How to Assess the 2020 Election
I’m just coming off a long Andrew Sullivan blog post, and I beg my gentle readers not to think less of me for poking into the thought processes of a writer who is not, by general definition—or for that matter his own—the hottest new pledge bro for Knights of Columbus.
I don’t want, for present purposes, to get into theological details here, and, indeed, don’t have to, belonging as I do to that very mixed theological bag known as The Episcopal Church, once widely celebrated for its gray grandeur. Our remaining Gothic wonderlands not only encourage more spiritual nourishment than many outsiders might suppose; they afford ready access, as well, to the thinking of brothers and sisters who bunk way out there in left field. We right-fielders say, that’s how they think?! Eavesdropping on their discourse can be, let’s just say, eye-opening.
Enough of that. While framing this commentary on how pro-life folk might go about assessing the late elections, I read Mr. Sullivan’s musings on the phenomenon of hard-core—I mean harrrrrrrddd-core—social Christian convictions among the evangelical bloc of voters. I said, wait a minute. This has implications that go beyond who won what congressional seat last November. I am more and more interested at my present stage of life in how people think and believe than in how they vote: occasionally in contradiction of what they purport to think and believe.
Mr. Sullivan, on the occasion I mention, was following up on an earlier post having to do with the aborning belief in evangelical land that Donald Trump is God’s anointed choice to restore the kingdom here in America. I know, I know. Bear with me, nevertheless.
“In a manner very hard to understand from the outside,” Sullivan writes, “American evangelical Christianity has both deepened its fusion of church and state in the last few years, and incorporated Donald Trump into its sacred schematic. Christianists [his term for political Christians] now believe that Trump has been selected by God to save them from persecution and the republic from collapse.” You might well recall, in this context, Walker Percy’s depiction of the Knothead Party in that great dystopic fantasy Love in the Ruins: a rich, raucous projection of American life into a very near future.
There’s no special point in hashing over the strategies that fascinate Sullivan’s subjects. Mainly what they wanted was somehow to ward off Joe Biden’s inauguration as president. Writing in December, I am loath to lay much money on their prospects.
I am almost equally loath to mock such people, the general run of whom I’m on good terms with—up to an obvious point. In their response to the election, nevertheless, I read the curse of political enthusiasm. If you think it’s time I came to the point, that’s the point.
I wish that our political enthusiasts—of whom probably as many dwell on the left as on the right—would get a good grip. We’re not getting anywhere this way. I’m a great deal more interested, if I may repeat myself, in what Americans think and believe than in how they vote.
That’s not downplaying the significant electoral gains pro-life candidates racked up in 2020—doubling the number of pro-life women in Congress while knocking off eight “pro-choice”—to employ their own self-description—Democrats. This has to come as excellent news. The fewer pro-choice candidates in circulation, the better.
There are offsetting considerations, nevertheless. The first is that which we have already noticed—the entanglement of the pro-life movement with Donald J. Trump, a defeated, emotionally shaky candidate making things worse for himself through incessantly repeated declarations that he won the election that in fact he lost. I do not see the Trump entanglement, shall we say, clarifying for general consumption the premise that unborn life deserves protection.
The second consideration offsetting, it seems to me, the congressional gains of last fall is the coming to power of an avowedly pro-choice administration: the result of voter decision. “By all indications,” says the sagacious Marjorie Dannenfelser, head of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, “[Joseph] Biden and Kamala Harris have not changed their plans to lead from the extreme left on issues like abortion . . .”
No, I think on abortion at all events, she’s right. Just wait until Xavier Becerra gets started, should he be confirmed as secretary of Health and Human Services! It won’t be pretty.
Politics, politics! After half a century of experience of writing about this grubby pastime, I have concluded politics gets you just so far. Then it dumps you in the street with only four bits for cab fare. You wonder how you got there. And you should, because we’re up to our necks in politics; we’re drowning in it. I want to talk a little bit here about why morally and theologically religious Americans should head for shore, preserving their political swimwear—because after all we can’t, and shouldn’t try, to ignore government.
Political obsession—a thing different from legitimate concern over political attempts to downgrade general respect for life at all stages—is the folly we need to resist, the game we need to refuse. The way is hard and long-term: so different from the achievement of a Supreme Court appointment we hope—hope—will result in greater judicial amity wherever these questions arise.
It might. But that’s not enough. Not nearly enough, I submit, out of concern for a number of things, among them the realities of life.
This is where we came in (as movie-goers used to say, before slipping out of the theater). A lot of Americans are currently distraught and distracted on account of not getting their way politically back in November 2020 in an election virtually all saw as critical. Nor were the state and federal courts amenable to pleas for adjustment of the losers’ outrage. (Remember I’m writing in December.)
