“Fortnight for Freedom” Begins

I should have marked it yesterday: the “Fortnight for Freedom” declared earlier this year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops officially kicked off yesterday, the vigil of the Feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More (a prelate and an author/lawyer executed, of course, by Henry VIII for alleged treason). It will conclude on July 4. Had they kept Fisher and More out of it (the former probably was actively seditious, while the latter was an avid persecutor of evangelicals), the Bishops might have made this a more ecumenical event. But at this point it’s mostly a Catholic affair aimed at building solidarity and a sense of incipient martyrdom in the Church’s fight with the Obama administration over contraception coverage in employee health policies for Catholic-oriented organizations serving the broader public. The Bishops are obviously and justifiably worried about their image, given the recent–ahem!–moral problems of the hierarchy, and the (accurate) perception they are bullying nuns and Catholic health and social service providers for being insufficiently engaged in the battle.

Typical of the Bishops’ message for the Fortnight for Freedom is an article by Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez–a longtime member of Opus Dei–in the leading “theocon” publication First Things. Gomez begins cautiously, disclaiming any direct identification of the Church’s horrific suffering under people who want it to practice non-discrimination with the physical torture and death of the martyrs:

The bishops aren’t comparing the conditions of the American church in the early 21st century with that of Catholics persecuted during the English Reformation. We’re blessed in our country with a religious liberty that, sadly, most people in the world today do not enjoy.

But, says Gomez, there’s still a terrible threat from sinister people:

In recent years, many have observed that our American consensus on religious liberty, conscience protection, and religion’s public role has been eroding. There are many causes for this. The first is the reality of religious indifferentism or “practical atheism”—the fact that growing numbers of people in our society are living as if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. There’s no reason to care about religious freedom if you don’t care about being religious.

But our freedoms are also being eroded as the result of constant agitation from de-Christianizing and secularizing elements in American society.

Aside from his contempt for non-believers, who are treated as incapable of understanding liberty itself, note Gomez’s avid interest in delegitimizing Christian opposition to the Bishops’ secular agenda, which is reasonably strong inside Catholicism, as evidenced by the need to put American nuns in their place. Gomez wants to establish that the only forces in the debate over church-state conflict are conservative Catholics and evangelicals on the one hand and “de-Christianizing and secularizing elements” on the other. This reduces the distinct impression that the Church is in fact demanding special treatment and a much broader exemption from the rules governing other social services providers than it already enjoys.

The projection of the Bishops’ aggressive intentions to secure a sort of Concordat for themselves onto their opponents is a classic tactic of the evangelical-based Christian Right, forever posing as the persecuted as they fight equal rights for women and LGBT folk. So long as the Bishops are also criticizing (though not in remotely as strong a language as the arrows aimed at the “de-Christianizing and secularizing” Obama, and not without internal dissent) Paul Ryan’s budget as contrary to Catholic teachings, it’s hard to say they’ve actually joined the Christian Right, which has been characterized by general support for conservative positions on nearly all issues. But while the prelates may not quite ready to begin treating Obama like the Vatican treated Henry VIII, as a demonic tyrant to be deposed at all costs, their distorted notion of “freedom” is a sign they are heading towards a theocratic alliance with the Christian Nationalists of the evangelical Right at a pretty brisk pace.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.