By Any Other Name

I don’t pay much attention to bilines.  I think I’ve come by that pretty honestly over my career as a blogger.  I have to read someone many times over before I develop an opinion as to the person, otherwise, I judge the tone and the ideas, take what I need and move on.

The way I do business can be at once both a blessing and burden.  It is a blessing in that I believe it opens me up to arguments and writings that others who may have gotten tired of one writer or another may overlook or dismiss out of hand.  On the flipside of this, however; this means I must also approach certain things with more apprehension than some, I suppose, I might miss running patterns of behavior, and of course, I’ll feel like an idiot when everyone else gets up in arms and I’m left with a stupid look on my face saying, “What?”

Of course, it’s not always me, though, and I know how my fellow liberals can sometimes get.  A lot of folks out there require a kind of ideological/activisit purity or else it’s all out warfare.  That’s a handy attitude to have around if you’re, for instance, in a no holds barred death match to protect the integrity of the constitution, trying to stop a needless war, or something like that.

But one thing that has dismayed me about the national debate is that far more issues and topics require a bit of patience and subtlety.  Like falling in love and staying in love, progressing the nation forward requires a little give and take, some communication, and a whole lot of understanding.

This is the way I wanted to frame the introduction of an interview with Amy Sullivan, a person I fully admit having no previous knowledge of.  The interview discusses something that many might scoff at, and on second glance think completely impossible; the conversion of evangelical Christians over to the Democratic party.

If you don’t let names get in the way, it’s not a bad interview, and definitely provides food for thought.  Focusing predominantly on gay rights and abortion, Sullivan discusses how evangelicals are not necessarily automatons, and in fact many do vote Democratic, and would count themselves as moderate or liberal; not an astounding fact if you stop to think about it.

For one, the evangelical movement started on the opposite side of an argument then the Religious Right finds itself today; the separation of Church and State.  Today Governor Huckabee still enjoys fierce support from a modest cadre of Republican voters who are devoted to his belief that the Constitution should be changed to be more in line with the bible, but at its inception, the evangelical movement felt otherwise–they appreciated the invisible wall between Church and State given the relative smallness of its numbers compared to the two big religions battling for turf, the Protestants and the Catholics.

Back then they realized that if they were to agree with some sort of tie between Church and State, doing so would result in an infringement upon their right to practice as they preferred.

Another reason why it would seem natural for evangelicals to be open to liberalism and Democratic politics is because, ideologically, well, Jesus was a liberal.  I find it difficult to believe that the guy who talked about how a rich man getting into heaven would be as easy as a camel passing through the eye of a needle signing up for the Republican party.  Then you have the whole turning the other cheek deal going on, “eye for an eye” (which, put in context, is not a call for harsh punishment but fair punishment… different argument for a different time I suppose), etc.

In truth there is as much if not more about Christianity that meshes with liberalism than today’s modern Republican party–the only problem is that we don’t see things on a big picture scale, and sometimes the small percentage of issues that we face take up far too much of the spotlight, and in these areas we’ve been sorely lacking.

Gay rights, for instance, has been used to align the Religious Right against us yet, as many activists for gay rights may tell you, the Bible takes far more time to condemn heterosexual sex than it does to condemn homosexual sex.

Now, I’ll be perfectly honest, I’m not theologian.  I’ve read most of the Bible, but not all of it, and by no way shape or form do I have the entire text memorized.  Far less other scholarly works on Christianity as a whole, or the individual factions that create the greater Christian architecture.  There’s a whole tangle of interpretation and such going on when it comes to that religion.

But that does not preclude us from being honest and talking to these folks.  It may require us looking at issues from a different angle, and reevaluating how we address our own positions here and there, but it’s doable, and doable in such a way in which we don’t necessarily have to compromise our principles.

And it’s the wise thing to do, when you take a look at the raw percentage of folks who call themselves Christians in this country, like it or not, we have to accept the fact that there are an awful lot of them, and not only would there be a political advantage in learning how to accept them into a broader Democratic/Liberal coalition, but it’s the right thing to do in a Democracy.

