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Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Religion and Politics, circa 2012

At the New Republic, Amy Sullivan has a pretty good takeout on why religion didn't figure as much, at least in terms of public discussion, in the 2012 election. The relationship between religion and politics, of course, is of perennial interest to law and religion scholars, so I hope this post is at least tangentially related to "law" and not just politics. Sullivan certainly has a point of view in other posts and pushes it, and I don't always agree with that viewpoint, but she has also done a lot of good reporting in this area and this is a pretty decent piece.

One thing I think she underemphasizes is that both parties, in addition to what I hope was the fundamental decency of their nominal leaders on this issue, had good reasons to bilaterally disarm with respect to each others' religion. There was also some plain old cognitive dissonance involved: some evangelical voters who really do hold strongly negative views about the LDS were forced to reconcile themselves to it in this cycle. (And I should add that those views, for all I know, may have affected their turnout; and, for that matter, that every now and then I saw an anti-Mormon letter in the local paper, or fairly anodyne but quite unnecessary Mormon jokes from Democratic friends on Facebook.) Still, in general it is interesting how little of a real role religion played in this race.

Given the circles I travel in, many of my friends may find most interesting, and perhaps irksome, the third part of Sullivan's article, titled "The Catholic Bishops' Religious Liberty Campaign Has Flopped" and linking in part to an interesting essay written by a local priest in Washington, DC. I've pasted it in full below the fold. Here I think she is a little too forceful, and would add some counterpoints: 1) Catholic doctrine isn't, and by its lights shouldn't be, determined by vote; 2) that doctrine may legitimately hold that specific life issues are more doctrinally central than a variety of "seamless garment" issues; and 3) some of the reactions to the Church's views on these issues still held more than a little whiff of anti-Catholic sentiment, or at least ignorance about Catholicism.

But...I think Sullivan, and the writer she links to, make two important points, points that are relevant both for observers of these issues and for the leadership. The first is that the "religious liberty campaign," with specific regard to the contraception mandate, takes place in a context in which Americans seriously distrust many institutions, often including their own institutions and certainly including the Church. The second is that, although I happen to think the scope of exceptions to the mandate should be wider and that there are real religious liberty issues involved here, there is genuine room for reasonable disagreement about how religious liberty doctrine should be structured: whether generally applicable laws should require or merely permit accommodations, about whether those accommodations should be absolute or subject to a balancing test, about which entities should be able to claim those accommodations, and so on. I'll let the priest's op-ed speak for itself here, as Sullivan does, while noting that it's possible to agree with him on this and still support greater accommodations in this area:

“Bishops and Catholic publications used words like ‘alarming,’ ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unconscionable’ about the HHS mandate. But most people did not see it as an existential threat to our religious liberty. They saw it as a disagreement over government policy.”    

"3. The Catholic Bishops’ Religious Liberty Campaign Has Flopped. Despite focusing its nearly-undivided attention on opposition to Obamacare and the accompanying contraception mandate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not managed to convince a majority of American Catholics that this is the issue that should determine their decision in the voting booth. Nor have they even won the ideological debate over whether this issue (referred to by the bishops with the much broader term “religious liberty”) should be the top priority of the U.S. Catholic church. In a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a majority of Catholics thought that the church’s public statements and engagement on public policy should “focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor, even if it means focusing less on issues like abortion and the right to life.” A majority of Catholics—that includes Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, as well as Catholics who support Romney.

At the same time, Barack Obama opened up a large lead over Romney among Catholics in the months that followed the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom”—a national teach-in about threats to liberty that focused on Obama’s contraception coverage policy. Nor does the Fortnight campaign appear to have moved Catholic opinions regarding the contested policy. According to PRRI polls taken both before and after the Fortnight, white Catholics are split precisely down the middle when asked whether “religiously-affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to provide employees with no-cost contraception coverage.”

What happened to the bishops' influence? One problem they face is the continuing erosion of trust in institutions—including religious institutions—that has taken place across American society. The Catholic church and its slow response to clergy sex abuse scandals has suffered a particular serious blow to its reputation for moral leadership. But it has also severely bungled its opposition to the Obama administration. A local Washington, DC priest penned an essay for the National Catholic Reporter this week with his thoughts about the religious liberty campaign's failure. It’s worth reading in full, but I want to quote his observation about the hyperbolic rhetoric of Catholic leaders: “Bishops and Catholic publications used words like ‘alarming,’ ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unconscionable’ about the HHS mandate. But most people did not see it as an existential threat to our religious liberty. They saw it as a disagreement over government policy.”

The bishops also seem not to have recognized that they have lost the edge they once held in the media as well. Not so long ago, if the Catholic bishops came out against a Democratic administration with the energy they have marshaled against several aspects of Obamacare, the story would not only make headlines but would dominate the storyline about that administration. But while journalists made note of the Fortnight for Freedom and have duly covered the bishops’ objections, the coverage is more pro forma, the way reporters cover a Glenn Beck rally or provocative remark from Pat Robertson. Whether they realize it or not, the bishops risk being seen as just another arm of the Religious Right, saved only by their occasional statements supporting anti-poverty programs or immigration reform." 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on November 7, 2012 at 08:50 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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The HHS mandate is legal and just and the bishops using it, particularly given the actual practice of the vast number of its members (if they merely singled out the borderline cases, fine), as the key sign the Obama Administration, which has bent over backwards to be respectful of religious liberty as a whole (if not wanting to favor certain ones like some opponents of the mandate in effect wish) is a proverbial anti-Christ is absurd. And, lousy strategy.

