Republicans Practicing ‘Bad Religion’ in Abortion Debate

Sen. Dan Patrick
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick

Even as the religious right has slipped into a state of unplanned obsolescence on gay rights, marijuana legalization and other culture-war issues, it’s doing better than ever on the abortion front. Yes, Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. And anti-abortion activists—increasingly dominated by absolutists—are unlikely to rest until the U.S. Supreme Court guts Roe. Meanwhile, at the state level, the movement is notching a string of impressive victories in legislatures across the country. In all, 24 states enacted 52 anti-abortion measures in 2013, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Almost 90 percent of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider, according to the Guttmacher Institute—a figure that’s likely to grow as new measures force clinics to close.

Of course, most Observer readers are familiar with the explosive fight this summer over sweeping anti-abortion legislation at the Texas Legislature. It was a thing to behold: a stirring of the pot the likes of which hasn’t been seen in left-leaning Texas politics for a long time. The Wendy Davis filibuster. The unruly mob. The orange shirts versus the blue shirts. Cecile Richards. David Dewhurst. If you were there, you saw a remarkable event. But the pro-choice side lost. House Bill 2, Texas’ anti-abortion law, is now in effect, though the legal challenge to the law will likely land at the Supreme Court. Since then, as many as one-third of all abortion clinics in Texas have closed and abortions after 20 weeks have been banned.

During the abortion debate in Austin, proponents of HB 2 were all singing from the same hymnal. The legislation was all about “the health and safety of the mother,” they repeated to the point of tedium.

Occasionally, legislators backing the bill would veer off the attorney-engineered talking points regarding ambulatory surgical center standards and the finer points of administering abortion-inducing drugs. In those moments, the facade of this being a “policy debate” would crumble, and we’d see it for what it was: a struggle over fundamentally different value systems.

For example, as the House kicked off a floor debate, bill author and Republican Rep. Jodie Laubenberg propped a pair of baby shoes on the dais.

But this debate was about more than just abortion. The legislation was based on far-right religious dogma. You could see the connections if you were looking for them. At a rally outside the Capitol in early July, Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, preached that HB 2 was a battle “between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan.”

Lawmakers, for the most part, kept the God talk under wraps, perhaps mindful that the courts might have a problem with Jeremiah 1:5 as the basis for messing with a constitutional right.

But it’s been trickling out ever since. State Sen. Dan Patrick, who’s forever finding new ways to drive nails into his soft palms, was the first. On the night HB 2 cleared the Texas Senate, he gave a speech in which he asked (and answered) the question, “How would God vote tonight if he were here?”

Then, in January, the evangelical World magazine detailed the depths of the religious fervor around HB 2. “I was on the side of life and the other side was death,” Laubenberg, the bill’s author, told World. “It wasn’t my bill. It was God’s bill.” Her colleague Rep. Jonathan Stickland—last seen mugging in his Capitol office for The New York Times, a firearm strapped to his girth—took it a step further. “There were times when I thought, ‘There are probably demons in this room.’”

If you believe your bill is God’s will; if you literally demonize your opponents; if you think God keeps a voting scorecard … where does this leave our politics? The left has its fools and demagogues, to be sure, but secular politics does not make its enemies into Beelzebub.

Theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr argued that one of the reasons for separation of church and state is that if a religion is good, then the state ought not to interfere with it, and if a religion is bad, then it ought not to interfere with the state. And he defined a “bad religion” as “one that gives an ultimate sanctity to some particular cause.”

Stickland, Laubenberg and Patrick are not the high priests of the Texas GOP. But their agenda, dangerously entangled in fundamentalism, is now the gospel of the state. God save us.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is the editor of the Observer.

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Published at 2:24 pm CST