And I think that is the broader point that Sullivan is trying to make.  Because Republicans know how to speak God, they have erected a wall between a large number of Christian evangelicals and Democrats, and we sit spluttering on the aftermath of lost elections consoling ourselves that we may not speak God fluently, but at least we’re right.

Eventually someone has to realize that’s the wrong answer.

What interests me, though, is the reaction we see over at other liberal blogs.

Shakesville (Jeff Fecke):

The topic this week? Abortion, natch. And Sullivan is upset by it. So upset that she’s unable to use accurate terms to describe her position:

[Salon:] You’re pro-choice. Does that interfere with being an evangelical?

[Sullivan:] Well, I don’t like the [pro-choice] label. I guess the reason I wrote about abortion the way I did in the book is because I have serious moral concerns about abortion, but I don’t believe that it should be illegal. And that puts me in the vast majority of Americans. But unfortunately, there’s no label for us.

All right! For the block, what label describes someone who has moral concerns about abortion, but thinks it should be legal?

Give up?

That’s right, that label is pro-choice. You don’t have to love abortion to be pro-choice, you just have to believe that it should remain legal for all women to access.


If you don’t believe abortion should be illegal, the standard label for you is “pro-choice.”  And wouldn’t it be nice if someone who gets as much attention on the abortion issue as Amy Sullivan actually had a bleeping clue what she was talking about.

And the winner; Amanda at Pandagon:

You’re pro-choice. Does that interfere with being an evangelical?

Well, I don’t like the [pro-choice] label. I guess the reason I wrote about abortion the way I did in the book is because I have serious moral concerns about abortion, but I don’t believe that it should be illegal. And that puts me in the vast majority of Americans. But unfortunately, there’s no label for us.

Yes, there is. If you think abortion and other forms of contraceptive birth control should be legal—i.e. that women should have the legal right to decide when they have children—you are pro-choice. Even if you still reserve the right to judge them for it. This entire interview with Amy Sullivan, like all her talk on getting the evangelical vote, makes me tired. She appears to have a definition problem, basically, characterizing evangelicals as if they are all Bible-believing Christians, when most self-identified evangelicals are patriarchy proponents with a thin veneer of Christianity over everything as a moral justification.

Here’s my beef.  I don’t know Amy Sullivan from Amy Smart, apparently these folks do.  And yeah, they all got a point, whether she wants to admit it or not, she is wrong, Amy Sullivan is “pro-choice”.  But they all miss the bigger picture for the sake of scoring a pretty simple and easy point.

It’s the shoot the messenger game complete with all of its lackluster prizes and temporary self-esteem boost, and I’ll admit, I’ve been guilty of playing that game myself.

But in so doing, they drive right on by the fact that Sullivan is not the only one who misconceives the concept behind the “pro-choice” label.  It’s a big problem, and one that can be fixed if we actually put a little effort into it.  It all comes down to a simple question.

How much effort do you put forth to make sure that there is a difference between “pro-abortion” and “pro-choice”?  And be honest with yourself because there’s no wrong answer; no prize for saying your a crusader on that front, and no penalty for admitting that you only make the delineation when the label itself is attacked and only in the manner of, “Duh!  Everyone should know that!”

Because here’s the big secret; they don’t.  You got a whole army of folks out there that honestly believe all us pro-choicers actually like killing babies; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t put those signs of fetuses up on freeway catwalks.

This is why I’m such a staunch believer in changing a debate into something that can be worked beyond an indefinite stalemate.  You can’t win over all evangelicals, but you can’t win over all of any one group ever.  Democrats can’t even win over all democrats as is made blatantly clear in this primary season.

But you can make inroads and strengthen your coalition by looking beyond the battlelines.  The value in what Sullivan says is that it gives us a peek into how we can approach the abortion debate in the future and receive better results.  It let’s us know that we need to go the extra step beyond “abortion should be legal” and recognize that there are a considerable amount of people out there that might actually warm up to our position if we actually took the time to fully explain it to them.

