The Admissibility of Christian Pro-Life Politics

Matthew P. Cavedon

Bible, Church, Wedding (Pixabay)

In the course of calling out anti-Semitism in American law – a very valid concern – Dr. Mia Brett’s recent Canopy Forum article argues that “Christian religious belief is the justification for many civil rights challenges we are seeing now.” Among them? Efforts to ban abortion, which “rest…on Christian religion.” Although legal justifications for prohibiting abortion “might pretend to have a secular justification,” the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent overturn a federal constitutional right to an abortion “is built on a Christian understanding of when ‘life’ begins.”

Dr. Brett is not unmasking any hidden conspiracy. Christians have provided much of the momentum for the pro-life movement since its inception. They certainly have religious reasons for having done so. The Catholic Church considers abortion intrinsically evil. The conservative Protestant mainstay Focus on the Family interprets biblical injunctions against infanticide as extending to abortion. Highway billboards cast as a pro-life slogan Jeremiah 1:5 – “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Recent polling confirms that Christianity maintains a close connection to pro-life views in the United States.

But a history of religious conviction about an issue is hardly proof that theocracy is afoot. Christians have engaged in politics since time immemorial. In this country alone Christians, inspired by long-held and religiously motivated beliefs, have contributed to the war of national independence, driven much of the movement to abolish slavery, “compelled many to campaign on behalf of women’s suffrage,” lifted up the prophetic vision at the heart of the civil rights movement, welcomed refugees, and fought global warming. Of course, Christians with just as much conviction have also caused profound harm in American history. But the picture is complicated, and whether a policy has been pushed by Christians – or even by Christians for religious reasons – does not determine whether it is compatible with a free, religiously diverse society. To say otherwise is to fall into what philosophers call the genetic fallacy (the belief that whether an argument is valid comes down to its origins) – or what lawyers call guilt by association.

Still, we do need a dividing line separating religiously inspired policies that are compatible with a free society and those that are not. Several convincing philosophical ones acceptable to both Christians and non-Christians have been put forward. John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, and others have developed a notion of “public reason,” the idea that social rules must be justifiable by an appeal to reasons everyone can share. Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to the national legislature of his native Germany, observed that “[u]nlike other great religions, Christianity has never proposed a revealed law to the State and to society, that is to say a juridical order derived from revelation.” Instead, he professed a commitment to “nature and reason as the true sources of law.” In an earlier speech before the British Parliament, he distinguished between religion’s proper function and its overreach: “[T]he the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply [fundamental moral] norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion, but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles.” Both the secular philosophers’ approach and that of the pope emeritus provide a basis for distinguishing between politically admissible Christian efforts to, say, love the least of our brothers and sisters and politically inadmissible ones to compel church attendance. These approaches show more insight than Dr. Brett’s quick condemnation of whatever politics she deems too Christian for decent society.

Measured by these nuanced standards, there is nothing wicked about Christian advocacy against abortion. Pro-life policies can absolutely be justified by appeal to secular reason. Dr. Brett unintentionally concedes as much by noting that legal briefs opposing abortion “might pretend to have a secular justification.” She does not state that justification outright, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization does: “Some believe fervently that a human person comes into being at conception and that abortion ends an innocent life.” Many Christians are convinced of this. But so are many non-Christians. Christopher Hitchens, one of the “Four Horsemen of the New Atheism,” concluded: “Once you allow that the occupant of the womb is even potentially a life, it cuts athwart any glib invocation of ‘the woman’s right to choose.’” Likewise, Nat Hentoff, longtime progressive writer for the Village Voice and atheist, was convinced that “[o]nce the sperm and the egg meet, and they find a sort of nesting place in the uterus, you now have a developing human being. It’s not a kangaroo. It’s not a giraffe. It’s a human being. And that development in the womb until the person comes out is a continuing process. Therefore, if you kill it at any stage – first three weeks, first three months – you’re killing a developing human being.” As columnist David French recently wrote, this “isn’t an assertion of religious dogma but of scientific reality.”

…We do need a dividing line separating religiously inspired policies that are compatible with a free society and those that are not

Even Christian arguments against abortion are often grounded in reason. Consider Focus on the Family. Why does it support the government? Revelation: “‘Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.’ Romans 13:1.” Why does it oppose abortion? A little bit of revelation, and a lot of reasoning that non-Christians could accept: “Within scripture, abortion isn’t mentioned as the exact term ‘abortion.’ . . . [W]ell-meaning Christians might compare the old traditions of child sacrifice to the abortions of today. Certainly, abortion harms children.” What about the Catholic Church? While also citing religious justifications, reason provides a complete basis for its opposition to abortion: “[F]rom the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. This has always been clear, and . . . modern genetic science offers clear confirmation. It has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person, this individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization the adventure of a human life begins . . . .”

In response to a Jeremiah 1:5 billboard, one message board commenter asked, “Is that the best the anti-abortion movement can find in the Bible to back themselves up?” 

 Basically yes – well, that and the conviction that thou shalt not kill, an imperative certainly shared by secular people. And the anthropological, philosophical, and scientific judgments about when life begins. All but the Jeremiah 1:5 part of that equation is at least accessible to reason. And that portion, by itself, can lead to the conclusion that abortion is an atrocity.

Arguments that morally significant human life begins at conception, and that abortion is therefore homicide that should be limited by law, will not persuade everyone (Christian or otherwise). But even when raised by Christians for Christian reasons, these contentions are no crime against civil freedom. They are a form of faithful participation in it.♦

Matthew P. Cavedon is the Robert Pool Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, and a senior lecturer in law, at Emory University. He is a former public defender and was a law clerk for a United States district court and the Supreme Court of Georgia.

Recommended Citation

Cavedon, Matthew P. “The Admissibility of Christian Pro-Life Politics.” Canopy Forum, October 19, 2022.