When it comes to Catholic political discourse, sometimes I think this election is stuck in a time warp. It’s almost as if Pope Francis was never elected pope. It’s almost as if the Republican Party had not nominated one of the most unfit people ever to seek high political office.
Instead, it’s all 2004 all the time, with its single-minded obsession with abortion. Or it’s a modified 2004 with a wafer-thin trifecta of abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious liberty. These, you see, are “non-negotiable.” Everything else is, by definition, negotiable.
Nowhere is this narrowness clearer than with Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus. Just recently, as noted by my friend Michael Sean Winters, Anderson argued that “abortion outweighs all other issues in the presidential campaign and Catholics cannot vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights.”
Why is abortion raised to such a unique category? One standard answer is that it is intrinsically evil. It is, but this category makes little sense in a political context. Masturbation, for example, is intrinsically evil while war is certainly not. Taken to its absurd conclusion, this approach would hold Bashar Al-Assad to a higher standard for masturbation than for barrel bombing!
A better answer is that abortion is gravely evil from a public policy perspective. But even this does not tell us why a candidate’s position on abortion alone is disqualifying. There are plenty of other gravely evil issues that involve life and death. What about a candidate who promises to implement torture? Or a candidate who says he will order his military to commit war crimes, including by bombing civilians and executing the families of terror suspects? Or, God forbid, a candidate who expresses willingness to use nuclear weapons, knowing that they would kill millions?
In any normal year, these positions would seem so extreme that raising them might seem ridiculous. But this is not a normal year. These are all the stated positions of the Republican presidential candidate. Obviously, they are all both intrinsically and gravely evil. They are highest-order moral violations. And with these issues, unlike with abortion, the president is the acting moral agent. He is doing the evil deed directly. And yet…Carl Anderson, along with many others of his persuasion, speaks as if Trump didn’t exist. And in doing so, he actually showers Trump with legitimacy.
Think about this. All candidates besides Trump are on record favoring legal abortion—the Democratic Party’s Hillary Clinton, the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson, and the Green Party’s Jill Stein. So by Anderson’s standard, all three are automatically disqualified. What about Trump? Well, he claims to have undergone a recent road-to-Damascus conversion to the prolife cause (a road paved with gold, no doubt!). But does anyone really believe this? To a man who assesses worth based on ability to dominate and who classifies people as winners or losers, surely unborn children are among society’s biggest losers? This is a man who shamelessly mocks the disabled, after all. But based on his words alone, he passes Anderson’s test.
Anderson is playing a dangerous game here, a very dangerous game. In the context of the current presidential race, his position is compatible with only two options: vote for Trump or vote for nobody. By not raising any other issue that would imply disqualification, he is sending a tacit message that Donald Trump’s rhetoric and positions are somehow legitimate.
This includes the racism—the unprecedented attacks on Mexicans and Muslims, the winking at white supremacists, the fueling of racial resentment, the hiring of a communications director who laments about “half breeds” and calls President Obama a “head negro”. Under Trump, what was a dog whistle is now a bullhorn. Anderson needs to be especially careful here. This ugly racism has its roots in the rhetoric of people like George Wallace and Jesse Helms, and—as Michael Sean Winters notes—Anderson used to work for Jesse Helms. I’m not trying to infer guilt by association, but given his background, I would have thought that Anderson would be especially prudent here. Racism after all, just like abortion, is both intrinsically and gravely evil.
I could make a similar point about religious liberty, one of the calling cards of the Knights of Columbus. I’ve already argued that Anderson’s approach to religious liberty is flawed—it is defined narrowly in terms of contraception and couched dangerously in the language of Lockean liberalism. Here, I will merely point out that when a leading presidential candidate seeks to ban people from entering the country based solely on their religion, every other religious liberty issue in this country automatically fades into the background. Keeping the focus on contraception mandates while ignoring this monumental assault on religious liberty is the height of irresponsibility.
