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On the Authoritarianism of the Religious Right in the Matter of Abortion Rights: A Clear and Present Danger

For some decades now, the work of the Religious Right in the United States has had a major focus on certain human activities which they wish to limit, according to their particular religious views on these matters. As is well-known, the two principal ones are of course abortion rights and LGBTQ rights. As is also well-known, the Religious Right campaigns vigorously — in the political and other realms of activity — not to persuade people of the correctness of their position through the use of argument, for them arising from their religious principles — but rather by advocating for the imposition of them on society as a whole through the force of law, specifically in the case of abortion, the criminal law.

In summary, for abortion rights the Religious Right wants to criminalize any views as to when life begins, religious or non-religious, that are not in accord with its own. (In the matter of gay rights, previously certain activities engaged in by gay persons were indeed criminalized and same-sex marriage was not sanctioned by the law. The courts have drastically altered the laws in those areas, under various provisions of the Constitution. So now the Religious Right wants to be able to ignore certain laws governing the conduct of businesses in the public arena, by publicly licensed [or otherwise authorized] enterprises, again based on its own religious views.) They also want to exempt anti-abortion-rights religious institutions from having to provide certain kinds of health services which non-religious health care institutions are required by law to provide.

The position of the Religious Right’s anti-abortion policy is based exclusively on the religious concept of “when life begins.” Whether Catholic or Protestant, according to their view life begins at moment of conception. Indeed, to support their position, the Protestant anti-abortion-rights movement most often cites the “inerrant word of God” as found in the Bible (that is in a particular version, among hundreds if not thousands, of versions, in English and many other languages). The version most often cited by the anti-choice forces as “the inerrant word of God” is the King James version, an English translation created in the early 17th century by a 52-member committee of scholars and theologians. This is a point often missed by the “inerrantists” (and their critics as well).

The Catholic Church relies on a doctrine laid down by Pope Pius IX in 1869, that life begins at the moment of conception. (Also, it was Pius IX who established the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility.) Interestingly enough, until that Papal Diktat, the position of the Church, formalized by St. Thomas Aquinas, was that life begins at the time “fetal quickening,” which usually happens around 14-20 weeks.

Before going on to the political/policy issues of the matter, one might ask if the King James version were to be regarded as “inerrant,” one would have to assume that “God” spoke through every one of its co-operating authors. One would also have to ask the following questions, among others. Why did “God” pick this particular English-language version through which to speak to human society? What does this position say about the errancy or inerrancy of the myriad other English translations of the Bible (including the very first one, that of William Tyndale, 1526, for which he was cordially burned at the stake by the Church of England. It looked askance as the possibility that without the interposition of clergy parishioners might be able to read the Bible on their own and make their own interpretation of its text.). And what then about the errancy or inerrancy of the myriad translations from the original Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin texts into other languages that have been made over time? But that is a subject for another time.

Much more important for the secular folk among us, as well for the religious among us who do not happen to agree with the Religious Right about the matter of “when life begins,” are the following considerations. What the Religious Right wants to do is right out of the 16th century: put the power of the State and the criminal law behind one particular set of religious doctrines. And that is the central point. The religious doctrine that they base on the so-called “inerrant word of God” — their word and their God — is that “life begins at the moment of conception.” They so desperately want their religious beliefs to set social policy, and they are so incapable of persuading the mass of U.S. citizens of the correctness of their position, that they advocate the employment of the criminal law to do so.

Not only that, but the anti-abortion-rights doctrine, religion-based as it is, ignores the fact that many women who seek abortions, and their male partners, are themselves religious and believe in some concept of “God.” They simply have a different set of religious beliefs about when life begins than do the Fundamentalists and the Dominionists who drive the anti-abortion rights movement. And of course, for we secular humanists who do not ascribe to belief in any concept of “God,” the anti-choicers would criminalize our beliefs too.

Whether the penalties, were abortion to be formally criminalized, would fall on the person preforming the abortion or on the woman receiving it, or both, is irrelevant. The anti-abortion-rights forces are engaging in Religious Authoritarianism. They are using their religious beliefs as the foundation for their campaign to change the law governing everyone. Indeed, the question of abortion rights and whether the matter should be criminalized, is a matter of religious liberty, but not the “religious liberty” of the discriminators.

It is the religious liberty of everyone, including that of the abortion-seekers (and to be sure there are many) who are, to repeat, themselves quite religious (the same principle applies to contraceptive-users), that is at stake here. The matter of what religious liberty really is in our nation is one that concerns everyone, male and female. By putting Religious Authoritarianism at the center of its political doctrine, the Religious Right has become the enemy of religious freedom across the board in this country.

We could return to the era of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, when opposing sides fought to the death over matters ranging from the nature of the Eucharist to free will vs. predestination. Thus, the argument in favor of abortion rights must go beyond “fairness,” “justice,” and “the woman’s right to choose” (all of which are concepts that I firmly believe in) to the matter of the imposition of religious authoritarianism in all walks of like, which has the potential to affect the lives everyone in many different arenas.


(This column is based in part on a previously published column, which appeared here.)

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