Referring to Barack Obama’s “above my pay grade” response to Rick Warren at the Saddleback forum last month, Tom Brokaw asked Joe Biden on Meet the Press yesterday how he would instruct his ticketmate on the question of when life begins. “I’d say,” Biden said:
“Look, I know when it begins for me.” It’s a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I’m prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths–Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others–who have a different view. They believe in God as strongly as I do. They’re intensely as religious as I am religious. They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life–I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society.”
The role of a church’s teaching in American electoral politics is a complex thing. Back in 1960, John F. Kennedy had to make clear that he would not take orders from the pope, and pointedly disagreed with the American Catholic hierarchy on its two top priority issues: aid to parochial schools and an ambassador to the Vatican. Forty-four years later, disagreeing with his church on abortion put John Kerry crossways with the very same people–conservative evangelicals–who were troubled by JFK’s Catholicism.
The JFK/Kerry contrast is easy enough to follow. A subtler situation is that of Virginia’s Catholic Gov. Tim Kaine, who made it clear, in his 2005 race, that his opposition to the death penalty was rooted in his Catholicism; and that seemed a lot easier for the very pro-death penalty electorate to stomach than if he had simply declared that he was against the death penalty because he believed it was wrong. As Princeton’s wise old scholar of American religious history John Wilson likes to point out, pointing to the teachings of one’s religion is as likely to ease tension over policy differences among citizens as to exacerbate them.
So what I’m wondering is this. What if a Barack Obama, instead of flying solo on the deeply controverted moral issue of abortion, simply said that he embraced the position of his denomination–the United Church of Christ; to wit:
The United Church of Christ has affirmed and re-affirmed since 1971 that access to safe and legal abortion is consistent with a woman’s right to follow the dictates of her own faith and beliefs in determining when and if she should have children, and it has supported comprehensive sexuality education as one measure to prevent unwanted or unplanned pregnancies, and to create healthy and responsible sexual persons and relationships. (General Synods VIII, IX, XI, XII, XIII, XVI, XVII, and XVIII)
We have also supported that women with limited financial means should be able to receive public funding in order to exercise her legal right to the full range of reproductive health services. What is legally available to women must be accessible to all women.
The United Church of Christ is one of the founding faith groups of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, formed in 1973 as the Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights. Over the years, RCRC has continued to bring a strong voice of faith on the moral and religious issues that swirl around public debate over abortion, contraception and pregnancy prevention. Because there are many religious and theological perspectives on when life and personhood begin, the UCC joins others in advocating that public policy must honor this rich religious diversity. Our position is not a pro-abortion position but a pro-faith, pro-family and pro-woman position.
My guess is that hewing to the position of his church–which is, in fact, his position–would sit more easily with many pro-life Americans who themselves are influenced, as Joe Biden says he is, by their church’s teaching. (Incidentally, I also suspect that Mitt Romney would have done better with pro-life evangelicals had he embraced embryonic stem-cell research–like the entire Mormon contingent in the U.S. Senate–on the grounds that his church teaches that “ensoulment” only occurs at implantation.) The point that Biden was at pains to make is that opposition to abortion is a religious teaching, but one that not all religious groups subscribe to; and in America we don’t impose religious teachings on those who don’t subscribe to them. There are counterarguments, of course, but this is a powerful argument to counter.