Four days before Christmas, the United States Catholic Bishops published a full-page ad in The Washington Post complaining that the Obama Administration is trampling Catholic religious liberties. Religion Dispatches Magazine Senior Editor Sarah Posner has published an excellent analysis of recent efforts to redefine religious liberty, and she joins us to discuss the issue on this week’s show. Just back from Iowa, Sarah also weighs in on the Caucuses.


[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Religion Dispatches Magazine Senior Editor Sarah Posner has introduced the term “Christocrat” to our audience. Slate Magazine credits her for, really, describing the conflation between anti-government Tea Party impulses and theocratic far-right Christian authoritarians, which some people call “teavangelicals.” Sarah has just written an insightful new article at Religion Dispatches on the coordinated push by American Catholic Bishops to basically redefine the term “religious liberty.” Now, I tell you a lot of articles that Sarah has written, but I have to say, this is one of her very best, and I hope you’ll read it. I am delighted to have Sarah join us again on State of Belief Radio. Happy New Year, Sarah!

[SARAH POSNER, GUEST]: Happy New Year to you, too!

[WG]: Well, let’s start with the most basic expression of this new push by the Bishops, a full-page ad in the Washington Post; it wasn’t exactly a “good will to all” Christmas greeting. Can you tell us about it?

[SP]: Well, the ad appeared in the Washington Post about four days before Christmas, and it was aimed at the Obama Administration’s recent implementation of a regulation that would require all employers to provide copay-free contraception coverage to members of their insurance plan. There is an exemption for churches who don’t believe in contraception, like the Catholic Church, but the Bishops want this exemption broadened to include all hospitals, universities, other employers with a Catholic basis; except that many of these institutions employ a lot of non-Catholic employees, not to mention the fact that the vast majority of Catholics themselves use birth control. So, this has been sitting, their request has basically been sitting at the Obama Administration since before Thanksgiving. It was thought that the Obama Administration would move on it, but it hasn’t. The Bishops have really craftily framed this issue as one of religious liberty: this cosmic battle between the government and the ability of Catholics to practice their religion. And by the way, Evangelicals have jumped on board with this as well.

[WG]: Sure. Well, is this a sign that there is a likely increase in this kind of rhetoric coming our way? Because, as you’ve told us before, the secular structure of our society has been under assault from conservative Evangelical theocrats for quite a while, and while that group may go so far as to consider Catholics not quite Christians on the Evangelicals’ terms, it seems like this push by the Bishops would further erode the same foundations the Evangelicals are bent on tearing down. Am I right at all about that?

[SP]: Yes, I mean, well, as much as, from a theological standpoint, Evangelicals and Catholics don’t share the same views on salvation, for example, in this realm, these theological differences between Evangelicals and Catholics have ceased to matter. They share common cause on political issues including same-sex marriage, abortion, increasingly contraception, and they are willing, now, to overlook any of those theological differences in the quest to have their political goals come to pass. So, basically, they are rewriting – they’re attempting to rewrite – what “religious liberty” means under the Constitution, and they’re saying that anything that the government does that they disagree with, on a theological level, is an infringement of their religious freedom. So if a state passes a same-sex marriage law – that is an infringement of their religious freedom. Their claim, which in fact is false, that the Affordable Care Act funds abortions or covers abortions – they say infringes on their religious freedom. If the Department of Health and Human Services decides that it’s not going to give grants to any organization that does not refer sex trafficking victims for gynecological care – then that’s an infringement of their religious freedom. And that’s not what the First Amendment says; you don’t have a right to have the government not make rules and regulations that you happen to disagree with on a theological level.

[WG]: You know, Sarah, this makes me go back in my mind to an earlier time, in which advocates for religious liberty were almost always posed as enemies of the Catholic Church; and the concern that I have is – yes, I believe, like you do, that the Catholic Bishops are actually redefining the meaning of “religious freedom” – are some of us who are eager for continued cooperation with the Catholic community going to be able to take on that initiative from a critical perspective and come off not looking like we’re anti-Catholic?

