How frightening is it that theologians, not political scientists, offer the best insights to help us understand what the heck happened at the polls last Tuesday?
Looking back over the most bizarre presidential race I have ever lived through, I think I know when it turned to ashes for John Kerry. At the time I didn't recognize it as such, but it came toward the end of the second "debate," the Town Hall. Remember, Kerry had thoroughly trounced Bush on issue after issue all night long. Then a woman asked the Democratic nominee about abortion—and it was all over.
He gave, I thought then (and still do), an extremely thoughtful explanation. It was one he had prepared for carefully. As a Catholic, he said he didn't think abortion was ever desirable. But as an elected official sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution, he didn't think his personal beliefs should ever be imposed on others who don't share his faith.
It was the position taken by many Catholic politicians, among them Mario Cuomo, the former Democratic governor of New York, George Pataki the current Republican governor of New York, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), who readies to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee. In a pluralistic society, it is a fully defensible position for a man or woman of conscience to take. I think it's the only defensible position to take.
"I have beliefs; not everyone in this society shares those beliefs; the law protects all of us in our beliefs; I will uphold the law." That is not a "wishy-washy" or "morally bankrupt" or "valueless" position. It protects values; respects each individual conscience's struggle to find truth; expects our churches and our families to shape consciences capable of carrying out that struggle for truth and supports them in that crucial work.
But while it is firmly rooted both in Judeo-Christian principle and in our democracy, it is not the short-cut solution, the ready-made, one-size-fits-all answer that has become the litmus test for "morality." In a black and white world of simplified moral true and false quizzes, Kerry's essay answer flunked. At that moment millions of church-going voters made up their minds.
If he had just said "abortion is always wrong and I will make sure that even those who don't share that belief can't get one legally," he would probably be preparing to move into the White House today. That's the answer fundamentalists wanted to hear. When they didn't, they decided he had failed the "moral values" test. They turned out in record numbers in the Red states, voted solidly for Dubya, and Kerry was done.
The Monday before Election Day I was driving to work down San Mateo. There were demonstrators outside of Planned Parenthood. There are always demonstrators outside Planned Parenthood. It's usually just a couple of old guys leaning on their "Abortion is a Mortal Sin" signs dozing placidly in the sunshine. But not on the morning before Election Day 2004!
That morning there must have been 30 or 40 noisy protestors waving Bush/Cheney campaign signs blocking the sidewalks and clogging the parking lot. It would only be the very bravest of young women who would be able to make their way past that gaggle of moral absolutists to find supportive health care that morning.
But the point was not to intimidate a few women into skipping their appointments; the point was to rally the troops, to make absolutely clear the umbilical connection between the Republican ticket and the Right to Life movement.
Fundamental Christians came out of the woodwork the next day to vote against Kerry, he of the nuanced answers and the probing conscience. Their man never worries about shades of gray, about extenuating circumstances, about possible mistakes. He just says “no” ... as long as it is someone else who will have to face the dilemma.
What was a surprise to me was that so many Catholics (including many Hispanics), egged-on by a handful of bishops and some parish priests confused about their role, joined their evangelical brethren in producing the Bush victory margin in New Mexico.
These one-dimensional religious voters completely ignored dozens of morally-revealing issues where the candidates differed, the ones where Kerry is solidly aligned with Catholic social justice teachings, while Bush is struggling to squeeze camels through the eyes of needles.
Forget that out of a hundred issues raised during the campaign Kerry was "correct" on far more than Bush; the only two that our myopic "moral values testers" ever talked about were abortion and gay marriage.
There is something very unsettling about this, something completely out of keeping with the New Testament that the Bible thumpers so often wave at us. Abortion and gay marriage are not moral dilemmas for people who can't get pregnant or who aren't gay.
A moral dilemma is a personal struggle; a tough decision about right and wrong, good and evil that we make about our own lives, our own circumstances.
Those demonstrators outside Planned Parenthood weren't talking about their own lives; they were talking about other people's decisions. Actually, what they were really doing was condemning other people, the very kind of self-righteous stone-casting for which Jesus reserved his strongest language.
So Kerry got labeled as lacking moral values. And George W. Bush, the consummate fakir, gets four more years to carry out his slight-of-hand deceptions. I pray that out of this struggle a true ethic of what it is involved in affirming life begins to emerge. It takes so much more than just condemning others for their choices.