AJ+, Al Jazeera’s flashy face aimed at youth, recently produced a podcast episode of NewsBroke with Francesca Fiorentini making the claim, among others, that American evangelical Christians are attempting to force their religion on the country violating the establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment and the spirit of Jefferson’s desire for a the separation of church and state. The host unsurprisingly evokes the imagery of The Handmaid’s Tale, a silly analogy we dealt with on an earlier podcast, while quoting in rapid fire headlines from sources demonstrating that on multiple fronts Christians seek to establish a state religion through the protection of things like conscience laws, freedom of association, and by advocating for the legal restriction of abortion. The producers at Al Jazeera aren’t alone. I frequently hear this objection in Q&A and see it in silly signs from protestors like “Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries!” Setting aside the fact that some pro-life advocates have no religious beliefs at all, does this objection hold any water as it pertains to Christian pro-life advocates? Let’s focus on a couple of key mistakes in the argument that restricting abortion is forcing religion.
First, some people seem to misunderstand what the separation of church and state is meant to accomplish. The establishment clause isn’t intended to exclude Americans with religious motivations from participating in public advocacy. It is a restriction on the Federal government’s powers. It makes it impossible for the Federal government to force a religion upon the states and its citizens. As always, there is disagreement as to the limits of the establishment clause. This explains some of the decisions mentioned in the video where the Supreme Court overturns earlier cases in an effort to protect the rights of citizens to act in accordance with their religious beliefs while still participating in the public market. AJ+ may not agree with those decisions, but telling religious Americans they can’t be compelled to act against the teachings of their faith is hardly state mandated worship or the establishment of a national religion. It is the opposite of that.
Second, as it pertains to discussions about abortion, arguing that it is morally wrong to kill your offspring before they are born isn’t forcing religion on people. If people become convinced of the immorality of abortion, and the community passes laws restricting the practice of abortion it still wouldn’t be forcing religion on people. This is easy to demonstrate. Most people would agree that we shouldn’t kill each other, and most people wouldn’t see that statement as necessarily religious in nature. Nor would they see the belief we ought to legally restrict the practice of killing each other as a religious tenant forced on society. Those who argue the pro-life position simply make the case that the unborn are like us and shouldn’t be killed. Pro-choice advocates disagree, but to condemn the pro-life argument as especially religious in nature is absurd. It unfairly prejudices one side of the argument as RELIGIOUS and therefore NOT suitable for public advocacy without ever demonstrating that point through argument. Why is the view that human beings shouldn’t be killed before they are born RELIGIOUS and the view that we should be free to kill certain human beings NOT RELIGIOUS and therefore especially suited for public morality? There’s no reason to accept that without argument.
In all of my pro-life work, I have never advocated for laws that compel people to pray in Jesus name, go to church, take communion, seek baptism, or any other religious practice associated with my personal Christian views. I make a moral case that killing our offspring before they are born is wrong. I use the science of embryology to establish when a new distinct human life begins and philosophy to argue that all human life ought to be treated with dignity and respect at every stage of development. Not religious embryology and not religious philosophy, but the same embryology and philosophy those who disagree with me will have to use to prove their own points. The personal motivations either side has for arguing our respective positions are completely irrelevant. The relevant question for determining the moral right or wrong of abortion is, “What is the unborn?”
But what about when our moral judgments become laws? Again, this shouldn’t be that hard. Thou Salt not Steal is in the Ten Commandments as are commands against bearing false witness and murder. Do AJ+ and Fiorentini believe laws against theft are religious simply because public morality and religious teaching overlap? How about slander laws, libel laws, and perjury laws? Are those religious by nature because public morality and religious teaching agree? Are murder laws the unfair intrusion of religion into the public sector? Of course not. There are times when the religious dictates of a particular belief overlap with the common good and public morality. Is abortion one of these times? Are the unborn human beings worthy of legal protection? Answering that question requires deep reflection on who counts as one of us. Arguing for a more inclusive view of human value and dignity isn’t forcing religion. Advocating for the protection of innocent human life isn’t forcing religion. And simply being a Christian attempting to advance ideas that are consistent with both my beliefs and the common good shouldn’t disqualify me or anyone else from making a case for either or both of those positions in the public square.