Cardinal Donald Wuerl applauds as President Donald Trump displays his executive order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty. (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)

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.  

Trump deliberately stoked fear of a vulnerable religious minority, and many Catholic bishops seemed not to notice

Trump deliberately stoked fear of an already vulnerable religious minority, and the main body of Catholic bishops seemed not to notice. He baselessly accused American Muslims of celebrating the 9/11 attacks and protecting the perpetrators of the attacks in Orlando and San Bernardino. When a supporter at a 2015 rally in New Hampshire said, “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims.... When can we get rid of them?” Trump replied, “We are going to be looking at a lot of different things.” Solutions Trump was willing to consider included, at various points, forcing American Muslims to register in a database, conducting surveillance of American mosques, and enacting “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The USCCB issued no press releases condemning any of these suggestions.

Consistency has never been much valued by Trump, who as president is attempting to follow through on his promised Muslim ban, and who also said this: “For too long, the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith.” He said it in the Rose Garden on the National Day of Prayer, and standing at his elbow was Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., there to witness Trump signing an executive order that, in the words of USCCB president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, “begins the process of alleviating the serious burden of the HHS mandate.” The GOP had won the White House, and the bishops’ longstanding protest was being addressed. Perhaps they felt it would be ungrateful to register a new complaint. Yet Wuerl had prayed just moments before Trump spoke for “the courage to make our voices heard on behalf of all of those people today who suffer persecution simply because of their faith.”

Thus it was more than a little dispiriting to watch Wuerl stand by in silence as Trump made himself out to be a champion of religious liberty. “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied, or silenced anymore,” he said, preposterously. “And we will never, ever stand for religious discrimination.” If Trump handed the bishops a win that day, they also took a loss by failing—again—to stand in solidarity with the most persecuted religious minority in America.

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

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Published in the July 7, 2017 issue: View Contents
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