In recent weeks, the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family Dr. James Dobson, has generated a lot of discussion with his public announcement that he will support a third party candidate if the Republicans nominate Rudy Giuliani or anyone else who is pro-choice. Although I agree with Dr. Dobson’s principled stance on family and life issues, in this case he could not be more mistaken. Ironically, it is our common ground that causes me to say this.
Both Dr. Dobson and I believe we have a moral obligation to participate effectively in elections. We must use our votes to advance virtue and to hinder evil, insofar as government is able to do so. Hence, given the grave evil of legal abortion, we must work to elect people who will limit and abolish this practice. Both of us believe that such considerations must be the beginning and heart of our thinking rather than electives to be included as convenience allows. Where we differ is in our understanding of the nature of politics.
Christians despise the word “compromise” because it connotes yielding on our principles. This is appropriate in the realms of theology and ethics, but politics is not theology. It’s politics. We must accept that the choice to participate in democracy is the choice to share decision-making with people whose ideas we can’t stand. Thus, the very essence of politics is compromise, and, unless we believe that democracy itself is contrary to our principles, our goal must be to advance as much of the common good as we realistically can.
Therefore, we are obligated to vote for the person who is closest to the ideal, even if he is quite far from that ideal, as long as we have reason to expect he will be better than the alternative. This is precisely the situation in a hypothetical choice between Senator Clinton and Mayor Giuliani.
On a pro-life 1-10 scale, I desire a 10. Clinton is a 2. She affirms abortion and supports it in many circumstances, regardless of her mouth saying otherwise. Giuliani is a 5. He personally opposes abortion, but thinks it should be each woman’s decision. Whereas Clinton is truly pro-abortion, Giuliani is truly pro-choice.
The key consideration for us is the Supreme Court. When it comes to political impact and justices, Giuliani might turn out to be anywhere from a 3 to an 8. He is close friends with Justice Scalia and has said he would eagerly support nominees in the Roberts-Alito-Thomas-Scalia mold. If so, then how would he differ from a truly pro-life President? Surely there is more to the life issue than just such nominees, but the key is to keep in mind how he might compare with Senator Clinton. And here the contrast is stark.
Think of it like a tug-of-war. Those of us who oppose abortion are pulling on one side when we vote. If we choose to let go of the rope, it’s impossible to imagine that the knot will move any closer toward our ideal. But how can I vote for a pro-choice candidate without becoming complicit in the evil he supports legislatively? Allow me to let another pro-life advocate answer for me.
Despite disagreeing with the Catholic Church on many points of theology (as I also do), I’m sure Dr. Dobson wouldn’t doubt their pro-life credentials. Within the Catholic Church, no one in recent years has been more clear about the ethical ramifications of voting for pro-choice politicians than Archbishop Raymond Burke.
Burke became nationally famous four years ago for stating that Senator John Kerry should not be allowed to receive the Eucharist because he was pro-choice, which he has also recently said about Giuliani. So how could Burke ever support voting for candidate Giuliani? One way: if his opponent is even worse.
In his excellent pastoral letter “On Our Civic Responsibility for the Common Good,” Burke explained it plainly:
In such cases, would it be better not to vote at all? While I respect very much the sentiments of those who are so discouraged with the failure of our public leaders to promote the common good that they have decided not to vote at all, I must point out that the Catholic who chooses not to vote at all, when there is a viable candidate who will advance the common good, although not perfectly, fails to fulfill his or her moral duty, at least, in the limitation of a grave evil in society.
Although it is frustrating to be given a choice between bad and worse in candidates on the issue of abortion, Christians are obligated to vote for the person who will most “limit this grave evil in society.” We cannot be enthusiastic about the choice, but we must not abandon what little ability we have to shape the outcome either. We must be clear to others that our support for this candidate is not whole-hearted, lest we be misconstrued as supporting his errors. However, we must not abdicate participation.
Remember the tug-of-war? Letting go in disgust may feel better. It may even feel like virtue. But letting go always moves the knot farther away. And make no mistake, whether it’s not voting or supporting a hopeless third-party candidate, the end result is the same as if we had dropped the rope.
For the sake of the million-plus children per year killed legally in the United States, it’s better to take a chance on Giuliani than to stand no chance whatsoever with someone else. The chance of real victory is always better than the certainty of real disaster.
Dr. Dobson has said that he doesn’t even consider Giuliani a viable candidate because too many conservatives will not be able to hold their noses and vote for him as I can. To this I have a simple response. They will if people with real power and influence come to understand what’s at stake and explain it to them properly.
People like Dr. James Dobson.