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GOP exodus raises questions about life, liberty

WASHINGTON (BP) — The record number of Republicans leaving Congress not only raises questions about control of the House of Representatives after November’s elections but the fate of such issues as the sanctity of human life and religious freedom.

When Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, 48, announced April 11 he would retire at the end of this term, his decision brought to 38 the number of GOP members who have said they will not run for re-election, according to the Pew Research Center. The Senate’s April 19 confirmation of Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma increases that total to 39. More Republicans could still announce their retirements. In addition, the seats of two other GOP members who resigned this term will be filled by special election before November, Pew reported.

The total of voluntary House Republican departures surpasses all others recorded by Vital Statistics of Congress since 1930, according to Pew.

Meanwhile, 17 Democrats have announced they will not run for re-election, Pew reported.

As a result, Republicans find themselves defending more than twice as many open seats as Democrats in a House where the GOP holds a 236-193 advantage, with six vacancies.

In the Senate, Republicans hold a 51-47 edge over Democrats, but two independents caucus with the minority party. The Democrats are faced with defending 26 of the 35 seats contested this year, but four GOP members have resigned or announced their retirements while only one Democrat has left office.

In addition, the Democratic Party also holds an advantage in congressional polling. The Real Clear Politics average of seven generic polls between April 6 and 17 favored Democrats by 5.5 points.

The parties’ platform planks — and their legislative results to a lesser extent — have long reflected a sharp divide on abortion and other sanctity of life issues. Democratic control of the House or both chambers would appear to be devastating for congressional efforts to protect unborn children and the conscience rights of health-care professionals who oppose abortion.

On religious freedom, Republicans have led the way in seeking to protect the United States’ first liberty and extend that freedom to other countries. Democrats, meanwhile, have increasingly favored sexual liberty over religious liberty in the showdown over same-sex marriage and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

Some Southern Baptist advocates for the sanctity of human life and religious freedom observed it is not just the Democrats who need to improve their legislative action on these issues.

“We are grateful for the leadership Speaker Ryan provided, especially as seen in his conviction for the vulnerable and the invisible,” said Travis Wussow, vice president for public policy of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “But as we learned through the lack of pro-life and religious liberty victories in the recent omnibus spending bill, governing takes more than just one voice.

“The vulnerable lost out because politicians of both parties played politics with issues of human dignity,” Wussow told Baptist Press in an email interview.

Among the legislative proposals the ERLC urged Congress to include in the spending bill adopted in late March were freedom of conscience protections for health-care workers and the defunding of Planned Parenthood, the country’s leading abortion provider. Those measures, as well as immigration reform, did not survive, however.

Hunter Baker — an associate professor of political science at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and 2016 candidate for the GOP nomination in Tennessee’s Eighth District — said both parties fall short on promoting religious freedom. He ran for Congress with the purpose of helping citizens think about protecting religious liberty.

“Democrats seem to have largely concluded religious liberty is code for discrimination and prejudice,” Baker said in an email interview with BP. “The Republican Party isn’t sure where it stands. Christians in the party are up against the Chamber of Commerce influence in this regard. They’d rather we give up the culture war stuff entirely.”

Followers of Christ should hold both office holders and candidates accountable, Wussow said.

“As Christians, we should engage our current representatives directly on the issues we care about, such as religious liberty and human dignity, at all times,” he said. “We should be unafraid to evaluate and challenge any candidates to see where they stand on these important issues.

“The Bible shows us who to care for, and that’s everyone God cares for, including those who are too often invisible in the world around us.”

Baker told BP, “We should try to elect office holders who recognize religious liberty as a human right and a major constitutional value.”

He said, however, most of the action regarding religious freedom takes place currently in the executive branch.

“Regulatory actions pose the greatest danger in the federal government,” he said. “I think Trump’s election provided a respite in that regard (if only because he doesn’t necessarily share the secularist agenda), but it seems to me that most Christian ministries outside the strict confines of church buildings face some degree of risk almost all the time.”

On the life issue, a Republican loss of congressional control might not be a catastrophe, apart from Senate confirmation of judicial nominees, Baker said.

“Most of the action on the life issue is at the state level, so if Congress were to change hands much of the agenda would be unaffected,” he told BP. “However, the Supreme Court still matters for the end game. It is important to elect and retain senators who will confirm judges who recognize that the right to life should be respected in law.”

Politically, religious conservatives have had an important impact on the life issue, Baker said.

“I think the greatest success of evangelicals and Catholics in politics has had to do with creating, growing and sustaining a strong pro-life movement,” he said. “We haven’t gotten what we wanted through the court, but the progress in terms of state laws and various reforms has been worthwhile.”

While the GOP has been known as the pro-life party over the last four decades, pro-life Democrats in the House have shrunk by about 90 percent in the last 30 years.

Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) has been seeking to defend the sanctity of human life in the party and to elect pro-life candidates since its founding in 1999. DLFA has criticized the party’s opposition to some of its own incumbents, urging it to adopt a “big tent” approach.

“Democrats have an opportunity to take back the House in November,” DLFA Executive Director Kristen Day said in a March 21 news release, “but the key to winning is a Big Tent approach of inclusion and support for candidates who represent the views of their districts.”

While sanctity of life and religious freedom are his top priorities, Baker cited two other issues he considers important for voters.

“We need to elect people who will try to find a constructive path forward on immigration for our brothers and sisters in the human family under the fatherhood of God,” he said. “And we need to see some Christian statesmen emerge, by which I mean leaders who will encourage all of us to engage in civic virtue and mutual respect.”

Jonathan Leeman — author of a new book on faith and politics, as well as an elder of a Southern Baptist church — had some suggestions for Southern Baptists as they consider this year’s elections. He told BP in written comments:

— “First, remember you’re commanded to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. In a democracy, that means you vote. This is a stewardship of authority God has given you, and you should not abdicate.

— “Second, vote for the candidate with the best record for treating people as made in God’s image, whether unborn or born, minority or majority, old or young.

— “Third, remember that our hope does not depend on the outcome of these elections, even as we seek to love our neighbors and do justice by participating in them. Our hope is in Christ, and His victory is certain. We win! And the fact that our ultimate hopes lie elsewhere means we can afford to interact with those who vote differently with grace and charity. The outcomes might be favorable or unfavorable. Either way, our job as ambassadors of Christ’s kingdom is fixed.”

Leeman’s new book is “How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age.” He is editorial director of the 9Marks ministry and an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in Cheverly, Md.

Wussow told BP the ERLC “will continue to press our government to care for the well-being of all people made in the image of God, especially those who are invisible, voiceless and vulnerable.”