As of this writing, the Supreme Court is seemingly poised to reverse or severely restrict Roe v. Wade and the question of a woman’s access to an abortion will revert to the states. Nearly half of the states (or more to the point, nearly half of the state legislatures) are poised to follow suit immediately or soon thereafter.
Polls have consistently shown over the years that a majority of Americans support Roe, but that did not stop the former president and his enabler-in-chief in the Senate and their fellow travelers dutifully trailing behind from merging rightwing politics and a coopted sectarian religion to create a coalition of Supreme Court justices responsive to a minority of Americans on this matter.
Long debated is the question of whether the court was ever the proper venue for a decision of this magnitude in the first place, and once having the votes in place to overcome a filibuster and a president in the Oval Office to sign it, Congress may well finally settle the matter legislatively, one way or the other, but swirling around the question of abortion is not just its legality, yes or no, but its morality, right or wrong, and legislating morality in a democratic, pluralistic, and largely secular society is at best a perilous, slippery-slope undertaking, particularly when the issue in question, as here, would impose the will of the minority on the majority.
That is not to say that religion should remain quiet when matters of ethical and moral importance come before the people. Quite the contrary, since nearly every matter, both personal and social, has an ethical or moral component, religious institutions must be ever attentive to their contribution to the debate, but in our form of government, religious persons and their organizations must also recognize that their power is persuasive, not coercive. In that light, only from a position of relative independence from the state and its governing process can and will the religious voice speak clearly, if not prophetically, in the public square.
Of course, the greater risk is that the faith community will not raise its voice at all, the omission of which only makes the religious enterprise complicit in creating and sustaining (and adding its tacit blessing on) society’s shortcomings and deeper sins. While seldom recognized as such, a potent symbol of this complicity of silence is the presence of the American flag in the sanctuary.
At one time, the very divisive issue of removing the flag from the sanctuary was the very vehicle that dramatized the need for some separation between religious institutions and the state in the first place. I first encountered this lesson years ago as a seminarian. Having experienced the failure of such separation in Nazi Germany, religious leaders and theologians visiting the United States from Germany after World War II would frequently voice their abhorrence at seeing a state flag in places of worship. In their case, by its silence, the German church was complicit in the atrocities of the Third Reich, a not-so-subtle reminder that the power structures of the state can and do impose their will on potential voices of dissent, including the prophetic voice of the church. For good reason does the state coopt cultural complicity from its religious institutions. The frequently cited lamentation of the prominent Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller, who spent seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps, comes to mind in this regard (Niemöller spoke extemporaneously and the quotation exists in different versions, but his point is the same, that Germans, especially leaders of the Protestant churches, had been complicit through their silence in the imprisonment, persecution, and murder of millions of people by the Nazis):
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Albert Camus put it somewhat differently. Speaking to a group of Dominicans in 1948, he said (emphasis added):
What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear … that they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of people resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally.
When speaking on behalf of the wider community and its people and their needs, religious communities need to realize that they also speak to those in position of economic and political power. Keeping the proper perspective between the two may require that we keep an eye on how the symbols of statecraft in places of worship impact our witness to the moral and ethical quality of our life together when it comes to the state.