Todd Akin’s memoir, Fighting Back, does not provide students of politics with a particular guidance to Akin’s career or to his failed 2012 senate bid. Instead, he provides readers with an excellent introduction to the Christian right. Akin’s Christian beliefs are the underpinning of his political career in good times and bad. Evangelical Christians are an integral part of the Republican Party’s base today and Akin’s story illustrates why. Many readers will of course be interested in how his career was derailed by two or three sentences on a local TV show. He acknowledges an error in word choice but not in fundamental belief.
Todd Akin’s faith as an evangelical Christian is part and parcel of his personal and professional life. Born again as a young man, Akin sees God’s workings in all his life choices. He goes to great lengths to show such underpinnings in the words of America’s founding fathers. To him, the United States is clearly a Christian nation and his faith and patriotism merge. That faith and patriotism are joined to support the idea of very limited governance, particularly at the federal level. Except for funding a strong military, Akin prides himself on being against any programs that extend federal power. In the House of Representatives, he opposed George W. Bush and many of his Republican colleagues by voting against the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the prescription drug plan for seniors or Medicare Part D Act of 2003 for that reason.
First elected to the Missouri House of Representatives by a narrow margin from a suburban St. Louis district in 1988, he faced no serious challenge for over a decade. In 2012, he sought the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. He would oppose what seemed to be a vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Claire McCaskill, former Missouri state auditor who won the Senate seat in 2006. Akin survived a tight primary contest against a more traditional Republican mainstream office seeker. He did not hide his strong social conservatism and attacked Obamacare as an example of government intrusion into personal life.
Akin’s telling of his personal and political story illustrates a point made by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge in The Right Nation: “American conservatives are often more motivated by an all-consuming loathing of their instinctive enemies … than they are by maintaining and defending a particular set of intellectual beliefs.” Akin is quick to describe the enemies: the federal government, the mainstream media, supporters of climate change, and especially those who are not pro-life. He supports the military, personal ownership of guns, and home schooling. Otherwise he gives no hint of what he voted for in Congress or of any federal program he felt should be enacted or retained.
Akin comes from a strong tradition of individualism and piety in the United States. Through hard work and the acceptance of God’s will, he was successful and believes others can be too. Like many conservatives, he fails to address the growing inequality in the nation and eschews any mention of minority or women’s rights. There is an underlying current of Horatio Algerism in Akin’s thought backed by God’s will. He also equates free enterprise/capitalism with individual freedom. Government intrusion is neither right nor welcome.
It is clear in this memoir that opposition to abortion is the most important issue to Akin as it is for many on the Christian right. He frequently mentions the thousands and thousands of murders he feels have taken place since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. The sanctity of unborn life is his focus and he does not allow exceptions. On August 19, 2012 Charles Jaco asked him about rape victims on a local KTVI-television program in St. Louis; Akin’s answer probably cost him a seat in the U.S. Senate. The incumbent senator, Claire McCaskill, was vulnerable in increasingly red Missouri because of her close ties to President Obama (she was one of his early supporters during the 2008 primary season) and her support of the Affordable Care Act.
Akin’s word choice in that interview lost him independent and moderate Republican support. He said that in cases of “legitimate rape,” the body can shut down, preventing pregnancy. A woman’s stress would curtail fertilization. The use of the word legitimate coupled with rape disturbed many and certainly pregnancy has occurred in cases of rape. Akin had expressed deep-held beliefs about the rights of the unborn in an awkward fashion. He later acknowledged rape to be a violent and reprehensible crime. But it was clear that his sympathy lay with those yet to be born. He makes no mention of what the effects of an unwanted pregnancy from an act of violence could be on the victim of rape. Protection of women is not his concern. His full statement on Jaco’s show was:
Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.
Opposition to abortion has been a critical issue in mobilizing social conservatives. Like Akin, his brethren on the right frequently oppose any extension of governmental activity through social programs. But they do support strong government action to enforce their definition of life. The emphasis is clearly on rights of the unborn, not on the needs of those already born.
In light of the fierce congressional struggles of recent years, it is interesting to find that Congressman Akin eschewed compromise and took great pride in saying he was not pragmatic. Although the tone in his memoir appears moderate, he brooks no exception to the principles he finds in his faith and in his interpretation of the views of the founders.
He is quick to identify his enemies. Most of the media are on the other side. After the implosion caused by his remarks on Jaco, he includes some of the Fox news spokesmen and many Republicans on his enemy list. After all, he had been a loyal servant to the cause. He could not see why he had been abandoned by so many, particularly those also opposing abortion. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Republican operative Karl Rove were especially quick to denounce Akin. He may have spoken poorly but he spoke the truth as he saw it. A true believer often cannot see that others, holding different beliefs, may see their beliefs as being as valid as his own. Akin was particularly grateful to Newt Gingrich for his support after the Jaco interview, not acknowledging the irony that Gingrich’s marital morality had not always matched Akin’s.
Akin comes across as a strong family man. His love for his parents, wife, and children is palpable and unquestioning. He treasures the friendship and support of those who share his views. He wants to do good every day. This good represents personal interaction. He does not see government as a mechanism for good. Individualism and prayer remain his hallmark.
Akin’s recounting brings to mind Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Similar to the Kansas conservatives Frank describes, Akin fails to criticize the economic system and its failings. He does not discussion the Great Recession of 2008 or its effects on ordinary people. Free enterprise fits with his view of the founders’ beliefs and his social conservatism. Private power is not the challenge to him that public power is.
Mainstream Republicans from the corporate world support the Todd Akins on the ballot. They in effect accept social conservatism in exchange for low taxes and little regulation of business. As Frank has noted, “The conservatism set off by abortion sustains an economic policy that benefits the wealthy.” Many evangelicals are members of the middle and working classes, whose pocket books have shrunk considerably over the last few decades. Yet, they subsume their economic self-interest and stake their ground on social issues, especially abortion. And the corporate types who play a large role in funding Republican candidates let their economic desires subsume social issues.
That was the case until Akin’s remarks on “legitimate rape.” These were just too far outside the boundary of civil discourse although Akin never quite saw why. Instead he felt betrayed.
Akin’s memoir shows its readers an important look at the tenets underlying social conservatism. Since these conservatives are a key component of the Republican base, their belief system should be examined and Akin allows this in his recounting. We quickly discern that faith and the handiwork of God are keys to all his decision making. In core matters, he cannot fathom another way to judge policy. His writing is plain and clear.
What is important in this volume is not necessarily Akin’s history of his career. Rather the book illustrates the key characteristics of many in the Christian right who make a difference at the ballot box. When there is such fundamental belief in certain tenets, political and societal division is inevitable and gridlock prevails.