Religious liberty is already a central feature of the 2016 election campaign. But the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) intends to enlarge and escalate the debate when it wages its fifth annual Fortnight for Freedom this summer. The campaign will feature two weeks of events—from June 21st to July 4th—in most, if not all, of the Catholic dioceses around the country. Their aim is to highlight interest in, and mobilize support for, their religious freedom agenda. The beginning date is significant because it falls on the date the Church commemorates the martyrdom of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More—English Catholic leaders who defied and were executed by the King in the 16th Century. The campaign will include a nine-city tour of relics of these “martyrs of the English reformation.”
In preparation for the campaign, the bishops recently released a ten minute video produced by the Knights of Columbus, titled “The Right to Religious Freedom.” If the video is any indication, Church leaders are urging their flock to militancy – warning of the threat to religious freedom in America and in the world; mixing soft-focus Catholic evangelism with edgy political propaganda that by any reasonable standard has more in common with the garish partisanship of election years than thoughtful commentary on contemporary issues. Indeed, the video’s claims that religious persecution and martyrdom may be at hand play into the hyperbolic Christian Right narrative of a looming tyranny in America – a tyranny that the faithful must prepare to resist, violently if necessary.
It is worth focusing on and answering a few themes of the Christian Right’s current campaigns, which are well crystalized in this election year video. The USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty’s tweet announcing the video states: “New video on #TheLittleSistersofthePoor & what Catholic Church teaches on religious freedom!” Another tweet calls it a “conversation starter.”
The reference to the Little Sisters of the Poor involves the Supreme Court case Zubik v. Burwell, and its implications is the focus of the video. The case is a consolidation of seven similar cases questioning whether religiously-affiliated non-profit organizations such as charities and hospitals must conform to the contraception mandate in the regulations under the Affordable Care Act. The video highlights one of the cases, that of a Catholic order that operates nursing homes. The Little Sisters of the Poor did not want to have to file the simple paperwork requesting a religious exemption from the regulations – claiming that the very act of signing the form that would exempt them from contraception mandates would violate their religious freedom.
The USCCB’s video, however, says little about the substance of the case. The good works of the order are highlighted, while leading Catholic scholars suggest that there is an imminent and inexplicable governmental threat to the rights of the Litter Sisters of the Poor that will lead to a broad and escalating siege against the rights of all.
First they came for the nuns
“A government that doesn’t acknowledge limits on its power to regulate religious institutions is probably going to come after others as well,” Professor Rick Garnett of Notre Dame Law School gravely warns in the video. As footage of rioting and fire in the night in some unidentified place and time scrolls by in the background, Garnett continues, “Governments that try to squash religious freedom tend to face political fragmentation; political disunity.” His words thus come across as more of a threat than an observation.
The stakes, in the view of the bishops, are illuminated by Professor David L. Schindler of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute at the Catholic University of America. “When you are confronted with a tank,” he declares in the video, “it’s clear your freedom is being deprived, and you… have an identifiable enemy.”
Schindler further suggests that the current situation is not “so benign” as it is presented. He and the bishops seem to be suggesting that if things do not go their way in Zubik, the faithful may have to face military tanks in much the way that reform-minded Chinese students famous did in Tiananmen Square. In fact, video footage from that episode appears in this video, as well as footage of East Germans breaking through the Berlin Wall.
Thomas Farr, a Catholic neoconservative who heads the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University also appears in the video, highlighting a running theme on the Christian Right which seeks to conflate domestic issues (such as marriage equality) with anti-Christian genocide abroad. “We can’t love God, we can’t do our job, if we don’t have religious freedom,” Farr declares, “and there are Christians around the world who are being denied that right.”
Such false equivalences and analogies between the horrors of religiously-motivated genocide in the Middle East and domestic issues are the rule rather than the exception for many Christian Right leaders. In 2015, Farr gave a talk titled “ISIS and Indiana: The Global Crisis of Religious Liberty and Catholic Responsibility,” in which he implied that the terror group ISIS had some bearing on the debate at the time over LGBTQ discrimination in the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Religious liberty, he suggested, is in danger of being “lost in America.” (Farr’s talk was promoted by the USCCB.)
Helen Alvaré, a former staffer at the bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, and now a professor of law at George Mason University is similarly apocalyptic in the video, claiming “When religious freedom goes away, and there is no transcendent authority, there is only majority will, then the law is the only norm, and the people in power now, are always the only power.”
Alvaré’s claim that religious freedom is subject to “majority will” ignores the actual constitutional system in which we live. Our system of government is intended to be a check against majoritarianism and factionalism. And it is explicitly intended to prevent the undue entanglements between church and state. Governments, political parties and individual politicians come and go, but only those with conspiracist worldviews believe that the people who populate the government at any given time are the only power. What Alvaré suggests is that her church represents the correct and permanent “transcendent authority,” and therefore their parochial approach to religious freedom should hold sway.
What is religious freedom? It’s all about religious and non-religious pluralism. As Thomas Jefferson put it: when one’s religious identity “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
It can be difficult to take seriously the hyperbole and seemingly twisted perspectives of such soft-spoken and scholarly figures as Schindler, Alvaré, and Farr and their sponsors, the leading Catholic bishops in the United States. But it would be foolish to ignore them.
Thomas Farr goes so far as to equate the idea of religious liberty with his own religious identity. He says, “the dignity of the human person, that’s what religious freedom is. Every human being has dignity as a human person because he or she is created in the image and likeness of God.”
In fact, religious freedom has always been defined as having nothing to do with such parochialisms. Indeed, claims like Farr’s are the fount of all theocratic reasoning. His bibliocentric claim that because people are made in God’s image, that this is therefore the meaning of religious liberty, conflates his explicitly religious view with the Enlightenment idea of religious equality when it comes to citizenship. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one’s religious identity “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, who leads the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty (which organizes Fortnight for Freedom), has denied that he and his fellow bishops are right-wing culture warriors bent on imposing their agenda on everyone else. But he also essentially acknowledged that they want to do just that by, among other things, blocking access to legal and otherwise constitutionally protected contraception and abortion care wherever they can.
Lori has also served as a director and Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus for a decade. That he and his fellow bishops and the Catholic scholars that appear in this Knights of Columbus-produced video seem to adhere to views that have more in common with the most militant elements of the Christian Right should be fair warning to those who value religious pluralism and constitutional democracy.