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writing for godot

Ross Douthat: Religious Authoritarianism at its Best (and Indeed Worst)

Written by Steven Jonas   
Monday, 17 May 2021 11:32

By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH


"Either this nation will kill racism or racism will kill this nation."  (S. Jonas, Aug. 2018)




On May 17, 2021, with an announcement most likely well known to everyone who reads "Writing for Godot," the U.S. supreme Court agreed to hear a case coming from Mississippi that could be used to overturn Roe v. Wade.  It concerns a law that, among other things, prohibits abortions after 15 weeks.  The two lower Federal courts before which it came have declared it to be unconstitutional.  Now we know how dedicated reactionary (sorry, I cannot apply the word "conservative" to them) Justices are when it comes to not overturning precedent, as Justice Scalia told us oh-so-many-times, except of course when they aren't, as demonstrated in the gunners' case, "Heller" (see:

The pro-choice forces are of course, up in arms and rightly so, about what might happen here.  But as I have written on a number of times in this space, I think that the matter goes well beyond freedom of choice in the outcome of pregnancy.  It rather goes to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution.  Since for the Religious Right the concept of "when life begins" is a purely religious one, we are dealing here with the much larger issue of religious authoritarianism.  It is with that subject that I deal in this column about two columns by the Rightist NY Times columnist Ross Douthat.


AMENDMENT I; Constitution of the United States: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or pro­hibiting the free exercise thereof; S JONAS (and many, many others): the determination of "when live begins" is a matter of religious belief; nothing more, nothing less.


Ross Douthat is The New York Times' Resident Real Rightist, and Catholic Theologian to boot. And for the past two weeks he has really been at it. On April 2 he plunged into the Abortion Rights Debate as he does on a regular basis. And then on April 10 the subject was "Can the Meritocracy Find God?" Let's deal with the abortion rights issue first.

First of all, Douthat, like all self-styled "pro-lifers" ("pro" for "life" in the womb, of course, not so much after it) always talks about the issue as "abortion." Well, Ross, it ain't. The issue is abortion rights. (By-the-by, the pro-abortion rights folks have a lesson to learn here too.) That is, who has the right to declare that abortion is a crime, based on who has the right to declare when an embryo-fetus is a "person," that is a being who has all the rights and privileges of a person who is living outside of the womb. This is a point that I have made on more than one occasion, a point that is vital in the battle over the matter of abortion rights. For the ongoing struggle in which this nation is engaged is not about "abortion" per se. To repeat, the battle is rather over who gets to say what laws, customs, and privileges govern the matter, that is when in the course of embryonic-fetal growth primary control of the being shifts from the future-mother to social, legal, and political forces, in the society.

Second of all, given these considerations it is very important for our (that is, in case anyone misses my drift here) side to make it very clear, over and over again (and as noted above too), that this struggle is NOT about abortion, per se, but about abortion rights, and we have to say that over and over again. Nobody (at least I hope that nobody) thinks that abortion is a good idea. It is a medical procedure (one that happens to be increasingly possible to subject to the control of the pregnant woman) which can be unpleasant and can carry certain medical risks (although the advent of medicine-induced abortion has made it much less so on both counts). Furthermore, everyone is pro-life, that is healthy life for fetus, future baby, pregnant woman, and future mother. The struggle is NOT over "life" as the anti-abortion rights forces (again the term that our side should be using) put it. The struggle is over who gets to say what "life" is in terms of the law and when.

Douthat this time around, not saying exactly what his position on it is, speaks without criticism (except for critiquing its possible political utility) of a position taken by a Notre Dame professor named John Finnis that the Supreme Court should declare that "unborn human beings" should have all the protections granted to person under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, from the moment a fetus appears in the womb. (That many of these same folks argue, for example, that the 14th doesn't apply in the case of voting rights for Black people is a matter to which we may return at another time.) And here, of course, we get to the argument in which I have engaged so many times on these pages and others. Douthat and most of his ilk just assume that "life begins at the moment of conception" and that that there is no possible argument over that. For Catholics that concept was laid down by Pope Pius IX in 1869 (at the same time that he declared Popes to be infallible --- see my previous references). Before that, in accordance with the policy laid down by St. Thomas Aquinas, abortion was permissible up until the time of "quickening" (that is around 16 weeks). For most Protestants it is a doctrine derived from particular interpretations of the "King James" version of the Bible.

