“Religious war” is a pathetic oxymoron, unnecessarily repeated throughout history with murderous effects. Open any history book; read millennia of examples where humans dishonored God in the purported name of honoring God. The most vicious and long-lasting violations were internal civil wars: Northern Ireland; India’s Partition; the Thirty Years War; the Holocaust; and, on and on and on. These violations are not simply fossils of antiquity; they continue today: 9/11; Israel-Palestine; Sudan; Bosnia; Iraq; Nigeria; and, Lebanon. Religious violence is, regrettably, a proven part of humankind’s DNA.
America is hardly immune. Pilgrims fled the church-state establishment that outlawed their beliefs, then hanged Quakers on Boston Common for preaching their beliefs. Roger Williams founded Rhode Island and the Calvert family founded Maryland as sanctuaries against religious violence.
America’s constitutional framers understood this human failing. The framers’ solution was as revolutionary as democracy: build a “wall” (Jefferson’s word) separating church from state. By law, the American government must stay completely out of religious matters. No citizen can use government to impose his/her religious beliefs on anyone else. The first words in the First Amendment declare:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…
Well-meaning Americans repeatedly chip at this prohibitive wall. They ignore its existence (with prayers at public schools) or ridicule its extreme interpretations (no Christmas mangers on courthouse lawns). Yet, Americans intuitively appreciate the goodness of separating government and religion. Politics demands compromise while scripture condemns it. As our Union requires uniform laws, individual conscience require absolute religious freedom. Ergo the remaining words in the first phrase of the First Amendment:
… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…
America’s freedom of religion spans every degree and spectra. One in five Americans follows no religion at all. A third attends services at least weekly. One in ten Americans holds religion as their primary reason for being; twice as many give the same status to money. While Christianity is the dominant religion in America by far, it is splintered into irreconcilable sects with long histories of internecine slaughter. Different Christian bibles omit entire books. Jews spilt along Reform, Conservative and Orthodox lines, each with further subdivisions. Islam, Baha’I, Buddhism, and Hinduism have completely separate tenets of morality and visions of the afterlife. Unitarians, Deists, Druids, and hundreds of other faiths in America expand the spectrum of beliefs, commitment and resolve toward infinity. The First Amendment brilliantly protects religious freedom from itself by precluding any sect from using government to enforce religious uniformity in the face of America’s intractable diversity. Today’s Americans have benefited so much from the constitutional framers’ hard-won wisdom that we have forgotten its necessity.
Which brings us to abortion.
When anti-abortion zealots base their crusades solely in religious terms, they take sledgehammers to the Constitution’s brilliant wall between church and state. Because their personal consciences and religious beliefs condemn abortion under any circumstances, they want government to prohibit any of their fellow citizens from aborting a pregnancy. The question is, why?
Are anti-abortion crusaders trying to turn America into a theocracy that imposes specific scriptural laws on everyone? If so, they pose a historical threat to America’s democratic survival.
Are anti-abortion crusaders trying to protect America’s respect for life? In the 40 years since the Roe v Wage decision, America’s respect for life has INCREASED, not decreased. The homicide rate is down by half. So is the highway fatality rate. Life expectancy increased 8½ years. All these advances required massive investments. Four decades of data prove there’s no threat to the social compact posed by abortion.
Are anti-abortion crusaders trying to save their own souls? Some might argue that any government program that underwrites abortions (however infinitesimally) inflicts a “sin” on every taxpayer. But this is the same logic that opponents of the Vietnam and Iraq wars used to avoid paying income taxes. They went to jail. Because government and religion are completely separate in America, government actions do not convey religious culpability to every citizen.
The pro-choice movement has many sound arguments for its positions, including women’s health and the primacy of individual conscience. Yet these arguments routinely fail to sway millions of middle class Americans who routinely vote against their economic interests because of their religious stand against abortion. Democrats need to sever this link.
Religious fervor during times of economic uncertainty is understandable. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no atheists in unemployment lines. Personal fervor, however, should not drive into government into the hands of priest, ministers or mullahs.
It is a constitutionally protected right for every American to make individual decisions on abortion based on their own religious beliefs. At the same time, it is a constitutional prohibition for any American to use government to impose any set of religious beliefs regarding abortion upon everyone else. In the face of committed religious diversity, history teaches us that a wall between church and state is absolutely necessary for national survival. If Americans tear down that wall we risk repeating humankind’s history of religious violence.