BY JULIA SMUCKER
It's that time of year again -- or has been, since sometime last year. The mud is flying left and right as a motley crew of politicians competes for our nation's volatile confidence. And who are they trying to appeal to? For a myriad of confounding reasons, our national political discourse has become so polemicized that most prominent candidates, as well as many commentators, seem able to do little more than preach to particular choirs within their own parties. Of course, the challenge of transcending polemics is by no means a new dilemma for any voter with a consistent ethic of life in mind. To elect the least inconsistently life-affirming among candidates will probably never be a straightforward task. What follows here, then, is not so much intended as a voting guide for the consistent life ethicist, nor even an amateur political analysis, as it is an unabashedly subjective evaluation of our current presidential prospects in an attempt to open the conversation in some new direction.
Observing the emerging field of Republican candidates, even an avowed Independent has to wonder what strange power the tea party influences have had in swaying the Republican Party in such a direction that the most prominent players have become those making the most consistently outrageous statements -- taking poorly supported shots at health care reform, Social Security, and the EPA, to name a few recent examples. Even fresher on everybody's mind is the disturbing round of applause earned by Rick Perry in the Sept. 7 Republican debate for his reference to the high number of executions that have taken place in Texas under his leadership. Perry and Michele Bachmann, both among the more popular Republican candidates, are cartoonishly hyperpartisan and, more unsettlingly, have demonstrated very little concern for the vulnerable. Even in the case of abortion, which is generally an exception to this trend, the manner in which they have presented their stance has more often than not been so outlandish and caricatured that it ends up harming the pro-life message, raising doubts as to whether they are really speaking out of concern for vulnerable lives or simply making a knee-jerk appeal to where they think their ideological base is. After all, should not a compassion for life in utero naturally expand to the same compassion for the poor and the sick?
A few other candidates such as Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, though more distant in the running, are proof that a more balanced approach has not altogether disappeared from the Republican Party. Paul may indeed be the closest thing to a consistent life candidate that we have seen from either party in a long time, making admirable connections between a pro-life and pro-peace position, which is anomalous to both parties even when these remain constrained to their narrower definitions as merely antiabortion and antiwar. Even left-leaning political comedian Jon Stewart has come to Paul's defense, suggesting that his ability to draw these connections has largely contributed to his alienation from his own party. All that being said, his extreme antiregulatory stance driven by a libertarian ideology is cause for concern, especially when this plays out as antagonism toward any government intervention in crisis situations. A sink-or-swim attitude toward those affected by disaster is ultimately not very pro-life. Still, it remains to his credit that he is not content to simply toe the party line, but has garnered critique from both the left and the right for being "too centrist."
The same "accusation" of centrism has also been levied at President Obama, whose nuanced and conciliatory approach is more sorely needed than ever. With the obvious exception of his uncritical support of abortion, his stated positions on major life issues have tended toward the more life-affirming. Unfortunately, his track record on many of these issues in practice, including the drawn-out entanglement in two undeclared wars and the failure to close Guantanamo Bay, has disappointingly not turned out to be a clear improvement over that of his predecessor George W. Bush. However, it is at least one remaining point in his favor that he is still attempting to be conciliatory, which is so against the grain of the current political atmosphere that it's little wonder he hasn't lived up to the superhuman expectations that were put on him when he entered into office. Given the polemically charged climate that he has to deal with, his hard-won success at passing health care reform is all the more remarkable, and the recent reprioritization of deportations is an additional step in the direction of a more consistent affirmation of human dignity.
If indeed universal human dignity is at the root of the consistent life ethic, then the practice of such an ethic should apply as much to the civility of our discourse as to the positions we take on policy issues. Those of us who are concerned about voting from a consistent life perspective are highly unlikely to find an ideal candidate for any major office in the foreseeable future. Yet as we weigh our options, perhaps we may begin to affect the climate of public discourse by setting an example of mutual respect, even as we continue to hold our elected officials accountable to the promotion of peace, the protection of all life, and the upholding of the common good.
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