Andy Schmookler: Two problems with pro-life politics

Andy Schmookler

In the first installment of this two-part series, addressed to pro-life activists, I began by making two points: 1. More than many liberals, I agree with you about the moral seriousness of abortion. But 2. I also believe that what you are doing with that issue in our nation’s politics is a big mistake and is damaging the nation.

And in that installment, I tried to show that it is inappropriate, and damaging to our nation, for pro-life people to assume that those who disagree with them on the issue of abortion are people of no morals. The evidence just doesn’t justify that feeling.

In this installment, I will argue that this is the kind of issue that our founders wanted us to keep government out of.

Many pro-life activists base their positions on abortion on a variety of biblical texts that bear upon the issue indirectly. (Indirectly, because the Bible is mute on the issue of abortion itself.) Even if one were to grant that the Bible clearly supports the pro-life position — and these texts do not seem nearly as clear and powerful as the biblical texts telling us to care for the needy and the vulnerable, which too many seem to take much less to heart — it would still be a mistake to battle over this issue in the political arena, as the pro-life movement has been doing.

Our nation’s founders were clear about our keeping government power out of our religious disagreements. These men were the heirs of a European history in which, not long before, Protestants and Catholics in Europe had killed each other for generations.

America’s founders wanted to create a political system in which religious differences would not be allowed to cripple and damage the society, but could be set aside to enable citizens of diverse beliefs to work together to better their country.

The Constitution’s guarantee of religious liberty, and its prohibition against the government to “establish” any religion, were not just for the sake of allowing individuals to be free. These were also key parts of the plans for creating a peaceful and successful society.

It’s not the American way to use the coercive power of government to impose the religious judgments of one part of the citizenry on everyone else. Our founders knew that this was a recipe for division and strife and the disabling of the political process.

Sure enough, with Americans having shown themselves irreconcilably divided on the abortion question for some 40 years, this issue has poisoned our political process. And in recent years, even while Americans shared the need for action to address the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, many state legislatures instead inflamed our enduring division over the essentially religious issue of abortion.

It’s not a matter of who is right. For more than two centuries, Americans have respected the right of other Americans to live according to religious beliefs they regard not only as wrong but as condemning them to hell for eternity — and to raise their children in those beliefs.

In sum, my message to pro-life activists is this: Even if you’re right, in moral terms, in your view of abortion, you are making a mistake, in American terms, to turn this essentially religious issue into something to be fought out in the political arena to establish laws that government will enforce.

A final point: Consider the political force that has worked most consistently to inflame our differences over abortion and to put them into the center of our political process. It should be noted that it is the same one that has been working to steal our democracy by substituting the power of big money for the power of the people. Consider how well it serves their purpose to get Americans fighting on irreconcilable religious issues rather than working with each other to achieve our common purposes.

This is a fight that we should not be having. It may be painful to accept others’ making choices — based on beliefs that are different from yours — that your religion tells you are terribly wrong. But that’s an essential part of the American system of religious liberty.

Andy Schmookler’s new book is “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World – and How We Can Defeat It.”