Religion, Politics, and the Press

Those of us who grew up wondering if there really was life west of the Hudson River would be hard pressed to name two or three newspapers whose editorial opinions carry the weight of the great grey lady of 43rd and Broadway. But there had to be a place somewhere, perhaps in what was called “middle America,” which had newspapers whose stoutheartedness reflected true American pluralistic views, the solid values of mom and apple pie and the V. A. parade past the kiosk in the town square. There, it would seem, would be editorial writers who remembered back three or four years to the Supreme Court decision in Harris v. McRae, which found that “it does not follow that a statute’ violates the establishment clause [of the First Amendment] because it happens to coincide or harmonize with the tenets of some or all religions.”

Such reverse English on the abortion issue, which hiccuped across the American consciousness for a month or two this past fall, would have laid to rest the argument most clearly pronounced in the editorial pages of The New York Times, that abortion is a religious issue and that requiring candidates even to know their own Church’s teaching was tantamount to a direct attack upon the Constitution. Or, as the Times put it: “The Catholic bishops’ effort to impose a religious test on the performance of Catholic politician’s threatens the hard-won understanding that finally brought America to elect a Catholic president a generation ago.” Of course the issue was not whether or not the opposition to abortion was simply the rightminded and fair thing to do, the issue was whether it was a requirement for Catholics to be anti-abortion. This subtle form of anti-Catholicism crept outwards from the center and grew in less florid ways along the editorial byways, following roughly the same course the development of the Constitutional experiment of America took lo these few centuries ago.

In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the stately Berkshire Eagle argued that “The tolerant pluralism that is central to this highly diverse country’s success is also endangered when clergymen insist that members of their faith must try to make the teachings of their religion into the law of the land.” The editorial continued with the declaration that the world needed more fine-minded political individualists like Ferraro, Cuomo and Kennedy who would not allow themselves to be dictated to by archbishops. The relationship between private belief and public policy was plumbed to its shallowest by the weekly Millbrook, New York Round Table with the unoriginal pronouncement that “The Archbishop’s criticism implies that the governor should make his religious beliefs public policy, thereby imposing his religion on others.”

Clearly, there is nothing more reprehensible than the “personally I am opposed, but . . .” logic, which will allow that abortion is murder, but that the “right” to abortion must be agreed to by all since it is at present Constitutionally protected. That there are many who do not, agree that “the bread belongs to the baker” ought to weigh equally when pluralism is brought to the fore. Voters who would have liked to vote for Mondale-Ferraro but who could not because of the abortion issue were not, as the Round Table might accuse, electing a religion. They were making a determination based on public policy and on logic, one which probably would have been made without the intercession of the Archbishop of New York and his confreres, but one which was exceedingly clear once the ink on the many statements — including two each from the Governor of New York and NCCB-USCC President Bishop James Malone, from twenty-three Pax Christi Bishops, from the bishops of New England, from Congressman Henry Hyde. and from sundry others including the ordinaries of New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Albany, and Stockton, California — was dry.

What is most disturbing in this fracas is the growing belief that “prudential judgments” are permitted in even the most basic of moral determinations. Clearly, the specific methodology of a public policy solution to the current Constitutional dilemma of abortion on demand is a matter for “prudential judgment,” but the fact of the seriousness of abortion is not. Yet editorial writers persisted with the belief that the rightness or wrongness of abortion under any circumstances was a private decision, one into which even Church authority could not interfere. As the Middletown, New York Sunday Record wrote: “Geraldine Ferraro has presented her views on numerous issues, many of which the Catholic bishops endorse. Like Mario Cuomo, the 55 theologians, and millions of silent Catholics, she is entitled to disagree with the bishops on abortion.” She of course was disagreeing with the bishops on two levels — on the level of the specific public policy solution to what she admitted was a wrong, something she is well entitled to do, and on the level of the logic of her belief, of her “personally opposed,” etc. which she cannot and could not represent as a “Catholic” view.

This doublethink argument was best presented by the Ogdensberg, New York Advance-News.

