JANE EISNER Debate on abortion is one in good faith

The comment came from a top official in the American evangelical movement, but I've heard it echoed in one form or another in public statements and private correspondence for years.
"We acknowledge as Evangelicals that we're in a culture war," Robert Wenz of the National Association of Evangelicals was quoted as saying Feb. 4, "but the war is against a movement that seeks to impose a totally secular world view."
Well, no. Not everyone who disagrees with the NAE is totally secular. It's true that religion is now becoming a great dividing line between liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, but that political shorthand doesn't do the situation justice.
The 2004 election highlighted an interesting phenomenon: In addition to increased polarization between the religious and the secular, there was increased polarization within religious communities.
And nowhere is that more evident than in the issue that won't go away: abortion. The intra-religious debate is most obvious among Protestants, where Evangelicals are as likely to say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases (63 percent, in one recent poll) as non-Evangelicals say it should generally be legal (66 percent). There are splits in other faith communities, as well -- not to mention the sizable number of Americans whose views on abortion and other such issues are shaped by values outside organized religion.
It insults the faithful who are against legal abortion to denigrate their antiabortion stand simply because it is part of their religion. But it similarly insults those who favor abortion rights to insinuate that they are all Godless, faithless lost souls -- totally secular, in other words.
As Democrats struggle to respond to their last electoral defeat, some are turning to the language of faith to explain their stand on abortion.
You have to look for it. The word abortion actually doesn't appear in the Old Testament or the New Testament, although references to life and birth have been used to support all sorts of positions. The most direct biblical reference is to a verse in the book of Exodus, which prescribes monetary damages when a person injures a pregnant woman and causes a miscarriage.
From this, Judaism has deduced that the fetus is not yet a full human being -- or else there would be a murder charge, a la Scott Peterson -- and that abortion is permitted. Not, however, on demand and only to protect the life and health of the mother, a decision she is allowed to make in consultation with her family, doctor and spiritual leader.
In this view of morality, the life of the mother takes precedence over the life of a fetus. How life is defined is, of course, open to interpretation, but to imply that this is a secular perspective does the Good Book a great disservice.
Christianity early on began to frown on abortion, distancing itself from Roman law, which permitted infanticide. Now, centuries later, the Roman Catholic Church is explicit in its belief that abortion is the taking of a human life. The polarization there is between the church and its people, for Catholics tend to most closely mirror the general public and say, by a slight majority, that abortion should be legal.
Calling that slim majority secular because of their views supporting abortion rights would take many of them by surprise. Besides, that's a family squabble, and those of us who aren't Catholic ought not to be passing judgment about who is an authentic Catholic.
America's small but growing Muslim community is not heard from much on this issue, but there, too, a split exists among the faithful. When asked last year by a Zogby International poll to describe themselves, 30.9 percent of Muslims answered "pro-life" and 69.1 percent answered "pro-choice."
When it comes to abortion, Americans on both sides have a long and sorry tradition of slapping labels on those with whom they disagree, even if those labels are exaggerated, hurtful or just plain wrong. It ought to stop.
It produces ridiculous situations, such as during last year's presidential race, when more Evangelicals than Catholics believed John Kerry should be denied Communion because of his abortion-rights stance. Isn't that, um, something for Catholics to decide?
X Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.