As a former Catholic turned atheist, I have come to reject many of the positions of the Catholic Church: its oppressive stance toward gay rights, its bizarre and unfounded opposition to contraception and of course, essentially all of its teachings about Jesus, God and the Bible. But one issue where I stand at least partially on the side of the Catholic Church is the ever-inflammatory issue of abortion.
I am certainly in the minority among atheists on the abortion question, but I would like to think that it’s a somewhat more nuanced position than the typical pro-life stance. Essentially, while I do not personally support abortion in normal circumstances, I recognize that it is a complex, emotional and uncertain issue whose resolution is best left to individuals; it is not for the government to decide. That seems like a fairly conservative, if moderate, position to me.
Some Catholics, however, would disagree, especially those among the Church’s leadership. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, effectively the head of the Catholic Church in the United States, has used his uncanny publicity skills to rile up conservatives around the country, often sounding more like an evangelical preacher than the typical Catholic priest. Similarly, in the Republican primaries, the candidate who was most successful in drawing the (typically Evangelical) social-conservative vote was Rick Santorum, a Catholic.
There’s no doubt that Catholics are hugely influential in the United States. One-quarter of Americans are Catholic, including the two vice-presidential candidates, and no presidential candidate since 1972 has won the popular vote without winning the Catholic vote. There are some (even at Yale) who suggest that Catholics should bully politicians into making the Church’s regressive social doctrine the law of the land under the guise of religious liberty. The right has, in recent years, been quite susceptible to attempts at this sort of domination of the majority by a political minority, most recently seen in the startling rise of the Tea Party. Fortunately, conservative Catholics and the Christian Right in general tend to forget one important detail about our country:
The United States of America is not a Christian nation.
Regardless of the religious beliefs of the Founders, they very clearly embedded separation of church and state in the Constitution. Given the diversity of religious beliefs now found in the United States, it is more important than ever that public policy be justified by the facts, not religious beliefs. A book about an Iron Age god of war is never proper justification for public policy in a modern, secular nation.
The Founders were well aware of the threats of extreme factionalism. A republic like ours is well suited to dealing with factions, as James Madison explained in “Federalist No. 10″: “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution.”
Those of us, religious or not, who do care about true religious liberty must still oppose the religious right. However, history does seem to be on secularism’s side. Our generation is the least religious yet, with one-third of Americans ages 18–29 belonging to no religion at all, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Among the population as a whole, atheists and agnostics (at about 6 percent of the population) outnumber Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus combined. In the past, politicians have pandered to the religious while routinely ignoring the non-religious. In the future, politicians would be wise to recognize America’s changing demographics.
Because of this, I am not terribly worried that the Catholic Outrage Brigade will actually be able to impose their will on the country as a whole. Let them rant and rave, let them lobby, let them fight the separation of church and state in a battle they know they’re losing. They will have their minor victories, and their rights should certainly not be ignored. But they will never be able to take their beliefs and put dogma above the Constitution. They are still on the wrong side of history.
Brian McNellis is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .