The phrase, “separation of church and state,” crops up frequently in conversation these days. I hear it most often when someone wants to clinch their argument on a politicized subject. Lately, it’s been concerning one’s “right” to an abortion. “It doesn’t matter what your church says, we have separation of church and state in this country.” That phrase, though, is not in the Constitution. It was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) who paraphrased the Constitution in a letter to the Danbury Baptists, “…building a wall of separation between church and state.”

The first part of the 1st amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” All manner of questions have been raised with this statement. What does it mean to establish a religion?  What is religion? Is religion something intrinsically good? Most Americans think of religion in terms of God. What/who is God? 

Historians and Religious Studies scholars have written volumes about the subject of religion and the state. Martin Marty’s Pilgrims in Their Own Land (1985) details a “chronological account of the people and events that carved the spiritual landscape of America.” More recently (2015) Kevin Kruse wrote One Nation Under God  How Corporate America Invented Christian America. Both are excellent sources showing (among other things) how the phrase “separation of church and state” has been applied. In spite of the voluminous amount of writing on the subject, I still have more questions than answers.

In this country, we tend to conflate the terms “religion, “God,” and “church.” The following video probes one of the terms: 

“Religion is a subjective analytical term whose meaning depends on the person using it and the questions they use to illuminate.” I would argue the term “God” is subjective as well. Both words—religion and God—are tossed around in conversation as though they are easily defined and universally understood. They’re not.

Social scientist, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), understood religion to be personal, yet possessing a social component. Society has two spheres—sacred and profane (mundane).  Nothing is intrinsically sacred. Something becomes sacred when a community (church) ascribes meaning to it. So, society and religion can be understood as one and the same.

How does one build a wall of separation between church and state in a pluralistic society? Or, to be more specific: How does one avoid religion when establishing law? Is that even possible? Our founders were familiar with the entwinement of church and state—the British monarch to this day remains the titular head of the Church of England. Without “separation,” the state has the ability to force people to engage in worship—even kill them should they refuse. I saw this while living in Saudi Arabia. The “religious police” (Committee for Promoting Virtue and Preventing Vice) forced several “heretical” men to attend the mosque for one of the five obligatory daily prayers. The men resisted, but ultimately succumbed to the pressure. People accused of heresy the world over have met their demise by the state.

Regarding abortion: Many Christians against abortion feel compelled to work towards its abolishment, basing their reasoning on a specific interpretation of biblical text—“Thou shalt not kill.” Yet, many support the death penalty, war, and the wanton destruction of the planet.  When is killing permissible? If there is a “wall of separation,” does biblical text/interpretation matter? Yes. People, within a social context, give meaning to their sacred text and some insist that God (a human construct) has declared that meaning to be absolute Truth. They then feel justified enforcing that Truth. 

Polls show the majority of Americans want abortion to remain legal throughout the country.

Banning abortion has never really been about “lost” babies although many anti-abortion people continue to frame it that way. Abortion is about who gets to control reproduction. Patriarchy, the social system we all live in, is loath to give up control of women’s bodies. As more and more of us insist on having autonomy over our own person, the harder patriarchy resists. Patriarchy is all about domination.

We are a diverse nation. We come from a variety of backgrounds and ideologies.  We are all shaped by the various stories that inform us. That’s “religion”—a term first used by Western scholars while observing what societies do that fit the researchers’ idea of religion. In the U.S. today, many are informed by a particular biblical interpretation. Why do so many Christian believers insist their understanding of sacred text to be the only possible understanding of that text and expect the world to follow suit? No sacred text is a “how-to manual” anyway. Mythology (I use this word in a classical sense) reaches and teaches us on a level where didactic teaching fails. There’s a broad range of creative, biblical interpretations depending on who we are, what our experiences have been, and our current needs.

