Abortion and the Separation of Church and State

A friend watching the West Wing asked me to explain why a priest would discuss being ‘pro-life’ and versus ‘partial birth’ with a politician and what that means in terms of the separation of church and state. I ended up writing a very long response and figured I might as well share it here:

Wow, yeah, abortion is one of the most controversial issues in American politics. You’re on the right track: those generally for it are called ‘pro-choice’ (as in women have the choice of what to do with their bodies) and those against it are ‘pro-life’ (as in believing the a fetus is alive and so terminating a pregnancy is killing a person). ‘Pro-choice’ people tend to generally be politically liberal, and thus Democrats, while ‘pro-life’ people tend to be conservative and thus Republicans.

What is often called ‘partial birth’ abortion, particularly by those who oppose it (notice the importance that language plays in this controversy), is a form of abortion that is performed relatively late into the pregnancy. The Wikipedia page has good information on it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intact_dilation_and_extraction. It’s very rare but controversial because the fetus is large enough to be seen by the naked eye and is taken out through the cervix and vagina similar to how a baby would be born. Because of this the practice is opposed by many Americans, including many who are otherwise ‘pro-choice’. In the last ten years opponents to abortion have pushed for bans of this procedure, often successfully, both because they simply find it abhorrent and because they believe that incrementally restricting the conditions where abortion is allowed will eventually lead to an almost or even complete ban of abortion, something that is currently politically impossible. For these same two reasons ‘pro-choice’ people are against banning this procedure.

As you can imagine, many religions and religious people are opposed to abortion. For some, particularly more right-wing ones, opposition to abortion is the key thing they look for when considering who to support, if anyone. These right-wing Christians (they are almost always Christians, and evangelical Protestants at that) are well-known for campaigning very hard for (Republican) candidates they support but also not coming out to vote if they don’t think any of the candidates (ie the Republican one) is sufficiently opposed to abortion.

This brings us to the question of separation of church and state. A little history: the First Amendment of the Constitution starts by saying “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” So, there can be no official religion nor can people be prevented from practicing their own religion. Most historians say, and I believe them, that many of the Founding Fathers were not very religious at all and, at the same time, wanted to protect religion (any religion) from becoming a tool of the state by being the ‘established’ (i.e. official) religion. Many of the first parts of the United States were colonized by religious dissenters from Britain who did not follow the official Church of England (the Anglican Church, called the Episcopalian Church in the US) and so were forced to flee the country. Because of this history of persecution and because there were already many different religions being practiced, the Founding Fathers wanted to make sure that no official religion could be established. That being said, if I remember my history courses correctly, for until maybe the 1830s or perhaps even later it was assumed as a matter of course that this only applied to Christian religions or, at most, Judeo-Christian religions. This is now not the case and is understand very broadly to include most religious practices, for instance even in recent times allowing (sometimes) certain religions to use hallucinogens (cannabis for rastafarians, peyote for Native American religions, etc) which are otherwise illegal.

Despite this history there have been attempts throughout the history of the US to assert that America is a ‘Christian nation.’ Sometimes campaigners have wished to amend the Constitution, and sometimes they have sought lower hanging fruit. The Constitutional changes have always failed, lacking both common support and being inevitably found illegal. However, less attempts have succeeded. For instance the words ‘under God’ were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pledge_of_Allegiance#Addition_of_the_words_.22under_God.22). While it has been challenged in court, none of the challenges have succeeded.

In the last 50 years or so evangelical Protestants, who earlier had avoided politics, have become much more politically engaged and have often pushed for more religious references in public life. Some argue that previous rules prohibiting religious expression in public (and even governmental) places are too restrictive because they end up prohibiting individual religious practices (versus ones endorsed by the government). This has generally been supported in the courts. There have also been attempts to push specific religious views, which have had mixed success and, in mine opinion, is totally unconstitutional.

A similar issue, though somewhat unrelated, is whether religious leaders should advocate specific political policies and promote specific candidates. Traditionally religious leaders and organizations would speak generally (their principles, after all, could directly agree or disagree with the thing in question) but not for specific things. This partially from the traditions I mentioned earlier of keeping free from government influence (and, in some religions the belief that the physical world, and so government, is somewhat wicked and not the concern of their organization).

That being said, it is also because churches are considered charities and so are exempt from taxes. However, religious organizations can and have lost their tax-exempt status if they engaged in direct business activities unrelated to their religion (this has happened to some televangelists). More importantly for what we’ve been talking about, religious organizations, like any tax-exempt charity, can lose their tax exemption if they participate in a political campaign on behalf of a candidate (http://www.irs.gov/charities/charitable/article/0,,id=163395,00.html). As the role of religion has changed in America (not just evangelical Protestants becoming more politically active like I mentioned but also things like Catholic politicians often being more ‘pro-choice’ than Catholic priests) this boundary is being tested more and more.

The debate, as always in things like this, is whether religious groups have gone too far or not far enough. Personally I am generally happy with the status quo. Having attended a Catholic school for most of my primary and second education, I am sympathetic to religion and believe in the freedom of religion. There are other countries I have lived in, such as France, where they seem to believe that the separation of church in state is about freedom from religion. That being said, I am an atheist and believe it is both morally wrong and unconstitutional to push religion in politics and government the way many conservative evangelical Christians do.

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One Response to Abortion and the Separation of Church and State

  1. Max says:

    I’m not sure what specific cases you have in mind (I know nothing about this history), but how can a proposed constitutional change be found illegal, if it’s pursued through the regular amendment process? I mean, you could amend the constitution to force everybody to pledge allegiance daily to the Cylon overlords, and it wouldn’t be illegal, right? Are these state constitutional amendments that were proposed, rather? (In which case they could be unconstitutional under the federal Constitution.)

    Similarly, how could it be unconstitutional to push religion into politics? Generally speaking it’s categorically impossible for private actors to do something unconstitutional. The one exception is the 13th Amendment, which says slavery cannot exist in the U.S. (This is a bit of Con Law trivia — the only provision that applies to everybody and hence is immune to the so-called “state action” doctrine.)

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