There’s been a flurry of American Catholic bishops who, perhaps emboldened by the media attention to their claims of violations of religious liberty, seem to be getting ever-louder in injecting themselves into partisan politics. But, at the same time, it seems a growing number of Catholics in the pews who think the bishops are going too far. Entire congregations are beginning to push back against being treated as pawns in a political chess match. Peter Montgomery, Religion Dispatches Associate Editor and senior fellow at People for the American Way, joins us this week to talk about the bishop backlash and how some clergy and lay people are starting to say: “enough is enough” to this politicization of their faith tradition.

Click the “play” button above to hear the extended interview. Click here to download it. Scroll down to read the transcript. Click here for the full April 21, 2012 State of Belief Radio program.




[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio, everyone, I’m Welton Gaddy.

Perhaps encouraged by all the attention their adamant refusal to compromise with the Obama Administration on health care provision mandates contained in the Health Care Act – and by their apparent success in hijacking the long-serving term “religious liberty” for their own purposes – the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has formed an ad-hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. The Committee has now issued a 14-page call for civil disobedience on the part of faithful Catholics – and there’s really no way to put this gently: the document urges placing God’s Law, as interpreted by the hierarchy, above civil law.

We have seen other recent instances where the Church has inserted itself in issues of governance, and a recent article at Religion Dispatches caught my eye. Associate Editor Peter Montgomery, a Senior Fellow at People for the American Way, wrote about how some clergy and lay people are starting to say: “Enough is enough” to this whole politicization of their faith tradition. Peter joins me now on State of Belief Radio – I should tell you Peter’s a longtime friend – Peter Montgomery, welcome to State of Belief Radio!

[PETER MONTGOMERY, GUEST]: Really happy to be here, thank you.

[WG]: For those of us concerned with Church-State separation, it’s been frustrating, to say the least, to watch Church leaders speak from a position of unconditional unity in the name of their congregations. Can you talk about the situation in Washington State?  The governor there signed marriage equality into law, and then what happened?

[PM]: Well, there’s an effort to put that on the ballot, to put it before the voters, and the bishops have really taken that campaign up. And they have tried to turn all the Catholic churches in the state, really, into petition gathering centers. And what we’ve seen is that some of the parishes are saying: “No, thanks.” Not only individual lay people but, you know, priests who are in charge of parishes are saying: “We don’t really want to turn our churches into centers of political organizing.”

[WG]: That is coming from the clergy… I mean, coming from the people in the pew, not from the clergy.

[PM]: I think it’s coming from people in the pew, and I think there are some priests who are very sympathetic to that, because they hear from people in the pews how unhappy they are when they come to church to experience Jesus, and instead they experience anti-gay political organizing.

[WG]: Do you have any sense of how the priests are reacting?

[PM]: Well, when I’ve spoken with people who are involved, sort of, around the country on some of this, I think there’s a lot of quiet support among priests for lay resistance to the bishops pushing this, sort of, cultural war agenda with increasing aggressiveness and, you know, they have to be quiet because these bishops don’t really brook any dissent.

[WG]: Right, right. What are the potential ramifications to the Church’s political clout, which seems to require a compliant hierarchy, of this kind of “disobedience” from the pews?

[PM]: Well I think the bishops’ political clout is risked when they squander their moral capital. And I think over the years we’ve seen that that was really damaged by the abuse scandal, of course, but I also think it’s been damaged by this really over-the-top rhetoric they’ve been using about religious liberty, and accusing the Obama administration of trying to destroy religious liberty in this country, where they’ve – the bishops – have really allied themselves with and have been using the rhetoric of the really extreme religious right. I think that has also hurt their credibility in the public arena, and we already know, from poll after poll, after poll that they do not speak for anywhere close to the majority of American Catholics on a lot of these issues.

[WG]: Peter, maybe this is not a fair question, and if it isn’t you can just not answer it, because I’m asking you to make a judgment that I make with great reticence. The Catholic Bishops are offering a definition of religious liberty that benefits their particular church and their particular set of doctrines and moral issues. Do they really not know that that’s not the definition of religious liberty in the Constitution, or is this a sincere effort to change what our Constitution promised?

[PM]: Well, I can’t say what is inside anyone’s head; but I can say that, you know, what they are doing is a real effort to redefine religious liberty, and again, they have allied themselves with conservative Evangelicals on this score. And just so everybody knows that this was not a war that was picked by the Obama administration over contraception: the bishops and their allies were beating the drum on this with the Manhattan Declaration, which came out long before the whole contraceptive controversy even happened. So they have been, they want to define religious liberty in a way that means: “We can continue to take vast amounts of tax dollars for our social service programs, but can ignore efforts to say you shouldn’t discriminate with that money.” And so that’s really what they’re trying to do.