[SP]: Hmm. Well, you know, the Bishops really ramped up this effort last year, when they formed an ad-hoc committee on religious liberty; and they’ve hired a lawyer and a lobbyist, so they were going to be making themselves known on Capitol Hill and within the Obama Administration, and presumably within another Administration if Obama isn’t reelected. But judging from my conversations with Catholic groups and individuals who are advocates on different issues, this is not necessarily popular with all Catholics; there are Catholics who are pro-choice, there are Catholics who are pro-LGBT rights. And so, the idea that reproductive rights and access to reproductive care, and LGBT rights, are an infringement of Catholics’ religious freedom doesn’t sit well with these Catholics.

[WG]: But is that going to make any difference with the Bishops?

[SP]: It’s not going to make any difference with the Bishops. But I think that if one is to criticize the Bishops’ effort, it doesn’t mean that you’re anti-Catholic; you’re anti- the Bishops’ effort in this particular regard.

[WG]: OK, I see. Well, in your Religion Dispatches article, you wrote about some of the other manifestations of this redefinition of religious liberties and rights that are likely to be coming down. Talk about that, if you will.

[SP]: Well, the religious right has long attempted to claim that different things were infringements of their religious liberty. For example, they’ve claimed that Supreme Court decisions dating back forty years invalidating officially-sanctioned school prayer and Bible reading in public schools were an infringement of their religious freedom. So, you’re going to see continued use of these sorts of arguments, in addition to the arguments that I laid out about LGBT rights and reproductive care access, in the presidential campaign. And you see candidates like Newt Gingrich really focusing on these sorts of issues, talking about secularism, taking away the Christian nature of this country and taking away the religious liberty of Christians. A number of the candidates have signed the National Organization for Marriage’s Marriage Pledge, which not only lays out an anti-gay marriage agenda, but also includes a list of concrete actions, which include establishing a Presidential Commission on Religious Liberty to investigate supposed infringements on religious liberty. These supposed infringements include things like granting equal protection rights to Gay and Lesbian people, so it’s sort of a flip-flop, one person’s rights, they’re arguing, are an infringement of their religious liberty – which is not what the Constitution provides at all.

[WG]: Let me turn to an interesting side note for just a second, because I find it puzzling that the Catholic Church has begun an initiative to welcome disaffected conservatives Episcopal perishes into its ranks. And what really got my attention was the exemption for married Episcopal Priests, even as the Bishops move toward absolutism in other areas, there’s this glaring exception from an ironclad rule the Church has maintained for centuries. Do you have thoughts about that?

[SP]: Well, I think it’s a sign that they’re having trouble recruiting people into the priesthood, and again, this increasing common cause with non-Catholic denominations or religious groups as long as they share the same anti-gay, anti-choice mindset. So these denominational or theological distinctions between these groups are becoming less and less relevant in the political realm. I mean, if you look at Rick Santorum, who’s a Catholic, winning the majority of the Evangelical vote in Iowa in the caucuses, I mean, that’s just one additional manifestation of that blurring of those lines, and a coming together of conservative Evangelicals and traditionalist Catholics on a political basis.

[WG]: Strange that you should mention the Iowa caucuses. You just returned from the Iowa caucuses, I know, and the headline of your piece on the vote was: “Be Careful What You Pray For.” I’d like to take a minute to get your take on The Santorum surge.

[SP]: Well, the Santorum surge is, you know, yet the most recent, fascinating development in the GOP presidential race, because each month there’s been another non-Mitt Romney surger. First it was Michelle Bachmann, who finished dead last in Iowa; then it was Rick Perry; then it was Herman Cain; then, very, very briefly, it was Newt Gingrich; and then it was Rick Santorum. And Santorum, like I said, his very traditionalist Catholic beliefs really played to the Evangelicals in Iowa. Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a significant Catholic population in Iowa – there is. I’m not sure exactly what the percentages are, but I do know that the exit polling showed that he won a majority of the Evangelical vote. So he, you know, took his very right-wing agenda, and played it to his advantage with the Republican caucus voters, talking about things like wanting to ban contraception and disagreeing with the Supreme Court’s decision invalidating contraception bans in Griswold vs. Connecticut; talking about the threat of radical Islam, and Iran – and he really played to the base that comes out for the Iowa caucuses, and for the GOP primaries in other states.

[WG]: Sarah, what else did you see at the caucuses that was a disconnect from what you were seeing and what the mainstream media were offering in its coverage?

