Abortion: Mixing Religion and Politics

by Jay Johansen
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Politicians and political parties should not discuss abortion and there should be no laws restricting abortion, because abortion is a religious issue, and for a politician to get involved in it would be mixing religion and politics.

Ministers and churches should not discuss abortion and there should not be official church doctrines on abortion, because abortion is a political issue, and for a religious leader to get involved in it would be mixing religion and politics.

One common argument of pro-choicers is that it is illegitimate to make laws about abortion, because opposition to abortion is based on religious belief, and in a diverse democratic society it is not acceptable to make laws based on religious belief. And, they say, this is not just their opinion. Our Constitutional specifically requires a wall of separation between church and state.

Actually, you will search the U.S. Constitution in vain for the words "wall of separation between church and state". (The words "Separation of church and state" are found in the constitution of the former Soviet Union, Article 52, Clause 2.) The U.S. Constitution prohibits an "establishment of religion". This was a term that was well understood at the time it was written. Most countries had an "established church", that is, a church supported by tax money, whose priests or ministers were involved in government decisions, and which included, at least in theory, every citizen of the country as a member (with occasional exemptions).

From the ratification of the Constitution until the early 1960s the understanding of the First Amendment was essentially that the government could not support any one church organization. The Bible was regularly used as a textbook in public schools. Presidents used Bible quotes to justify and explain their policies and called for national days of prayer. (Not only presidents who were ardent Christians, like Washington and Adams, but even those who would certainly not be part of the "religious right" if they were alive today, like Jefferson and Lincoln.)

While there were surely difficult cases in this policy, it was generally coherent. The government would not require its citizens to be members of any particular church, or use tax money to support one particular church, or give any special official recognition to the priests or pastors of any particular church. But government policies could be motivated by religious belief, and religious people were not excluded from any role in government. In other words, a church could speak out on any public issue, and the official recognition it would receive would be no less and no more than any other church, or any other organization for that matter. (Presumably subject to the usual political influences, like how many members it had.)

But exactly what does the present theory of separation of church and state mean? It is generally explained to mean that it is inappropriate to enact any moral code that is based on a religious belief into law.

But what does that mean? Religions routinely include all sorts of moral injunctions. For example, almost every religion in the world forbids murder. (Surely almost every American has heard the Bible verse quoted, "Thou shalt not kill".) Does this mean that laws against murder are illegitimate?

The separationists reply that the fact that so many religions agree makes it okay. It's not exactly clear to me why this should be so. If one religion says that X is a religious belief and all the others disagree, then it is a religious belief. But if many religions agree that X is a religious belief, then it isn't.

It could be argued that the issue is not whether something is a religious belief, but whether it represents the general concensus of society. That is, if the vast majority of people agree that X is morally wrong and should be illegal, than it is okay to make it illegal. But if only a tiny minority thinks X should be illegal, they have no right in a democracy to impose their view on others.

But this is precisely the argument that the separationists do not make. They say just the opposite. They readily concede, for example, that polls routinely show that strong majorities of Americans believe that there should be prayer in schools. Nevertheless, they say, this cannot be allowed, because that is a religious practice. The point is not the popularity of a belief, but whether it is religious or secular.

So how do we decide whether a belief is religious or secular? Hinduism teaches that it is wrong to harm animals. Does this mean that any laws against cruelty to animals are illegitimate? It is said that American Indian religion involves great respect for nature, and that the Indians took careful care of the natural environment. Does this mean that any laws against environmental pollution are illegitimate?

There was recently (as I write this) a public relations campaign built around the theme "What Would Jesus Drive?" that criticized SUVs for being insufficiently fuel-efficient. The people behind this campaign called for the government to enact tougher fuel economy standards for SUVs. And of course, the defenders of the principle of separation of church and state promptly denounced this campaign, as yet another effort by religious people to use the government to impose their religious beliefs on others. Oh wait, that never happened. Why not? If it's wrong to use the power of government to impose your religious beliefs about abortion on others, why isn't it wrong to use the power of government to impose your religious beliefs about fuel economy on others?

Apparently the only issues where the principle of separation of church and state applies are cases where Christian religious teaching contradicts modern liberal opinion: abortion, homosexuality, a few others. It's never applied to Jewish or Moslem beliefs. It's never applied when Christian groups take a liberal political stand. So is this really about religion, or is it just about liberal politics?

As I write this, the Democrats in Congress are blocking the appointment of nominees for federal judge who oppose abortion. They say that these nominees are religious extremists who would impose their religious beliefs about abortion on the whole country. In other words, they oppose these nominees because of their religious beliefs.

But nowhere does the Constitution say that a government official may not have any given set of religious beliefs. On the other hand, it does clearly say, "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." (Article 6, Clause 3). To declare that a candidate is unfit for public office because he holds certain religious beliefs is a violation of the plain words of the Constitution.

If you believe that abortion is okay, that's fine, you're entitled to your beliefs. But don't try to impose them on others by voting against any candidate who doesn't share your beliefs.


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8 Aug 2003.

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