The Rev. Dr. Robert Saler has been a colleague and friend for some time, so when I asked him to write about “whatever came to mind” I knew whatever it was would be gold. We are no stranger to controversy in this blog, and so it seems right and true that we eventually come around to this most-contentious of issues in the United States: abortion. With Republicans in Congress demanding the appointment of a Supreme Court justice who will specifically overturn Roe V. Wade, it’s a good idea to start thinking about ways to talk about abortion, and Saler’s piece gives such a great catalyst to begin that very conversation. So please read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
As Donald Trump – a man whose temperamental lack of fitness for the presidency of this country was apparent from the start of his campaign and has been increasingly evident with each passing day that brings him closer to the White House – prepares to take office on January 20th, my friend and colleague Linda Thomas has asked me to reflect on – and here I quote – “whatever is on my mind” in light of the impending theological work that will need to be done in the aftermath and beyond.
What is on my mind, then, is the relationship between abortion and U.S. politics, and there is a very specific reason why it is on my mind.
Amidst my unhealthily constant consumption of thinkpieces and commentary (from both the left and the right) as to how the United States got this point of fully damaged (and damaging) political atmosphere, I have concluded that the amount of attention paid to the abortion (and more specifically, opposition to it being legal) as a determinative factor, not only in how people vote, but in how they frame the entirety of their political participation is frankly insufficient. Put simply, abortion’s overarching role in politics, its presence in the minds of a large number of single-issue voters, and its utility as a near-comprehensive wedge issue is consistently underestimated by progressives in particular.
In this post I’m not going to offer any sort of theological account of abortion, or even take a position as regards its ethicality; this is both because a blog post is not the venue for that and (more importantly) because the last thing that women in the United States need is another male scoring points by treating their flesh as disembodied rhetorical battlegrounds. What I do want to do is offer a few observations concerning the intersection of theology, abortion, and politics in the U.S. in hopes that they might provoke further discussion.
1). While the complexities around abortion are vast, it is also the case that sometimes invoking those complexities obscures the fact that one question – namely, is an unborn viable fetus a “person” that can be said to be “alive” in the exact univocal and unequivocal sense that, say, a two year old child is?– in many ways simply rules all other considerations once that “yes/no” judgment has been made. Personally speaking, to my knowledge all of my anti-abortion friends would univocally and unequivocally ascribe “life” and “personhood” to a viable fetus, and I do not know of any pro-choice friends that would do the same. This means that the theological conversation that has yet to happen in any substantive and far-reaching way is around this question: what is a person, and how does that definition apply/not apply to a viable fetus? This conversation needs to happen more robustly, more publicly, and more charitably than has been the case heretofore.
2). That said – Christians should ban the language of “cut and dry,” “straightforward,” etc. when it comes to this issue (and perhaps most others). The entire thrust of Jesus’ teaching in the parables is that questions that seem simple in the abstract become much messier when real people’s lives are taken into account. We should keep hold of that lesson. No humane, faithful, theologically interesting position on abortion is assimilable (without interpretive violence, anyway) to the anemic and abusive language of the “culture wars” around reproduction.
3). From a sociological perspective, it’s hard not to notice that the political parties and actors that have been most strident in calling for restrictions on abortion are also the ones who have most effectively mined the high emotions around this topic for their own political benefit. The more cynical among us might even suspect that those yelling most loudly for abortion to be outlawed are secretly nervous about what might happen if their stated wishes came true and they lost this most powerful of wedge issues. Which suggests that those who do in fact oppose abortion should consider coming clean about the various tactics by which an ostensibly “moral” issue has been and continues to be weaponized in service to political ambitions.
4). Indeed, U.S. Christians in general might spend some time reflecting on, and perhaps rethinking, the Constantinian tendency to outsource tough theological and moral deliberation about complicated issues – abortion, sexuality, marriage, etc. – to the inevitably flattening agency of legislative politics, which as Max Weber reminds us ultimately draws its authority from its self-arrogated monopoly on the “legitimate” use of force (“the sword,” as Paul would term it). Speaking for myself, one reason why I steadfastly refuse to identify myself as “pro-life” or “pro-choice” – besides the obvious difficulties inherent in that binary – is because in my judgment both options as they are utilized in public and ecclesial discourse presuppose that the ultimate arena of moral deliberation is the state and not the fragile space of relationship, ambiguity, tentativeness, and mercy that the church at its best ought to be about the work of creating.
We are people of the cross, not of the court, and we can do better.
As righteous anger at injustice in the next months and years continues to prompt deeper and more intersectionallly sensitive conversations about faith and politics, I am convinced that the already large shadow cast by abortion debates in theology and politics will grow even larger and less possible to ignore. These scattered observations are my best attempt to articulate some directions towards how that conversation might go if the church is to remain committed to the work of “life abundant” in its fullest senses.
An alum of the M.Div. and Ph.D. programs at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Robert Saler is a rostered ELCA pastor and Research Professor of Lutheran Studies at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.