On April 12 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty released a statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” calling on Catholics and others to resist what the bishops characterize as unprecedented threats to religious freedom. The statement calls for a “great national campaign” of political and legal protest during what is sure to be an intensely contested presidential election. It urges Catholics to participate in a “Fortnight for Freedom” leading up to this year’s Fourth of July holiday, during which they are asked to study, pray, and take public action against what it describes as concerted government efforts to deprive religious groups of their rights. Among the bishops’ worries are the recent HHS contraception mandate, harsh immigration laws, the denial of federal funding to Catholic social-service agencies, and the closing of Catholic adoption services because of the church’s refusal to place children with gay parents.

Religious freedom “ought not to be a partisan issue,” the bishops declare. They are absolutely right. If defending religious freedom becomes a partisan issue or, worse, an electoral ploy, it will engender enormous cynicism in an electorate in which a significant majority of voters already think religion is too politicized. Unfortunately, the bishops’ statement and proposal for public action are likely to increase that possibility. This initiative is being launched during an election year in which one party has assumed the mantle of faith and charges the other with attacking religion. The bishops need to do much more to prevent their national campaign from becoming a not-very-covert rallying point for the Republican Party and its candidates. If that happens, it is the church and the cause of religious freedom that will suffer.   

The bishops’ description of the various threats to religious freedom conflates a number of disparate federal, state, and judicial actions into an allegedly unified and urgent peril. The argument is hyperbolic. In a nation as large as ours and with so many points at which local, state, and federal government agencies and religious bodies interact, a number of such cases are almost always being debated, legislated, or litigated. It is not at all clear that the threat to religious liberty has suddenly become much greater. That does not mean defenders of religious liberty have nothing to worry about. Yet even those who agree with the bishops about the scope of the danger should be concerned about the appearance of partisanship. Writing in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs (“God and Caesar in America”), sociologists David Campbell and Robert Putnam trace the dramatic shift among Americans away from institutional religion over the past forty years. “As religion and politics have become entangled, many Americans, especially younger ones, have pulled away from religion,” they write. “And that correlation turns out to be causal, not coincidental.” 

Campbell and Putnam trace the rise of religiously conservative evangelicals and Catholics in the Republican Party, and the remarkable degree to which certain political allegiances now coincide with, or even determine, certain religious beliefs and practices. As religious objections to abortion and contemporary sexual mores have come to dictate Republican Party policy, many other Americans have reacted by becoming deeply suspicious of the role of religion in politics. In a 1991 survey, 22 percent of those asked said it was inappropriate for religious leaders to influence government decisions. By 2011, after decades in which the religious right exerted greater and greater influence in our national politics, 70 percent of survey respondents said that religion should be “kept out of public debates over social and political issues.” Surely, the bishops do not want to act in a way that inadvertently strengthens this trend.

During the same period, younger Americans abandoned institutional religion in startling numbers. Paradoxically, as religious groups campaigned to take back the “naked public square,” support for the role of religion in our political debates has steadily eroded and religion itself has lost a good deal of its appeal. “Future historians may well see the last third of the twentieth century as an anomaly,” Campbell and Putnam write, “a period in which religion and public life in the United States became too partisan for the good of either.”

For their effort to be effective, the bishops’ campaign must be seen to be nonsectarian and independent of electoral politics. Adding anti-Islamic prejudice to their list of concerns would help in that regard. The “grand campaign” should also begin and end with a frank admission about the complexity of church-state relations. No government can accommodate every conceivable religious practice or belief, nor does the Catholic Church have a strong record of supporting accommodation of other religious communities. In their simplistic rhetoric, the bishops sound more like politicians than pastors. As Campbell and Putnam warn, if religious freedom becomes a partisan issue, its future is sure to grow dimmer.

Related editorials: Religious Freedom & the U.S. Bishops, Compromise or Stalemate?, Bad Reaction, Bad Decision, An Illiberal Mandate

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