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Public Theology: Abortion and the Politics of Cynicism and Coercion
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Abortion and the Politics of Cynicism and Coercion
Federal judges will be appointed to appease the religious right.

By Ed Knudson

Abortion is a central issue defining political alignments in the United States, and has been for some time. As a result of the 2002 mid-term elections George W. Bush, at a press conference today, said that Republican gain of control of the Senate will mean, first of all, that he can get his judicial nominations approved. And it is highly probable that he will be able to appoint judges who will make abortion illegal again.

This will fulfill promises the Republican Party has been making for some time to the religious right. Abortion has provided the basis for the religious right to align itself with the Republican Party even though that party historically has stood for individual rights. Not so in this case. That party has promised to use the power of the state to coerce all women, no matter their religious faith, to carry forth their pregnancies no matter what. George Bush can now redeem that promise.

I would like here to discuss this matter and the contradictions involved. It represents both a politics of cynicism and politics of coercion. It represents a complete misunderstanding of Christian faith and ethics on the part of the religious right. Not only are the views of the religious right wrong on abortion but their political involvement has skewed the political culture of the country in ways destructive of the best interests of their own constituencies as well as the nation as a whole.

Abortion and the Christian Faith

There is no question that abortion is not a practice that should be promoted within the ethics of people of faith. The church has never viewed abortion positively. In fact, reverence for life, including the lives of infants and children, has been a distinquishing factor of Christian faith over against the teaching of other religions. Christians believe in the eternal value of each individual human being. Within the community of faith general preaching and teaching must be clear about this affirmation of life. Christians don't have abortions.

At the same time, the church lives within society and carries out a pastoral ministry to real people in real circumstances. Each pastor must approach each case with compassion and understanding and, I believe, be open to several options of what may be best in any particular circumstance, including the possibility of abortion. But that is within the context of a personal, private, pastoral ministry; the particular should not be confused with the clear, general prohibition of abortion.

The religious right claims to speak out of biblical Christianity but their actual habits of thought are modern in origin. This is especially true relative to abortion. They base their view on a modern understanding of "nature" and the "natural", and read that understanding back into the bible. It is actually classical liberalism which placed very high value on that which is "natural", as in Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence where he founded rights on "nature and nature's God".

Combine that emphasis with the modern study of biology and you have what can be called "biological fundamentalism", an absolutization of the laws of nature. What had been in previous centuries a mystery, the process by which human life begins inside the womb, becomes for the religious right absolutely sacred laws of nature. This is not biblical Christianity but a false identification of liberal natural law with divine intent.

But divine intention cannot be known by the modern study of biology or mathematics. God does, indeed, "intend" human life; it is not an accident. Yet the religious right claims all biology, including biological accidents, are divine acts; this, again, is not biblical; it is taking a modern habit of thought and raising it to the level of divine practice. This is very wrong, fundamentally wrong, bad theology, a bad reading of history, and it is upon this wrong-headed understanding that the religious right is willing to stake everything else.

Human life is intended life. God intends life, God speaks, and the world is created. In the same way I would argue that life begins not when a biological event occurs, but when the intention occurs, perhaps even before the biology. If a biological event of fertilization occurs outside of any human intention then one can ask whether "life" is possible, given the fact that human life requires not only biological support but a substantial parental-social commitment for the biological substance to be viable over time.

The Roman Catholic expression of the Christian church also teaches that abortion is wrong and has institutionally promoted making it illegal. But it has not taken the second step and allowed abortion to be the single and only poltical factor to take into account in how it relates to the public realm. The religious right, however, has nearly completely and totally aligned itself with the Republican Party. There are some congregations of the religious right that actually evaluate their success by the degree to which their members vote for Republicans. Television preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have created strong local and national organizations to specifically participate in the Republican Party. In the next section we will discuss why this so very wrong.

Why Legal Coercion is Wrong

The religious right wants to make abortion illegal within the context of civil society, wants to use the power of the state to coerce all women to follow its moral teaching on abortion. This is wrong for several reasons.

1. The church does not need the power of the state to enforce its own moral teachings within itself. The church is the church. The church is not the state. What is legal may not be moral as understood by the church. This is true and most people understand it; there is nothing special about the case of abortion that makes it different.

2. The church always has to be careful in how it relates to the state. The religious right is not being careful. It has aligned itself with one party and therefore risked being used by that party for the interests of that party. And the religious right has thereby helped elect political leaders who do not further the best interests of the church or the constituencies of the religious right itself. The religious right represents lower and middle income people who need adequate income and community resources to support their familes and participate in society; but the Republican Party first and foremost represents the interests of large business in the country. So the religious right sacrifices the health and welfare of its own constituencies for the sake of promoting its wrong view on abortion.

3. The Republican Party, to its shame and degradation, has cynically appealed to the religious right in order to create a voting block able to elect its leaders. In doing so it forsakes its own worthy philosophical history of concern for individual rights. And this also means that a party which may or may not be good for the country as a whole gains more power than would be warranted by the causes and philosophy it represents. The party at times has tried to claim that it is open to people of many views, but that claim is denied by the fact that judicial appointments will be made, no matter what counter-claims may be made, on the litmus test of whether the judge will rule to make abortion illegal. The religious right is bad for the Republican Party in the long run; can it not elect its leaders on the basis of its own political appeal?

4. The Republican Party has ignored the fact that the religious right is but one expression of the Christian church; it has allied itself with one small segment and thereby lifted that segment to have much more influence within the society, and the church itself, than it warrants. And this means that the church itself begins to be defined not by itself but by a secular political force. The very thing the religious right says it is against, secularism, is advanced by its political practices. A secular political process is allowed to define the nature of the church.

I would say the church is the church. It should not allow itself to be defined by that which is outside itself. That is what Hitler tried to do in Germany in the 1930's, of course. He tried to remake the church into an institution supportive of his state purposes, to destroy the Jews and conquer Europe.

The religious right is thus not practicing true fundamentalism. It is a false Christianity. It has allowed itself to be captured by the state and thus represents something alien to Christianity. It has done so to further a false view of abortion based on modern notions of biology. It must be opposed, and opposed actively and strongly, by all people of faith.

This may include voting for candidates of the Democratic Party at this time, since it represents the only available practical political option for voters. But that does not mean that people of faith can affirm the arguments of Democrats against abortion. Those arguments focus on "choice" and thus raise individual freedom to the high level of determining who lives and who dies. As indicated above, it is God who creates life and new life is an incredibly wonderful gift. Though people of faith can, of course, affirm the importance of political freedom, in relation to abortion the issue must be viewed within a larger context than as a simple choice of an individual.

Those who view themselves within the tradition of the Republican Party can work within the structures of the party to remove references to abortion as a legitimate political issue. But such persons should be fully aware that in this past campaign abortion was intentionally not made a central issue. That was a cynical political strategy on the part of the religious right which has made backroom-type deals with the Republican Party not to force contentious discussion of the issue in order not to push away independent voters. In return, the party has promised to follow-through with judicial appointments satisfactory to the religious right.

In my view, any Republican who wants to maintain any sense of dignity and civility should be disgusted with this strategy and so notify party leaders, officials, and candidates. It is an indication that the Republican Party wants the religious right as a voting block but wants also to hide that fact as much as possible. If the Republican Party cannot get its candidates elected without support from the religious right then they do not deserve to be elected.

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Date Added: 11/7/2002 Date Revised: 11/8/2002

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