Is it okay for a Christian to vote for a pro-choice candidate for president? This is the question I hear from many evangelical friends. Some say no because one is then complicit in supporting the evil of abortions. They believe that abortion should be the sole issue in voting for a president.
Others who are also against abortion say yes because there are many other pro-life issues at stake. In fact, both Pope Benedict XVI and the Conference of Catholic Bishops permit a Catholic to vote for a pro-choice candidate. So even though the Catholic Church has been the strongest religious voice against abortions, no Catholic is bound to vote on the basis of abortion alone.
But many others are still undecided. Can a Christian in all good conscience vote for a pro-choice candidate without feeling they have lost or compromised their convictions and commitments to the sanctity of life? I think such a choice is possible due to the following factors.
First, the Bible doesn’t mention abortion at all. Although abortion was common in the ancient world, neither Jesus nor the apostles say anything about it. David, though, had rich insights of how God was intimately involved in “knitting me together in my mother’s womb” (see Psalm 139:13), and Jeremiah records God’s words: “I formed you in the womb” (see Jeremiah 1:5). These verses speak poetically and theologically about God’s sovereign involvement in creating life even if they do not address all of the complex medical and ethical issues regarding abortion.
The Bible is also clear about murder being a sin, a commandment that lies at the heart of the abortion debate. Yet we grapple with perplexing questions: Should all abortions be considered murder or does it depend on the circumstances, such as incest or the life of the mother? Does the stage of pregnancy matter? Why does Ecclesiastes 6:4 describe a stillborn child as one that “comes without meaning and departs in darkness”? Why is the Bible so silent about abortion when we are so vocal?
Scripture doesn’t give us answers to these difficult questions, but abortion is such a significant issue that the people of God have wrestled with it for centuries. For instance, the early Church strongly believed in the sanctity of life and was against the killing of any human life through abortion. They cared so much about life that they also resisted serving in the military.
The ancient priest and scholar, Jerome, however, distinguished between the formed and unformed fetus—a position that echoed early Rabbinic law. Augustine also made this distinction and confessed that he “couldn’t bring myself to either affirm or deny the final state of aborted babies.” These scholars and others wrestled with how human life developed and when the soul becomes alive. Chris Hall provides an extremely helpful commentary on the early Church discussions on abortion in his book, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers.
Today, most Christians are against abortions and especially late-term abortions. But many make exceptions for instances of rape, incest, and the life of the mother, arguing that taking life in these situations is similar to reasons for killing in self-defense.
A complicating factor in the abortion debates is that in recent decades, the passionate cry against abortion has become not just a moral issue but a political one. This has not always been the case.
Abortion became a key strategic issue of the Moral Majority to unify Republicans behind Ronald Reagan (who ironically had passed the most liberal abortion laws in the country when he was governor of California) against Democrat Jimmy Carter. This fault line between Republicans and Democrats over abortion has intensified since then, although there are still pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans. The reality is that a candidate’s position on abortion today may be as much for reasons of political identity and power as it is for deep moral convictions.
We Can Use Our Vote for What Will Actually Make a Difference
A very practical question is whether the next president, whoever he is, will make any real difference in the rate of abortions in the country. Recently David French—a pro-life commentator who is theologically and politically conservative—wrote a provocative blog titled, “Do Pro-Lifers Who Reject Trump Have ‘Blood on their Hands’?”
This is a significant blog, as French presents statistics and historical facts that suggest that no matter who becomes president, the abortion rate will likely continue its downward slide from a level that now is actually below where it was when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973.
In fact, history shows that the abortion rate has declined faster under Democratic presidents than under Republican presidents. It’s difficult to pinpoint whether that is the result of presidential policies or other influences. But with those numbers in mind, French argues that presidents are inconsequential to the rate of abortions despite the battle over Supreme Court nominations. Even if Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion rates will largely be unaffected.
Michael Gerson is another pro-life, political and theological conservative who recently argued that abortion isn’t the only issue on the ballot to be considered. He believes that “persuasion will matter more than federal legislation” for the pro-life movement. He also asks the question, “Is it really in the long-term interest of the pro-life movement to associate itself with a form of right-wing populism that dehumanizes migrants, alienates minorities and slanders refugees?”
A recent meme quips: “Abortion: The only word that can make followers of Jesus vote against everything Jesus ever talked about because of one issue that Jesus never talked about.” Although this is clearly a generalization, there is truth to it. In voting for a candidate who claims to be pro-life, we could very well be failing to uphold the biblical call to care for the poor, to welcome the refugee, to seek justice and love mercy—all for the sake of the mis-understanding that voting for a pro-life candidate will necessarily reduce the number of abortions in this country.
I can’t decide for other Christians how to vote for president, especially with respect to such a difficult and serious issue like abortion. But I can offer these reflections for consideration.
- The Bible affirms the sanctity of life and condemns murder but is silent about abortion.
- The people of God have consistently stood against abortion as wrong and we should continue to persuade our culture to honor and preserve the sanctity of all human life.
- Who we choose as president will not affect the rate of abortions in our country. We should feel the freedom to vote for other reasons without condemning ourselves or others.
- Who we choose as president, however, will affect other pro-life issues in the country, and the world, such as poverty, racial and economic justice, gun control, immigration reform, controlling the pandemic, and combating climate change.
- No matter who we vote for, we can speak to one another out of love, respect, and an understanding that we each have been created in God’s image. This is another way of being truly pro-life in all we do and say.