In the wake of the fascinating forum hosted by Pastor Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church in Orange County, everyone is focusing on the contrasts between presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. More interesting are the contrasts between the intellectual-theologian Obama and the political Obama.
"Does evil exist?" Warren asked Obama. "And if it does, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it or do we defeat it?"
Obama the moral philosopher replied, accurately, that evil is everywhere, in Darfur, in our city streets, in our own hearts. We cannot "erase evil from the world. That is God's task. But we can be soldiers in that process, and we can confront [evil] when we see it." (Imagine the reaction if President Bush called himself a soldier of God in the battle against evil.)
When asked what America's greatest moral failing was, theological Obama said it was our collective failure to "abide by that basic precept in [the Book of] Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me."
For Obama the politician, such scriptural quotations often serve as an all-inclusive writ to impose his religious views on others when it comes to fighting poverty, global warming, racism, etc. But when the question turns to abortion, political Obama insists on a policy of moral agnosticism and political laissez faire. Asked directly when life begins as a legal matter, he punted, insisting the answer was "above my pay grade."
Obama, commendably, told Warren that he wants to reduce the number of abortions. After all, he observed gravely, "we've had a president who is opposed to abortions over the last eight years, and abortions have not gone down." Unfortunately, Obama wasn't telling the truth: The number of abortions in the U.S. are down, from 1.31 million in 2000 to 1.21 million in 2005, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The abortion rate per 1,000 women age 15 to 44 is the lowest it's been since 1974, partly because of pro-life policies under Bush, but also thanks to those implemented at the state level since the 1990s.
At Saddleback, Obama offered the ritualistic support for Roe vs. Wade expected of all Democratic politicians, "not because I'm pro-abortion" but because women "wrestle with these things in profound ways."
Now, this is surely true in a great many instances. But political Obama isn't inclined to explain why "wrestling" with a serious moral question is an adequate substitute for deciding it correctly. People wrestle with all sorts of moral quandaries in "profound ways," but that is not enough. Many slave owners wrestled with whether they should free their slaves, but that did not obviate the need for the Emancipation Proclamation.
Alas, when it comes to abortion, it's probably silly to expect anything but rote fealty to ideological pieties from a Democrat, just as it's naive to expect anything but the appropriate pro-life talking points from a Republican. But for a self-styled champion of nuance, political Obama's rigidity is spectacular to behold.
In 2003, as chairman of the Illinois Senate Health and Human Services Committee, Obama received a statement from Jill Stanek, a registered nurse at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill. She testified that at her Chicago-area hospital, she'd seen a baby accidentally delivered alive during an abortion and then "taken to the Soiled Utility Room and left alone to die."
I'm no expert on the Christian Gospel, but something tells me that Matthew might consider these wailing creatures the least of our brothers.
Alas, the abandonment of babies to suffer and die on the modern equivalent of a Spartan cliff did not require confronting evil. Indeed, Obama led the battle to defeat Illinois' version of the federal Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, which would have treated babies living, albeit briefly, outside the womb as, well, babies. He opposed the bill in 2003 (as he had a similar one in 2001), saying it would undermine Roe vs. Wade. But even after Roe-neutral language was included -- wording good enough that it won support for the federal version of the bill from abortion-rights stalwart Sen. Barbara Boxer -- Obama remained unmoved.
Until this week, Obama denied that he ever took such a position. His campaign has now admitted that he was, in effect, lying when he said pro-lifers were lying about his record. But simultaneously, Obama defends a position that comes dismayingly close to the layman's understanding of infanticide while claiming any other position would require him to play God.
"A lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil," intellectual-theologian Obama said at Saddleback. And "just because we think our intentions are good doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good."
Perhaps that theological Obama should wrestle a bit more with political Obama.