By Lisa Stiller
Getting our party back – and returning to values that support life – was a major theme of speakers at a Democratic Revival that took place in Washington, D.C. during the last weekend of September. We must work to “change the values that need to be changed for a pro-life culture,” said Reverend Jennifer Butler, chief executive officer of Faith in Public Life. The challenge, said Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America, is “How do we revitalize the platform?”
Pro-life Democrats with the same question came to hear several speakers give us their thoughts and suggestions for returning the Democratic Party to its roots.
Butler reminded us that our tradition as a nation is really one of community, but, she said, we have become a very individualistic culture: The days when communities had a “barn-raising” collective culture have given way to an individualistic, me-first culture, perpetuated largely by Hollywood. “What we imagine our history to be is not what it really is,” she said. Butler ended her talk by invoking words of Pope Francis when he spoke while in the U.S., emphasizing the importance of community and our tradition of caring for the most vulnerable. DFLA board member Jeanne French reminded participants that the history of our country has “always been to be inclusive”.
Charles Camosy, DFLA board member, assistant professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University, and author of “Beyond the Abortion Wars,” said that as we engage in the conversation around the culture divide, we must follow Pope Francis’s lead and practice humility. It is important to really listen to and engage with people, he said, and to avoid the binary, polarized dialogue that is not very productive. He suggested that we avoid “fence building” words, such as “war on women.” Talk about “what you are for, (rather than) what you are against,” he said.
Camosy used the example of Pope Francis’s speech to Congress, in which he did not use the word “abortion” but, instead, spoke about a culture of life, in which the most vulnerable are supported. This is a good example, he said, of how “Pope Francis attempts to not be brought into the culture wars” but uses words that bring people together toward common values.
French, a founding member of the Women’s Professional Network, said that we need to be able to talk about “choice” and what “real choice” means, and be ready to address those things that lead to decisions about abortion. She said that we must get the message out: “Do not eliminate the baby; eliminate the crisis.” The Catholic Church has a good message, she said, that reminds us to “love them both.”
Panelists reminded participants that we need to look at what is preventing women from deciding to have their children, and to promote policies and legislation that help them continue their careers while addressing the issues of affordability. According to Guttmacher Institute, 74% of women who have abortions have them because they believe that they cannot afford to have a child. We are not offering them a real choice.
Thomas Berg, professor of Law and Public Policy at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, who is an advocate for perinatal hospice, agreed that real choice means that we need to “give women an alternative to abortion” and emphasize delivering messages that make it clear what “choice” is really about.
Another challenge, Camosy said, is that people do not want to move beyond their comfort zones. Keeping the pro-choice mantra also keeps the arrangement of power within the party safe, he said. And, of course, there are concerns about the flow of money that comes from the pro-choice electorate.
To that end, Janet Robert, DFLA board chair, said that we must commit resources to getting pro-life Democrats elected. Pro-life groups often believe that they have something invested in keeping polarization alive, and the values that pro-life Democrats share with the Democratic Party work to counter this divide.
Steve Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, gave some examples of values that we, as pro-life Democrats, must emphasize that we share with the party. He said that Pope Francis gives us the examples of caring for the poor, our responsibility towards addressing the increasing income gap between the richer and the poorer, remembering that we are a country of immigrants, and cultivating a culture of life, in which all human beings have the chance to thrive. Appealing to these values among the diverse groups that make up the Democratic Party – such as labor, Latinos, Catholics, etc. – is important.
This is where the big tent approach comes in, where we work to bridge the gap that polarization has led us to. Recapturing the some 21,000,000 votes of Democrats who lean pro-life to any extent means building bridges and finding common ground. We must be ready to use both religious and secular language in the public square to appeal to people’s values. “We need to say ‘No’ to the culture of exclusion” in the Democratic Party, said Berg.
Day gave examples of issues that can help us find common ground and open the big tent, such as maternity leave and child care. She challenged participants to get involved in their local parties and to work with other Democrats on the many life-affirming issues that define the Democratic Party in order to start real dialogue about what a pro-life culture is and requires. Changing the values that must be changed for a truly pro-life culture comes from building bridges and delivering positive messages.
We must help Democrats remember that we are “the party of social justice,” said Schneck. And that includes speaking up for the unborn.
And all of this leads to the necessity of getting our party to open up the big tent to pro-life candidates. Participants came away with the understanding that there is a lot of work to do, but they also said that they heard words of hope.