In the house I grew up in, we didn’t talk politics. I knew who the president was, and I knew I should exercise my civic duty and vote, but other than my fifth grade teacher strongly extolling the merits of then-candidate Jimmy Carter, I didn’t know that people held strong opinions about elections or politics.
I was a white girl in middle America, the world was working pretty well for me, and nobody told me I should feel differently.
When I recently watched Mrs. America, a re-telling of the early failed attempts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, I was startled to realize that my family and my community had indeed been political in that they had believed an ideology and pushed to maintain a reality that worked for them, even if they didn’t consciously acknowledge or care to discuss it.
I believed from a young age that “those women” who were fighting for the ERA were bra-burning radicals who were bent on destroying Christian values. They were going to destroy the family as we knew it. No one in my family actually said this out loud, but I know I received that message, because as I watched the series, I was transported back in time to interrogate those beliefs and compare them with what I feel strongly about now.
I’ve been doing that a lot in recent years — interrogating firmly held beliefs. As the president’s nominee for Supreme Court Justice awaits a politically-charged confirmation, I find myself looking back on how I became a one-issue voter and how I walked away from that practice.
I remember voting for the first time as a freshman at Michigan State University in 1984. I walked to the neighboring dorm and cast my vote to re-elect President Reagan. It seemed the obvious choice. I’d watched the footage of him being shot as he was climbing into his vehicle, secret service agents swooping in to move him to safety. He’d survived that and resumed his duties. Why wouldn’t I vote to let him continue doing so? I was 18, what did I know?
I don’t think I voted in 1988. I was registered to vote in Michigan and student teaching in Indiana. I probably assumed the vote would do just fine without me for one cycle. I had more important tasks on my list.
In 1992, my husband and I bent over the Sunday newspaper the week before the presidential election, sorting through pages of charts to find the candidates and proposals we would be voting on. We read, discussed, and began our tradition of creating a “cheat sheet” to carry with us to the polls. Sorting through a sea of candidates, many of whom we did not know, we made a decision, as professional church workers in a conservative denomination, that we would vote for candidates who were pro-life.
Our decision to reduce complex candidates and platforms down to one issue speaks perhaps to our trust in our denominational leadership and our commitment to our duty as leaders in that denomination. That commitment to duty convinced me that we had to get things ‘right’. We had to vote the right way, parent the right way, lead the right way, and live the right way.
This whole-hearted commitment to being right made me very judgmental of those who I believed to be wrong. I was not afraid to speak out if I thought someone was going the wrong way or to impose my beliefs on others.
For example, I believed Halloween was decidedly anti-Christian. I was sure to let other parents know that if they allowed their children to participate they weren’t being very good parents. (Yeah, I was pretty fun to be around all of October.)
Similarly, I was firm in my pro-life commitment, so when my husband and I joined our church community to stand on the side of the street and hold signs and pray to end abortion, it seemed fitting that our children should join us, too. And, we continued to vote based on that one issue through many local and national elections.
The intention was good — I stand by that. We believe that life begins at conception, and to turn our backs on the unborn seemed unconscionable. But, just like the ideologies around feminism that my family and community held in my childhood, this belief — that voting for candidates who claimed to be pro-life was an imperative of our Christian faith — needed to be interrogated.
For one, just because a political candidate says he or she stands for something, does not mean that policy will be impacted. Some would wave a banner high just to get a vote.
Also, platforms can be misleading. A candidate may say she is pro-life when talking about abortion, but if she is also pro-NRA, is she actually pro-life? If she believes that American citizens have the right to own semi-automatic weapons, the likes of which have been used in many mass shootings in recent years, is she really concerned about the value of life? Many pro-life politicians have failed in recent months to enact legislation to provide life-sustaining relief to those who have been financially devastated by the pandemic and who are desperate for housing, food, and medical care.
What is our definition of pro-life, anyway?
And then there’s the actual issue of abortion.
I was nine months pregnant with my first daughter, when my in-laws joined us at our place to celebrate Thanksgiving. I sat across the table from my father-in-law, digesting turkey and potatoes, when the topic of abortion came up. I was poised for a fight, to stand firmly on my belief that abortion was wrong, but then he complicated the issue for me. He said, “It’s great to want to stop abortion, but once we protect that unborn child, who will be willing to provide for it? Who will care for the mother? Who’s going to fund that? Are we ready to really be pro-life?”
That conversation has stuck with me for almost 28 years. For many of those years, we continued our one-issue voting strategy, believing ourselves to be right.
But here’s the thing with believing you’re right — you often discover that you are wrong.
You might firmly instill in your children the belief that abortion is wrong, that they should save sex for marriage, and that sexual purity is highly valued by the family and the church, and leave no room for scenarios that you never would have expected.
You might discover that someone you love has been sexually assaulted and is afraid to let you know because you might not value them as much — you might find them broken.
Will they come to you? Will they trust you to have compassion? Will they believe that you love them more than your firmly held beliefs? Or will they feel alone?
You might discover that someone you love has had an abortion. Will they feel judged by you (and by God)? Will they find acceptance and grace?
What is our goal as Christians who vote pro-life? If Roe v. Wade is overturned, will the gospel of Christ be advanced? If in trying to achieve that goal, we find ourselves name-calling and shaming those around us, have we demonstrated the love of Christ, whose name we bear?
Is outlawing abortion the only way to value life? Or is it merely relegating the practice to secrecy where it will be unregulated, dangerous, and further demonized?
For most of my life, I have tried to get it right, but what if I admitted that I’ve gotten so much wrong? What if I acknowledged that I am sorely in need of grace?
What if rather than teaching my children that they’d better get it all right, I ensured them that I’d be with them when it inevitably goes wrong.
Several elections back, I stopped being a one-issue candidate. I found myself taking a long look at the complexity of our society, seeing all of its brokenness, examining the faulty options set in front of me, having complicated discussions with people who matter to me, weighing the options thoroughly, and voting as though I cared not only for the unborn, not only for myself, but also for those who have repeatedly and historically been overlooked, mistreated, marginalized, and forgotten.
I can no longer vote for a candidate who waves the pro-life flag with one hand while using the other to give the finger to millions of already-born humans who long for equality, justice, and a chance to breathe freely.
More than one issue is at stake in this election.
I plan to vote as though I know that.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)