By Michael De Dora

When Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan were asked about how their religious beliefs influence their views on abortion during last week’s debate, Americans were given more than just the chance to hear two vice presidential candidates discuss their faith and how it relates to a controversial political issue. They were given the chance to observe the candidates address a much broader subject: the relationship between religion and politics.

As could be expected, the two candidates outlined two very different approaches to this relationship. In order to discuss the broader points, let’s first take a look at what Biden and Ryan said.

Ryan’s answer:

I don’t see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life.

Now, you want to ask basically why I’m pro-life? It’s not simply because of my Catholic faith. That’s a factor, of course. But it’s also because of reason and science.

You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born, for our seven-week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. A little baby was in the shape of a bean. And to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child Liza, “Bean.” Now I believe that life begins at conception.

That’s why — those are the reasons why I’m pro-life. Now I understand this is a difficult issue, and I respect people who don’t agree with me on this, but the policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

Biden’s answer:

… with regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position on abortion as a — what we call a de fide doctrine. Life begins at conception in the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life.

But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews, and I just refuse to impose that on others, unlike my friend here, the — the congressman. I — I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that — women they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor. In my view and the Supreme Court, I’m not going to interfere with that.

Ryan’s response:

All I’m saying is, if you believe that life begins at conception, that, therefore, doesn’t change the definition of life. That’s a principle. The policy of a Romney administration is to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother.

(You can find a full transcript here).

According to Ryan, there is no way (or no reason to try) to separate one’s beliefs regarding the veracity of religious claims from one’s approach to specific policies. For example, if you believe an embryo is a person made in the image of God, and deserving of certain rights, that will undoubtedly influence your approach to abortion. But, according to Biden, there is a way to separate these two. In his view, an elected official must realize that not everyone he or she represents practices his or her religion, and therefore should not have to live according to its dogmas. I think they each make an important point. Allow me to explain.

Ryan’s point cannot be easily dismissed. When Ryan says that he does not see “how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith,” he is stating what counts as a fact for many people. Ryan — like many devoutly religious people — honestly and ardently believes that embryos are people, and that abortion is murder. Though I consider that position incoherent and unsupportable, it is difficult, if not impossible, for a person to believe that, yet sit idly by while thousands of abortions are happening every year. That is simply how belief works: once you accept some proposition as true, you are bound to act on it.

As for Biden, I have a hard time believing that he truly agrees with the Catholic Church on abortion, at least as fervently as Ryan. But that’s not necessarily what matters here. Biden has a compelling point in regard to making laws in a pluralistic society. While he readily admits that he has religious beliefs, he also realizes that public policy influences the lives of millions of different Americans. As such, he thinks public policy should not be based on his (or anyone’s) religious beliefs, which require a personal leap of faith, but on reasons that are accessible by all Americans.

You’ve probably noticed that Biden’s position does not employ the separation of church and state argument; he uses the pluralistic society argument. I suspect some secularists found Biden’s answer incomplete, but I think the pluralistic society argument could actually be more effective at convincing religious believers to adopt secular policies than a purely church-state argument (though I would note that pluralism is indirectly an argument in favor of church-state separation).

To be clear, I interpret the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as mandating government neutrality on religion. Government should not favor religion over non-religion, non-religion over religion, or one religion over another. But there is nothing in the Constitution that states that religious lawmakers are required to leave their consciences at home when they arrive at their respective statehouses. In my view, secularists should realize this, and consider directly rebutting arguments for religiously based laws when they come to the surface, instead of asking politicians to dismiss them as personal or as outright absurd (even if they are). These beliefs are clearly influencing our political system, and should be exposed to critical reasoning.

While we cannot control the reasons people give for their beliefs, we can work to prevent religious-based reasons from entering the debate in the first place, steering political discourse towards secular reasoning. How? I think Biden’s pluralistic society argument is instructive here.

As it happens, this argument has been detailed before by a familiar figure: President Barack Obama. As Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope, “What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.” [1] An example he uses is (oddly enough!) abortion:

“If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.”

People cannot hear the divine voice others claim to hear, nor can they rely on others’ assertions that they have heard God’s voice. Furthermore, most people do not believe in the same holy book. In fact, even adherents to the same religious traditions often disagree over central tenets. And, of course, many people (reasonably, I might add) deny that the supernatural realm exists to begin with.

What does the pluralistic society argument mean for religious lawmakers? It doesn’t mean that they cannot hold or even speak about their religious beliefs in political debates. The fact that we live in a highly religious open democracy means that such reasons are bound to appear often. A person’s religious views naturally influence his or her views in politics, and we cannot bar these from entering the discourse. But politicians should also hold to certain practices regarding how to best make public policy. Since laws influence millions of different people who have different values, they cannot be defended by mere reference to a holy book or faith. Public policy must be based on natural world reasons that everyone can grasp and understand. Believe in religion if you like, but also believe that “I can’t make other people live according to my religion; I need to base laws on values that apply to everyone.”

At the least, this approach pushes religiously devout lawmakers to consider how they can defend their views on clearer grounds to all of their constituents. At its best, it will help foster a more reasonable public policy. 

For Rep. Ryan, this means that it is not enough to simply tell the story of your wife’s childbirth and of the nicknaming of a seven-week-old embryo. If you think beans deserve equal or even more moral and legal consideration than women, you need a better argument than “I looked at an ultrasound and nicknamed what I saw; you should too.”

If you want to restrict abortion, you need to answer questions such as: what does it really mean to say that life begins at conception? Why do you think embryos are persons worthy of moral consideration and legal protection? Why shouldn’t a woman have the right to largely control her body and make reproductive decisions with her doctor? If you can’t answer these questions without reference to some religious principle, you should think deeply about whether you are fit for public office.

[1] Editorial Note: this is essentially John Rawls’ argument, as articulated in his A Theory of Justice.