Mansfield Fox

Law student. Yankees fan. Massive fraggle. Just living the American dream.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Abortion, the Bible, & the Establishment Clause

Professor Wagner is a much smarter man than I (and has a cooler-looking beard, to boot) but I'm not sure if this argument holds up. He says:
Look, the Death-Left should make up its mind: either the Bible says nothing about abortion, in which case legislating against it has nothing to do with "enforcing Biblical morality," or it does, in which case Christians who favor a liberal abortion regime have some explainin' to do.

On this broadcast, Paul Simmons, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, went out of his way to assert that the Bible says nothing about abortion. If he ever got around to explaining how, in that case, the pro-life movement represents an illicit mixing of religion and politics, I sure didn't hear it. I would very much have liked to, and said so more than once.
That seems to assume that everything which is genuinely religious (or, at least, genuinely Christian) has to emerge out of the Bible, and that any beliefs that Christians advocate that can't be traced to the Bible aren't "religious" within the meaning of the Establishment Clause.

That strikes me as wrong. The Bible doesn't specifically say anything about the necessity of abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent. But if Prof. Wagner and I were to form some kind of hirsute Catholic super-team that pushed through a measure banning the consumption of meat during Lent, that would pretty clearly have Establishment Clause problems. Because, Bible or no, we'd be trying to impose Church rules using the power of the civil law.

A similar thing is true with regard to abortion. Regardless of whether or not the Bible says anything about the subject, it's undoubtedly the case that the Roman Catholic Church (along with Eastern Orthodoxy, the Southern Baptists, etc) teaches that abortion is wrong, a form of homicide that the state must justly forbid, etc. We argue that our position on this point isn't religious per se, that it's based on a set of embryological facts and philosophical assumptions that you don't have to be a Catholic, or even a theist, to accept. I think that's true, but lots of people would disagree. And I don't think there's anything wrong with them arguing that we're just trying to impose our religion on everyone, since if they were right and we were wrong on the underlying issue, that's precisely what we would be trying to do, even if that wasn't our intent.

Put differently: I imagine that the Professor agrees with me that nothing in the Bible condemns the consumption of alcohol per se. And yet, as I understand it, the Southern Baptists believe it does. Can we not say their belief is non-Biblical while still acknowledging that it's a genuinely religious belief? And when they try to operationalize that belief by setting up a dry county, aren't they mixing religion and politics (even if they're doing so in a way we don't think the Establishment Clause forbids)?

Whether a specific proposal has a scriptural basis and whether enacting it into law violates the Establishment Clause are separate questions addressed to separate constituencies and aren't, in my view, locked in the either/or dynamic that Wagner at least seems to be describing.

That said, congratulations to Professor W on his NPR appearance. And double-congratulations for surviving it.