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Dignity as a Litmus Test:
Why I’m a Single Issue Voter

Posted By Joe Carter On February 1, 2007 @ 12:35 am In General Bioethics | 77 Comments

The primaries are still months away, yet conservative Congressman Jim Nussle of Iowa is already coming out in support of Rudy Giuliani. In a note to Rich Lowry [1] at National Review, Nussle wrote:

”Perfect” has become the enemy of the “good”, and we saw that borne out during this past November’s elections. I am hopeful that our Party will avoid needless debates over a non-existent perfect candidate.
It is true that Mayor Giuliani and I don’t agree on every issue. My support for a person who doesn’t see eye to eye with me on all issues doesn’t mean that I am turning my back on those beliefs. But our country is at a crossroads and we cannot forsake progress for perfection.

In examining the letter, Rick Moore [2] makes the connection that Nussle leaves unstated:

Nussle does make the argument that there will never be a “perfect” candidate, and I fear that too many conservatives have become such single-issue voters (abortion) that they will eagerly back a weaker candidate just because of his views on that one issue alone. In doing so, they not only risk helping elect a Democrat who’s not only pro-abortion, but pro-a lot of other stuff that conservatives find abhorrent.
Yes abortion is important, but the president really doesn’t have that much control over an issue that has been decided by the courts. President Bush is anti-abortion, but has abortion stopped because he’s president? No, and it probably won’t until there’s a change in the hearts of the people, and while the president may have some effect on that, in reality the president has little to no ability to change abortion in terms of its legal standing.

I am sympathetic to the pragmatism expressed both by Rep. Nussle and my friend Rick. In fact, I agree that the President has little or no control over the issue of abortion. Giuliani, if elected, might even appoint a judge that would help overturn Roe. Even so, I could not endorse him for Giuliani still fails on this key “litmus test.” Why would I hold him responsible for an issue that isn’t under his control? Because I am an unabashed single-issue voter — and that issue is justice.


The justice I’m referring to is that which recognizes human dignity as the foundational principle of freedom and human flourishing. Although the terms are not interchangeable, I believe that the term “sanctity of life”, as defined by philosopher David Gushee [3], could serve as the standard definition for human dignity within liberal democracies:

The concept of the sanctity of life is the belief that all human beings, at any and every stage of life, in any and every state of consciousness or self-awareness, of any and every race, color, ethnicity, level of intelligence, religion, language, gender, character, behavior, physical ability/disability, potential, class, social status, etc., of any and every particular quality of relationship to the viewing subject, are to be perceived as persons of equal and immeasurable worth and of inviolable dignity and therefore must be treated in a manner commensurate with this moral status.

Gushee notes that this is first and foremost a moral conviction that carries implications for how human beings are to be perceived and treated. This moral conviction is, I believe, a part of what Christians refer to as common grace and is therefore accessible by natural reason (even though it can be illuminated by supernatural revelation). While we may disagree on how these perceptions shape out moral obligations, I believe we can and should agree to accept this as a standard moral conviction and agree that the best way to recognize their dignity is by being just.
Because the State plays such a significant role in meting justice, we have a duty to elect politicians who have both a robust view of human dignity and the temerity to govern accordingly. Recognizing such characteristics in a politician is certainly an inexact science, which is why we often rely on heuristics like “litmus tests.” Such tests, of course, are not without problems. Indeed, when applied singularly, the tests may produce “false positives.” For example, a candidate may oppose abortion and embryo destructive research yet may fail to fully appreciate human dignity in later stages of development. Before we can consider her to be “solidly pro-life” we would need to know how she would treat children in poverty and our neighbors in the Sudan.
On the other hand, failing on a particular litmus test can signal that the candidate has an inadequate view of human dignity, and would therefore be less than just as a President. For instance, knowing that Giuliani favors partial-birth abortion can be a clue to how he would act on foreign policy issues. If he has no qualms with infanticide in America, why should I believe he cares about the plight of infants in Darfur?
As Nussle writes, the “’Perfect’ has become the enemy of the ‘good.’” Indeed this has often been all too true. Politics is the art of the possible, which sometimes requires the sacrifice of the ideal. But we must not compromise too easily or too willingly, lest we forget that the “good” can become the enemy of the “just.”


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URLs in this post:

[1] note to Rich Lowry: http://corner.nationalreview.com/post/?q=MTZkMmE5MGNmNDFiN2JlYjAzYzJkY2I0NzRkM2MwNDE=

[2] Rick Moore: http://www.redbluechristian.com/?p=674

[3] David Gushee: http://www.cbhd.org/resources/sanctity/gushee_2006-06-16.htm

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