If the first amendment protects church from the state as well as the state from the church, how does the contentious abortion question unfold? People are free to practice religion in their own way—free exercise. If one does not believe abortion is “right,” they don’t have to have one. China, for a period of time, instituted a law (with few exceptions) mandating abortion for families expecting a second child. In the U.S., abortion has never been mandatory. Yet, it has been prohibited. Some want those “good old days” back. Is making abortion illegal tantamount to tearing down that “wall of separation” between church and state? I think so.

What kind of society do we want? One held hostage by just one way to understand the human story?  A compassionate society puts the lived experience of its citizens front and center while focusing on creatively developing policies and laws that ease human suffering. Abortion is necessary to ease suffering right here, right now. Making it illegal won’t eradicate the practice—only increase suffering right here, right now.

BIO Esther Nelson is a registered nurse who worked for several years in Obstetrics and Psychiatry, but not simultaneously. She returned to school (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia) when her children were in college and liked it well enough to stay on as an adjunct professor. For twenty-two years, she taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, Women in the Abrahamic Faiths, and Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of Voice of An Exile: Reflections on Islam and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of What is Religious Studies? : A Journey of Inquiry. She recently retired from teaching.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

9 thoughts on “RELIGION, GOD, CHURCH, THE STATE, AND ABORTION by Esther Nelson”

  1. “Abortion is about who gets to control reproduction. Patriarchy, the social system we all live in, is loath to give up control of women’s bodies”…. you nail it….. fascinating discussion Esther on religion and what it means. It seems to me that religion is mostly used as a weapon – in general I have little use for it.


    1. Thank you, Sara, for reading and responding. I still am very fond of Reza Aslan’s sensibility about religion. He thinks if you are a violent person, your religion will be violent. If you are a peaceful person, your religion will be peaceful. We inculcate ourselves into all we do.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a clear and insightful unpacking of the role of religion and the state in the abortion issue today. The questions you ask, as well as your explorations, are very thought-provoking and give important context. Your students were very lucky to have you as a teacher!


  3. I enjoyed reading your abbreviated revision of history – and of course anyone who referenced Durkheim has me hook, line and sinker :-)

    My view of “what kind of society do we want” is in formation – my initial response is this: the root of the issue with abortion is that it makes clear that humans kill, although we legalize war and capital punishment the decision makers are typically men; while the woman who is the CEO/CFO of her household has been “allowed” in the past the more present women are in the legal/social (rather than domestic) sphere calls into question by the larger society if women should have so much autonomy.

    If we were truly a pacifist society (and I only know of the quaker and amish to be truly pacifist) then the dismantling of the pentagon and pharmaceutics made to euthanize prisoners would cease in parallel to the restriction on abortion. They are not.

    So yes, the restriction on abortion is fundamentally about women being allowed to make decisions about ending life.

    In the reverse, why are there so many abortions in the western world? There is plenty of access to prevent conception; and separately, how many women *would* give birth if life parameters weren’t so terrible (a 4th child, no child support, etc.). It is complex but we women have to understand this better, and ask – do I support women who choose life enough? does society?

    Religion. Same thing – as women become more present, people are moving out of those religions and back to mega-churches (if any at all).

    So there is a society which is avoidant of women – to support them as mothers or to support them as being capable to choose to end life or act as a priestess.

    I want a society that honors the mother and the father.


  4. Thank you, Opoverty, for reading and writing your thoughts as you comment. The core of patriarchy is domination or exercising power-over another person (all genders), institutions, and the natural world. I dream of a society where this “ruling over” another is eradicated. I think that begins with personal autonomy–as you note.


  5. Perhaps a more analytical questioning of the U.S. Constitution’s ‘First Amendment’ could reveal a more humanistic intuitiveness? An adamantly understood intuitiveness that’s the subject of (Pro-Choice) ‘free will’ that incurs the subjective rights of “free speech” which remains the mother’s ‘God’ given right to teach and nurture her child. While this discursion has continued to remain a travesty of modern “medical convenience” having thus allowed itself to interject an unknowingly naive assertion (or ‘civil liberties’ assumption) on the unborn as well as others. . .


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