Congress outlawed "partial birth" abortion, and Massachusetts OK'd gay marriages. There is a worrisome affinity in two subjects that are getting so much attention these days.

Conservatives, particularly those of the Christian right, are determined that gay marriage and all abortions must be banned by federal law, even perhaps by amendments to our Constitution. They, of course, are entitled to their beliefs, which many of the religious feel are embedded in their religions. However, there are many other Americans who are equally adamant in their contention that the conservatives have no right to impose their version of morality on the rest of the population. Conservatives are inclined to call these protesters "liberals," a not-particularly accurate designation, but a useful label to identify them here.

The liberals include many who consider themselves good and faithful members of their churches, mosques or synagogues. They resent this dogmatic right-wing portion of the Christian community trying to force their ideas upon them.

In presidential and congressional campaigns of the past decade, the Christian-right extremists have even charged that how Christians vote is a test of their faithfulness to their religion, implying that it is sacrilegious to vote for a Democrat. Many church members were deeply offended by this extremism that would dare suggest that one's devotion to his or her religious faith could be measured by his or her political preferences.

The debate split church congregations across the nation. So aggressive was the conservative campaign that their supporters hounded out of the pulpit highly respected and popular ministers who refused the demand that conservative literature be distributed at church services.

This holy war against "infidels" and its resulting fratricide in the Christian community might be repeated in this coming election year. The conservative Christian leadership plans a major campaign to seek a federal law to ban the marriage of gay couples as the Massachusetts court would permit. This would be combined with its continuing effort to ban all abortions. It goes into the battle flushed with its recent victory in getting Congress to ban so-called "partial birth" abortions, but that might prove to be a premature celebration. Two federal courts have blocked the implementation of the ban, but the conservatives seem confident that superior courts will overturn those rulings. Also, the congressional action on "partial birth" abortions might not necessarily foretell, as the conservatives hope, a ban on other types of abortion.

The late-term procedure has been pictured by its opponents as such a grisly business that it is opposed not only by a majority of Congress, but apparently also by large numbers of people who otherwise support the right of a woman to choose other means of abortion. Their pro-choice arguments are still in place, and the congressional action only strengthens their resolve to raise the votes to protect this basic human right.

Meanwhile, the Christian conservatives don't have a clear field in their fight against the church marriages of homosexual couples. There probably are many who would agree that their own churches should not celebrate such unions, but who also, as in the case of the abortion debate, would join the fight to preserve our individual liberties and to let churches make their own decisions free of government intervention. That is the way these issues will be joined in the election campaign.

It certainly is the right of the anti-abortionists and those who oppose gay marriages to defend, express and even propagandize their beliefs, but is it their right to impose their definition of morality on those who hold opposing views? The answer is a resounding "no" from the large chorus of those who believe that our individual rights are precious and should not be trampled upon by even those of deep religious convictions, including those in their own churches. This columnist believes that among conservatives and liberals alike there is a majority who would put the sanctity of individual rights even above the sanctity with which some would endow the banning of abortion and gay marriage.

As the election campaign gains momentum, the religious issues might not assume the importance of Iraq and the economy, but the Christian conservatives will force them on reluctant candidates, with the possibility that they might turn out to have the power to tilt congressional and even presidential election results.


Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at

(c) 2003 Walter Cronkite

Distributed by King Features Syndicate