One can believe that abortion is murder and at the same time not demand laws outlawing it for everyone. The reason is that whereas normal murder is universally accepted as evil, abortion is not. So many Americans don’t believe it to be evil, in fact, many believe it — however wrongly — to be a right, that even if one could muster a majority to ban abortion, that would constitute a grave violation of the civil peace, which both supports and is itself supported by religious pluralism.

Such is what the Advance-News calls “the duty of religious toleration.” Yet to reject something which is right-minded and honorable simply because it coincides with a specific religious teaching is frightening in its implications. To reject it while agreeing with its premise is even more frightening yet.

Joining in the applause for what seemed at the time to be Catholics vs. Democrats was the Baltimore Morning Sun, which reminded its editorial readers that “Ms. Ferraro has stated repeatedly that she cannot fulfill her duty to uphold the Constitution ‘if I seek to impose my religion on others.’ This, the Sun contended, was “a mainstream American civics lesson.” The St. Petersburg, Florida Times heralded this lesson in an editorial headlined “Ferraro Stands Her Ground.” The Times gave clearest insight into the confusion of issues with its declaration that “John Kennedy opposed some policies of the Catholic church, such as his opposition to public funds for church schools, but to our knowledge he was never publicly criticized by any archbishops … Could it be that Mrs. Ferraro has been singled out because she is a woman and on this issue especially… seems to represent a special threat?” To equate tuition tax credits or other private education funding from public coffers with the argument that in certain circumstances that which is agreed to be innocent human life may be done away with surely reaches a new nadir in editorial locution.

To throw in what admittedly may not be a very bright red herring, the she-is-being-singled-out-because-she-is-a-woman presentation, simply confuses the issue more. Very few living Catholic Americans over the age of reason were not embarrassed when Bishop James Timlin of Scranton referred to the Vice Presidential candidate in what seemed to be very patronizing tones as “Geraldine,” as if she were a waitress or a maid — but beyond that, being female seems to have had very little to do with it. It is the choice of feminists to claim abortion as a personal crusade, but Mrs. Ferraro did not rely on feminist logic for her guileless acceptance, even support, of abortion. The St. Petersburg Times applauds her standing up to Archbishop O’Connor and telling “him firmly but politely that he was wrong, that her foremost duty as a public official was to uphold the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, and that she did not intend to violate that duty by seeking to impose her religious views on other citizens.”

What of course she could have done was simply to say that she agreed with her Church that abortion was wrong (which she did do), that the horror of abortion on demand had grown well beyond what the writers of Roe v. Wade expected, and that some modification of public policy would best serve her own conviction that innocent people are being killed. The only possibility for modification of public policy which can reverse Roe v. Wade is a Supreme Court which agrees with the need for such modification, whether by outlawing all abortion or by outlawing abortion with the exception of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or which pose actual severe physical threat to the life of the mother. This would stretch Catholic belief, but it would at least be more in keeping with what the electorate seems to believe, if the results of the presidential election and the abortion controversy have any connection at all. The St. Petersburg Times in the same editorial contended that “If she had done what the archbishop wanted, she would have been unfit to hold public office.” Clearly, if Ferraro had done so only because it was what the archbishop wanted, that would have been the case. To have done so because it was the right thing to do would cause no such confusion on the role of religion in politics.

Heading west, opinions grew no more conservative. In New Kensington, Pennsylvania the Valley News Dispatch reiterated Ferraro’s “Impose my own religion” refusal and exclaimed “That in a nutshell is what separation of church and state is all about. And it is precisely why religion and politics do not mix in this country.” Clearly, there is nothing more frightening than a theocracy, where God is the arbiter of political and civic determinations, but only crassness or stupidity can claim that no religious values form the foundation of our Constitutional beliefs; the respect for others which is at the heart of American pluralism is the outgrowth of religious, not secular, belief in the value of specific personal creeds. To editorialize that “Morality ought to be the work, the responsibility, the challenge of the churches of the nation and the secular affairs of the country the business of government,” as the Lincoln, Nebraska Star did, is to invite an invidious disrespect for the true tradition of the Constitution. Yet a public which believes that the question of abortion is a public policy question equal in importance to school prayer and tuition tax credits is in need of more than education on the part of bishops, who admittedly have been lax in their teaching roles. Otherwise even the Lincoln Star would not have been able to write: “We believe Ferraro’s position is the only proper one to take. Abortion is a moral issue that is within the purview of any church and its members but it is not a governmental issue.”

