Unfortunate USCCB Video on Religious Liberty

Over at National Catholic Reporter, my friend Michael Sean Winters recently discussed a video put out by the USCCB to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark conciliar document, Dignitatis Humanae. The video is truly awful. It made me cringe. Michael Sean’s critique is excellent, and I encourage everyone to read it. He knows far more about Church history and the nuances behind the crafting of Church documents than I do (or ever will!).

Let me begin by acknowledging my agreement with the basic premise—religious liberty, founded in the dignity of the individual, is a basic human right. Its violation in so many regions of the world is a great scandal.

That said, this video is so deeply flawed that it is likely to undermine a genuine understanding of, and appreciation for, these religious liberty concerns. Let me make six points on this.

First, the video’s approach to liberty genuflects at the U.S. Constitution. From the outset, the video sets the standard for religious liberty in the U.S. constitutional order rather than the Gospel. With its tropes about our “first freedom,” it fails to appreciate the roots of this in Lockean liberalism—predicated on an autonomous individual shaking off coercion, rather than on a social animal seeking the good realized in mutual relationships. In the Catholic conception, this “common good” is the highest good in political life, and it cannot be reduced to the good of individuals, either taken separately or summed. In this Catholic framework, the role of the state is the realization of this common good, not the protection of individual liberty. And yes, by the principle of subsidiarity, this includes respecting the legitimate autonomy of the Church. But this is a very different perspective on religious liberty from the one arising from the U.S. constitutional framework.

Second, the video wallows in America-first jingoistic nationalism. The video is replete with “patriotic” images like American flags. Even worse, it goes “all in” on American exceptionalism, with one speaker even proclaiming that “the U.S. is the greatest country in the history of the world.” This derives from a quasi-Calvinist notion of America being the realm of God’s chosen people, which is completely antithetical to Catholicism and insulting to Catholics all over the world. Another speaker argues that the American approach to religious liberty should be “a model” for the rest of the world. Honestly, the slogan “make America great again” wouldn’t have been out of place in this video.

Third, the video presents a misleading and partisan view of religious liberty violations in the United States. It claims that the Little Sisters of the Poor are being “harassed by the U.S. government,” when this “harassment” boils down to filling out a form to opt out of the mandate to include contraception in health-insurance plans. (To be fair, I believe that the Little Sisters do have a valid argument on principle, but to claim harassment is way over the top). Aside from the contraception mandate, the video also refers to the legalization of same-sex marriage and even to the removal of a Ten Commandments monument in Oklahoma. It makes references to the rights of business, but not to the duties of business or the rights of workers. Missing is any reference to the egregious attacks on the religious liberty of Muslims, most notably with the Republican presidential candidate calling for a complete ban on people entering the country based solely on religion. Missing is any reference to local (typically Republican) government efforts to impede the Church’s ability to aid migrants and refugees—the criminalization of a basic Christian duty. And in the week that Dan Berrigan died, missing is any reference to religious-based conscientious objection to funding the great evil of nuclear weapons. And yes, the video includes Hillary Clinton, for some bizarre reason, but not Donald Trump. We know that images speak volumes.

Fourth, the link between attacks on religious freedom in the United States and in other countries is tasteless. Most of the video centers on the U.S., railing against the U.S. government for “harassing” religious believers and “stopping us practicing our faith.” But then it links this to the desperate plight of Christians in parts of the Muslim world, including with stark images of ISIS beheadings of Christians. This link is offensive. Try telling a Christian from ISIS-held territory, or Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan that American Christians are being similarly harassed. Try telling these people that it is all under the same umbrella of “religious freedom under siege.” In showing these images, the video’s message is less one of solidarity with suffering Christians than a cautionary tale for America if it continues to disrespect religious freedom.

Fifth, the video acknowledges no U.S. responsibility whatsoever for what’s happening in these regions. It talks about “nihilistic forces of political violence” around the world. It does not refer to the U.S. role in creating this chaos. It makes no mention of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which paved the way for the rise of ISIS and the obliteration of the ancient Christian community in northern Iraq—a community that survived 1,400 years of Muslim rule. It makes no mention of the U.S. role in destabilizing Syria and Libya. It makes no mention of the fact that some of America’s closest allies—Saudi Arabia in particular—are not only egregious violators of religious freedom, but actually promote the poisonous ideology that feeds violence and persecution. And it makes no mention of our collective responsibility to support sustainable development in the Middle East, especially since this is one of the regions of the world hurt most by climate change.

Sixth, I don’t see videos on other topics. I don’t see the USCCB devoting nearly as much attention to the priorities of Pope Francis—climate change and environmental degradation, poverty and inequality, the global arms trade and the death penalty, care for migrants and refugees. It’s not that the U.S. bishops are entirely silent on these topics. It’s just that they aren’t very loud. Recently, Pope Francis started putting out monthly “pope videos”—short and poignant video messages on particular topics. So far, I’ve seen ones on care for creation, children and families in difficulty, small farmers, and respect for women. Can you see the USCCB releasing videos on these kinds of topics? Almost a decade after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, it still hasn’t been able to issue a statement on the economy. It’s quite possible that Pope Francis could make a “pope video” on religious liberty some day. We all know that this would look very different from the USCCB video. And therein lies the problem. 

Anthony Annett is a climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Center for Sustainable Development - Earth Institute at Columbia University and in this position is affiliated with Religions for Peace.

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