[WG]: Have you seen some other places outside Washington State where the parishioners are resisting what the priests say, for example on anti-LGBT issues?

[PM]: We’ve seen – in Pittsburgh – there was a priest there who actually openly organized a group of priests to go speak to the bishop, and to ask him to tone down his anti-Obama rhetoric, because it was really bothering his parishioners. In the state of Maryland, the bishop recently, sort of, asked all churches to read this, you know, letter that’s sort of a tirade against marriage equality in that state – also signed into law by a Catholic governor, also being put on the ballot to be challenged – and there’s a real effort, there’s a real rising up, I think, among a lot of Catholics in Maryland – progressive, and those who just don’t want the Church used that way. There’s a group called Catholics for Equality that I’ve done some work with in the past, who has created a toolkit for people in Maryland and other states where they can print out a little statement that they can put in the collection plate and say: “I’m not going to give my money to this parish as long as this is what the parish is being used for.” And so there’s really some ever more organized efforts on the part of Catholics who don’t want to see the Church have this as their public profile.

[WG]: I think it’s ironic that, even as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops calls for civil disobedience among the faithful in response to alleged government attacks on religious liberty, that people of conscience are finding their voice within the Church. I mean, I think that’s a very healthy thing to see, in my tradition, but that’s the Free Church tradition, that’s not the Catholic tradition; do you think these are blips on the radar, or are we beginning to see a movement build?

[PM]: I think it is definitely a movement, and I think that the bishops have poured some gasoline on the fire with their recent attack on the American nuns, and the effort to, really, shut down and reorganize the structure under which many American nuns are organized has outraged a lot of Catholics.

[WG]: Did that surprise you, that attack on the nuns?

[PM]: You know, I’ve really seen the Conference of Bishops moving very far to the right, particularly on these so-called “cultural issues,” so I was not terribly surprised; but I think the timing was remarkable – that they did that at the same time the Vatican was moving to embrace and bring back into the fold this ultraconservative Society of Pius X that was thrown out for being anti-Semitic and for challenging Vatican II itself as heretical. So, on one hand, those people are being invited back into the Church; and on the other hand, American nuns – who do so much good work, and who do so much work for the common good – are being clamped down on. And lay people, I think, are really finding their voice. I mentioned that the polls show that lay people really aren’t with the bishops on these cultural wars. There’s a young gay man from New York who should have made some news in the last couple of weeks. He was on the Junior Board of Catholic Charities in New York, lifelong Catholic, been involved with volunteering with Catholic Charities since he was a kid, he’s 24 years old now and when Cardinal Dolan sort of rudely brushed off a request by the head of a group that works with LGBT homeless, saying: “Bishop, just come meet with some of these kids,” and he brushed it off – and so this young man, Joseph Amodeo, resigned from Catholic Charities because he felt it was so important to make a statement that he thought the bishop was not representing the gospel, was not representing the gospel of charity, the gospel of inclusion. And, you know, this young Catholic man is optimistic, in spite what’s been happening recently, that the people in the pews will ultimately influence the direction of the Church.

[WG]: I don’t know the Catholic mindset. I know the Evangelical mindset, and sometimes when you get into a situation like this, you’ve got the members of the congregations saying: “We don’t agree with you.” You’ve got leaders high in our government saying: “We don’t agree with you.” Now, in the Evangelical mind, that often gets considered as persecution that means we’re doing the right thing. I don’t know whether that’s what that does for the bishops or not, but I’m raising that to ask: are they going to just circle the wagons, do you think, and become more and more hardline? Or is there some bend here, in which there can be some discussion about what religious freedom really means?

[PM]: Well I think, you know, as people who have a better inside view, the bishops might have a better answer, a more informed answer to that. My sense from looking at the bishops from the outside is that they’re more in a circle the wagons mode. We know that this pope has indicated that he’s more interested in a Church that’s more doctrinally orthodox, even if that means it’s smaller – and so he seems willing to alienate and push away lay Catholics who disagree with the effort by the Vatican and by the Conference of Bishops to sort of, you know, clamp down on dissent and really promote obedience to their positions on this stuff.

[WG]: Well, I know you’ve been about this a long time, thankfully. You’ve been in this battle, and have fought a really good fight on behalf of all of us for a long time, and I say that as a backdrop to this next question: where do you think this conflict is going? What’s the next step here, because it looks like, right now, just what you’ve said, we’ve got the bishops really hardening their position, the people in the pew and the people in government don’t seem willing at all to change theirs, thankfully. How’s it going to come out?

