GREENVILLE — I came to South Carolina to learn, see, and hear opinions that I don’t encounter every day in Seattle. What I didn’t expect was to be asked for my own thoughts — and certainly not on abortion.
But that’s what went down Wednesday, more than once.
The day began in a sit-down meeting in Columbia with Matthew Saxon, 27, at the Moe’s Southwest Grill, where he works to pay his way through divinity school at Columbia International University. I’d met up with him hoping to hear the perspective of a young evangelical South Carolinian.
Matthew had plenty of views that defied my stereotype of a southern Christian.
He said he thought free market capitalism needed to be checked when it ignored people in need.
He said the problem of illegal immigration had to be handled with compassion.
It was all sounding pretty liberal, or at least moderate. But when I told him as much and asked him what would keep him from just voting for Obama, I found out.
“Socialism or health care are not intrinsically Christian issues. It bothers me when people treat those as Bible issues,” he explained “Abortion is a Bible issue – clear cut in my opinion.”
I asked him a few follow up questions, and then he did something I wasn’t expecting.
He turned the question around and asked me what I thought about it.
The smart thing to do would probably have been to dismiss the question, and tell him I was there to hear South Carolinians’ views, not voice my own. But at this moment, in this place, I wanted to have this conversation. This wasn’t Seattle or New York City and an opportunity was at hand.
So I answered.
What followed was an intensely personal conversation, both from Matthew’s side and my own. It’s not surprising: the issue of abortion is always personal, whether because of a personal experience with it, a fundamental religious belief, or a deep conviction that the government shouldn’t try to control reproductive choices.
The conversation was tense, but not hateful, and that the one thing Matthew and I shared in common on the issue was a sense of being morally judged by the other side for our beliefs.
That feeling of judgement emerged later that evening, when I sat in a room in upcountry Greenville with 500 anti-abortion activists, at a pro-life forum brought together by advocacy group Personhood USA.
Mitt Romney, the only candidate whose pro-life credentials seem to be at all in question, was notably absent from the event, officially citing a prior commitment.
With him gone, the event took on the vibe of a pro-life rally, with each candidate in turn attesting to how pro-life they were and how active they’d be on the issue if elected president.
Rick Perry (who dropped out of the race this morning) was the first to take the stage. Perry professed that, “when it comes to protecting innocent life, that is a constitutional right, not just an idea,” and later told the crowd “I’m just proud to be a foot soldier in your army.”
Newt Gingrich was next, also affirming his belief that “we are fully human at conception.” When the panel of 3 advocates asked him about turning points in his position on abortion, he shared an anecdote about a woman who had approached him in a restaurant when he was house speaker to criticise his pro-life position, telling him that to her a fetus was nothing more than a malignant tumor in her body. That’s when, Gingrich said, he knew just how black and white the issue was.
Rick Santorum, who may have the strongest legislative track record of opposing abortion of any of candidates, repeated the same rallying cry he’d delivered at an earlier campaign event in Spartanburg, saying “I don’t believe life begins at conception. I know life begins at conception.”
Ron Paul, who was patched into the event from Washington DC, but still garnered 20 seconds of raucous applause when he was announced, tied the issue into his libertarian message, saying, “You can’t protect liberty if you don’t protect life itself.”
Undoubtedly, there were some subtle differences in their positions, but I found it hard to pick out nuance from the kind of pro-life rhetoric that I’d often heard referenced indignantly by pro-choice Seattlites, but that I’d never really heard first-hand.
Honestly, it wasn’t easy listening to the candidates spin sound-bites about “life” and “personhood” that I so strongly disagreed with. But I guess that’s what I came for.