Rebecca Hamilton is a former pro-abortion activist and leader. As the Oklahoma Director of NARAL, she helped establish the first abortion clinic in Oklahoma, and she continued her activism after being elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives. After experiencing a profound conversion to Christ, voters returned her to office as a pro-life Democrat and she spent twelve years defending life and families in the Oklahoma Legislature. Rebecca left her political career in 2014, and along with the National Catholic Register, she writes at Patheos on her blog Public Catholic.
Why would a pro-life person stay in the Democratic Party?
Or, if a person stays in the Democratic Party, can they be truly pro-life?
Those questions are based on a presumption of political purity that does not exist outside fantasy. I know. I lived the many conundrums of full-speed contact politics for many years. White horse politics, which is looking toward political party or a politician on a white horse to save us from ourselves, is a fantastical creation of those who do not understand the real meaning of Calvary as it applies to humankind.
If we could attain to Heaven on our own, Jesus would not have had to die for our sins. That is the touchstone of our faith. We overlook its overarching meaning every time we look past human fallenness in search of a human leader or human contrivance such as a political party for righteousness. We keep trying to bring the Kingdom in some easy-peasy fashion such as putting the “correct” letter on our voter registration card, and all we end up doing is disenfranchising ourselves and empowering monsters.
That is the cautionary side of the story concerning Arkansas Representative Mike Holcomb. Representative Holcomb split with the Democratic party this week by changing his registration from Democrat to Republican. When you or I change parties, it’s just a matter of changing a letter on the voter ID. But when Representative Holcomb does it, he’s switching his entire House district, right along with himself. The next election will determine how his constituents feel about this.
Representative Holcomb’s reason for doing this this makes a lot of sense to any pro-life Democrat — he can no longer sit on the side of abortion. The Arkansas Democrats’ position on funding for Planned Parenthood is said to have triggered the move.
Arkansas Ds have been quick to announce that, so far as they are concerned, Representative Holcomb’s departure from their column is good riddance to bad rubbish. Their public statements are a classic case of “don’t let the doorknob hit you in the you-know-what on your way out.”
It’s easy for someone like me to read between these broadly-drawn lines to the personal acrimony and anger behind them. One article I read said that Representative Holcomb has been caucusing with the Rs, anyway.
I don’t know of course, but I can extrapolate from my own experience to what seems like an understanding of the name-calling, verbal hazing and threats that led to this situation. It can get ugly inside those caucuses, especially when one member paints a bulls-eye on themselves by refusing to do the due on something as explosive as abortion.
Nobody outside the inner world of elected officialdom can imagine just how personal and ugly the pressure can be on a pro-life elected Democrat. A lot of it is grade school, but it still draws real, grown-up blood. I don’t know if Representative Holcomb was picketed and censured by the larger Democratic party, or if party activists recruited, funded and backed opponents to try to unseat him in elections.
Those things happened to me. However, they did not hurt me all that much. What hurt was the treatment I got from my colleagues inside the House. I reacted by withdrawing. There was one whole year when I did not attend a single caucus meeting.
It was miserable, being a pariah inside my party. But it was what had to be. The whole time I was persona non grata in my own party, God used me most profitably for the fight for life. I did things that I simply would not have been able to have done if I had been a Republican. I accomplished things in the fight for life that no Republican could have accomplished.
The reason is strategic and tactical. I was a Democrat, and that placed me in a strategic position inside the legislative body that no Republican could hold. There are people who are alive in Oklahoma today who would otherwise be dead precisely because I was willing to take the personal abuse that went with being a pro-life Democrat.
Was it easy? No.
Was it worth it? Certainly.
Being under attack like that raises all sorts of temptations. One of them is to go the other way and do the opposite of what the people who are attacking you want, simply because they want it. A legislator has an awful lot of power, and I mean “awful” in the full, awe-full, sense of it. I could have worked to kill all sorts of legislation that I otherwise believed in but that I wanted to kill because the people attacking me also believed in it. I could have done it to do the big get even. According to the rules of politics, I was entitled to do it. In fact, I was almost called upon to do it. Conversely, I could have worked to pass other legislation that I didn’t agree with, for the same purpose.
