A long-simmering conflict between two conservative religious liberty organizations has come to a head, with board members of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty recently releasing a statement publicly condemning a staff member of the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC) for a tweet disparaging the Muslim faith as a threat to “destroy the US” and not a religion.
The release comes after a private letter to TMLC President Richard Thompson in March went unanswered. It’s authored by board members Bill Mumma, Mary Ann Glendon and Robert George. Said George:
If the Thomas More Law Center professes itself to be a defender of religious liberty, let it follow the lead of the Becket Fund in standing up for the rights of all. Religious freedom organizations should be leading the fight against religious bigotry; they should not be practicing it against our Muslim fellow citizens or anyone else.
While the other authors deserve credit for speaking out against this hateful bigotry, it raises larger questions about Dr. George in particular. Namely, if he opposes these kinds of views so strongly, why does he continue to associate with a group that funnels millions of dollars to extremists that hold them?
As I’ve highlighted before, Professor George sits on the board of the conservative Bradley Foundation, which has given some of the worst anti-Islam organizations in the country over $4 million in the last few years. Their grantees are the very people responsible for the kind of rhetoric and anti-Muslim activism George condemns the TMLC for spreading.
When confronted about this apparent disparity, Dr. George was unwilling to talk about it and expressed no indication that he sees any problem with his involvement in a foundation that incubates the hatred he purports to condemn.
Speaking out for the religious rights of Muslims is admirable, but a true ally would lead with his actions.
Two weeks ago, the Ethics and Public Policy Center held a conference on religious freedom here in Washington. Though billed as a non-partisan event, the conference featured a who’s who of right-wing political groups and GOP politicians, as well as a Catholic bishop whose remarks undermined the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) claim that their ongoing confrontation with the Obama administration is a nonpartisan dispute about religious liberty rather than a politicized fight about birth control coverage.
Speaking on a panel titled Uniting to Preserve Robust Freedoms, Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland referenced an 1886 speech by Cardinal James Gibbons describing the U.S. as having “liberty without license, authority without despotism.” Reflecting specifically on debates about discrimination against LGBT people for religious reasons, Bishop Cordileone worried aloud that America is moving away from these qualities.
BP. CORDILEONE: My own experience, I sort of backed into this religious liberty debate by my involvement with her Siamese twin–the definition of marriage in the law. And I got swept up in that, not exclusively, but in large degree because I was enlightened by Dr. [Robert] George and other people of his kind as to the erosion of the rights of religious institutions to serve the broader community in accord with their moral principles precisely because of this issue. As well, the rights of individuals to have their freedom of conscience respected.
When I saw what was happening my eyes were opened, it made me fear that we could be starting to move in the direction of license and despotism.”
Bishop Cordileone’s melodramatic comments come on the heels of similar rhetoric by his fellow Bishop Daniel Jenky, who earlier this year said President Obama “seems intent on following the same path” as Hitler and Stalin. Jenky’s comments elicited widespread outrage, but he refused to apologize.
Later in the question-and-answer session, Bishop Cordileone further explained the frame through which he approaches the religious liberty debate:
BP. CORDILEONE: I want to refer to what one of the questioners this morning pointed out…when he mentioned the two commonalities in all of this legislation, the first one that he mentioned was that they all have to do with sexual ethics, basically, advocating sexual license. And that I think is a common thread in all of these three foundational issues of life, marriage and religious liberty. So really the division, I think, gets down to what is the purpose of our sexual difference and the purpose of sex which gets into what is the purpose of marriage.
GEORGE: So the fat was in the fire with the sexual revolution, to divide the culture…
Bishop Cordileone’s admission that he sees religious liberty as the third spoke of the culture war fight against the sexual revolution of the 1960s puts him far off message from the USCCB’s insistence that their campaign against the HHS contraception coverage mandate has nothing to do with sex, women or contraception.
Not to mention, he glaringly excludes two major non-sex-related religious liberty issues: anti-immigrant laws in places like Alabama (which the USCCB deliberately highlighted in a recent statement) and the growing opposition to Muslim communities’ right to build houses of worship — arguably the most flagrant religious liberty violation in America today.
Both of these quotes sound more like right-wing talking points than the measured, pastoral guidance one would expect of a Catholic bishop. This kind of toxic rhetoric that gives the appearance of partisanship in the middle of an election year is exactly what many in the Catholic church, including a prominent bishop, are concerned about. The Bishops would do well to distance themselves from it.
Bishop Stephen Blaire, who previously stood up to a conservative journalist trying to soften his critique of the Ryan budget, is speaking up again about right-wing groups trying to “co-opt” the bishops.
Bishop Blaire explained he was worried that some national groups appear to be seizing on the issue and transforming the dispute over religious liberty into a political fight.
“I am concerned that in addressing the H.H.S. mandate,” he said, “that it be clear that what we are dealing with is a matter of religious liberty and the intrusion of government into the church and that it not be perceived as a woman’s issue or a contraceptive issue.
“I think there are different groups that are trying to co-opt this and make it into political issue, and that’s why we need to have a deeper discussion as bishops.”
Bishop Blaire believes discussions with the Obama administration toward a resolution of the dispute could be fruitful even as alternative remedies are explored. He worried that some groups “very far to the right” are trying to use the conflict as “an anti-Obama campaign.”
