50.50: Opinion

Why the issue of abortion could decide who controls the US Senate

OPINION: The issue of abortion could swing the election – but not because of the ex-footballer’s recent scandal

Chrissy Stroop
Chrissy Stroop
18 October 2022, 3.40pm

Democratic senator Raphael Warnock (centre) debates Libertarian candidate Chase Oliver in the Atlanta Press Club Loudermilk-Young General Election Debate, 16 October 2022. The Republican candidate, Herschel Walker, chose not to attend the debate

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Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy Stock

One of the most-watched Senate races in the upcoming US midterm elections pits incumbent senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat and career pastor, against Republican challenger Herschel Walker, a former American football star.

Walker was featured on former president Donald Trump’s reality TV show ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ in 2009, and has reportedly been called a pathological liar by his own campaign staffers.

Walker has lied about the number of children he has and recently made headlines over an ex-girlfriend coming forward with evidence that he paid for her to have an abortion in 2009 – even though he supports banning the procedure without exceptions.

He is strongly supported by white evangelicals, the most consistently pro-Trump demographic throughout his term in office (and afterwards too, in promoting the ‘big lie’ of the ‘stolen’ 2020 election). And in the aftermath of the abortion scandal, there have been no signs that evangelical support for Walker is wavering.

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Walker has dismissed systemic racism and denounced Black Lives Matter protesters as “rioters” and “looters”. Meanwhile, Warnock is a social justice pastor in the Black Church tradition, and the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s former pulpit.

White Republican politicians frequently attempt to preemptively deflect accusations of racism – even while forging ahead with a policy agenda that perpetuates racial injustice – by surrounding themselves with people from minority groups who share their right-wing views. Trump took advantage of this strategy at every opportunity, posing frequently with African-American supporters, including many charismatic Protestant leaders, and meeting with pop stars like Kanye West.

Walker was himself appointed to an advisory role in the Trump White House on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. He has exaggerated the significance of this position, claiming he had 75 people working for him in Washington.

Clearly, Walker and Trump have a lot in common – not least their staunch and unwavering political support from white evangelical Christians. Much of the commentary on Walker’s Senate run after the abortion scandal broke focuses on the hypocrisy of his Christian supporters, taking a cue from the endless think pieces of the early Trump years that asked how, after their fierce policing of Bill Clinton’s morals in the 1990s, evangelicals could possibly support a serial adulterer who was caught on tape bragging about his ability to grab women “by the pussy” without consent.

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Then, as now, many journalists seem to imagine this hypocritical double standard is something new for evangelicals, but it is not.

I was born in 1980 and raised evangelical, and I have seen how the evangelical approach to forgiveness is weaponised to protect the powerful – particularly white men and any other people with high status in the community – at the expense of the vulnerable. Most of the examples involving people from my childhood aren’t my stories to tell, but the very public tale of how the Duggar family – of reality TV show ‘19 Kids and Counting’ infamy – dealt with Josh Duggar’s molestation of his younger sisters illustrates what I mean. In some ways, it’s even easier for evangelicals to forgive Herschel Walker than Donald Trump, because Walker, who speaks their language fluently, recently claimed to be “saved by grace”, a reference to the evangelical doctrine of gaining salvation through faith alone rather than ‘works’ – thus laying claim to his own evangelical credentials. Trump, by contrast, stumbled to “speak evangelical” during the 2016 election cycle, claiming he had never asked God for forgiveness and making his infamous “two Corinthians” gaffe.

Meanwhile, evangelicals have been attacking Warnock for his stance as a “pro-choice pastor” since he ran for his Senate seat in 2020. Many have taken to Twitter to call him a “heretic” over his support for access to abortion care.

While tweets hardly constitute a scientific measure of anything, it is evident once again that no critique of hypocrisy – a hypocrisy that is baked into the authoritarianism of high-control religious groups – will deter right-wing Christian voters from seeking political power, including and especially the power to control the bodies of women and queer people.

Control of the Senate after 2022 may well hinge on the outcome of the race in Georgia – it is seen as one of the closest seats of the 35 being contested – and Walker’s supporters know that as well as Warnock’s do. White evangelicals also turn out to vote in larger numbers than most Americans, and Georgia is a state well known for voter suppression efforts that Democrats will have to overcome. However, the demographics of the state have been shifting in Democrats’ favour in recent years.

At the end of the day, in this much-watched race, Herschel Walker’s abortion scandal is unlikely to shift the outcome in any meaningful way, and pundits need to better understand why accusations of hypocrisy concerning their vaunted ‘family values’ leave typical conservative evangelicals unmoved.

But, with the real threat of a draconian national abortion ban looming should Republicans take the reins in Congress, the abortion issue itself may well play a decisive role, as I expect it will in a number of races this year. In Georgia, which should remain a competitive state for the foreseeable future, access to abortion care could be the issue that pushes Warnock over the top.

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