US bishops escalate conflict with Obama administration

Religious leaders have long been powerful in US elections, but this year something new is happening. Leading members of the American Catholic clergy have escalated their conflict with the Obama administration, most notably in the new “religious liberty’’ campaign launched by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The slogan picks up on a long-standing evangelical Christian theme: the idea that government policies on a broad range of issues – including abortion and contraception, same-sex marriage, sex education in schools, and even anti-bullying programs that defend gay students – amount to un-American religious coercion. With the bishops’ new “liberty’’ initiative, the political partnership between the Catholic hierarchy and the largely Protestant religious right is more solid than ever.

It is no surprise that today’s Catholic bishops are lining up with Republican aspirants for the White House. After all, these bishops were vociferous in objecting to President Obama’s being honored at the University of Notre Dame in 2009; they worked against Obama’s signature health care reform in 2010 (and might have succeeded if the Catholic Health Association’s endorsement had not given swing-vote Catholic lawmakers cover to support the bill). In September, key bishops denounced federal regulations about the provision of contraception as “a radically new and unprecedented attack on religious freedom.’’ This month, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the conference president, warned the Obama administration that its refusal to stand behind the Defense of Marriage Act would “precipitate a national conflict between church and state of enormous proportions.’’

Such salvos echo those of far-right Christian groups like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council – self-appointed advocates of public prayer, Christian supremacy, family autonomy, and “a culture of life.’’ Traditional values are, in a favorite phrase, “increasingly belittled’’ by secular society. Religion is striking back.

But Catholic participation in this extremist counter-culture is uniquely risky. The Roman Catholic Church is the largest nongovernmental organization in the world, carrying out tremendous works of charity and justice across the globe. In the United States, church agencies like Catholic Charities, and institutions like hospitals and schools, are essential to the common good. A narrowly politicized American episcopate can gravely weaken the integrity of such outreach. Read more



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