If it is not a “governmental issue” then what is it? Public funding continues to pay for abortions; does public funding concurrently fight for the rights of the unborn? Closer to the consistent beat of the heartland is the Toledo, Ohio Blade which in horror recorded that “If this nation has to face the prospect that a campaign for the presidency this year is going to be fought on the issues of abortion and religion, God help us.” As well He might, if the question really was on abortion and religion. The fact is that there was clear separation between church and state all along: abortion exists within the law as the result of an eleven-year-old court decision; religion coexists with the law as the result of a nearly two-hundred year-old Constitution. The centrality of the establishment clause in this discussion cuts both ways: neither will Congress make any law regarding an establishment of religion by creating a state-approved religious denomination, nor will the law creep within religious institutions to declare what is and is not allowable under the law according to their beliefs.

All of these determinations exist within the larger framework of a not always clear understanding of fundamental natural law, which imposes some restrictions and protects many rights. Traditionally, one of those restrictions was against killing innocents. This year Catholic politicians agreed that abortion was such a heinous crime, yet applauded the decision which allowed it and refused to pledge even to modify that decision. Hence the vitriol and vituperation heaped upon the spokesmen for what came to be known as the “Catholic” cause. Beyond the internal Catholic argument over what teaching was or was not monolithic came the claim that a political manipulator in a mitre was rigging the election, even campaigning on behalf of the Republicans. No such charge was levied on the bishops whose political stance fell’ into line precisely with the Democratic platform on welfare, social security funding, nuclear freeze or any other more clearly “prudential” public policy issues.

Nicholas Von Hoffman’s column, printed in the Circleville, Ohio Herald and elsewhere, declared that “God may not be a Republican but important members of the American Roman Catholic hierarchy evidently are.” The major Republicans on his list are John Cardinal Krol and one “John O’Conner” (sic), whom he refers to as “the Archboobah.” With incredulity, Von Hoffman declares about O’Connor: “This guy is also on record as making the statement that abortion is ‘the crucial issue’ in the presidential election.” Von Hoffman is worth noting perhaps only for his crassness and his misinformation; one can be thankful for the fact that there are only 8,573 readers of the Circleville, Ohio Herald.

In contrast, another syndicated columnist, Patrick Buchanan of Tribune Media Services, stated more bluntly “The Archbishop was right.” In the St. Louis, Missouri Globe-Democrat, for example, his column took Geraldine Ferraro to task for her past support of abortion and her acceptance of funds from the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL):

Geraldine Ferraro is a militant feminist NARAL who says she would pay for her daughter’s abortions; she wants the Feds to pay for abortions for any woman who can’t afford them. To her, a woman’s right to an abortion — not the Catholic Church’s position — is the “moral” position she will never compromise.

Realistically, many thoughtful people have argued that the Church-State line became blurred somewhat once Catholic bishops started naming political candidates, although no such problem arose in the South when ministers named Rev. Jesse Jackson as a preferred candidate and spoke as though God was not only a Democrat, but a southern black Democrat at that. The argument really was over whether religious views which were politically conservative could be voiced in the face of religious views which were politically liberal. In a somewhat more balanced column from the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, which appeared in the Indianapolis Star, Joseph Kraft applauded what he called another attempt at “reform” in the face of “hierarchical authority.” Kraft applauds not only Ferraro, Cuomo and Kennedy, but Friar Leonardo Boff as well. “No matter what happens in the American election,” he smiles, “resistance to the claims of the hierarchy is alive and well.” This misunderstanding of doctrine, a preference for some sort of majority vote on fundamental natural law, undermines the abortion debate throughout the secular (and much of the religious) press.

For example, syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman, of the Washington Post Writers Group, whose column appears in a wide variety of papers, ranging from the Norfolk, Virginia Virginian Pilot to the Shreveport, Louisiana Times to the Denver, Colorado Rocky Mountain News makes just this mistake.

