The anti-Obama meme the bishops keep repeating

Or, Part Two of Why would anyone think the bishops religious-freedom campaign could serve partisan ends? The USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty's statement Our First, Most Cherished Liberty quotes the pope—himself a friend of America and an ally in the defense of freedom—to make its case that religious liberty is under attack. Speaking to the U.S. bishops in January, the pope remarked that some of them had "spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience." A few pages later, that worrying tendency is referenced in a section heading: Religious Liberty Is More Than Freedom of Worship. True enough. But what specifically is the pope talking about—or rather, what were the bishops who alerted him to this tendency talking about?

Let's ask Cardinal Francis George. He wrote this in a diocesan-newspaper column on the HHS mandate in February:

The provision of health care should not demand giving up religious liberty. Liberty of religion is more than freedom of worship. Freedom of worship was guaranteed in the Constitution of the former Soviet Union. You could go to church, if you could find one. The church, however, could do nothing except conduct religious rites in places of worship—no schools, religious publications, health care institutions, organized charity, ministry for justice and the works of mercy that flow naturally from a living faith. All of these were co-opted by the government. We fought a long cold war to defeat that vision of society.

That column was paraphrased recently in an article at LifeSiteNews by Thaddeus Baklinski. I noticed because the same story was given a full page in my parish bulletin on Sunday. (With no attribution, which is a problem in itself.) It's mainly a collection of remarks made by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia in an interview at National Review Online, which Baklinski links to Cardinal George's column:

Cardinal George had likened the Obama administration's rhetorical shift from supporting freedom of religion to freedom of worship, to Russia's constitutional freedom to worship guarantee under communism, when the state controlled the church.

George said nothing direct about "the Obama administration's rhetorical shift." But what he did write functioned like a dog whistle for LifeSiteNews. They saw an opportunity to repeat what has become a popular right-wing anti-Obama meme, and back it up with the Cardinal's name.

You may recall an earlier dotCommonweal post in which Paul Moses noticed and debunked the charge that the Obama administration is methodically replacing references to "freedom of religion" with the narrower "freedom of worship." The claim, which popped up in early 2010, seems to have been popularized largely by this First Things article by Ashley Samelson. The case Samelson lays out to demonstrate that "both the President and his Secretary of State have now replaced 'freedom of religion' with 'freedom of worship' too many times to seem inadvertent" is laughably unconvincing and (as demonstrated by Paul Moses and others) easily dismantled. It is the sort of thing that could convince only someone so eager to believe the worst about Obama's intentions and actions that they willingly suspend skepticism—to put it simply, it's partisan. Yet another example of Obama's opponents trying to give a sinister gloss to something ordinary or unremarkable about his person or actions, in order to demonstrate his unfitness for office. (Past episodes have included: He uses a teleprompter! He writes books! He says "I" a lot! He puts his feet on the desk in the Oval Office! And so forth.) This one, perhaps because it deals with something that's actually significant, somehow gained traction beyond the right-wing fringe. Though groundless, the accusation that the administration has made a significant rhetorical shift was endlessly repeated and widely discussed.

To be very clear: yes, the two terms can mean different things, both rhetorically and in terms of policy. But arguing about that is begging the question. There is no real reason to believe that the Obama administration is or ever was deliberately "replacing" one phrase with the other in its official rhetoric. Obama and Hillary Clinton said "freedom of religion" sometimes and "freedom of worship" sometimes, just like other people do. The accusation that they were speaking in a methodical code is nothing but a smear. Nevertheless, the claim has become quite popular in Catholic circles. Rick Santorum was repeating it on the campaign trail, as Paul Moses noted. That prompted some straight talk from Judd Birdsall in Christianity Today, who explained,

In late 2009 and early 2010, critics pounced on the administration for isolated uses of the phrase "freedom of worship." To some, this particular phraseology signaled a deliberate attempt to pare back America's religious freedom advocacy. Several news outlets ran stories on the ensuing controversy, with most articles quoting the same handful of vocal critics....

By this logic it was actually President George W. Bush who expelled God from America—he employed the phrase "freedom of worship" scores of times during his presidency, much more than Obama. It's telling that Bush never received a word of criticism, let alone the kind of conspiratorial derision directed at Obama, for using the phrase.

Oddly, Birdsall's article did not mention that one of those news outlets was Christianity Today, which published this masterpiece of baseless speculation in its July 2010 issue. The "freedom of worship" claim became a popular talking point for those voicing the Church's opposition to the HHS contraception mandate. Here's Fr. Robert Barron's video on that subject, in which he repeats as if it were a long-established fact the baseless claim that the rhetoric of the Obama administration prioritizes "freedom of worship" over "freedom of religion." Cardinal George, as noted above, used the now familiar meme without mentioning Obama specifically; the same is true of Our First, Most Cherished Liberty. But taking out the president's name is not enough to remove the appearance of partisanship when your argument relies on a claim that has always been nakedly partisan, and is based on nothing but a bad-faith framing of a few lines from a few speeches. And as if all that weren't bad enough, somebody fed this nonsense to the pope.

Imagine how this looks to anyone who has already heard and rolled his eyes at the "Obama is signaling his nefarious intentions, in code" meme. Why should that person take the bishops' religious-freedom campaign seriously? It's one thing to hear the "freedom of worship" line coming from Rick Santorum—candidates on the campaign trail are expected to be partisan. But from supposedly nonpolitical Catholic sources? From the bishops? And worse, from the pope? I have to assume that Cardinal George et al. really think what they're saying is true. But it isn't. So: who are the bishops trusting? Who told them this was a point they should focus on? They need to ask themselves those questions, and start vetting such advice more carefully, if they are serious about avoiding the appearance of partisanship. And if they hope to be credible in their denunciation of equivocal words and deceptive practices, they had better make sure they get their story straight.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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