In response to President Donald Trump’s January 27 executive order curtailing Muslim immigration, several offices of the U.S. bishops conference released a joint statement expressing concern. “We join with other faith leaders to stand in solidarity again with those affected by this order, especially our Muslim sisters and brothers,” the bishops said. But hold on: again?
If we’re talking about Catholic leaders standing in solidarity with Muslims, the past several years have struck me mainly as a series of missed opportunities. When the bishops launched their Fortnight for Freedom project in 2012, a Commonweal editorial noted their failure to mention “the best-documented case of growing hostility to religious presence in the United States: hostility to Islam.” Not much has changed. The aim of the Fortnight has always been to put the bishops’ beef with the Obama administration over mandated contraceptive coverage in a broad context—it’s not just about protecting Catholic privileges, it’s about defending “our first, most cherished liberty,” for the good of the nation itself. Yet Barack Obama’s successor as president won that office with a stream of attacks on one particular religion, and—unless your diocese departs significantly from the USCCB’s prepared materials—that fact will barely register as an afterthought in observances of Fortnight 2017.
It wouldn’t be fair to say the bishops have done nothing to resist prejudice against Islam. The USCCB Committee on Ecumenical and Religious Affairs recently created a national Catholic-Muslim dialogue (after having sponsored regional dialogues for many years), and individual bishops including San Diego’s Robert McElroy, Newark’s Joseph Tobin, and Portland’s Alexander Sample have spoken eloquently about the need for Catholics to stand with marginalized populations against fear and hate.
But despite making religious liberty its signature issue, the USCCB never condemned the threats and insults to American Muslims that echoed at Trump’s campaign rallies and defined his crude political platform. This was a man who regaled crowds with the story of an American general who put down an insurrection by executing forty-nine Muslims using bullets dipped in pig’s blood and leaving the fiftieth alive to tell the tale. To Trump, that general was a role model, and the fact that the incident never happened didn’t stop him from citing it as an example of effective counterterrorism policy. “We better start getting tough,” he’d warn darkly.