Divisions over abortion and other life-and-death issues: The problem is not ‘purple’ churches

Could we please stop lamenting the plight of American pastors who are serving politically “purple” congregations?

There is nothing new about our churches being home to Republicans and Democrats and independents alike. It always has been this way in all but a handful of churches. The real lament should be for a different pressure point that only appears to be party-specific.

To understand this, I’ve been thinking lately about all the evangelical and Catholic Christians for whom abortion has been the most important litmus test ever since Roe v. Wade. The most devout Christians who evaluate candidates strictly on allowing or not allowing access to abortion services do so because they believe this is a moral line that cannot be crossed. It is, to them, a matter of life and death – and the Bible is clear about life and death.

That same life-and-death concern animates other political conversations in people of faith today, conversations about things other than abortion. For a large swath of American Christians, how we as a nation treat other vulnerable people is every bit as essential – and to some more essential – as how we treat pregnancies.

For those who are gasping at the above reference to something possibly more essential than protecting the life of life in utero, let me explain. Where the “pro-life” movement has failed to win the hearts and minds of the full public is by not espousing a consistent defense of life from birth to old age. Critics for years have noted that all too many Christians who oppose abortion eagerly support capital punishment, but that’s not the end of it.

What about protecting the lives of children and parents fleeing violence in their homelands and dying in the Mexican or Southwestern U.S. deserts? What about protecting the lives of innocent people shopping at a Walmart in El Paso who were gunned down by a crazed man spurred to delusion by a torrent of hateful words from national leaders? What about the acceptance of speech so hateful that it causes other elected officials to be targeted with death threats? What about acknowledging that LGBTQ youth are dying by the thousands because of the hatred they live with?

“The problem is not ‘purple’ congregations; it is instead our fear of talking about matters of life and death.”

This is not a Republican-versus-Democrat problem in our churches – although some politicians are working overtime to make it that, and one interloper has taken the reins vigorously. This is a failure of all of us to espouse a consistent ethic, a consistent theology, a holistic view of the demands of Christian community.

As someone who has been deeply conflicted about any simple answers to the abortion question, I now see more clearly why this issue has driven fellow Christians to risk everything to save the lives of the unborn. I feel the same passion to protect the lives of those already born. I wonder why many in the anti-abortion crowd don’t share my passion for refugees and poor people and people with skin color different than mine. Just as you no doubt wonder why I don’t share your unambiguous passion for embryos newly conceived.

There was a time when the conversation seemed so much simpler. Remember the days when the difference between Republicans and Democrats was mainly about economic policy, military spending and the size of government and taxes? Those were differences of opinion that did not drive people away from each other in the pews of churches. We could be church together and disagree on politics because it mainly was not a matter of life and death.

When faith leaders today lament the difficulty of keeping Republicans and Democrats together in the same church, they miss the bigger issue. What’s driving a wedge down the middle of American Christianity is a failure to see the world as God sees it – a world where all life is precious and all are beloved children of God.

Recently I went to see my neurosurgeon, 20 months after the surgery that inexplicably left me with a spinal cord injury. I hadn’t seen him in more than a year, and we had a lot to catch up on. He still frets over not understanding what happened on the operating table that day. I told him I just don’t care anymore; worrying about that won’t change a thing.

Knowing that he is a devout Catholic, I told him that I do not believe God causes bad things to happen to us just to make way for some “good” thing to happen as a result. Instead I do believe that when bad things happen to us, God has the ability to bring good out of the pain and chaos. And I told him some ways I have experienced those unexpected graces.

He immediately agreed and cited his support for anti-abortion efforts as an illustration. Even in cases of rape and incest, he said, God brings to life beautiful children – not because God wanted the conception to take place that way, but because God brings beauty out of pain.

I swallowed hard and couldn’t think of what to say. I could make the same case for children who would be as good as dead if they stayed in Central America or the Middle East and were not allowed beautiful rebirth into the freedom of the United States. The difference is demanding someone else to carry a pregnancy to term does not require anything of the rest of us, but allowing refugee children to cross the border for asylum requires we open our hearts and lives to strangers.

“This is a failure of all of us to espouse a consistent ethic, a consistent theology, a holistic view of the demands of Christian community.”

None of this is easy. Which is exactly why faith leaders will do no good by avoiding the hard conversations of our day. The problem is not “purple” congregations; it is instead our fear of talking about matters of life and death.

That does not have to be – and in fact should not be – a partisan issue.

Here’s one more illustration: An acquaintance of mine who lives in central Texas has been struggling hard with gender dysphoria. He is young, married just a few years, from a conservative evangelical family and yet knows without a doubt his outward anatomy does not match who he is on the inside. He is a woman. This struggle alone has estranged him from the church of his youth.

Recently the whole thing came to a head, and he ended up at home by himself, in full despair. He had a plan to kill himself – had it all worked out and was in the process. Before he took the last steps, he texted a transgender friend I had introduced him to in a nearby Texas city, but still more than an hour away. That mutual acquaintance acted quickly, contacted the police department in the city where our friend lives knowing only his name and phone number, not an address; officers were dispatched immediately, and when they knocked on our troubled friend’s door, he was three minutes away from death at his own hand.

“Are you OK in there?” the officers yelled. “No!” came the reply. The caring police officers entered the house, found my friend and held him in their arms as he spilled out his life-and-death dilemma. These police officers saved his life – as did our mutual friend in the other city.

Here’s the background you need to know: My transgender friend in the other city, the one who called the police to save a life, holds political views 180 degrees from my own. We couldn’t be further apart on many things. And yet we are united in the desire to bring life out of death or, as the old hymn says, to rescue the perishing.

Republicans and Democrats sitting next to each other in church is not the problem; it is instead the solution. What should unite us is a common desire to talk about matters of life and death.


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