The Enduring Legacy of Roe v. Wade

1] The big story in this year’s election, we know by now, is that at a time when Americans were asked to consider a host of important issues ranging from Iraq to health care to the economy to terrorism, 22% of voters accorded priority in their deliberations to a nebulous thing like “moral values.” The overwhelming majority of those people voted for George W. Bush, indicating that the moral values they had in mind are ones represented by the Republican Party, values that matter to what is often called the Christian Right. Christian conservatives, guided by their unique political compass, carried Bush to victory. Pundits credited Karl Rove for mobilizing the Republican Party’s Christian base, and no doubt clever campaign tactics had a role to play. Still, one question the pundits did not tried to answer is: why are there so many Christian Republicans in the first place?

[2] If one makes the effort, understanding the coalition of religious conservatism and economic liberalism that defines today’s Republican Party is difficult. Why should people concerned about the sanctity of marriage and moral filth on television be joining forces with those who want to remove the capital gains tax and prevent government from regulating the price of prescription drugs? What mysterious philosophical unity brings Christians concerned about the evils of consumerism together with economic liberals intent on deregulating the market? The solution to such riddles is found not, I think, in the intellectual coherence of the Republican platform, but rather in the contingent historical event called Roe v. Wade. That judicial decision reconfigured American politics, producing a rigidly pro-choice Democratic Party and a Republican Party that opposes abortion. Abortion is a decisive political issue for many Christians, and those Christians are Republican because Republicans oppose abortion.

[3] The centrality of abortion to the consciousness of Christian conservatives is not diminished by the fact that their political agenda comprises more than this single issue. Roe v. Wade taught them that liberals, unable to make their case in the court of public opinion, intend to bypass the people altogether by advancing their agenda through the judiciary. As a result, Christian conservatives approach every cultural issue through the lens of Roe v. Wade; their causes are constitutional. The recent marriage amendments illustrate precisely that. Christian conservatives, worried after the ruling in Massachusetts that they would not be able to argue their case in the legislatures, immediately moved to amend state constitutions.

[4] Roe v. Wade created a political landscape in which every divisive cultural issue must be settled on constitutional grounds. This constitutional approach polarizes politics. Because the constitution articulates foundational principles, judicial fiats and constitutional amendments foreclose on public debate, removing the possibility of compromise that is essential to democratic governance. When commitments held by a segment of the populace are transmuted into inviolable constitutional principles, mundane political arguments are transformed into fundamental disagreements about the nature of the Republic. That’s why Christian conservatives strike outsiders as uncompromising and radical. They carry with them a sense of ultimacy bequeathed by Roe v. Wade. That is also why, in an election year in the middle of a war involving issues frequently described as historic, Christian conservatives voted about moral values. After all, the economy goes through its cycles, and people can disagree about Iraq, but the composition of the courts will define the principles on which this country is founded.

[5] Roe v. Wade launched the culture war, and the really big story of 2004 is that the political party which aligned itself with the Court has been consigned to the role of a minority party, no longer defining the shape of political debate, but reacting only to Republican initiatives. Pundits are saying the Democratic Party needs to reconnect with the American people, but they haven’t suggested how this might be done. Some Democrats, reacting to the surprising importance of moral values in this election, are pointing out they have moral values, too, and urging their party to do a better job of communicating them. Somehow, though, this argument suggests the party’s problems have had more to do with its messengers than its message, and that simply fails to recognize the profound reconfiguration which has taken place in American politics.

[6] If the Democratic Party is to succeed in returning to the center of American life, it must attend more closely to the source of its decline. It would do well to readmit into its ranks voices and politicians who are pro-life. Although that seems enormously unlikely given the party’s elites, perhaps hidden in its base are people still – African-Americans, Hispanics and Christians – who have accepted their party’s inflexible stance on abortion only tacitly for the sake of other causes. Those people would render a great service by summoning the courage to speak out again on abortion instead of quietly acquiescing to a position they deem incompatible with the Democratic Party’s commitment to help the needy. Who knows what might be achieved in the long run by bumper stickers reading “Democrats for Life.”

[7] But absent a new inclusiveness in the Democratic Party, its future may well depend upon whether or not its opponents succeed in overturning Roe v. Wade. Remove judicial intervention from the abortion debate and it probably loses much of its ultimacy. State legislatures would be forced to address the issue, and proponents on each side, attending more closely to public opinion, would be compelled to compromise. Some states would restrict abortion more severely than others, but in every case each side in the debate would have an avenue to express its political commitments. Perhaps abortion would come to be treated in America like it is in Europe: an issue that flares up from time to time, but never one that cuts to the core of the Republic. Christian conservatives, relieved of their sense of ultimacy, might even find that when a Republican President is doing a bad job they have no good reason to vote for him. They might also find themselves attracted to social concerns traditionally advocated by the Democratic Party. In time the Christian conservative voting block, as a distinct constituency in American politics, would simply dissolve, as the American landscape reconfigured once again.

[8] That, however, remains a distant possibility in 2004, even with the Republican victory. And Democrats, hoping to recapture a prominent place in American politics, may have to learn a lesson from the Christian conservatives they despise so deeply: in politics, as in life, patience is a virtue.

Dennis Bielfeldt

Dennis Bielfeldt is Professor of Philosophy and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.