Of course, these are both religious authorities. The illegalize-abortion-at-any-time folks just assume that everyone accepts them, or should. BUT, first off some of us abortion rights folks are atheists of one sort or another. So why should religious law apply to us? Second of all, many religious folk a) don't agree with the anti-abortion rights religious position(s), and b) are not Christians (who seem to be the only religious-believing persons to whom Douthat is speaking). There are bunches of other religions, Ross, both in this country and around the world, and they have a variety of positions on abortion rights. But for some reason, they don't seem to get into your consciousness. I wonder why. But before going off on a tangent to deal with the question of the Christian-centricity-of-certain-types-of-Christianity (a fascinating one in its own right), let us turn to the second-in-a-row theological column that Mr. Douthat has shared with us, "Can Meritocracy Find God?"

Mr. Douthat begins with noting that: "This year the inspiration for the elegies [about religious-adherence in the U.S.] was new data from Gallup showing that for the first time in its decades of polling, fewer than half of Americans claim membership in a church, synagogue or mosque. The fall has been swift: From 70 percent in 1999 to 47 percent in 2020." Now instead of wondering what responsibility "religion" (however one wants to define it, and Mr. Douthat doesn't bother to) itself might have for this state of affairs, he blames it on the "meritocracy," that is the intelligentsia, the academics, the "knowledge workers," and the "Professional managerial class."

The solution to this problem? Why they all have to "get religion." OMG (used only as a turn of phrase, not as an expression of belief). And not only that, but let "let them clash as brothers and sisters in Christ." (Where that leaves believing Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Animists, and etc. is beyond me. Maybe if and when he gets out of his Christian-centricity [and of course only one kind of one --- one can be sure that it does not include Unitarian-Universalism, for example], Mr. Douthat can tell us.) Then he goes on to talk about science (and religious folk of his sort always seem to couch "science" as some kind of enemy as if, if there were a God, he/she/it/or-they couldn't have invented science to make for a better world. But that's a matter for another time). And then he allows that he fails to understand his "secular neighbors" who have an "indifference" to "religious possibilities."

Well, Ross, I suggest that you begin there. In no particular order of importance, as a secularist/atheist, for example I would begin with the understanding that your type of religious person, as you make clear in last week's column, wants to impose your particular notion of "when life begins" upon me in the matter of abortion rights. (MENTION churches as super-spreaders ref.) Then there is the matter, as described above, of what you regard as "religion." It would seem that for you it is a particular form, with particular political/legal views of the right-wing sort (and yes, it is fair to say that, because it always allied with the U.S. right-wing political party, which is not shy about using its political power to enforce its religious views on the rest of us, by law). You don't talk about Jews, Muslims, Hindus (who are poly-theistic, by the way), Bhuddists, and etc. found in this country, unless, it is to be assumed by the way you talk about "religion," that their politics find themselves in accord with yours.

But all of this doesn't get to my main concerns about "religion" in the way Mr. Douthat clearly defines it, as a political as well as a spiritual force. "Religion" is going to save us? Really? Let's begin by going back to the abortion rights issue. Some of your co-religionists want to impose the death penalty on woman who have abortions, or if not going that far, then at least lock them up, along with their physicians. This is small of mirror of the fact that "religion," through its politicization in war, has been the cause of more deaths in history than any other. I always like to note that on the belt buckle of each Nazi soldier ink the Wehrmacht (but not on those of the SS troopers) was the slogan "Gott mit Uns" ("God with us"). Over the course of history, in the name of many religions, many members of other religions have been slaughtered (see Partition in India in 1947).

No Ross. More "religion" as you so narrowly define it, and within that definition to be given immense political power, is not the answer to our nation's problems. That will only make things worse, much worse (as for example, imposing the death penalty on women who have abortions as has been proposed in several states in the process of adopting anti-abortion-rights legislation, and if that, then imprisoning them, and oh yes, then prescribing the death sentence for physician s performing or assisting in providing abortion, by prescription). (And remember, any woman who doesn't want to have an abortion doesn't have to.)

That is not to say that personal religious belief and faith, as expounded say by our new President, cannot help to guide us in the right, positive, problem-solving direction for all of us, without giving religious belief the force of law. But governing us, especially in the way you advocate, could begin to drive us back down the historical road to the time when co-religionists of yours burned other sorts of Christians at the stake because they disagreed on the nature of the Eucharist. No thank you, Ross. For although you are not promoting burning at the stake, you are certainly promoting the kind of religious authoritarianism that was behind that kind of punishment for disagreements about the law and theology.


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