I talk about the abortion debate a lot because to me it serves as a prime example of changing the debate to work for us.  Right now the argument can be succinctly described as “abortion is wrong and should always be illegal” vs. “making abortion illegal is wrong”.  There are an infinite number of variations and gradations inbetween the two poles, but what if we took the second argument, and flipped it on its head?

We could go through the same routine we always go through, that it’s a woman’s right to choose, etc. and we include the fact that that does not mean that we believe abortion is the morally right choice.  We can go into the fact that for some of us, we still think abortion is wrong we just don’t think we can legislate against it, while others have certain scenarios.  But then you get into the specifics.  You talk about how we can reduce abortion by getting our hands dirty and focusing on everything from sexual education to how we deal with sex crimes.

Bring your charts and your stats, bring it all, but here’s the clincher, the big closer.  You can be “pro-choice” and still come up with a plan to reduce far more abortions than those who promise to make it illegal ever could.

Let’s face facts, you might say.  Making something illegal doesn’t make it go away.  It didn’t work for the nation’s drug problem, or for homicides, or for speeding for that matter.  Why will making abortion illegal be the magic bullet for abortion all of a sudden?

On the other hand, if we do the extra leg work, if we do start coming with solutions to the FACTORS that cause abortion as opposed to making abortion itself illegal, we will have found something of a common ground between the pro-choice folks, the “pro-choice” folks, and maybe even a few “pro-life” folks who are willing to take a leap of intellectual faith.

The rest of the folks will essentially be marginalized because they don’t want to play, and there’s really no other game to be played.

This, to me anyway, seems like the logical and smart way to go about things, and one of the few ways to take a deadlocked debate and breathe some life in it that might result in some real progress while at the same time pull the carpet out from under those politicians that make a political living pressing hot button issues.

But you get nowhere fast if all you’re going to do is defend a label.  Fact is, the “pro-choice” label is kinda broken and misrepresented–kinda like “liberal”.  Some allowed the term “liberal” get so broke they hopped on over to the term “progressive” which for the time being is much better well received.

Me?  I stick with pro-choice liberal because I’m the same thing by any other name.  Sure, both labels may be broken, but its not the labels that need defending or reworking, it’s the ideas behind them.

3 Responses to “By Any Other Name”

  1. lkm55 says:

    As a conservative envangelical I agree with your premise that Jesus had a social agenda that was remarkably liberal for his time. But you can’t read any part of the New Testament and conclude that Christ would have accepted abotion as it is used in today’s society.
    Pro choice in todays society means abortion first and foremost. I belive in contraception and think aborting a fetus is taking a human life. I recognize, however that until the church has a plan to help all of the pregnant women that can’t rise a child alone we don’t have a really convincing argument. The attitude that any restrictions on abortion are unaccetable will continue to be a major stumbling block between liberals and true evangelicals.
    Polls state that 89% of americans belive in God, pray regularly, and call themselves Christians. As we’ve seen in this election season, polls are often wrong. If you talk to 90% of the pastors in America they’ll tell you that 60% of that 80% hasn’t been to church in the last 10 years.
    The evangelical church needs to get out of politics and do what they do best. If we want to change the face and attitude of America we need to do it on Sunday mornings on soul at a time

  2. mick says:

    I don’t pay much attention to bilines.

    I’m pretty sure you meant to say “by-lines”. A “bi-line” is something else altogether, not appropriate to explain in polite company. It usually happens in, like, bars.

  3. Amy Sullivan is correct that Democrats need to do more outreach to religious voters. The reality is secular social liberals are heavily outnumbered in this country by those who are at least nominally religious and moderate to conservative in terms of cultural outlook. If Democrats are ever going to have a governing majority, it is will be necessary to broaden the base to include some culturally conservative voters. Far more than a 51-49 majority is going to be required to accomplish things like creating a system of national health insurance, ending trickle down economics, protecting American jobs and regulating big business. The American dream is slipping away and yet so many activists on the left (and right) are still fixated on the gonadal issues.

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