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Redefining the Camps

[Sojourners, April 2006]

On a November evening a couple of weeks after the 2004 election, the regular monthly meeting of Orthodox Young Adults was held at my house. These 20 or 30 college students and young professionals are Eastern Orthodox Christians living in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area.

Lillian, a web designer, had invented a party game for the evening. We divided at random into two teams. Each team was charged to prepare one of its members to be a “presidential candidate.” Each team was given the same list of controversial issues, including abortion, gay marriage, federal aid to the poor, and environmental protection, on which to prep this candidate. But there was a catch. We could not decide what position we preferred to take on these issues. Each team’s package of positions had been pre-assigned.

The “candidates” did their best to bluster through campaign speeches, in some case enunciating the exact opposite of their true convictions. At the end, we went around the room and voted, and all voters got a chance to explain their choice.

The results surprised me. Virtually all the participants named abortion as their most important issue, and were looking for a candidate who was pro-life. Lately, abortion hasn’t been in the headlines as much as it was in the early 1990’s, but it hasn’t gone away, and according to a 2003 Gallup poll young people are surprisingly prone to take a pro-life tack.

Yet the voters in my living room weren’t happy Republican campers. They wanted a candidate who was in favor of gun control and who supported laws that protect the environment. They favored government aid to the poor. The issue of gay marriage went virtually unmentioned. When I asked, “How many of you are both pro-life, and against the death penalty?” most of the hands in the room went up.

So the pro-life candidate won, by a squeaker. Two-thirds of the participants were willing to “hold their nose” and vote for him, though he disappointed them on other issues; the remaining third did the reverse, nose-holding about this candidate’s pro-choice views because his other positions achieved cumulative weight.

Nobody was happy with their choices. Perhaps they’ll slide into the “Crunchy Conservative” camp, which allows pro-life Republican contrarians an opportunity to oppose globalization, factory farming, and WalMart. But wise Democrats will consider opening a “Lifey Liberals” alternative campsite. It’s hard to count noses accurately when they’re gripped between two fingers.

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