The bishops imply, for example, that the “facts” on which they rest their political case against abortion — that the fetus is a person and that abortion is therefore murder — are universally accepted within the Catholic church. But Catholic theologians are still arguing about when the fetus becomes a person.

If Ms. Goodman and others are awaiting the results of an international Catholic election on the question of ensoulment to settle the “official” Catholic position on abortion, there will be a long wait indeed. Ensoulment is not necessary to the understanding of a simple biological fact — genetically the fetus is human. It is already programmed to be that which we will regard as a person once it is viable outside the womb. Whether this which is human is or is not at some time in its development possessed of a soul is secondary to the realization that it full well might be. Does Ellen Goodman really want to take that chance? Does she wish to join with the “personally I am opposed…” politicians who agree with the fetus’ human status and who may or may not argue for ensoulment at conception? What Ms. Goodman calls “the hierarchy’s electioneering” more clearly becomes an attempt to teach not doctrine but common sense, something severely lacking in political candidates of all parties at all levels of government.

Similarly, to agree with Carl T. Rowan of the News America Syndicate, read by among others the readers of the Salt Lake City, Utah Tribune and predict that “The Catholic leaders of half a century from now will rue this era in which unthinking bishops led America into another period of religious bigotry in which not only Catholics but millions of the rest of us will become victims,” is to fear that every pronouncement by a Catholic spokesman which goes against the current fashion will more deeply embed the already underlying anti-Catholic bigotry which showed itself in the most recent debate. The prevalent attitude was a replay of that which John Kennedy had to fight twenty-four years ago. See, the editorial writers and columnists either implied or said outright, the Catholics who won’t allow themselves to be whipped into line will end up getting themselves excommunicated. They’ll have to put up with being dictated to by the pope. And you know what he’ll do — we’ll end up giving it all away.

In another column from Tribune Media Services, Patrick Buchanan called this a vision of “the semi-hysterical establishment press,” which would have the Republican candidates ordering mass baptisms. On closer look, Buchanan advises, the Democrats might be preparing for the same. He notes that the President of the National Baptist Convention not only declared himself a loyal Democrat, he raised $800,000 for Jesse Jackson’s campaign. Buchanan wonders what would have happened had Archbishop O’Connor declared a party affiliation and raised $800,000 for his candidate. Buchanan answers his own question: “Well, pardon the expression, all hell would have busted loose.”

Here, in the San Diego Union one Patrick J. Buchanan has figured it out. Abortion, however confused, school prayer, tuition tax credits, Catholic or Protestant or Jewish belief have nothing to do with it. The fact of the matter is that the press has its preferred stars, its own shibboleths, and

So long as priests, pastors and rabbis provided moral sustenance to the anti-war cause of George McGovern, the civil rights position of Hubert Humphrey, the nuclear freeze views of Fritz Mondale, their pastoral letters and pulpit homilies were welcome. It was only when they began “speaking out” in a fashion that sounded suspiciously like support for the social agenda of Ronald Reagan, that they were told to get out of the public square.

Perhaps this episode will be a lesson for conservative and liberals alike, both they who speak from pulpits and they who, with ears itching, seek out preachers to suit their own political beliefs. The theocracy with which we agree is as dangerous as the theocracy with which we do not agree, but to argue whether or not that which science agrees is human really is human is a dangerous spectre of the future. We can be grateful for the many who took a stand in this debate. If nothing else there was a lot of thought put into the abortion question; whether anything will change remains to be seen.

As for the newspapers, they will remain in the sway of Times Square, probably, from Pittsfield to San Diego. One would hope that they would neither report nor editorialize on religious issues based on misinformation, thereby confusing their readers even more than usual.

And as for mom and apple pie and the V.A. parade past the kiosk in the town square, well, it depends on what’s fashionable and what costs the least in terms of “lifestyle” and “personal development.” The pro-abortion people have much in common with the pro-freeze people in the sense that there is a frenzied argument in protection of the status quo of their own lives. It would be sad to find Americans arguing for a version of Christianity which reduces to “nothing ventured, nothing lost.”


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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