There are other missing issues too, of course, issues that for Catholics are certainly “non-negotiable”. There is the issue of health care, which the Church regards as a basic human right—in the words of Pope John Paul II, it should be “cheap or even free of charge”. And yet the supposed pro-life party seeks to take health care away from 20 million people without proposing any viable alternative. There is the issue of immigration, where the supposed prolife party, especially under the tutelage of Trump, seeks to tear families apart through massive deportations and wall building. Questioned about this, Pope Francis said it was “not Christian.” And since “family” is another calling card of the Knights of Columbus, I would again have expected a little more prudence.
And then there is climate change, perhaps the greatest moral issue of 21st century, and a central concern of Pope Francis. It is no exaggeration to say that we are on a path of devastation, which will hit the world’s poorest people soonest and hardest. It already is. And yet Trump’s Republicans not only mock climate change but actively seek to destroy the Paris Agreement, the most important international pact since the immediate postwar period—the pact that Pope Francis deliberately timed his encyclical to influence. If Catholics cannot vote for a candidate complicit in abortion, how can they support a candidate complicit in the destruction of our common home?
Pope Francis is, of course, a conspicuous absence in all of this. There is no acknowledgement whatsoever of the priorities of his papacy, especially the protection of creation and the preferential option for the poor. There is no mention of the priorities in his speech to Congress last September—issues such as poverty, inclusion, immigration, the environment, global solidarity, the arms trade, and the death penalty. And yes, he talked about the protection of all life in this speech, but he did not dwell on abortion. He emphasized the death penalty instead. Think about why he might have chosen this course.
Likewise in Laudato Si’—surely the defining text of his papacy—he condemns abortion, but he only mentions it once in an encyclical that runs to 246 chapters. And this is key: unlike Anderson, he doesn’t see it as a stand-alone issue. Rather, he places it in the context of a throwaway culture that devalues people and creation alike. He diagnoses a disorder that leads people to take advantage of each other and treat their fellow human beings and creation as mere objects to be used in pursuit their own gratification. This includes disdain for the unborn and the elderly, certainly, but it also includes disdain for creation and a “disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.” It includes a mindset that says: “let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage.” But we would never ever hear this from Carl Anderson and his allies.
This is a pity. Pope Francis is presenting us with the ideal way to frame abortion, but this hasn’t gotten through to US Catholics yet, where the framing is very much stuck in the past. And this framing is deeply counterproductive. It actually hurts the cause of the unborn by discrediting the pro-life brand.
Polls show consistently that people are ambiguous about abortion—50 percent believe it should only be legal only in certain circumstances. And as Charles Camosy has been pointing out, millennials are actually more queasy about abortion than previous generations.
But the Anderson wing of the prolife movement is slamming this door shut just as it begins to open. Because it is asking people, in the name of the unborn, to support a movement committed to limiting social protections and health care for women. It is asking people to support a party that gave us George Bush, the war in Iraq, and chaos and carnage throughout the Middle East. And it now asks people to trust a man like Donald Trump. This is truly the end of the line.
And for what? For politicians and judges who do nothing to reduce the incidence of abortion but manage nonetheless to undermine the common good in pretty much every other conceivable manner.
The solution is to reject this failed narrow framing completely. Shortly after his election, Pope Francis gave a famous interview in which he said: “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods…[W]hen we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.” He also took apart the favorite talking point that some issues are “negotiable” and some are not: “I have never understood the expression non-negotiable values. Values are values, and that is it. I can’t say that, of the fingers of a hand, there is one less useful than the rest. Whereby I do not understand in what sense there may be negotiable values.”
This is not because Pope Francis believes that abortion is not a moral travesty. It is because he believes that everything is connected, and that if we are to take care of the unborn, we must also take care of the poor and the earth. Being pro-life means much much more than being simply anti-abortion. So let’s be consistent and oppose the throwaway culture in its entirety. Let’s stop cheapening the brand, especially when Donald Trump would drive its price down to zero.
Somebody send Carl Anderson the memo, please.