In the past three weeks, for the first time since late February, The New York Times’ biggest and boldest headlines haven’t been about Ukraine.
They were talking about America. Roe’s Threat c. Wade, and the very real possibility that abortion is no longer legal in large swathes of this country, has shaken us.
But, for those of us who are believers, the problem is deeper and even more painful.
Indeed, this conflict compels us to ask ourselves the question: what role should religion have in national conversations about public policy, especially on topics as sensitive and intimate as abortion?
First of all, let’s remember that there is no “religion”. There are “religions,” and none of them is the established religion, or “the church,” in America.
It’s not just that there was no public church in America. There couldn’t be. Enlightenment principles relegated religion in America to the private domain of the individual.
Yet America is a deeply religious country. The “separation of church and state” is one thing. But America has never accepted the separation of religion and society. There’s this thing called the American “civil religion.” Religious symbols, meanings and celebrations crowd and compete for space in the public square. America is, as GK Chesterton said, a nation with the soul of a church.
So what then? What should be the voice of religion in shaping American society?
I remember the words of the late Chief Rabbi of Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks: “Religion can make the good better and the bad worse. At its best, American religion has made good people better, and it has made good social movements even better.
Consider how many social movements in this country have relied on religion as moral engines. Two of many examples: anti-slavery and civil rights (as in: Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.) both used biblical expressions and ideas.
Consider my own movement – Reform Judaism – our social action department is the Religious Action Center, emphasizing the “religious”. When my colleagues marched for civil rights and women’s rights, they did so wearing Torah scrolls and prayer shawls.
My problem with religious conservatives is not that they rely too much on biblical ideas.
It is that they count too little.
For example: The Bible is absolutely clear, you must leave the corners of your field to the poor and you must take care of the widow, the orphan and the stranger in society.
These teachings are all found in Leviticus 19. Surely, such careful Bible readers would have stumbled upon those verses in this chapter that appear between Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20, which list forbidden sexual relationships.
So is there a limit to the relationship between religious teachings and society?
Yes – and it is a necessary firewall.
We live in an open marketplace of ideas. Religious ideas are part of public discourse.
Like other ideas in the public square, we can hear these ideas. These ideas could influence how we think about big issues.
But these ideas cannot determine politics. Public policies must be open to rational discourse, with evidence, and not just resting on beliefs, however sacred their sources.
This is where conservative Christian views on abortion come in. These views are part of a larger conversation about when the fetus is ensouled (at the time of conception? later?) and other Christian-specific ideas and religious texts. tradition.
Recently, in The New York Timesan anti-abortion doctor, who nevertheless had to perform a difficult abortion, wrote this statement of faith:
“My mother taught me that abortion was wrong because it was a desecration – it destroyed something precious. Sex and childbirth were good, sacred and holy, reflecting God’s goodness to married couples …
I view my work as a physician as part of a battle against the deteriorating physical health of my patients, a battle whose tide turned when Jesus Christ rose from the dead…I teach and work alongside medical professionals. local health so that we can holistically care for those in need, following in the footsteps of Jesus, the healer.
I am moved by this witness.
But this witness is not mine.
On the contrary, my own faith rests on these lines – from a Reform Responsum (Jewish legal opinion) on abortion:
“The decision (to abort) must be made on a case-by-case basis, in the context of each particular set of circumstances. It cannot be fixed in advance by judicial or religious authorities who do not know the woman in question and who are unable to determine just what matters to her physical or emotional well-being.
“For this reason, we must oppose legislation that would prohibit or restrict access to abortion. In almost every case, it denies a woman the ability to make a choice that our halachic (Jewish legal) tradition would recognize as morally justifiable. It would be an unacceptable violation not only of his personal dignity but also of the freedom of religion that liberal and democratic societies guarantee to their citizens.
America does not allow you to turn the theological ideas of your own religion into public policy. I respect those whose religious faith would prevent them from having abortions and from helping with abortions.
But you can’t legislate those commitments, especially in areas over which there is substantial moral and scientific disagreement, and especially in areas of life that are so intimate.
My own ideas about religion and politics are hardly limited to the Bible. These ideas include the statements of rabbinical sages, medieval thinkers and modern authorities.
There is wisdom in this quote from the Talmud, in a section on the conduct of courts: “A decree on the community is not issued unless the majority of the community is able to resist it” (Talmud, Horayot 3b) .
If Roe v. Wade was bowled over, the majority of the American community wouldn’t be able to resist him. The majority of women would end up in states that seriously – let’s be brutally honest – cut medical care for women, because that’s precisely what this is about.
Moreover, access to this medical care would become even more divided, not only according to the States, but also according to socio-economic criteria.
What contribution should religion make to the abortion controversy?
Above all, perhaps, humility. We’re talking about real women with real bodies, whose God-given dignity demands that they have authority over those bodies.
Such humility demands that religious groups not impose their theologically partisan agendas on the American public. In this way there is chaos, and worse — holy wars between religious groups. This route is a return to the Middle Ages.
It’s time for all religious people to call: Time out.
(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)