A Cautionary Tale

 Professor Smith offers a powerful case for pro-life voting in this splendid column. Let me also remind you again that George Marlin has been providing some very interesting analysis of the Catholic vote in key swing states at our companion site, Complete Catholicism. You can access those materials by clicking here. – Robert Royal


The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 prepared voters for an election, which Abraham Lincoln, as is sometimes forgotten, lost. The debates covered a range of important political issues of the day, but one issue clearly dominated: slavery. Indeed, no one today really cares what Stephen A. Douglas’s positions were on, say, the economy: what he thought, for example, about the money supply or taxes. The only thing we care about is that he voted for slavery.

To be fair, Douglas repeatedly insisted that he was not for slavery, but he was also one of the architects of the notion of “popular sovereignty,” that is, of allowing the states to decide the matter for themselves. “I hold,” declared Douglas that: 

humanity and Christianity both require that the negro shall have and enjoy every right, every privilege, and every immunity consistent with the safety of the society in which he lives. On that point, I presume, there can be no diversity of opinion. You and I are bound to extend to our inferior and dependent beings every right, every privilege, every facility and immunity consistent with the public good.

The question then arises, what rights and privileges are consistent with the public good? This is a question which each State and each Territory must decide for itself – Illinois has decided it for herself. We have provided that the negro shall not be a slave, and we have also provided that he shall not be a citizen, but protect him in his civil rights, in his life, his person and his property, only depriving him of all political rights whatsoever, and refusing to put him on an equality with the white man. That policy of Illinois is satisfactory to the Democratic party and to me, and if it were to the Republicans, there would then be no question upon the subject; but the Republicans say that he ought to be made a citizen, and when he becomes a citizen he becomes your equal, with all your rights and privileges. They assert the Dred Scott decision to be monstrous because it denies that the negro is or can be a citizen under the Constitution. Now, I hold that Illinois had a right to abolish and prohibit slavery as she did, and I hold that Kentucky has the same right to continue and protect slavery that Illinois had to abolish it.  

Douglas was, in other words, the quintessential pro-choice candidate: he favored choice for all – except of course for the black Americans who were not fully persons under current law. As for his pledge that blacks be extended “every right, every privilege” consistent with the public good, that was quintessential double-speak: what it offered so generously with one hand, it took back brutally with the other.

           The principals in an earlier pro-life debate

Don’t think that Douglas didn’t try to paint Lincoln as “immoderate,” “out of the mainstream,” akin to the “fanatical” abolitionists. He beat this drum repeatedly. Lincoln, however, was by no means perfect on slavery himself, opting for “pragmatic” compromises that undoubtedly caused some abolitionists to prefer some morally “purer” candidate instead. Thus there were likely several groups who voted against Lincoln:  those who disagreed with his opposition to slavery; those who were convinced he wasn’t opposed enough; and those who thought slavery was just one issue among many, and on balance, preferred Douglas.

It would be a mistake to treat all issues as though they were of the overriding importance of slavery, but it would be equally a mistake not to realize that there are historical moments when injustices so fundamental arise that they simply outstrip all else, although the seriousness may not be clear to everyone at the time.

There were no Nazis to be found anywhere in Germany after World War II, and yet the party had been elected by large majorities in every election until the war started going badly in 1942. No one looks back now and says about those voters: “Sure the Nazi candidate was voting to deport Jews, but maybe he had good economic proposals.”  No one cares what the economic issues were.

The statement “But they got the trains to run on time!” is now greeted with a special sort of contempt, given the human freight those trains carried. And we don’t have much patience either for anyone who would have argued that it would be better to vote for the Nazi candidate because, if the economy improved, the pressure to deport Jews might have lessened. Unintended consequences can’t be controlled; what people choose to favor or restrict can be. Candidates who oppose life undermine the most basic foundation of the republic.

As we approach the next election, we would do well to remember this cautionary tale. In two hundred years, when the moral vision is clearer, will anyone really care about the political squabbles that dominate us now?  Or will they simply ask (as we do about our forebears): who voted against abortion, and who didn’t? 

The Church’s teaching on this issue has been stated repeatedly; it is clearer in some ways than it was on slavery or treatment of the Jews. I’m often asked: “Why didn’t German bishops excommunicate Catholics who voted for Nazis?” I don’t know. But then I tend to be less concerned about the sins of the past than about avoiding my own moral blindness. Judgment is a sharp blade that cuts both ways.

The Church cannot compel, as governments often do; she can only appeal to the consciences of men and women of good will. Would this sort of clarity help?  A Catholic with a properly formed conscience cannot vote for a candidate who favors allowing abortion over who one favors restricting it any more than a Catholic with a properly formed conscience could have voted for a pro-slavery or pro-Nazi candidate. Would anyone today argue that a Catholic would have been somehow justified voting for Douglas over Lincoln, or a Nazi over a Jew? 

Don’t fool yourself. Those with ears, let them hear.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.