Contract and Covenant in American Politics: Religion in the Abortion & Abolition Debates

Article excerpt

The introduction of religious passion into politics is the end of honest politics, and the introduction of politics into religion is the prostitution of religion.

- Lord Chancellor Hailsham

A civil ruler dabbling in religion is as reprehensible as a clergyman dabbling in politics. Both render themselves odious as well as ridiculous.

- James Cardinal Gibbons

While all political leaders endorse what the First Amendment says about religion - "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof - there is little agreement on the proper place of religion in our public life. Polarizing this persistent disagreement are two legitimate fears: that of a secularized state independent of all religious values and that of a religiously partial state that threatens civil liberties. These concerns have particular relevance in the abortion debate: Many pro-choicers view the efforts of pro-life religious groups as attempts to garner state support for sectarian religious views and thus violate the Establishment Clause. As the "Freedom of Choice Act" generates renewed fervor on the abortion issue, it is useful to recognize that similar concerns attended the intense and divisive debate over the abolition of slavery.

Both of the controversies turn on the moral question of who is owed equal justice and protection. This fundamental question came to the fore in the two landmark Supreme Court decisions, Dred Scott v. Sandford and Roe v. Wade. Both disputes center on differences over value systems, the proper sphere of the judiciary, and constitutional interpretation. And they both demonstrate that religion is inseparably linked to America's political morality.

Defenders of abortion attempt to prohibit religious groups from using their moral beliefs to influence public policy. On this view of religious establishment, religious actors in the political sphere would have to reduce their practices to private exercises - and the result would be to prevent any modern parallel to the slavery debate, in which religious initiatives were instrumental in shaping the public discussion. This essay will examine the abolitionist era, in the hope that those involved in the abortion controversy may recognize that all moral questions transcend divisions into the sacred and the secular.

Religion in the Abolition Debate

The growth of the abolitionist movement was largely inspired by religion. As historian Barry Kosmin has observed: "Abolitionist sentiment was deeply religious, imbued with a Puritan concern for the moral behavior of all people throughout America ___ The abolitionists believed that slavery was a mortal sin with a debilitating effect on the American conscience, and they spoke out with a fervor heard around the world." Evangelical Protestants took up the antislavery cause in both the North and the South early in American history. In 1780, a conference of Methodists denounced slavery as "contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature" and called upon the denomination's regional bodies to seek "the gradual emancipation of slaves." Virginia Baptists followed suit nine years later, calling for the "use of every legal means to extirpate this horrid evil from the land." In 1818, the Presbyterian General Assembly condemned slavery as "a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature [and] utterly inconsistent with the laws of God."4

With the invention of the cotton gin and the resulting emergence of a slave-dependent Southern economy, the Southern clergy's position on slavery shifted from religiously inspired opposition to religiously based support. "In the 1830s," wrote historian Sydney Ahlstrom, "there was a remarkable change, almost a revolution, in the nation's attitude toward the slavery in its midst." The major denominations - Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian - split along regional lines, with abolition continuing to thrive in Northern churches. …