[SP]: Well, I think that the mainstream media just frequently reports on: “Well, you know, the Evangelical voters want x, y and z.” They want to hear the candidates talk about their commitment to ending abortion, or their commitment to opposing same-sex marriage. But I think that Santorum did more than that. I mean, he has taken – and it’s not just Santorum, I think that the other candidates too, many of them signed the Personhood USA pledge, so that’s the pledge agreeing with the platform of the group Personhood USA, which is attempting to get ballot initiatives on the ballot in states across the country that would declare a fertilized egg a person entitled to constitutional and civil rights protections, also being in favor of a federal amendment in this regard or a federal statute offering civil rights protection to fertilized eggs – and so, I think that the mainstream media hasn’t really picked up on exactly how radical this is, and how it’s even outside the mainstream of anti-abortion politics. There are, you know, for example, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Mississippi – where they recently had a vote that went down to defeat on a personhood measure – opposed it, because they’re worried that it would not be a good case to bring up to the Supreme Court, that it would not result in an overturning of Roe vs. Wade. And I think that the mainstream media hasn’t picked up on just how radical this is; and it’s so radical that it’s even too radical for some of the antiabortion groups, yet these candidates were stampeding to make their commitment to this sort of ideology known to the voters there, and I think that that’s a story that flew under the radar.

[WG]: Well, thank you for bringing it up, because it’s a disturbing development. Just a word now: Rick Perry is in Texas this weekend, presumingly asking God if he should drop out of the race. Meanwhile, prominent Evangelical leaders are meeting in Texas to try and find a conservative that they can coalesce around. One thing I know is, Mormonism seems to be a real problem for these Evangelical voters, but Gingrich’s and Santorum’s Catholicism is not that big of a problem. Why is that?

[SP]: Well, I actually think that the anti-Mormonism doesn’t play as big a role as people think it does. I mean, I think that there is, definitely, a lot of anti-Mormonism; but I also think that Romney has other issues that conservative voters have difficulty with, mainly his changing positions on their core issues. So I think that if he were Mormon – he is a Mormon – but if he were to have had a long political career being vitriolically opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion, and talking about the Christian Nation, and the separation of Church and State being a myth; if he had engaged in that throughout his political career, I don’t think his Mormonism would matter.

[WG]: That’s good to hear. Well, I know you’ve just gotten in from Iowa and I don’t know whether you’ve had time to get the crystal ball in front of you or not, but what are your predictions? What’s going to happen in New Hampshire, and then in South Carolina?

[SP]: I think that Romney is going to win New Hampshire. I just think, you know, it’s right next door to Massachusetts, he’s been campaigning there for a long time – I just don’t think any of the candidates can catch him in the short time that is between now and then. However, I don’t think that the Republican electorate is going to lay down for the inevitability of Mitt after he won by a squeaker in Iowa and wins by whatever margin in New Hampshire. So I think that there’s really going to be a push in South Carolina, which is why I think Perry decided to stay in the race, to siphon for votes away from Romney and come up with some other alternative. I don’t think that, ultimately, that alternative will be Rick Santorum, and I think that Romney will ultimately be the nominee – but it’s not going to be without a fight at the level of the base in the Republican Party.

[WG]: Will it be quick, or it will be a long-term battle?

[SP]: I would guess that it’s going to be over by Super Tuesday, if not before, because I don’t think that Santorum has the money or the support to keep it going, and I don’t think that there’s another candidate who is going to emerge, who will be able to beat, either, Romney in terms of the money or the organization or the support from the Republican establishment. But I think that the more important element of this story is not so much who the nominee is going to be, but just, the dissention within the ranks of the Republican Party over what they want the Republican Party to be.

[WG]: Well Sarah, you’ve done it again, as you always do, sharing insights with us that we don’t get elsewhere, and helping us with our understanding of the whole process. You’ve done that again today on State of Belief Radio.

Sarah Posner is Senior Editor at Religion Dispatches Magazine; she’s the author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.

We’ll keep reading your terrific writing, and we’ll keep checking in with you, and I hope you’ll keep saying “yes” about coming on State of Belief, you’re one of our very best friends.

[SP]: Oh, thank you, Welton, I’m happy to do it. Honored.

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