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The Moral Strains of Election Day

The weekend of Halloween and All Saints’ Day, bringing us to election day, and a proper prelude it is:  a combination of fright and hope. There have been pro-life measures, some passed, some in the pipeline, in the House of Representatives, but going nowhere with the Senate in the hands of the party that has become, in my lifetime, the party of abortion.

With a change in the Senate, the channels would be cleared to pass those bills. Mr. Obama will veto them, of course, for he can do nothing else, and his party will suffer no other outcome. And yet, those bills will be on the table, they will define ever more sharply the differences between the parties, they will hearten the pro-lifers who have worked so hard for their passage – and stir them on to do even more.

For my friends at the Bishops’ Conference the wish list would carry, near the top, the possibility of strengthening the Hyde-Weldon “Conscience Protection Act.” Unless Obamacare and its mandates are swept away, there is a need to protect doctors and nurses who don’t wish to be commandeered, as accomplices, to participate in abortions.

The enforcement of the Hyde-Weldon Act depended on the removal of federal funds, but with the current Administration, there is no interest within the Department of Health and Human Services to begin the cumbersome process of removing federal funds. The pro-lifers would like to see added to the bill a private right of action, a provision enfranchising the doctors and nurses themselves to sue in order to vindicate their own rights and enforce the law.

Those are some of the hopes. The “fright” comes in as we contemplate the prospect, every hovering, of hopes disappointed. Some of our friends have forebodings that the election in Colorado will be stolen, with mailed ballots and same-day registration, and the outcome tipped in other places with non-citizens slipped in to vote. But putting that aside, we have the fascination of that moral drama carried on by serious voters, trying to balance their principled ends with their prudence and calculation.

There has been altogether too much disparagement of “partisanship” and “parties,” and too little acknowledgement that our parties, since their very beginning, have represented different moral perspectives on the America regime itself. For they have marked strikingly different views about the rightful ends of government, the rightful and wrongful uses of political power, and just who counts as a rights-bearing “person.”

 Massachusetts pro-choice: Coakley (left) and Baker

But then thrown together in the mix is the need to do some strategic calculation: Some pro-lifers in Pennsylvania were pleased to vote for a Democratic pro-life candidate in Bob Casey, but what sense did it make to vote for Casey when it meant putting the control of the Senate in the hands of the party that seeks to bring down every barrier to abortion on demand, and promote abortion with the laws and public funding at every turn?  For their party, the pro-life Democrats are, in Lenin’s famous phrase, the “useful idiots.”

On the other side, some of us winced sharply when Henry Hyde once softened a pro-life bill because some of the pro-choice Republicans thought that it made life untenable for them in their districts. But Henry reasoned in this way:  To preserve a pro-life Congress there had to be a Republican majority, and that brought the need to keep in Congress some pro-choice Republicans. In this scheme, the Republican pro-choicers are the useful idiots.

In Massachusetts now, there is the prospect of electing a Republican running for governor against Martha Coakley, who lost a contest for the Senate to Scott Brown. It seems that even the Left in Massachusetts doesn’t have an appetite for her. Charlie Baker is a libertarian Republican, likely to press for a reduction in taxes and for the kinds of incentives that nourish business and jobs. But he radiates a warm support for abortion, and in one debate he announced his pride in having a brother happily married to another man.

Well, that may be the best that the Republicans can do in Massachusetts right now – though there is another choice in Pastor Scott Lively, who is running in support of marriage as we’ve known it. But the election of Baker means bringing that voice into Republican circles, preaching the message that Republicans can be competitive again in the Blue States if they would only shed their atavistic views on abortion and marriage.

That is troublesome enough. And yet the problem would be taken to a new level if prominent Republicans were asked to visit, and lend their endorsement to Baker as a “fellow Republican.” But it’s precisely because the parties do carry these perspectives on the purposes of the law that are rightful and wrongful that these ventures carry moral hazards.

Those visiting Republican statesmen could put the accent on those matters of taxes and regulation, where they are in strong agreement with Mr. Baker. But they have to suggest in that way that these differences on abortion and marriage are indeed lesser matters, secondary or peripheral matters, not matters that run to the core.

And to the extent that leaders in the party absorb this understanding, they do this subtle surgery on themselves. The dilemma is inescapable and has to be seen clearly for what it is. Politics is an inescapably moral business.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. His most recent book is Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is now available for download.