You write: “I think there’s one way: if you recognize that the position of the church regarding abortion is based on very specific theological commitments about souls that are not and cannot be expected to be universally held by others living in your nation.”

This, conceptually, is in the same neighborhood as my position on why I take abortion to be murder yet don’t prescribe the same set of legal consequences for its occurrence. With garden variety murder, we should toss everyone who was involved in prison, with the worst actors even getting the guillotine. Not so much when it comes to abortion. In a future post I’ll spell out my position more fully.

But there is a danger to this position, and the danger has to do with the enlightenment deficit, as it were, between a notion that I’ll call ideal public reasonableness and the unreasonableness of the masses. That sentence is not so easy to grasp, so I’ll untangle it a bit. By “enlightenment deficit” I mean the intellectual gap, the reasonableness gap, between an ideal reasoner and the folks who actually populate our societies.

Take Nazi Germany as a preliminary example. Let’s say that the belief that Jews are sub-human is held by a majority of the population. This is obviously an abhorrent position to take. Whether through genuine racism or through being misled (i.e. via propaganda), the majority takes a Jew to not amount to a person, and, concomitantly, to not be in possession of human rights. The “public reasons” that are “accessible and available to all” within this society are such that there is great controversy over whether Jews are persons.

But we would think it’s a very strange position — deeply immoral, even — to take Jews as being persons, with human rights, but to also think it should be legally permissible to exterminate them.

The problem here is the enlightenment gap between what people on the ground believe and what people as ideal reasoners would believe. If we could ensure the latter, then this formula for finessing personal/legal distinctions would be plausible. Because only the more defensible set of reasons would form the set of public reasons.

The problem is we can’t ensure this. So how confident should a Christian be that the public reasons in his or her society are the right ones (right as in “defensible” or “reasonable” — not as in “accurate”)? What if the entire society is just missing it so very badly? This is the sentiment Christians take toward the abortion debate. It is clear to us, for theological and philosophical reasons, that abortion is a great wrong. A corresponding sentiment is that the public reasons deployed to argue against this view are so very badly mistaken.

The very presence of widespread disagreement is not enough to justify, for us, the personal/legal distinction the way Kaine has used it. Just as the disagreement within Nazi Germany would not have justified the distinction there, either.

We get results such as: “My religion says we should wear red hats on Saturdays but since I get that others don’t share these theological beliefs I won’t pursue enforced compliance.”

But what happens when the nature of the belief — whether theological, philosophical, or whatever (one shortcoming of your characterization is it specifically targeted ‘theological’ beliefs, when a better formulation would’ve generalized it further as ‘beliefs stemming from one’s conception of the good’ — a formulation that doesn’t target religious conceptions but includes any kind of comprehensive picture of the world) — is not held to be a theological article, or a theological distinctive, but constitutive of reality?

Souls, certainly, are a theological article (despite the fact that the people who believe in them outnumber the people who don’t), but the theologically-driven anti-abortion position doesn’t depend on the theological framework even though that’s how a church might profess the matter when giving its self-presentation. In other words, the position that abortion is wrong is the kind of belief that, even if it has a theological formulation, also has a public-reason-backed version as well.

Just like it would be off to say: “I’m against killing Jews, but since I get that your conception of the good includes seeing Jews as subhuman, I’m all right with you doing it legally,” so too should it be off to say: “I’m against killing babies, but since I get that your conception of the good includes seeing them as a clump of cells, I’m all right with you doing it legally.”

Editor in Chief of Arc Digital

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store