Last week I submitted my column—on the rather ho hum nature of this year’s presidential race—and several hours later Missouri U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin’s dizzyingly ignorant remarks about rape, pregnancy, and abortion changed the political landscape. Now the establishment wing of the GOP wants him out; he’s repeatedly vowed to stay in; and Claire McCaskill just might eke out a victory in a state that a few weeks ago favored Akin by 5 percent. Democratic candidates across the nation seize on his comments to bolster their campaigns, while Republicans publicly denounce him in an effort to save their own skins. Akin’s remarks certainly deserve the attention, but it’s revealing that it took such absurd comments about women’s reproductive health to draw attention to the uncomfortably cozy relationship between religious convictions and political discourse in this country.
What an interesting convergence last week: members of the female Russian punk band, Pussy Riot, were sentenced to two years in a penal colony for their public rant/prayer against Vladimir Putin, and Representative Akin unwittingly started a mass uprising over female anatomy. One would think that Akin, who—like Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan—believes that all abortions should be banned, would also adhere to the “Let’s-get-those-Commies” shtick that has been a mainstay of American conservatism for decades. But there’s been a palpable shift lately as the more extreme wing of the Republican Party seems to feel some kinship with the autocrats. Putin’s use of the Russian Orthodox Church to prop up his oppressive oligarchy in Russia is not so very different from Congressman Akin’s attempt to use of his own narrow religious views to greatly restrict women’s reproductive rights.
According to a 2011 Gallup Poll, only 20% of Americans believe that all abortions should be illegal. Even a big chunk of those who identify as “Pro-Life” believe there are some circumstances in which it should be allowed. Yet Akin believes he represents a silent majority of Americans who would condone a police state to enforce an outright ban on all abortions. His views, taken to their logical conclusion, would lead to a society in which neighbors rat on neighbors; patients turn in health care providers; extremists target “rumored” abortion providers, and women die from botched, unsanitary procedures. Regardless of your personal views on abortion—and let’s admit the issue is both complex and highly emotional—most Americans do not wish to live in a country that resembles a KGB-like state. Sending patients and doctors to prison or fining them for making highly personal health care decisions—is neither a moderate nor measured response to “Safe, Legal and Rare.”
We tend to feel superior when we ponder the Russian electorate’s willingness to bring an autocrat like Putin back to power. Nick Cohen of London’s Observer argues that “Putin offers the Orthodox Church a partial restoration of it tsarist privileges” and Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I “returns the favor by making support of the Kremlin…a quasi-religious duty.” But just as Putin looks to Kirill I, for continued support to legitimize his power, so too do ultra-conservative Republican candidates seek power and legitimacy from Christian leaders with their particular interpretations of Christian thought. There is no universal agreement among American churches and synagogues on the issue of abortion, but some political candidates talk like autocrats: theirs is the one legitimate view and they will impose it on everyone—despite federal law.
The American Right quickly condemned Pussy Riot’s punk prayer in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral, calling it an example of blasphemy and nihilism. (Frankly, given that they’re part of a “twenty-something” punk art collective, it’s kind of their job to be nihilistic.) There has not been similar condemnation of Putin’s autocratic rule or a denunciation of the Orthodox Patriarch who calls the Russian President a “miracle of God.” (Talk about blasphemy!) Tom Bethell, senior editor at the conservative American Spectator, seemed rather envious of the Kremlin when he wrote in a piece entitled “Blasphemous Chic” that “the Russian leadership and the Russian Orthodox Church are moving closer together and won’t be entertaining the ‘separation of Church and state’ any time soon.” Further, Bethell’s defense of the Orthodox Patriarch is quite revealing in light of Kirill’s statement that the “human rights concept is used to cover up lies, falsehoods and insults against religion and national values.” Cohen highlights that in Kirill’s book, “Freedom and Responsibility: A Search for Harmony”, he vociferously denounces secular countries that allow women to control their own fertility; those who disagree with him are tools of the “puppet masters” who follow “Jewish philosophers.” The Patriarch’s anti-Semitic blame is eerily reminiscent of a sign I once saw at an abortion protest rally in the early 1990s: “Jewish doctors are butchering Christian babies.”
Some new-wave American Republicans seem fairly comfortable with more autocratic control over the lives of American citizens—as long as they’re the ones tailoring and enforcing the restrictions. Akin represents a highly energized movement of (mostly) male, paternalistic politicians who believe they must protect women from themselves. They inject religion into political debate effortlessly and without intended irony, and we continue to let them do it.
Several years ago a Russian friend of ours, who now teaches at an American university, remarked that Americans were entirely too smug about our freedoms. She argued that she saw plenty of Americans with latent fascist tendencies. I thought it was hyperbole at the time. Now I’m not so smug.