Senator Barack Obama: Religion in the Public Square is OK

For decades, many Catholic politicians rationalized their pro-abortion position by claiming that while they personally opposed abortion they could not impose their moral beliefs on others. To question this position publicly was tantamount to committing treason.

In 1984, for instance, all hell broke loose when New York’s archbishop, John Cardinal O’Connor, commenting on the pro-abortion views of Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, said, “I do not see how a Catholic in good conscience can vote for an individual expressing himself or herself favoring abortion.” Reacting to the Archbishop’s statement, The New York Times complained: “It might as well be said bluntly: … the effort to impose a religious test on the performance of Catholic politicians threatens the hard-won understanding that finally brought America to elect a Catholic president a generation ago.”

Mario Cuomo, Tip O’Neill, Ted Kennedy, and others came to Ferraro’s defense: Cuomo delivered a now imfamous address at the University of Notre Dame defending the “I-personally-oppose-but …” position. Senator Kennedy accused Archbishop O’Connor of “blatant sectarian appeals” and argued that not “every moral command” could become law.

Twenty years later, John Kerry – the first baptized Catholic to be the presidential nominee of a major party since 1960 – employed the same old arguments to mask his pro-abortion views. Kerry told The Washington Post that “I oppose abortion … I believe life does begin at conception. [But] I can’t take my Catholic belief, my article of faith and legislate it on a Protestant or Jew or an atheist.” The fact that defending innocent life is not merely some obscure Catholic dogma, or that Protestants, Jews, and some atheists, along with various others, also found abortion morally repugnant and a grave departure from core Western values has never seemed to register with Kerry and many Catholic likes him.

In the second debate, when asked by a town hall participant how he can support federally-financed abortions, he reaffirmed that stand claiming that even though he is a “practicing” Catholic, he had no choice but to support pro-abortion legislations because, “I can’t take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn’t share that article of faith.” In the third presidential debate – more of the same. When asked about Catholic bishops’ comments on the potential sinfulness of voting for a pro-abortion, pro-unlimited stem cell research candidate, Kerry replied:

I respect their views. I completely respect their views. I am a Catholic. And I grew up learning how to respect those views. But I disagree with them, as do many. I believe that I can’t legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith. What is an article of faith for me is not something that I can legislate on somebody who doesn’t share that article of faith. I believe that choice, a woman’s choice is between a woman, God and her doctor. And that’s why I support that. Now I will not allow somebody to come in and change Roe v. Wade.

This deliberate muddling of a natural law protection of the unborn with an allegedly sectarian Catholic position, which cannot withstand a second’s thought, still lives large among Democrats. But this year’s presidential abortion debate may be different because the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama, appears to reject the position of party elders that moral principles are an imposition on the body politic. As he said in a 2004 speech: “Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. To say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

Obama is absolutely right. Every issue by its nature has a moral dimension. And to suggest that one can’t vote one’s conscience on important issues is morally and intellectually incoherent – for both politicians and ordinary voters. Every vote in favor of any piece of legislation requires an act of faith that it is the best policy to impose on all the American people – including those who don’t share the legislator’s views on the issue.

How Obama will publicly reconcile his Christian faith with his extremist pro-abortion positions without the “I can’t impose” cover remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Obama’s acknowledgment that the American republic will not be endangered if religious views are articulated in the political arena is a significant concession that practicing Catholics should not let him or his party forget.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.