A Prolife Case against Bush

It's about more than abortion

I voted for George W. Bush and I’m heartily sorry now. My support was motivated by prolife convictions, but so is my present dismay. I opted for Bush in 2000 because I thought he’d try to protect embryonic life in and out of the womb, and also support faith-based social initiatives. As for foreign policy, Bush’s promises of “humility” were reassuring. Humility is, of course, a central Christian virtue, and Bush’s seemed to reflect his avowed identification with “Christ-because he changed my heart.”

Then came 9/11. U.S. military forces quickly engaged in retaliatory warfare; new policies and rationales justified preemptive military action. Yes, terrorism is a real threat that must be countered, and Saddam was a monster, but what was the administration leading us into? Our unilateral act of war against Iraq turned much of the world against us-and with good reason. First-strike attacks are a breach of moral principle and international law. Our present policies, now dubbed the Bush Doctrine, are morally suspect and prudentially disastrous. Billions of dollars are being spent, many lives are being lost, and Americans have tortured Iraqi prisoners. Islamic terrorists have been given renewed impetus for their crusade of hatred against the West. Has this kind of “war on terrorism” really made us safer?

At the same time, domestic troubles mount. Hopes for bettering the plight of the poor under Bush II seem blighted. New tax cuts favor the rich. Poor children are still left behind. Compassionate conservatism, we now know, is mostly directed toward the wealthy-those who will never need to worry about their health-care insurance, or the size of their Social Security checks. Fortunately, there has been some progress on the prolife front. The president signed the partial-birth abortion bill and has set up a bioethics commission, which advises him on the morality of unregulated biotechnical research. For these measures and his encouraging speeches, Bush is called the “Prolife President” in the movement’s literature.

Yet, for an advocate of a Catholic consistent ethic of life, Bush’s prolife credentials seem compromised, if not completely betrayed, by his pursuit of optional war. For Catholics, prolife advocacy must include peacemaking and social justice. Solving social problems through violent killing is a proabortion strategy, and a preemptive-war policy can be just as lethally prochoice. In international affairs, U.S. military might can never by itself make right, nor can it create democracy by force. Killing to create peace and coercion in the cause of freedom constitute a policy beset by internal contradictions.

What happened to Bush’s avowed humility? His strong Christian faith apparently has a shadow side. Bush emphasizes his unique role in God’s plan and relies on gut religious intuitions. In referring to his conversion from drinking, he has said, “There is only one reason that I am in the Oval Office and not in a bar. I found faith. I found God. I am here because of the power of prayer.” Well, yes, but this does not mean we can slight self-examination and critical testing of his understanding of God’s will. The president does not seem to recognize that conscience is not divine dictation, or the direct voice of God, but rather God’s voice “echoing” in his depths (the Catechism). Individual conscience can be in error because it is a complex human capacity requiring reason and emotion. Moral decisions must be continually informed through dialogue and consultation with others.

Inspired by a favorite Methodist hymn, “A Charge to Keep I Have,”-emphasis on the I-Bush seems content to go it alone. On the question of going to war in Iraq, the president found it easy to brush off the UN, reject the pope’s pleas for peace, and dismiss the U.S. bishops’ statement. He also ignored the admonitions of his own Methodist leaders-along with warnings from Jimmy Carter and senior Republican policy experts. Worst of all, the millions of antiwar demonstrators around the world were contemptuously pooh-poohed as irrelevant to him. OK, so maybe Bush has never heard of the “the grace of self-doubt,” but surely somewhere in his Yale education he must have encountered the Greek concept of hubris. What good is it to declare oneself a humble sinner and remain so absolutely, supremely certain (or cocky) in one’s behavior? How many leaders in history have been brought down by similar gut-based moral certainties?

Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, comes to mind. I thought of George W. Bush keeping to his charge when reading about Nicholas earlier this year. As a man of deep faith, Nicholas was convinced of his own inner moral guidance. In the midst of the wartime crisis, Nicholas calmly assured his prime minister, who was desperately reasoning with him to change course, “Despite most convincing arguments in favor of adopting a positive decision in this matter, an inner voice keeps on insisting more and more that I do not accept responsibility for it. So far my conscience has not deceived me.” Nicholas went on to explain that “a czar’s heart is in God’s hands.” This leader’s stubborn faith in his imperial and providential destiny led to disaster.

Bush, too, appears superconfident, now promising to “rid the world of evildoers.” He has had more than one Rasputin assuring him that his critics can be dismissed as enemies of the faith. Should those with the right stuff listen to weak sisters? True believers may be more dangerous than those who fake it. The mounting costs of a disaster can be interpreted by them as a test of courage. As the president declared in his State of the Union address, “We will do what is necessary, we will spend what is necessary, to achieve this essential victory.” (Sacrifices consisting of the lives of other people’s children are always easier to endorse.) As casualties and “collateral damage” increase, it can become harder to admit error. In 2004, the Republicans will be a prowar party led by a would-be crusader.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party and John Kerry will remain rigidly and dogmatically proabortion. In this sad dilemma I think the Catholic prolife agenda of peace and social justice for all is best served by a vote for Kerry and the Democrats. At least Kerry, a Catholic veteran and antiwar protester, will be committed to work for a foreign policy of international cooperation aimed at peacemaking. Protecting fetal lives is an all-important prolife goal, but every day my local paper runs pictures of young U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, and who’s counting the Iraqi civilian lives destroyed?

Another reason to urge an anti-Bush vote by prolife advocates arises from reading the signs of the times. From my “feminist for life” (prowoman, prolife) perspective I can see that it takes much time for education and moral persuasion to gradually change abortion laws. But from the perspective of peace and war, the world can get much worse fast. Disastrous miscalculations and conflict can enkindle violent wildfires. I am now ready to sign up for a “Prolifers against Bush” campaign. The Catholic vote in 2004 should support the church’s imperative call for peacemaking abroad and justice for the poor at home. As Jesus says, all those who cry “Lord, Lord” (however sincerely) may not be doing God’s work.

Yet I am certainly no Bush hater. I find him genial as a person and welcome the good that he has done for the unborn. But I have become completely alienated by his foreign policy as well as frightened by his moral and religious views. Overconfidence in God’s direct guidance can be a good man’s fatal flaw. Who could have been nicer than Nicholas II? 

Published in the 2004-06-04 issue: 

Sidney Callahan is a psychologist and the author of Created for Joy: A Christian View of Suffering.

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