But that would have been dishonest and immoral. A legislator owes the job of representing tens of thousands of people the full honesty of doing what they truly believe is in the public interest. A just and stable government requires that of them, and a just and stable government is always the greater good.
Another temptation, which I did not avoid nearly so well as the big get even, was the temptation to feel sorry for myself. In honesty, I did a good bit of that. In fact, I grieved the whole thing terribly.
My family nearly starved in the Great Depression. My father’s family actually stripped bark off trees and boiled it down to eat. They stood in bread lines and lived with the fear of not having enough to eat. One of Daddy’s cousins died from pellagra. An aunt on my mother’s side died in a diabetic coma because the family did not have refrigeration for insulin and could not afford medical care.
You cannot understand my politics without understanding that.
I grew up in a family that regarded Republican economic policies as murderous. My priorities were ordered something like God, family, country, Democratic Party. The emotional split with the Democratic party that I underwent in those tough years when I paid for saving lives with my own misery was as painful to me as a divorce.
I had no problem then, and have no problem now, with the idea that many Democrats are pro-choice. It does not bother me to be affiliated with people who disagree with me. That is life in the real world where people are free to, as Wesley said, think and let think. One thing I loved about the Democratic party is that it actually was, at one time, the party where people could have differing ideas.
Back in the 1980s, when I was first elected, the Ds called things such as abortion “moral issues” and took the attitude that all party members were free to hold their own views on “moral issues.” I was pro-choice back then — vociferously so — but I agreed absolutely with the right of my pro-life colleagues to disagree with me. I didn’t try to eliminate them. I simply used my political skills to achieve my aims by working around them.
The Rs had once been much the same, but they were rapidly moving toward lock-step, group-think politics. We Ds thought they were wrong in this and had contempt for it.
Flash forward a few decades and both parties have become machines representing singular viewpoints. Elected officials are expected to behave like puppets, and those who don’t are punished as viciously as the party has the power to punish them. With someone like me, who they couldn’t beat in an election, that boiled down to yelling at me, picketing me, trying to censure me, and refusing to break bread with me.
I was universally dissed, hated and despised within my own party.
However, after I had cried enough tears to be tired of myself, I wiped my little eyes and realized one simple fact: I might be Universally Despised within my own party, but I was Representative Universally Despised. So long as I held office, they were going to have to come to me. They would need me. And, once I left office, none of it would matter.
That’s exactly how it played out. I stood my ground and I took my beating and God used me to pass pro-life legislation. As time went by, my colleagues realized that trying to change me through bullying was a zero-sum game. They never learned to love me. But they did learn that abusing me just made me mad. It never once changed my vote.
What does all this have to say about Representative Holcomb and his decision to move from the Ds to the Rs? Just this: He won’t be all that much happier now that he’s switched, and he’s missing a chance to be truly productive for life by staying put and fighting it out with the Ds.
The reason he won’t be all that much happier is that the Rs are just as monolithic and even a bit meaner than the Ds. If he didn’t like being pushed to do things he knew were wrong when he was a D, he isn’t going to like it any better when he’s an R. If all he wants is a committee chairmanship or some such, he may like it OK. But if he actually believes in what he’s doing and he has one smidgeon of rock-hard commitment to the things he does in office, he’s just traded one set of brick bats for another.
Holding public office is not about being loved by your colleagues. It’s about doing a job of work for the people who elected you. If you are true to that ideal, then it does not matter which political party you are in. You will accomplish good. You will also find yourself on the outs with your monolithic, group-think political party.
If you are a Jesus-loving Christian who actually tries to follow Christ the Lord in all you do, then you can count on the fact that you are going to get kicked around. But, if you stay true to Him, you can also count on the fact that you will be helping to build the Kingdom in a dying world. You will, no matter how much it hurts, be the light.