Two questions have rumbled through the commentariat over the last several weeks. They've been treated discretely, but a case can be made that they are linked.
The first concerns gay marriage. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts appears poised to sanction such unions, which may require other states to honor these marriages under the "full faith and credit" clause of the Constitution.
And while Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which permits states to withhold approval of gay marriages despite whatever Massachusetts and, say, the District of Columbia might do, there is reason to doubt that DOMA could withstand a constitutional challenge with the current Supreme Court. Talk of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman has been wafting though the halls of Congress.
The second question that has roiled the waters concerns anti-Catholicism and abortion. Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have lately accused Democrats of religious bigotry for their opposition to William Pryor's nomination as a federal judge. In the course of Pryor's hearing, Democrats repeatedly expressed misgivings about Pryor's "deeply held beliefs."
Dianne Feinstein was typical: "Virtually in every area you have extraordinarily strong views which continue to come out in a number of different ways. (True enough. Pryor had called Roe vs. Wade "the worst abomination in the history of constitutional law".) Your comments about Roe make one believe, could he really, suddenly, move away from those comments and be a judge?"
In a game of "turnabout is fair play," Republicans have seized upon the Democrats' objections and labeled them bigotry. Democrats' questions about Pryor's "deeply held beliefs" amount to anti-Catholic bigotry (Pryor is a practicing Catholic), Republicans have declared, leading to howls of outrage from the Democrats, some of whom are themselves Catholic.
The Democrats are getting a condign taste of their own medicine, since they routinely accuse Republicans of bigotry or "insensitivity" whenever it suits their political ends. (For the record, this does not justify the tactic.) But Republicans surely know that the Democrats do not care whether Pryor believes in eating fish on Friday or condemns divorce. They care only about abortion because free abortion is the Democrats' catechism.
The larger question this episode reveals is also at issue in questions of gay marriage: Can religious values be completely divorced from secular values? Abortion advocates urge that opposition to abortion is a sectarian religious value that ought not to be "imposed" on the rest of society. But until quite recently, the abortion views now associated with Catholics, evangelical Protestants and Orthodox Jews were nearly universal in America. All 50 states made abortion a crime.
Those criminal laws were based upon a religious understanding of life. But so are a great many of our laws, such as those concerning euthanasia, incest, prostitution, bigamy and, yes, homosexuality. This society is a part of Western civilization and is thus shot through with Judeo-Christian values. But Democrats are now singling out certain religious beliefs and calling them illegitimate. If you believe that abortion is wrong, you are a sectarian attempting to impose your morality on the rest of us. If you believe that marriage ought to be limited to one man and one woman, you are a religious fanatic.
What of laws against bigamy and incest? Aren't these rooted in religion, as well? Some will object that incest is really a health concern -- but they are being dishonest. The offspring of incestuous relationships will have an increased likelihood of inheriting undesirable traits. But they will also have an increased chance of inheriting desirable traits. Besides, would those who claim that their objections are based only on health feel differently if the incestuous couple (father-daughter, brother-sister) were infertile? The biological argument is not dispositive.
This is not to say that secular arguments are unavailable to oppose gay marriage and abortion. There are many. But if you start down the road of suggesting that objections rooted in religious conviction are somehow illegitimate in our society, you will have undermined most of the laws that make life civilized.
The American Founders believed in a religious polity and a secular state. It is both unworkable and unwise to attempt to decouple them completely.