I would not use the same language as Jimbino, but there is a certain truth to the criticism of the selective nature of their efforts. Their cause, if applied consistently, is strongly rejected by the population. Even by members of their own faith.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 8, 2012 3:41:37 PM

As an atheist libertarian, I have two comments:

First, I find few folks more ignorant of Roman Catholic doctrine than Roman Catholics themselves. Over the past several years, I have asked some to explain the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. I finally found a woman who got it right; I asked her to explain her exceptional knowledge. She responded that she was a very recent convert from Lutheranism.

Second, I find Roman Catholics to be fellow travelers with me vis a vis opposition to Obamacare. I, like the Amish, object to all forms of insurance that cover my life, health, fire, flood, etc. But, of course, Roman Catholic policy is to support the socialism that generally forces insurance on me. As a result, the schadenfreude in me celebrates the RC's being hoisted by their own petard when it comes to Obamacare's contraception and abortion provisions.

Posted by: Jimbino | Nov 7, 2012 4:58:07 PM

Paul -- I didn't mean to not open comments! Will fix immediately. And, as is almost always the case, I think what you say makes a lot of sense.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 7, 2012 2:16:12 PM

In all sincerity, although I have no current plans to relocate, so to speak, I very much appreciate those kind words and the generous spirit in which they were offered. Best wishes.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 7, 2012 1:21:18 PM

Professor Horwitz, I know you haven't asked anyone to retreat from public witness, the truth is, I would love it if you decided to come into The Fold:)

Posted by: N.D. | Nov 7, 2012 1:10:01 PM

N.D., fair enough, although I don't think that I've asked anyone to retreat from public witness on this or any other issue.

Rick, I read your post on MoJ, and because comments aren't on there, let me engage you further here. I'm not sure why I should be so invested in these issues as a non-Catholic, but I suppose it's a combination of my interest in church-state relations, the richness of the Catholic discussion, my wonderful time at Notre Dame, and my interest in institutionalism generally. So take it for what it's worth.

For me, as important as it is, the party stuff is ultimately a side issue. It matters in various ways, of course: for the Church, as a matter of persuasion and strategy, as well as doctrine; for the Church in its relations with its members; and for individual Catholics as participants in politics and civil society. But it's less important to me than the broader issues I touched on, especially in my comment above. You may choose what you write about on MoJ, of course. But I confess to believing that it would be the ideal place to have a useful discussion about how and why neither side of these issues--the strong defense of its position on foundational issues and of its position on religious liberty (the latter, I think, is different and more contestable, even from within the Church), AND the concern with institutional reform and trust-building--is likely to succeed fully without the other, and why both of these issues should be combined and discussed publicly. Of course I know there is plenty of actual Church reform, but again, it seems evident that it has not always been publicly foregrounded or paid off in terms of increased trust or awareness. And it does seem to me that the fortnight campaign either took that reform for granted or somehow thought of it as strategically unwise to make those reform issues a prominent part of the discussion. I think one can argue that this was a mistake, and that there needs to be a better discussion about how to combine a trust-building or pastoral voice with a stringent defense of doctrine voice, and why the former shouldn't be seen as undermining the latter. Cheers, Paul

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 7, 2012 12:37:49 PM

"Let US Make Man in OUR Image." - The ordered, complementary communion of Perfect Trinitarian Love, The Blessed Trinity.

Love exists in relationship, and every human being is included in God's call to Holiness, which is, in essence, a call to authentic Love because there is only ONE True God, to begin with.

Posted by: N.D. | Nov 7, 2012 12:23:48 PM

Regarding the two points, a Catholic Bishop will never retreat from being a public witness to the Sanctity of every Human Life, and the Sanctity of Marriage and The Family, because a Catholic Bishop, who is thus in communion with The Catholic Church, professes the truth about the personal and relational essence of the Human Person, created in The Image of God, to reflect Love.

Posted by: N.D. | Nov 7, 2012 11:07:19 AM

Paul -- it is a challenge, no doubt, to witness (and also to work productively on) regarding the abortion question in a way that will not be seen by some as partisan, because the Democratic Party has become so thorough-goingly pro-abortion-rights (the efforts of my friend Tom Berg and Democrats for Life notwithstanding). I think the charge that the Bishops have been working too closely with the Republicans is, in general, overstated (after all, they supported the ACA and support the Dream Act and oppose major entitlement reforms -- in each case, connecting the policy to, among other things, the potential for reducing abortions). But, overstated or not, it's out there, and has to be dealt with.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 7, 2012 10:45:15 AM

Rick, it may just be me--I kind of suspect my view is not representative on this--but I don't think of as the witnessing on this issue as partisan. I suppose I do worry that some of the hierarchy have associated witnessing on this issue, and working for change on it, too closely with the Republican Party as such, and that some of their statements along these lines have lacked the full degree of nuance and care that I might want from them, particularly given their broader pastoral mission; but I don't think of Catholic witness on abortion and related issues as a partisan thing.

On the "two points," it seems to me that rather than (or in addition to) thinking of them as unfortunate, one might think about how a focus on those issues might actually have some payoff for members of the leadership thinking about their approaches to the mandate question. A public focus on trust-building, and on linking institutional reform and trust-building to questions of institutional religious freedom, might actually provide a stronger base in the long run to support arguments for accommodation; and a discussion on religious liberty that acknowledges the complexities and differences on these issues rather than use language like "unprecedented" or treat the issue as close to a doctrinal obligation for the flock might ultimately lead to a wider understanding of the Church's position on these issues. But, hey, I'm ultimately an outsider.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Nov 7, 2012 9:49:03 AM

Paul -- I think the HHS mandate is both unjust and illegal but also that the "two points" you highlight are -- unfortunately, in my view -- correct. And, while I don't think it's realistic to expect Catholic bishops to retreat from their public witness on the abortion question -- it is, for them (as it is for me) a foundational "social justice" question -- it is essential that this witness not be perceived as (because, in fact, it is not) merely partisan.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Nov 7, 2012 9:40:05 AM

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