The USCCB’s Fortnight for Freedom (Part I)

USCBB Prayer for the Protection of Religious LibertyThe United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is now one week deep into its “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign. As you may know, this activism has emerged as a protest against the Obama administration’s HHS mandates.

The health-care mandates–requiring most insurance providers to cover contraception for women free of charge in their health plans–have been understood by the bishops to be a massive violation of Catholic religious freedom. Of course,  the success of this campaign hinges on the bishops’ ability to portray this decision as an affront to the religious freedom of all Americans.

In January, USCCB president Archbishop (now Cardinal) Timothy M. Dolan gave a statement to the effect that: “To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their health care is literally unconscionable.”

Adding a knish dimension to the rhetoric was Bishop William E. Lori, who in his prepared remarks for testimony before the House Committee on the Judiciary in February wrote:

“[I]t is absurd for someone to come into a kosher deli and demand a ham sandwich; … it is beyond absurd for that private demand to be backed with the coercive power of the state; [and] … it is downright surreal to apply this coercive power when the customer can get the same sandwich cheaply, or even free, just a few doors down.”

Accompanying the rollout of the Fortnight campaign were a good deal of cyber-appendices such as a customized “Prayer for the Protection of Religious Liberty” (also available in Spanish, Vietnamese, and Tagalog) as well as a “Litany for Liberty” formulated especially for use during these two weeks. The USCBB has also instituted a texting campaign to “help save our religious freedom.”

There is also a very intriguing section of FAQs explaining the goals and rationale for the project. I am going to assess that section–which I do think is quite rhetorically effective– in my next post. Today, however, I want to make two brief orienting remarks.

To begin with, as occurs in many church/state scrums in advanced democracies, this is a very complex case. Too complex, I will argue, to justify the extremely adversarial and ultimately simplistic position taken up by the bishops.

A great deal has to be weighed in the HHS conflict. I am on record as saying that Catholics are quite good at weighing things when they think through public-policy dilemmas. Part of this has to do with the fact that they are not bound to doctrines of scriptural infallibility and inerrancy (as are Evangelicals*).

Outside of the Bible, they have countless other theological sources to consult, ranging from the teachings of the Church Fathers to papal encyclicals and beyond. This generally lends modern Catholic thought on policy issues a great deal of sophistication and fluidity.

It also prevents Catholic thinkers from basing policy prescriptions on that old conversation-stopping line of evidence which exclaims “Because the Bible says so!” What I am not seeing in the HHS ructions, however, is the type of layered and thoughtful reasoning I have come to expect from the Church (and which I am on the record as lauding).

Second, I want to point out that the “American Revivalist” movement (as I call it in my forthcoming How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom) has traditionally been led by white conservative evangelicals. True, it was Catholics, not evangelicals, who first identified the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision as a line in the sand and thus worthy of a new round of culture wars. (Evangelicals waded into that ocean slowly, but then they got oh so deep.)

But from Jerry Falwell forward, it has been Evangelicals, not Catholics, who have served as the vanguard and the foot soldiers and the shock troops of the Religious Right (Falwell, by the way, described himself as a fundamentalist).

The evangelicals have provided the energy, the theory, the blueprint, the passion, the resolve and, in many cases, the strategic genius. Traditionalist Catholics have ridden shotgun. They may have been happy to be there and they certainly provided crucial intellectual assistance on issues such as gay rights and abortion, but they were in the passenger seat nonetheless.

Unless I am mistaken, one of the emerging story lines of the 2012 election, at least as regards religious politicking, is that the Catholic Church is suddenly out in front. Catholics are the single largest religious denominational voting bloc in the United States and, as I argue in How to Be Secular, lay Catholics are a crucial secular constituency.

This is why we need to take the Fortnight for Freedom campaign seriously. And tomorrow I will try to do just that.

* For a handy discussion of this issue, see Roger Olson, “Infallibility/Inerrancy,” in The Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) pp. 212-215.

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