Progressive evangelicals frustrated with White House over health care and abortion

Mike Riggs Contributor
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Tony Campolo, a Baptist minister from Philadelphia and the founder of the Red Letter Christian movement, worked tirelessly to help Democrats take over Washington in 2008. He had a hand in crafting the Democratic presidential campaign platform and talked about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on college campuses, creating a media firestorm.

“Obama’s future may rest in the hands of white evangelicals,” read a headline in the National Post; “This election, a growing movement presents a challenge to the religious right,” read the sub-headline in a New Yorker article; “The minister who leads Democrats to faith,” beamed the Christian Science Monitor. In the event of a victory, Campolo — the subject of each one of those stories — expected Democrats would work with progressive evangelicals on policy.

A year into his first term, Obama has yet to sign a health-care bill with provisions that would help reduce the number of abortions, or increase funding for faith-based initiatives. Because of this, Campolo says, progressive evangelicals like himself “are angry” at both parties, frustrated with the White House and “still concerned” about abortion.

While Obama has had a consistent pro-choice-friendly voting record for most of his political career, the president expressed views similar to Campolo’s while campaigning.

“We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby,” the president said in a debate with John McCain in October 2008. “Nobody’s pro-abortion.”

Likewise, making “policy changes” is far more important to Campolo, than “what gets written into law and what doesn’t get written into law, because even if we overturn Roe v. Wade, you know that abortions will continue in this country at an incredible rate, like before Roe v. Wade, because of economic circumstances.”

But the reigning members of Obama’s campaign committee and Campolo disagreed on how to express such sentiments. According to Campolo, the platform committee rejected his suggestions on abortion language and described it strictly as a medical procedure.

“I felt, and very strongly felt, that certain women’s groups were pressuring the Obama organization so that the language that was in the statement on abortion was really muted,” he said. “But even if you don’t agree that abortion is a sin against God, you want to be able to say that abortion is regrettable. If you’re a pro-lifer, you want that language in there. You want a statement made that abortion is looked upon as something that is a tragedy. Not something that is simply another form of contraception.”

Campolo and a cadre of like-minded progressive evangelicals, including Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine and Ron Cider of Revolution Church, are one of the reasons that Obama received 53 percent of the religious vote in the general election, compared to Kerry’s 48 percent just four years earlier. And they are probably the biggest reason Obama received 26 percent of the typically white and conservative “born-again” vote, compared to Kerry’s 21 percent.

Campolo had previous experience counseling a politician on how to integrate his religious and political lives. When President Bill Clinton finally realized that his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky wasn’t going away on its own, he called Campolo, a key member of his “spiritual accountability circle,” for help. Clinton confessed to Campolo and asked him to remain as a counselor. Campolo’s decision to stay with Clinton alienated him from evangelical conservatives, and later, caused him to say in an interview with London’s Channel 4, “I guess I am being used.”

With regards to his support for Obama, Campolo feels he did a better job of standing his ground. “I do not feel that I was taking any great risk in supporting the Democratic platform. People who know me are well aware of the reservations I have about Barack Obama on the issue of abortion. On the other hand, they are also aware that in my public declarations I contend that since more than 70% of all abortions are economically driven, that Obama was addressing these economic issues, and hence his policies would actually bring about a significant decrease in the abortions in this country. Addressing the economic forces that drive people to abortion, which the Democratic platform did do, was a major step in the right direction.”

Campolo points to the stalled health care bill as a wasted opportunity for Obama to make good on his desire to provide low-income single women with abortion alternatives and a missed chance for Democrats “to put the screws” on lawyers.

Progressive evangelicals, said Campolo, hoped to see language in the health care bill that would provide financial assistance to low-income pregnant women. “Here’s a woman, let’s say, who works at a super market with no way to pay for a hospital if she gets pregnant. Whether she should or shouldn’t be pregnant is not our place to say. What we want for her, if she doesn’t want to have an abortion, is for the law to guarantee two weeks off to deliver the baby. Secondly we need to be able to say that woman will have complete medical coverage. Also, we’re going to have to raise the minimum wage. Not a great deal, but a little more than what they’re getting now. And we need to be able to provide some degree of daycare for the child born to the single mother.”

In hindsight, Campolo isn’t surprised that Obama hasn’t been more sympathetic to abortion issues. “There’s nothing to be disappointed about,” he said, besides the fact that Obama “has a pro-choice position.” And the dwindling possibility of a pro-life-friendly health-care bill — or any bill — has Campolo feeling nostalgic for the days when a Hillary Clinton nomination was possible. “We really feel that Hillary Clinton was more committed to a pro-life position by far than Obama. We saw it, as she sees it, that something is very, very wrong.”