Election apoplexy is the outcome ever to be expected when the whole smoking, steaming mess known as life can be viewed as depending on the vote count. When the count goes against you, a state of personal collapse sometimes ensues. Oh, my Lord! So now “they’re” in charge! Pass the sour mash.
You see, in a society nervous over and obsessed with politics, the votes, and the way they fall, determine everything. That means Democrats now in charge: progressive, to whatever extent, Democrats. This would seem to argue for questioning whether what happened really happened. In other words, wasn’t there some fraud, some robbery going on, as Trump certainly asserted? Had to be! The federal courts proved not to agree, but that datum only reminded many that we’re surely there because of the courts and the great makeover of abortion law they effected in 1973 and because of how, in consequence, politics swallowed up the judicial system.
At that, the projected civil war didn’t break out—the war some were forecasting on the heels of Trump’s clamor over potentially throwing out the election returns. I don’t know how many Americans truly thought the ouster of the president, pursuant to generally accepted vote counts, would lead to a civil war. However, no governmental handover at such a point as this one can be considered a mere ceremonial occasion, with firecrackers and lemonade,
Most of us began hearing, in the election aftermath, not-quite-explicit calls for a division of the house: red states splitting the sheets with blue ones. I heard and read a number of times the word “secession.” Ummm-hmmm: as if the unpleasantness of 1861-65 had never taken place and the world’s most powerful armed forces were observed as indulging in a long siesta.
So. What now, with respect to a large number of the questions we seem to think—without evidence—are central to any national future we hope for? A civil war we’re not going to have. Nor secession. It seems to me the priority is, first of all, to speak, not just of guidelines for the big national handover of political authority but, rather, of how we imagine ourselves as a nation and people.
That may sound facile. I do not think so. Often on life’s journeys, moments occur for saying, whoa, where’s this road taking me, and what’s up ahead? We are at just such a national moment, it seems to me.
Major stuff is going on in our country. Our freedoms, and our long-term moral integrity, are at stake. The people Sullivan has his eye on—who are not yet, of course, a dispositive majority and likely will never become such—have counterparts on the political left: Black Lives Matter; the National Abortion Rights League, known as NARAL; for that matter, the united force of the universities, to say nothing of the mainstream media. The conversational topic in which all indulge freely is power—force; compelling others in some manner to acquiesce, sullenly or quietly, with their programs and objectives. Thus the quest for power. Power means you win and, just as important, your competitors lose.
The quest for power is at the center of politics and elections. If one party wins, the instruments of power will be at its disposal. And just watch then! Pow! Wham! Things are going to be different—or such is the mythology, as shared by true believers across the political spectrum.
To many with whom we are familiar, and not just from reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog, the political survival of Donald Trump some time ago became related to the survival of America. It was to these—no doubt, to some, still is—an “existential” question: reflecting the way the word is often bent these days, in a non-Kierkegaardian sense, to convey alarm as to basic survival. Donald Trump as savior was always a curious concept, given the president’s personality and habits, but it partly, I think, reflected alarm at the opposite prospect; in other words, an Elizabeth Warren or a Bernie Sanders presidency; even one with Genial Joe (“C’mon, man”) Biden in charge of the federal apparatus. (Biden’s decision, whether personal or forced, to name the pro-abortion, pro-left-everything Becerra as secretary of Health and Human Services gives point to concerns about Biden’s amiability as to throwing his Catholicism over the side, like a plastic water bottle.)
Presidential appointments do matter—especially when it comes to federal judges. Trump excelled at appointments favorable to the pro-life cause. Imagine Biden saying to Amy Coney Barrett, “How would you like a Supreme Court seat?” Gratitude for good appointments, nevertheless, becomes an existential question only in moments when political capital is everything, and the power of the executive order exceeds the power of the reasoned explication of how human life itself derives from the sovereign grace of its creator, known customarily as God.
The tenuous religiosity of our times strikes me as altogether a larger problem for the pro-life cause than the activity and energy of, say, the Democratic Party. That tenuous religiosity can be seen, I imagine, in the eyes of those whom Andrew Sullivan sees as “Christianists,” wedded to understanding the Republican Party, and in particular the Republican president America declined to reelect in 2020, as basic to hopes for the future. No Trump, no—what? No pro-life secretary of Health and Human Services? No protection for the Hyde Amendment? Perhaps. That is still not the same thing as saying political engagement, followed by political victory, is rightly the No. 1 Christian priority. It seems to me there is a great deal more to this question than the uses of the democratic franchise.
