McElroy Lecture: Religion, Politics, and Abortion
38 Pages Posted: 19 Dec 2001 Last revised: 14 Jul 2013
Date Written: April 5, 2001
This essay - which was the basis of my Philip J.McElroy Lecture at the University of Detroit Mercy in April 2001 - is the final installment in a series of five essays on the proper role of religiously grounded morality in the politics and law of the United States. The contemporary American debate about religion in politics is partly animated and shaped by two large controversies that are at once both moral and political in character: the controversies over same-sex unions and abortion. Addressing the issue of religion in politics without addressing those two controversies would be like staging Hamlet without the prince. In two other essays in the series of which this essay is a part, I focus on the controversy over same-sex unions. In this essay, speaking in particular to religious believers who hold (as I do) that political reliance on religiously grounded morality is neither illegitimate in a liberal democracy nor unconstitutional in the United States, I turn to the moral/political controversy that, in the last generation, has been the most difficult and divisive of all: abortion. To an even greater extent than the controversy over same-sex unions, the abortion controversy looms large in the background of the debate about the proper role of religion in the politics of the United States. More than any other American political controversy in the second half of the twentieth century, the abortion controversy has been a principal, if sometimes unspoken, occasion of the debate about religion in politics. My overarching aim, in this essay, is to address the abortion controversy in a way that is true to each of two propositions. I defend the first proposition in two other essays in the series of which this essay is a part: A citizen's religious faith has a legitimate, important role to play in her politics. The second proposition is at least as well illustrated by the moral/political controversy over abortion as by any other: In the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, "political issues deal with complex problems of justice, every solution for which contains morally ambiguous elements."
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