Bishops Escalate the Culture Wars

Anyone wishing or hoping that “culture-war” politics will subside now that the GOP nomination contest, with its serial pandering to cultural warriors, has ended, needs to read the “Statement on Religious Liberty” just released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For a detailed analysis of the statement–particularly its explicit and implicit defiance of federal court decisions rejecting their point of view–you should read Sarah Posner’s take at Religion Dispatches. Another essential commentary is from Catholics For Choice president Jon O’Brien, who focuses on the redefinition of “religious liberty” the Bishops are championing.

I can’t really improve on Posner’s and O’Brien’s take on the substance of the Bishops’ “statement.” But I will note the dangerous rhetorical escalation it represents. It treats the highly indirect impingement (at most) of “conscience rights” by the Obama administration’s contraception coverage mandate as at odds with the fundamental grant of religious liberty made in the First Amendment, and indeed, before the First Amendment, the statements of religious tolerance set out in colonies like Maryland. It embraces the aggressive alliance of conservative evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics formed by Charles Colson and the late Richard John Neuhaus in the 1990s. And it explicitly endorses the recent manifesto by that alliance in the theocon magazine Neuhaus founded, First Things, which conflates physical persecution of Christians in developing countries, the “established secularism” of Europe, and adverse court decisions in the U.S. as part of “the greatest period of persecution in the history of Christianity”(!).

While the Bishops’ statement does acknowledge that religious liberty is “at much greater peril” in countries other than America, this tempering of militancy is rather decisively undercut by a call for a “fortnight of freedom” this summer framed by feasts dedicated to the martyrs St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. And then there is this toxic little remark:

In addition to this summer’s observance, we also urge that the Solemnity of Christ the King—a feast born out of resistance to totalitarian incursions against religious liberty—be a day specifically employed by bishops and priests to preach about religious liberty, both here and abroad.

Resistance to totalitarian incursions? Really?

There is nothing in this statement that reflects the willingness to compromise exhibited by the Catholic charities, health care providers, and educational groups most affected by the contraception coverage mandate, and not even a nod of acknowledgement to the liberty interests of Americans who object to the Bishops’ rejection of anti-discrimination laws, or of Americans (including most Catholics) who don’t share the Bishops’ views on contraception.

This is a fairly open declaration of partisan war, which, as Posner notes, seems timed to coincide with this summer’s quickening general election.

And for what? To give the Bishops the “freedom” of special privileges. As O’Brien sums it up:

The bishops have failed to convince Catholics in the pews to follow their prohibitions on contraception. Now, they want the government to grant them the legal right to require each of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to set aside our own guaranteed freedom from government-sanctioned religious interference in our lives. This is a strange definition of the ‘common good’—a central Catholic belief. The bishops’ concept of religious liberty means they would get the liberty to deny ours.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.