The problem with turning over life questions to political people is, among other things, the complexity of the political game. A game it is, with many competing aims in view. A “pure” political decision, untainted by trade-offs and log-rolling and wimpy compromises, is not of this world—the political world, I mean. Not even where the dictator reigns supreme can it be assumed that “purity” of intentions and means survives human wresting for advantage.
Christian author-blogger Rod Dreher, eying the same political phenomena as Andrew Sullivan, cogently observed (in a post titled “Donald Trump is not the Messiah”) that he, Dreher, was not “telling people to be politically passive. But it’s frustrating to see people giving themselves over to political passions and would-be solutions that don’t actually have a lot to do with what most threatens the church and the moral condition of our country.”
The moral condition of our country. That would be the consideration most explanatory of the bafflement of hopes for recovery of respect for human life. Not the lack of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. Not even the lack until recently of Supreme Court justices in sufficient number to do something, of some kind, about Roe v. Wade.
It is worth noticing that R. v. W. remains, legally, constitutionally, in place after nearly a half century. Why would that be? What is lacking? Certainly not the tireless efforts of good hearts and good minds (such as those that have long guided that estimable journal the Human Life Review). Splendid things have been accomplished by the pro-life movement—through its diligence and persistence, through the radiance of its love for lives formed by God Himself. Through its witness, hearts and minds have been changed.
And . . . wait! There it is! Hearts and minds have been changed. Just not enough of them. Not yet. Maybe in a few years, who knows? The end of the political quest in pro-life affairs will come when so many of us agree in heart and mind that life is a wonderful thing: to be fostered and encouraged rather than violently extracted and disposed of. There will be no need for politics when the voters instruct their representatives that their obviously superb talents are required in some line other than the placation of Planned Parenthood. The thing wanted is getting the voters to the belief, or acceptance of the belief, that, in pro-life matters and all aspects of what we pleasantly call cultural conservatism, life matters more than any competing consideration.
What the society at large believes, and believes strongly, is what the political class will attend to. Can’t be otherwise in a democracy. A pro-life electorate may take for granted the overthrow of Roe v. Wade. But we don’t have such an electorate, which leaves pro-life forces nibbling around the edges of success: seizing, and settling for, what’s possible.
If reversal of that condition sounds easy, I apologize. The factor that made possible Roe v. Wade was the withdrawal of hearts and minds from affection for and attachment to the principle of life. It wasn’t the politics. The politics of abortion back then was light and loose. The High Court took a chance. Voila! Many critics and opponents resisted: just not enough to procure an overturn at the political-judicial level. There still aren’t enough opponents. That is my somber view and, I would bet, yours also.
What’s possible in a secularizing society like our own isn’t the same as what was possible back when social-religious consensus, if nevertheless imperfect, made possible the passage of strong laws encouraging—I like to put it in the positive, not the negative, nay-saying vein—the protection of life. Contemporary Christianity, sapped by that same self-regarding secularism whose life force is the desire for inner self-determination, lacks the vim and vigor to enforce societal regard for unborn life. We take what protections the politicians can be persuaded to deliver or, alternatively, to leave in place out of, half the time, a visceral fear of losing jobs and pensions.
This is not a happy ending to the story, but I would plead that it is not necessarily the only possible ending. A civil war would settle even less than blocking the inauguration of Joe Biden would have settled. What is wanted, in the most generous, spatial sense, is a philosophical, moral, and, above all, religious reformation—against all the odds, against shouts of derision by the intellectuals, against the frothing of the New York Times and the Washington Post and MSNBC. Such a reformation—literally, a re-forming of that which has been deformed and unformed—would settle much, if not, mathematically, everything. And that would come about, and be pursued . . . how? I am writing in Advent.
I hear around me stirrings for which no human can truly account; persistent stirrings of an origin hard to pin down, however familiar they may be. You can never know, surely, what’s to come when heartfelt pleas reach the place where heartfelt pleas are reliably reported always to be welcome, not to mention encouraged.
And after all this, as if any more were needed, came January 6—Epiphany; a day of non-theological manifestations covering some of what I said above: the U.S. Capitol overwhelmed by hard-core believers in the myth of the Stolen Election, egged on at a nearby rally by the fake “Messiah” himself: Who now seems set, despite notable achievements in office, to become a historical study in turpitude. One can hardly get already aching arms around the whole crazy mess. With just this exception, a gift from Holy Writ: “O put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man; for there is no help in them . . . Blessed is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, and whose hope is in the LORD his God . . .” (Ps. 146: 2, 4).
William Murchison, a former syndicated columnist, is a senior editor of the Human Life Review. He will soon finish his book on moral restoration in our time.