Bishop Blaire makes an excellent point. While many defenders of the bishops dismiss any charges of partisan electoral motivation, it’s important to remember that the bishops aren’t acting in an apolitical bubble.
The Church does need to be very careful to separate out what it sees as disagreements on specific policy issues from the sweeping electoral narrative about the “War on Religion.” Good on Bishop Blaire for calling out this dangerous dynamic. Hopefully more of his fellow bishops will join him in publicly rejecting partisan politicization of sensitive issues.
A few weeks ago conservative wunderkind Rep. Paul Ryan faced scrutiny from nearly 90 Georgetown professors for distorting Catholic teaching to justify his draconian budget proposal. Now, Catholic conservatives are outraged that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius will be speaking at the university on Friday as part of several weekend graduation ceremonies.
Sebelius is at the center of a controversy over an Obama administration policy that requires birth control to be covered at no cost under preventative care provisions of the health care reform law.
Since these groups seem more intent on building walls around Catholic campuses and insulating students from the supposed dangers of diverse perspectives, it’s clearly too much to expect them to applaud a Catholic university for inviting two high-profile Catholics from different political parties and ideological perspectives within a few weeks.
Instead of a “scandal,” I think many Catholics who take their faith seriously and believe strongly in the importance of Catholic identity view it as a healthy sign that Georgetown recognizes the real world is about engaging with people who hold different perspectives – not creating a fortress where we hide from them.
A few important facts to help temper the Catholic right tempest. Sec. Sebelius is not the commencement speaker. She will not receive an honorary degree. As Georgetown President John J. DeGoia explained, she was chosen by students and will offer some reflections and encouraging remarks during an awards ceremony. She has not been invited to pontificate about Catholic teaching, abortion or contraception.
Unlike Rep. Paul Ryan, Sec. Sebelius has not been making the rounds defending her policy positions in specifically Catholic terms. Nor does she claim that her views on contraception and abortion are shared by Catholic bishops. In contrast, Ryan argues that cutting food stamps, health care for the poor and an array of safety net programs that Catholic bishops are warning him to protect are policy positions explicitly inspired by his Catholic faith.
Despite this, the Georgetown professors who chided Ryan over his Catholic defense of Darwinian economic policies did not call on the university president to pull the invitation. In fact, unlike the Newman Society and Catholic right activists they welcomed him to campus and used a civil tone that should be a model for how to disagree without descending to personal attacks.
Criticism of Sec. Sebelius’s pro-choice views is certainly legitimate from a Catholic perspective. I understand why some Catholics might disagree with Georgetown’s decision. But elevating the worst of McCarthy-era witch hunts and censorship into a virtue is a poor lesson for students about to enter a world where every bit of their faith and reason will be needed. Defending Catholic identity should not have to mean that intellectual engagement and civil discourse are viewed as signs of weakness that erode our faith.
…as Christians of various traditions we object to a “naked public square,” stripped of religious arguments and religious believers. We do not seek a “sacred public square” either, which gives special privileges and benefits to religious citizens. Rather, we seek a civil public square, where all citizens can make their contribution to the common good. At our best, we might call this an American public square.
This characterization matches the Bishops’ consistent talking point that the current debate is not about the details of birth control policy, but rather about whether religious freedom should exist. The implication, of course, is that anyone who disagrees with their particular interpretation of this policy is actually objecting to the First Amendment.
But this is a false dichotomy. Yes, there are some people who think the public square should be “stripped of religious arguments and religious believers,” but it’s hardly an overwhelming view, and it’s certainly not the view of many of us who have offered nuanced critiques of the Bishops’ position. To suggest as much is to simply dismiss legitimate questions without answering them.
Even more interesting though, is the second part of the quote in which the Bishops alternately reject the idea of a “sacred public square” that gives “special privileges” to religious citizens. But this is exactly the language many perceptive observers use to characterize the Bishops’ position. Ed Kilgore lays it out well:
What the bishops are actually seeking is not “freedom” but a sort of unwritten concordat—a broad zone of immunity from laws they choose to regard as offensive. Now there is nothing terribly unusual or inherently outrageous about this desire; Vatican diplomacy for centuries has focused on the establishment of such arrangements—though typically written rather than plenary—with a wide array of governments. It’s the idea that this sort of arrangement involves “freedom” rather than frankly acknowledged special privileges that’s novel. [emphasis added]
The heart of the matter, of course, is defining what exactly is a “special privilege” (and subsequently when should they be granted). Is any request for an exemption from an otherwise generally applicable law special? Or is it, as the Bishops seem to say, only descriptive of exceptions that fall outside of the scope of those they choose to designate as matters of religious freedom?
In either case it’s clear that the issue is not as simple as the Bishops portray it to be. As the Blunt amendment debate revealed, religious freedom as an unlimited principle is an untenable solution. But neither are its limits self-evident. As the editors at Commonweal identify in their editorial on this statement, “Church-state relations are complicated, requiring the careful weighing of competing moral claims. The USCCB’s statement fails to acknowledge that fact.”
Negotiating this tricky balance is the messy work of democracy. It’s fair to take issues with particular attempts to strike that balance, but it’s unfair to broadly claim that those who disagree with you object to religious freedom at large.