The matter of abortion festers on the August 2 ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment. There are two choices: yes or no. No maybe.
Say yes, and the amendment allows the legislature to write law that bans abortion in Kansas. Say no and the amendment fails, letting stand a state Supreme Court ruling that women in Kansas have a right to the procedure.
Either way we are in perilous times. Win or lose, one side will challenge the other. The cycle of arguing will continue in the legislature, in court, and on the streets.
This is why abortion doesn’t belong in the political arena. It is a deeply personal matter for woman, doctor, family and religious faith. It opens personal torment to the cruelty of public inquisition. Drag the agony into politics and religion comes screaming to the front, breaching the frail separation of church and state.
What began years ago as a religious summons against abortion is now a movement to summon the government against whatever religious politics deems un-Christian, or un-American. For decades the church remained in some regions a bulwark against racial integration, the secular threat of what the descendants of slaves might do to middle-class Christianity. It is now a bulwark against whatever one’s politics demand, including abortion.
The tradition of summoning the church against the civil authority is as old as Christianity, as old as the church as a source of countervailing power and protection against all the alien, evil exercises in the secular. The church is an institutional bulwark against abortion – or same-sex marriage, LGBTQs, immigrants and other undesirable people and preferences.
The power of religion in state and federal politics is often disguised – a “Community Defense Act,” or a “swat the barfly” resolution, or Kansas’ Religious Freedom Protection Act, which since 2013 has permitted the use of religion to skirt state law. Some of our newer statutes, starting with the bludgeoning of voting laws, repave the old roads to intolerance.
In Washington, the Supreme Court put its blessing on private businesses that deny women employees access to certain types of health care, namely contraceptive benefits in their health insurance. Religion was the reason. So it was when the Court recently dissolved Roe v. Wade, sending abortion to the states for their own various prohibitions.
Religion as governing is as old as man. It resurfaced in Iran in the late 1970s with the regime of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini. This was a dramatic reminder of why we wanted God out of politics in the first place. Tribal rites and religious bigotry have persecuted and slaughtered Sudanese and Rwandans in Africa, Rohingya in Asia, Muslims in eastern Europe. The middle East remains a fire pit. Now, America.
When a religious movement gains political power, loyalties and commitments clash and violence is usually the result. God is perfect, but the state is imperfect; when someone tries to put politics on the level of divine perfection, thousands of people are bound to be clobbered.
God’s laws are eternal and unchanging, but we live by change and so do our political structures. If we try to stop change, as Khomeini tried, or want only one brand of change, as Milosevic demanded in Slovenia and Croatia, we bring repression of men and women, and a stagnation of society.
God gives absolute truth, but in politics there is no absolute truth – not in democratic politics, at least, where we have been taught to respect the faith and opinions of others. Our individual faith may be absolute but our political faith is relative.
The most promising move toward peace in the Middle East came more than 40 years ago when the Camp David Accords were achieved by a Baptist, a Jew, and a Muslim. The men involved – Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat – all said they felt a spiritual surge in their efforts. Seen another way, the teachings of Christ, Moses and Muhammad bent to the universal good.
At Camp David the differences in religious faith were weaker than the need for a common ground.
It’s a long stretch from Geneva or the Golan Heights to Washington or Topeka. But religious steamrolling of politics frequently begins with a local intrusion, with little steps, a patronizing sigh of benevolence, always “for our own good.”
Accord in governing can’t be done with heavenly edicts. Divine peace can’t be ordered by brandishing a sword, and public good can’t be ordered through unyielding, religiously-based statutes. We can’t write into law the faith by which everyone in the world or the state must live.