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Zombie memes.

You know it's election season when you start losing track of Catholic conservative organizations. Thanks to the National Review Online, I've learned of another one -- the Catholic Association, whose senior fellow, Ashley McGuire, just enjoyed a relaxing game of slow-pitch with NRO's editor-at-large,Kathryn Jean Lopez. This exhibition match focused on the issue of religious freedom, which works out for McGuire, because her group just put out a "religious-freedom scorecard." A scorecard? That sounds a lot easier to digest than another Catholic voting guide. But it also sounds a little like play-at-home Jeopardy. Turns out it's even simpler. According to McGuire:

The purpose of the scorecard is to provide voters with the facts about President Obama and Governor Romney with regards to religious freedom.... Our system of government only works with an informed citizenry, and this country was founded on the notion that religious freedom is our first freedom. Anything we can do to help voters see how these two men fare on this most crucial of issues, we at the Catholic Association will do.

A benevolent aim, to be sure. Who doesn't like facts? And, according to McGuire, the Catholic Association is willing to do anything to help further its goal. Apparently that includes redefining the word "fact."Lopez lobs McGuire a pitch designed to allow her to repeat one of the scorecard's tall tales: that the Obama administration wants to protect freedom of worship, but not freedom of religion. McGuire:

Beginning a few years ago, the president and important members of his administration such as Secretary Hillary Clinton have been replacing the phrase freedom of religion with freedom of worship. The space between these two phrases is enormous. Freedom of worship implies that religion is something that belongs within the four walls of a church, mosque, synagogue, etc., or around the dinner table in ones home. The phrase freedom of worship treats religion as if it were something unsavory to be kept indoors.

That claim was debunked months ago, yet McGuire peddles it as though it just fell off the meme truck.Paul Moseswas on this in February. After a quick search of the White House website, he turned up a dozen examples of President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton using the approved term "religious freedom" (there are many more). And in AprilMollie Wilson O'Reilly corrected the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which included the meme in its statement on religious freedom, "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty." She also noted the apparent source of this claim:a 2010 poston aFirst Thingsblog. Care to guess who wrote it? That's right, Ashley McGuire (then Ashley Samelson).

As Mollie wrote, McGuire's argument, and I use the term liberally, is laughably partisan: "Yet another example of Obamas 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.... This one, perhaps because it deals with something thats 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."Later in the NRO interview, McGuire tells Lopez that "the freedom of religion versus freedom of worship distinction" may be the most important thing on the scorecard "because it gets to the trend underlying all of Obamas actions." Right. If the issue is so important, why hasn't she set aside more time over the past two years to fact-check herself, or to learn how other conservatives -- and state constitutions -- have mentioned"freedom of worship." Instead, here she is once again making the same bogus claim, given new life by the National Review Online.Of course, Election Day is just a few weeks away, the all-Catholic vice-presidential debate is tomorrow, and recent polling data show increasing Catholic support for Obama -- even in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania(Catholics of both states went with McCain in 2008). So no one should be surprised to see some Catholic conservatives throwing everything at the wall. There's one-time George W. Bush adviser Deal Hudson, waving his arms likethe kid in the back of the class who desperately wants to be called on, trying to get the mainstream media to pick up on one Pennsylvania Catholic's claim that she received two anti-LDS calls "from the Obama campaign" (no one else has corroborated her story). And then there's a Catholic News Agency piece asserting that "Obamacare Subsidizes Abortions for Women Making $90,000" (helpfully, the author clarifies that even a "divorced 38-year-old public-school principal who has three children" [the harlot] and earns that much could receive the subsidy -- a subsidy, as Timothy Jost has pointed out time and again, that exists only in the minds of Obamacare's critics). And of course Lifesitenews is happy to parrot both stories, even if they haven't yet found room on their website to mention Mitt Romney'sclaim that "there's no legislation with regards to abortion that I'm familiar with that would become part of my agenda."So, yes, some Catholic conservatives seem to have hit the panic button. And I can't blame them. I know lots of Catholics who have differences with President Obama that will prevent them from voting for him. But they're honest differences. Not alarmist canards. 

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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On August 10, President Obama spoke on the topic of freedom of religion at a White House Iftar dinner. He began, "Of all the freedoms we cherish as Americans, of all the rights that we hold sacred, foremost among them is freedom of religion, the right to worship as we choose.... Every American has the right to practice their faith both openly and freely, and as they choose. That is not just an American right; it is a universal human right. And we will defend the freedom of religion, here at home and around the world. "On September 13, just after the attack on the consulate in Libya, Hillary Clinton spoke at a reception marking the end of Ramadan. She said, "Religious freedom and religious tolerance are essential to the stability of any nation, any people." On September 25, President Obama spoke at the UN General Assembly. "We not only respect the freedom of religion," he said, "we have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe." And so on. I admit that I expected the people who have been pushing this dishonest meme about a "rhetorical shift" in the Obama administration to use these recent talks to claim victory - see, now they're talking about "freedom of religion"! But even I was not cynical enough to think they'd just ignore reality completely and go on pushing their smears.Why would First Things or the National Review agree to forward such a preposterous claim without asking Samelson/McGuire to show her work? Shouldn't concern for their own reputations make them a little more careful? Kathryn Jean Lopez does have a weakness for this sort of thing: See here, where she is alarmed by Obama's use of the word "folks," and then later discovers that it's no different from the way Bush talked. But isn't it embarrassing to suspend one's most basic critical faculties over and over again, in public, for obviously partisan reasons? Embarrassing to readers, if not to the author? Shouldn't propaganda lose some of its value when it stops even trying to convince you that it's something else?

I think Mitt Romney captured their messaging strategy in the first presidential debate: "Look I've got five boys and I'm used to someone saying something that's not true and keep repeating it."

On the homepage of The Catholic Association is a box (I can't link directly to it) with an undated "Press Release on Religious Freedom Violation in Colorado," which was "released today by Maureen Ferguson and Ashley McGuire of The Catholic Association." It begins, "On the same day President Obama spoke of religious freedom at United Nations, his Justice Department acted to deny that freedom to small business owners." So apparently they're referring to the September 25 talk I linked to above. But the paragraph-long statement ends, "President Obama frequently refers to 'the right to worship' rather than the 'right to religious freedom.' His lawyers have now told us what that means for all Americans." That's right: they are continuing to push their thoroughly discredited claim about how Obama won't say "religious freedom" while citing evidence that futher discredits it. It's almost as though they don't feel any pressure at all to back up their inflammatory claims with an appeal to reality.

Given how many false statements and distortions of truth have been offered in this particular election, isn't it time for the bishops to remind everyone that lying about one's political opponents is actually a sin, and sometimes it's a big sin? This is not a trivial matter.

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