Is the GOP the party of life and liberty no more?


(RNS) — In 1856, amid cultural debates about the morality of enslaving fellow humans, the abhorrent, dehumanizing treatment of Black Americans and the ability of states to pursue their own paths on slavery, the Republican Party was born. This political project was launched to not only halt the spread of slavery in a growing nation but to ensure that no person be denied the “inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Four years later, framers of the new party’s platform wrote that slavery is “at variance with the explicit provisions” of the Constitution and went on to denounce the slave trade as a “crime against humanity and a burning shame to our country.”

The moral clarity with which the party’s founders spoke about slavery was critical in leading the nation through the grueling years of civil war and the ultimate abolition of the practice.

The GOP’s moral roadmap is important to note: They named the evil around them. They urged lawmakers and citizens alike to acknowledge and change inhumane policies and behaviors. Finally, they called on the “better angels” of all Americans, in the words of the first Republican president, challenging them to live up to the founding principles that had birthed the nation.

By advocating for the freedom of a population so many wanted to denigrate, the Republican Party ended up unshackling a nation from a sin that had ensnared it from its earliest days.

It is this rich history — the GOP’s roots in liberty — that makes recent news about the forthcoming 2024 Republican Party platform so utterly dispiriting for those of us who have committed years of our lives to the fight for freedom for the most vulnerable population in our modern context: pre-born children. We are hearing reports about potential changes to the platform, including its historic support for a pro-life constitutional amendment.

It has been eight years since the Republican Party produced a new platform. Since then the entire landscape of the abortion issue has changed. An update to the platform is both appropriate and necessary in this new context, and merely copying and pasting boilerplate language from the Roe v. Wade era would be a mistake. 

But instead of embracing this time of change as an opportunity to promote a culture of life, many voices in the GOP appear to have concluded that the cause of freedom is too politically fraught at this time and prefer to run from a defense of the sanctity of life altogether. Lincoln would shudder to see it.

With the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe, the U.S. Supreme Court tore down the national legal scaffolding that held up the abortion industry’s systematic destruction of pre-born lives. For 50 years, vulnerable mothers and anxious fathers had been preyed upon by the likes of Planned Parenthood and other entities that not only profited from the annihilation of innocent life but worked their way into the cultural fabric of our country and convinced millions that new life can be inconvenient and therefore disposable.

To abandon the party’s pro-life commitments just as the abortion regime has been knocked on its heels would be nothing short of political malpractice. Moreover, it reveals a misunderstanding about the current cultural and political moment, a moment both the Republican Party and Democratic Party would do well to study.

As I have written to both parties elsewhere, the right to life is a fundamental, pre-political, self-evident right bestowed by our creator on every individual from the moment of conception. Our government is given the unique responsibility by God to protect that most fundamental right. At the national level, both parties should show how they are organizing themselves based on this truth.

Yes, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision, states are once again empowered to act on abortion, but the justices did not take away the ability of the federal government to protect life.

Now more than ever is the time to advocate for a robust vision for life. Policymakers should craft proposals that reflect this nation’s founding ideals and ensure freedom for those who truly have no voice. This true culture of life would usher in an era when pre-born lives are saved, vulnerable mothers are shielded from the predatory abortion industry, and fledgling families are supported at both the federal and state level.

Pregnancy care centers, the backbone of the pro-life movement that receive the vast majority of their support from Christian individuals and churches, should be affirmed as models of care for women and families in need. Our national government, whose responsibility is the protection of life, should take action against those who actually take life: abortionists, abortion clinics that sponsor them and the drug manufacturers that create and dispense the noxious and dangerous chemicals that end life and harm the health of mothers.

Crafting a platform for a national party is not easy work. In 2016, in my former role as executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party, I listened to hours of debate and discussion about the last platform adopted by the GOP. I know that political operatives can overthink these issues. But the only path forward is leadership based on moral truth, not political expediency. The committee should distill matters to their essential qualities and firmly support policies reflecting them. In the end, as the axiom goes, good policy makes for good politics.

The platform of a political party should set forth the objectives of that body. As the Republican National Committee meets, instead of jettisoning or diminishing the platform’s firm pro-life stance, its members should unabashedly advance liberty and stand for life, label abortion evil, advocating for laws that acknowledge it for the sin that it is, and embrace proposals that free men and women from the destruction it leaves in its wake.

Doing otherwise risks breaking the Republican Party away from its historic roots and alienating those who still hold that freedom matters — for the born and pre-born alike.

(Brent Leatherwood is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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