America is different. America stands out from other Western democracies. In our country, religion continues to enter the political debate and shape our country’s politics. Religion is deeply rooted in the soul of America (Cf. Gail Russell Chaddock, “Ties Tighten Between Religion and Politics,” The Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 2004). Millions of Americans saw this play out in the Biden-Ryan debate before the 2012 election.
The debate was an historic moment in the history of America. It was the first time ever that both major political parties have nominated a Catholic to run for the office of vice president. On national TV, the two Catholics faced off on today’s issues, each hoping to sway the public to vote for his party’s candidate in the election. At least one-quarter of those who vote profess to be Catholic. But, Catholics do not always agree among themselves. Nor do they always agree with what the Church teaches. This certainly was evident in the debate.
At the end of the hour and a half debate, ABC’s senior foreign correspondent Martha Raddatz brought up one of the hot button social issues that divide our nation. She asked Vice-President Biden and Congressman Ryan to explain to the American people how the Catholic religion has shaped their position on abortion. To each man’s credit, both spoke clearly on this important issue.
Biden said, “With regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion…Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.” Then he added, “I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that -- women that they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor…I’m not going to interfere with that.”
In effect, Biden says that human life, as the Church teaches, begins at conception. Yet, he has made the point that, when he enters the public forum, he leaves this personal belief at the door. No doubt he reflects what many others, including Catholics, have been doing for some time.
But is this logical? Should we really leave our beliefs behind when we make decisions about the social issues facing our country? Do we say that we believe in the right of everyone to earn a decent living, as the Church teaches, and then not let that basic principle shape a compassionate and just solution to the plight of immigrants among us? Do we say that we believe each man, woman and child should be free, as the Church teaches, and then not let that principle shape our fight against human trafficking?
John Newton (1725-1807) was a drunkard and adulterous slave-trader given to debauchery. In 1748, he was caught helpless in a violent storm that battered his vessel. Fearful for his life, he called out to God. That moment marked the beginning of a spiritual awakening.
After his conversion, Newton wrote one of the most famous hymns sung in the English-speaking world. He wrote “Amazing Grace.” The song is his spiritual biography. He once was blind, but then came to see. He saw the truth of the dignity of the human person. He saw that each person is created in the image and likeness of God and endowed by his Creator with inalienable rights. And, because of this newly awakened religious belief, he renounced slavery. He did not leave his religion at the door when he entered the debate to end human slavery!
Many people believe that any government intervention to curtail abortion violates a woman's right of choice over her own body. But it is not the woman’s own body that is at issue. They act as if the child in the womb is not a child with its own unique DNA. They obviously close their eyes to modern science. If it is not a child, how do we explain the fact that babies born prematurely survive and some even survive botched abortions?
Opposition to abortion stems from the fact that it is the taking of an innocent life. Pro-life individuals want all to have access to the banquet of life, especially the most vulnerable and defenseless among us. At stake is not just some religious scruple. No. It is a moral principle.
Certainly, religion may serve as a tutor and a mentor leading people to recognize this principle, just as it has tutored people in recognizing that slavery is wrong, that human trafficking is wrong and that violence and hatred are wrong. But, the fact that one’s religion leads one to accept what science and reason show to be true is no excuse for not allowing that moral principle to influence one’s political decisions.
At the 2006 Call to Renewal Conference in Washington, D.C., then Senator Barrack Obama gave the keynote address. He said, “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, 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. To say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.” Senator Barrack Obama made these remarks two years before he announced his own candidacy for the presidency. He had it right then!