One measure of the seriousness of a Democratic candidate for president is his or her understanding of the importance of religion in our common life. I am not talking here of the perfunctory bow toward personal, sectarian belief, which is neither qualifying nor disqualifying in a prospective president. I refer instead to a candidate’s recognition that faith helps define compassion and justice for millions of Americans.
Barack Obama provided the model in his 2006 Call to Renewal speech. “Secularists are wrong,” he said, “when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King — indeed the majority of great reformers in American history — were not only motivated by faith but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., — whom few would accuse of seriousness in her presidential run — has taken a different path. In a recent interview with The Des Moines Register, she judged the religious motivations of people who are pro-life to be democratically illegitimate, since it is wrong to “deny women … basic human rights.” She continued: “I think there’s some issues that have such moral clarity that we have, as a society, decided that the other side is not acceptable. Imagine saying it’s OK to appoint a judge who’s racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic. Asking someone to appoint someone who takes away basic human rights of any group of people in America, I don’t think those are political issues anymore. ... All these efforts by President Trump and other ultra-radical conservative judges and justices to impose their faith on Americans is contrary to our Constitution.”
To summarize: Opposing abortion, by definition, is a form of bigotry. And this bigotry comes from religion. And religion can’t be the basis for law. Therefore, in Gillibrand’s view, pro-life people are not only wrong; they are bigoted theocrats who threaten democracy.
This is the willful and malicious misrepresentation of pro-life views. Religious people who oppose abortion do not do so because the Bible tells them to. The Bible is pretty much silent on the topic. Instead, their religious beliefs inform a certain anthropology — a belief that humans have rights and dignity because they are created in the image and likeness of God.
There are, of course, alternative grounds for believing in rights and dignity. The American founding was informed both by a Judeo-Christian view of humanity and by the contract theory of the British Enlightenment. Leaders such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson thought that traditional religion would eventually vanish into Unitarianism and Deism. Instead, the Second Great Awakening roared into life, leaving America far more religious than before.
In this case, religion was less an opiate than a stimulant. The radical anthropology at the heart of Christianity became the main basis for the abolitionist movement, for the suffrage movement, for the reform of prisons and asylums, for efforts encouraging temperance and for the improvement of industrial working conditions.
People who are pro-life generally regard themselves as representatives of this tradition. By their own lights, they are hoping to expand the circle of legal inclusion and protection to a powerless member of the human family. If they are wrong, they are wrong for a nonreligious reason. Pro-life people believe that life should be protected because it is biologically human, growing and genetically distinct from the mother. Gillibrand and other pro-choice purists believe that life should be protected because it is biologically human, growing, genetically distinct from the mother and outside the uterine wall. To millions of Americans, this seems like an arbitrary basis for a life and death decision. Why not start protections when the brain activity of a fetus begins? Why not at viability (a line which is marching ever backward)? Why is Gillibrand’s position a matter of “moral clarity,” while every other viewpoint is not only wrong but illegitimate and undemocratic?
This view clearly has some appeal among pro-choice activists, militant secularists and fading, desperate presidential candidates. But it is hardly the basis for a useful public debate. Gillibrand’s argument represents a type of ideological authoritarianism that seems fashionable in our politics. Instead of defeating other viewpoints through argument, she would rather prohibit them as illegitimate and unacceptable. Trying to win by disqualifying your opponent — by placing them outside the bounds of decency and public discourse — is easier than reason and persuasion. It is also a form of undemocratic cheating.
Michael Gerson was a top aide to President George W. Bush until 2006, serving as assistant to the president for policy and strategic planning. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.