According to a Pew Research Center survey in March this year, 61% of Americans think abortion should be legal in most cases. Even so, the United States Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion established in its 1973 decision Roe v. Wade.
No wonder the reaction was fierce. Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called for the removal of two Supreme Court justices for lying under oath during their Senate confirmation hearings. Panicked commentators warn of the end of democracy in the United States. Others blame misogyny and “theatrical masculinity”.
Less attention is paid to an important element of the American abortion debate: the continued ascendancy in American public life of a deeply reactionary strain of Catholicism. Of course, Catholics are no less divided than anyone on many issues, including the right to abortion. Liberal Catholics, like President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as many of the roughly 50% of Catholics who voted for the Democrats, support a constitutional right to abortion. The same goes for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the three liberals on the Supreme Court. But five of the Supreme Court’s nine justices adhere to an ultra-conservative Catholicism that holds that even an embryo has a soul and is therefore sacrosanct.
Samuel Alito, who wrote the majority opinion overthrowing Roe, quoted the 17th-century English jurist Matthew Hale, who considered abortion murder (he also believed in witches). Such views are far from the mainstream of contemporary American life. But radical Catholics — for that is what they are — have been a driving force behind the anti-abortion cause for nearly half a century.
Even conservative Protestants supported the Roe result at the time. The Southern Baptist Convention declared in 1973 that “religious liberty, human equality, and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court’s abortion decision.” And yet, a decade later, evangelical conservatives, fearing that a wave of progressive secularism might threaten such expensive institutions as racially segregated Christian colleges, began to make common cause with radical Catholics. Roe became their rallying point. Their common goal was to bring down the wall separating church and state, so carefully erected by the framers of the Constitution.
Some radicals even now claim that the separation of church and state was never really wanted. In the words of far-right Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert: “I’m sick of this separation of church and state junk that’s not in the Constitution.”
But things are moving fast. Just days after overthrowing Roe, the Supreme Court ruled that a Washington state football coach should have the right to hold postgame prayer meetings at his public high school. This, too, is a departure from the precedent prohibiting religious expression, as a private matter, from public institutions such as schools.
The radicals call for “religious freedom”. If a football manager wants to pray at football games, surrounded by players who may not wish to arouse his disapproval, he is only exercising his right to freedom of expression and religious belief.
But the separation between church and state, at least in predominantly Protestant democracies, such as the United States, was precisely aimed at defending religious freedom. While the French notion of laïcité was intended to prevent the Catholic clergy from interfering in public affairs, the American Constitution was designed to protect religious authority from state intervention, as well as vice versa.
One of the reasons why Protestant elites in the United States distrusted Catholics until not so long ago, besides snobbish anti-Irish or anti-Italian sentiment, was the fear that Catholics were more faithful to their faith, and therefore to the authority of the Vatican, than to the Constitution of the United States. This is why in 1960, while campaigning for the presidential election, John F. Kennedy had to emphasize his belief “in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute, where no Catholic prelate wouldn’t tell the president (if he were a Catholic) how to act…”
What these Protestant elites feared is now a real threat. Catholic radicals and Protestant fanatics are actively trying to impose their religious beliefs in the public domain. Alito, along with other Catholics, such as former Attorney General William Barr, see secularism as a threat (in Barr’s words) to “the traditional moral order.” That is, a strict interpretation of the Christian moral order. Marriage, according to Alito, is a “sacred institution between a man and a woman.” Someday — and maybe soon — he might decide to overturn the seven-year-old court ruling recognizing a federal right to same-sex marriage.
The danger of injecting a religious agenda into politics or law goes beyond the erosion of the autonomy of secular institutions. It makes reasoned political debate impossible. Politics is not free of values, of course. There is nothing wrong with a politician, or even a lawyer, believing that religious values matter. But there is a serious problem when religious orthodoxy trumps all other considerations.
The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit described it succinctly in his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises. In “politics like economics”, material interests are “subject to bargaining, everything is negotiable, whereas in the religious picture, centered on the idea of the sacred, the sacred is non-negotiable”.
This is why politics in the United States is now in such a perilous state. Increasingly, the secular left and the religious right are engaged in a culture war, revolving around sexuality, gender and race, where politics is no longer negotiable. When this happens, institutions begin to crumble and the stage is set for charismatic demagogues and the politics of violence.
The writer is editor and author. © Syndicate Project.