Tish Harrison Warren: You Can’t Protect Some Life and Not Others

From a New York Times opinion piece by Tish Harrison Warren headlined “You Can’t Protect Some Life and Not Others”:

With over a year to go until the presidential election, I am already dreading what this next political season will feel like — the polarity, the vitriol, the exhaustion, the online fighting, the misinformation, the possibility of another Trump nomination. I already know that I won’t feel represented by the platforms of either party. I know I’ll feel politically estranged and frustrated.

People like me, who hold to what the Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernadin called a “consistent ethic of life,” and what the Catholic activist Eileen Egan referred to as “the seamless garment” of life, don’t have a clear political home. A “whole life” ethic entails a commitment to life “from womb to tomb,” as Bernardin said, and it also champions policies that aid those who are vulnerable or economically disadvantaged. Bernadin, who died in 1996, argued that a consistent ethic demands equal advocacy for the “right to life of the weakest among us” and “the quality of life of the powerless among us.” Because of this, it combines issues that we often pry apart in American politics.

The whole life movement, for instance, rejects the notion that a party can embrace family values while leaving asylum-seeking children on our Southern border in grave danger. Or that one can extend compassion to those children, while withholding it from the unwanted child in the womb. A whole life ethic is often antiwar, anti-abortion, anti-death penalty, anti-euthanasia and pro-gun control. It sees a thread connecting issues that the major party platforms often silo.

For example, in his encyclical “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis blamed “throwaway culture” for both environmental degradation and widespread elective abortions. These are not divergent political ideas to him; they share the same root impulse. Throwaway culture “affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.”

Of course, not all Christians, and indeed not all Roman Catholics, share this view. It is however a common idea expressed in Catholic social teaching. Similar views have also been championed by many progressive evangelicals, mainline Protestants and leaders in the Black church. Yet no major political party embodies this consistent ethic of life. I find it strange that a view that is respected by so many religious bodies and individuals is virtually absent from our political discourse and voting options.

But if those of us who hold this view actually live out a consistent ethic of human life and persistently articulate it as the rationale for our political engagement, it has the capacity to help depolarize our political system.

We, as a nation, are seemingly at an impasse, split on abortion, immigration, guns and many other issues, with no clear way forward. Maybe the only way out of this stalemate is a remix. Maybe there needs to be a new moral vision that offers consistency in ways that might pull from both progressive and conservative camps. To embrace and articulate a consistent ethic of life, even while inhabiting the existing political parties, helps create the space necessary to expand the moral imagination of both parties.

There’s nothing set in stone about how we divvy up and sort political issues and alliances. In decades past, it was entirely possible to be a pro-life Democrat or an anti-gun Republican. Roman Catholic leaders could support both traditional sexual ethics and radical economic justice for laborers and those in poverty. Theologically conservative evangelical leaders could declare, as they did in the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern in 1973, that we, as a nation, must “attack the materialism of our culture” and call for a just redistribution of the “nation’s wealth and services.”

The most polarizing issues of our day are divisive precisely because they are moral in nature. They derive not from different ideas about the size of government or wonkish policy debates but are rooted in incommensurable moral arguments. To move forward, we have to rebundle disparate political issues, re-sort political alliances and shake up the categories, so that those who now disagree on some things may find common cause on others, and so that people committed to a consistent ethic of life might actually feel as if they have at least a modicum of — a possibility of — representation.

I don’t expect this shake-up to happen any time soon. Change happens slowly and those of us who feel that we don’t fit neatly into any major party platform must consistently call for change. In particular, those committed to a consistent ethic of life must continue to uphold that ethic and not surrender to the rhetoric of either party.

In the conservative churches I grew up in, single-issue “pro-life” voters became part of the Republican coalition, and eventually they came to embrace the party platform as a whole, regardless of how well it cohered with an overall commitment to life outside of the womb. But as Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles reminded us a few years ago, “there are no ‘single-issue’ saints.” Part of the task before those of us who want to consistently champion life is to participate in the political process while still stubbornly refusing to conform our views or loyalties to the current options offered — to steadfastly not fit in, to recalcitrantly and vocally insist that, as Egan reportedly said, “You can’t protect some life and not others.”

The political scientist Morris Fiorina writes in “Unstable Majorities” that the common perception that the American people are more polarized than ever is an illusion. What is true, however, is that the Republican and Democratic Party platforms have become more polarized and, in Fiorina’s words, more “sorted” than they have been historically. The most devoted members of the base of each party maintain that polarization, but they don’t reflect the majority of voters, or even a majority of those who identify with the dominant parties. This party polarization and intensive sorting have created an artificial bundling of platform positions that does not necessarily reflect the moral vision of most voters.

This artificial bundling is, however, constantly reified, Fiorina says, by the strident discourse of party leaders, elected officials and the most vocal members of the base, which creates what he calls a “spiral of silence.”

“People who believe they are in the minority in their group often refrain from expressing their disagreement for fear of being shunned or otherwise sanctioned by the group,” Fiorina writes. “Left unchecked, this dynamic leads the majority to believe that there are no dissidents, whereas members of the dissident minority believe that they are alone in their views. As a result, both majority and minority members of a group come to believe — erroneously — that the group is politically homogeneous.”

Those of us who articulate a whole life ethic make it possible for others to give voice to their own alienation and dissent from the dissatisfying nature of our present political discourse.

As the saying goes, “If nothing changes, nothing changes.” There is no reason that the current bundling of political issues must continue interminably. Those of us who feel morally alienated from both parties must speak up and offer hope for a different sort of politics in America.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

Speak Your Mind