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Catholic Culture Podcasts

Promises Must Be Kept

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 29, 2009

 Jeff Mirus has already commented on the absolutely critical role that Catholic bishops play in the American pro-life movement, and since his thoughts on that issue closely match mine, let me jump forward to the next topic I was planning to raise on this string: the importance of forcing politicians to honor their campaign promises.

Pro-life activists have poured their energies into political campaigns over the past 30 years. Politicians have learned that pro-lifers will stuff envelopes, attend rallies, make phone calls, organize events, write letters, solicit donations, and-- most important of all-- show up in force to vote on Election Day. Particularly within the Republican Party, the pro-life movement has become a formidable bloc. Support from that movement is not a guarantee of electoral victory, but it's a step in the right direction. In any closely contested electoral race, smart politicians will compete for this valuable constituency.

In theory, that competition should put the pro-life movement in a strong position. We should be able to put pressure on politicians, ask them to make firm commitments, and throw our support only to those campaigners who fulfill all our demands. In practice, however, pro-life activists have been too willing to settle for lukewarm performance. Too many campaigners have captured pro-life support simply by making general statements, claiming to be pro-life, without producing hard evidence to prove their credentials. Once elected with the support of pro-life activists, too many politicians have been able to maintain that support by doing the absolute minimum-- continuing to make occasional public statements, but rarely taking action to advance pro-life legislation. 

To avoid selling our support too cheaply, to politicians who do not really deserve it, I suggest that pro-lifers should take a tough-minded approach to all political contests. Some specific suggestions:

If a candidate says that he is pro-life, that's nice. But before leaping enthusiastically onto his bandwagon, let's ask for details. What legislation would he sponsor? Which pro-lifers would he hire for his staff? 

If an incumbent is running for re-election, he should be judged on his track record. Has he sponsored useful bills? Has he been an active participant in legislative debates? Has he hired our friends-- or our adversaries? Has he spoken at fundraisers for pro-life groups? Has he given his support to other pro-life candidates? Has he carried out any promises made before the last election? What has he done for us lately?

When a political campaign pits one pro-life candidate against another, we should be delighted-- and recognize the opportunity to ratchet up our demands. Maybe one candidate will go further than the other to demonstrate his bona fides. If both of them promise to be loyal soldiers in the pro-life battle, that's good. But if one of them might emerge as a genuine leader in that struggle-- another Henry Hyde or Chris Smith-- that's better. Let's ask for more!

Conversely, when neither of the main candidates in a race is pro-life, we shouldn't be tempted to support the lesser of two evils. If both candidates are solidly pro-abortion, pro-life voters should abstain (or, better, they should recruit their own candidate). 

The most interesting strategic questions arise when one leading candidate is pro-abortion and the other has a mixed record. Should we swallow hard and vote for a flawed candidate? Should we launch a quixotic 3rd-party challenge? Should we sit out the race, and hope for a better choice in the next election? All of those options can be valid choices, I think, depending on the circumstances. What I cannot justify is a propaganda campaign aimed at persuading voters that the flawed candidate is actually a pro-life hero. Strategic voting may be a necessity; on Election Day, we may find that our best option isn't a very good one. But let's not deceive ourselves. If the flawed candidate wins, we might feel a sense of relief; at least the abortion industry's candidate didn't win. But let's not pretend that the result is a victory for the pro-life movement.

It might make sense, on Election Day, for individual pro-lifers to cast their ballots for a candidate who hasn't really done anything to inspire their confidence. But it never makes sense to exaggerate the candidate's pro-life credentials. If we demand greater commitment from politicians, we might not always get it. But if we accept less, that's the most we'll ever get.  

 Discussion in order:

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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