Most US clergy avoid hellfire threats over abortion politics
James Altman is a Roman Catholic priest in Wisconsin, little known outside his parish until a few weeks ago. Robert Jeffress is the high-profile pastor of a Baptist megachurch in Dallas. They have a message in common for members of their faiths: Voting for Democrats who support abortion rights is an evil potentially deserving of eternal damnation.
Their fierce, openly partisan rhetoric is attention-grabbing, but it remains the exception in America’s diverse religious landscape, even in this divisive election year. Most members of the clergy, including foes of abortion, steer clear of overt endorsements or denunciations of political candidates. Numerous denominations try to frame their stance on abortion in ways that respect multiple viewpoints.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for example, has adhered for three decades to a nuanced policy aimed at respecting churchgoers on all sides of the debate.
“We say that abortion should be seen as a path of last resort, but we defend a woman’s right to make decisions over her own body,” said Bishop Paul Egensteiner, who heads the ELCA’s Metropolitan New York Synod.
The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents about 45,000 churches, declares in a policy statement that it “actively, ardently and unwaveringly opposes abortion on demand,” but simultaneously appeals for civility.
“We do not dismiss those who advocate for legal access to abortion as unconcerned for human life or unworthy of our respect and attention,” it says.
Such stances and tones differ sharply from those offered recently by Altman and Jeffress.
“You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat,” Altman said in a YouTube video, admonishing people to “repent of your support of that party and its platform or face the fires of hell.” His comments were criticized by many Catholics, while endorsed by some others, such as Bishop Joseph Strickland of the Tyler, Texas, diocese.
Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and a close ally of Donald Trump, employs similarly strong language in denouncing the president’s opponent.
“As long as Joe Biden and the Democratic Party continue to support unrestricted abortion for any reason and at any stage in a pregnancy, priests and pastors like myself will have no problem saying, ‘Only Christians who have sold their soul to the devil would vote for Joe Biden,’” Jeffress said via email.
Jeffress’ church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. Its leadership adopted a stringent anti-abortion stance nearly 40 years ago that remains in place.
Daniel Patterson, a vice president of the Southern Baptists’ public policy arm, said most of the denomination’s pastors don’t engage in partisan politics from the pulpit, although they’re free to address abortion and other issues as they see fit.
The Rev. Kevin Smith, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware and one of the SBC’s highest-ranking Black leaders, criticized Christians who stress their opposition to abortion while minimizing the problem of racism, and objected to the partisanship making inroads in some churches.
“While too many so-called pastors wait for the morning talking points from their chosen political party, too many are failing at an essential pastoral task,” he tweeted last month.
Earlier this month, the National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement repenting for shortcomings in combating poverty and racial inequality. It pledged to “resist being co-opted by political agendas” and to uphold a “comprehensive pro-life ethic that protects both the unborn and the vulnerable of all ages.”
The association’s president, the Rev. Walter Kim, said many NAE pastors preach about various policies but most avoid political endorsements.
One NAE board member, the Rev. Mitch Hescox, is CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network, which urges pastors to broaden the concept of “pro-life” so it encompasses efforts to protect the environment.
“It would behoove pastors to be caring about people, rather than taking up politics,” Hescox said. “We’re supposed to be a voice for our values and not choose sides.”
Some mainline Protestant denominations have official positions supporting reproductive rights.
Access to abortion, says a 2018 Episcopal Church resolution, “is an integral part of a woman’s struggle to assert her dignity and worth.”
The United Church of Christ has a similar policy. Its president, the Rev. John Dorhauer, said he’s angered by warnings from some pastors that churchgoers risk betraying their faith with their political choices.
“Telling a member with a conscience and moral agency that a vote for a particular party or candidate is a violation of one’s faith is, in my humble opinion, unethical and immoral,” he said.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known for its conservative social views, says abortions “for personal or social convenience” violate church teachings and can lead to excommunication.
However, the church says exceptional circumstances may justify some abortions, such as when pregnancy results from incest or rape or a woman’s health is at risk.
Matthew Bowman, a professor of history and religion at Claremont Graduate University, said most of that church’s members oppose abortion but its leaders have not used the issue as a political rallying cry.
In Judaism, America’s largest non-Christian faith, abortion hasn’t been as politicized as in Christian denominations. Both the Conservative and Reform branches say abortion is acceptable under various circumstances, and the decision is up to the woman involved.
Orthodox Jews are more open to restrictions on elective abortions, said Rabbi Avi Shafram, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America,
But his Orthodox umbrella organization “would not support any law that gives an unborn child ‘personhood’, since Jewish religious law does counsel abortion in some rare cases,” Shafran said via email. “We would, though, like to see abortion treated with greater gravity, as more than a mere ‘woman’s choice.’”
For many Muslim Americans, abortion is “essentially a non-issue,” according to Atiya Aftab, who chairs the Center for Islamic Life at Rutgers University.
“From the formative days of Islamic Law over 1,000 years ago, classical scholars took varied positions on abortion from its permissibility to its prohibition,” she said via email.
More recent Islamic scholars have issued diverse rulings, including on when life begins. Abortion is generally frowned on if poverty is the motive, but accepted if a women’s health is at risk.
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