives a person personhood and dignity — caught up with the God who made people and lovingly redeems them through the death and resurrection of Jesus — produces better outcomes for people and communities, starting with the most vulnerable, than the alternatives being served up by our world. That’s the challenge we face responding to Labor’s wedge.