[PM]: Well, I think we’ll probably see a couple of different things. I think, one, we’ll probably see a continuing erosion of the bishops’ influence on their own people, on the Catholics in the pews who have already gotten very used to ignoring the bishops’ teachings on birth control and support for reproductive choice; who are not where the bishops are on LGBT equality, so I think that will continue. And I think the frustration with the bishops’ increasing hard line is going to look for creative avenues, and I think maybe we’re just at the beginning of seeing what some of those creative avenues are going to be from lay Catholics. You know, there’s a lot of anger about this attack on the nuns, and people are seeking creative ways to show that they stand with the sisters. And there’s a Facebook group called “Tell a Nun,” which just says: “If you were raised Catholic, or you support the good work that the nuns are doing in your community for people in need, tell them.” You know, tell them you appreciate the work they’re doing and, you know, not to, sort of, knuckle under. And so I think American Catholics and Progressive Catholics are really trying to figure out what their next steps are going to be and how they’re going to live out their faith, kind of, in the face of the direction the bishops are taking.

[WG]: So a bad situation has the prospects of, really, some new life coming out of it, and some really good things happening.

[PM]: I think so, and that could also be a real help to all those Catholic public officials who also are taking really progressive positions on policy issues in defiance of what the bishops are telling them to do.

[GW]: Peter I want to, if I may, just touch on one other issue that has been well-covered by the blog from People for the American Way, but it hasn’t been covered much a lot of other places. Rick Scarborough’s call for forty days of prayer and fasting to, in effect, help defeat President Obama in November. We had a listener of State of Belief who wrote us about this, and asked for some help on it. We did a small piece on it, but I’d like for you to talk about it a minute because you’re closer to it. Tell us what’s going on there.

[PM]: Well this is a… Rick Scarborough is a pastor from Texas who’s long been involved in the religious right political movement – part of the, you know, circle around Rick Perry and others – and he has launched this, you know, campaign leading up to the election which he says is not political – which is a joke, if you know, his whole career is about, you know, mixing religion and politics to get conservatives elected, so – but it’s really part of a trend. I mean, before the 2010 elections, I think there were at least six groups running prayer and fasting campaigns going into the 2010 elections, and that sort of builds off this prayer and fasting movement that’s been growing on the Evangelical right. Lou Engle, who some folks may run across, his name is an increasingly visible part of the religious right but he runs these, he ran prayer and fasting campaigns in California in 2008 leading up to the Prop 8 vote, and so it’s really an effort to mobilize conservative religious voters, and to help them focus on the election by creating this prayer and fasting thing. It also promotes their point of view that this is spiritual warfare; and so this is not just an election between two parties and people who have disagreements about policy. It is spiritual warfare against the forces of evil. And I think that’s one of the real damaging trends to our common life that has been happening from the religious right, is that they have, sort of, made every issue a religious issue, you know – taxes or minimum wage or anything – and if you’re not on their side, you’re on the side of Satan. So how can you have conversation about compromise, how can you, you know, try to find common ground? If you disagree with them, you’re part of the forces of darkness.

[WG]: And that, exactly, has been, I think, the most damaging contribution of the religious right is to shut out democracy. To stay on this Scarborough thing just for another second – this is a nakedly partisan effort couched in terms of religion. I said, you all are the organization that’s probably done the most about it so far. Can we organize some pushback on this, or is it a difficult one to do?

[PM]: Well, I think it’s difficult because, you know, I don’t think anything that you or folks like us would say is going to influence the people that are supporters of Rick Scarborough. If anything, you know, him getting public pushback from us encourages him to think, like you said before, that “We’re on the right track.” But I think what we will see is a lot more of these. I think he just got out of the gate first. Well, he actually didn’t get out of gate first because Cindy Jacobs – who’s a self-proclaimed apostle, who’s also been increasingly embraced by the religious right – she has had a prayer campaign going on through the Republican primaries, with specific groups of intercessors praying before each Republican primary – and I’m sure that we’re going to see the Family Research Council and other groups that did this sort of pre-election prayer and fasting in 2010. I think they’ll be back.

[WG]: Peter Montgomery is a Senior Fellow at People for the American Way and an Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches. Mr. Montgomery has been at this work a long time, and he’s done the work very well and very successfully. It’s a tough time for us, and I really appreciate what you’re doing now, and you coming in to talk with us and help listeners to State of Belief Radio to know what they need to understand and can do. Thanks Peter.

[PM]: Thanks. I feel the same way about you.



State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.

Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.

Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.


The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.

While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.

Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.

Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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