The Catholic Church feels oppressed. As reported in the New York Times, this week’s meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was a big pity party.
Religious liberty is under siege. The group’s president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, declared, “We see in our culture a drive to neuter religion” -- which he attributes, ambiguously and ominously, to “well-financed, well-oiled sectors.” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia gave a speech to college students declaring that the “America emerging in the next several decades is likely to be much less friendly to Christian faith than anything in our country’s past. It’s not a question of when or if it might happen. It’s happening today.”
When the Catholic Church declares that everything’s going to hell, you have to take it seriously. Nevertheless, complaints about oppression of Christians in U.S. society always amaze me. Practically everyone in the country is a Christian. (Jews are about 2 percent, Muslims less than 1 percent.) Yes, of course, Bishop Chaput is referring to believing, or at least observing, Christians. But even there, the U.S. is among the most observant countries in the world. Almost half of all Americans tell pollsters that they go to church at least once a week.
If anyone is trying to oppress Christians, he or she is doing a pretty lousy job of it. Christians -- believing Christians -- are everywhere you look. And even if you limit the discussion to oppression of Roman Catholics, I defy Bishop Chaput to find much of that in our country in 2011.
There was a time, of course, when Catholics were quite openly discriminated against, and the church was the focus of all sorts of conspiracy theories (not unlike the Mormon church today, but on a far grander scale.) In 1960, John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was a big issue. Many people thought his religion would prevent him from getting elected, and many were just as happy with that situation.
Today, six of the nine members of the Supreme Court are Catholic. What better assurance could there be that your rights are going to be protected than a two-thirds majority in the institution empowered to provide the definitive interpretation of the Constitution, including the clauses protecting religious freedom? And what better evidence could there be of how little anti-Catholic bias remains in American culture than the utter lack of fuss over this fact? No one cares. And no one cares that the other three justices are Jewish, which means that there are no Protestants on the Supreme Court.
In 2011, I don’t even know which, if any, of the presidential candidates is Catholic. (Well, I guess I know that Romney isn’t. And Santorum is. But only because they themselves have chosen to make a point of it.)
But did you know that four of this year’s Republican candidates were personally recruited by God to run for president? It’s true: Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. Our immediately previous president, George W. Bush, got the word directly from the top as well. God also told Mitt Romney to run, then told him not to bother, then told him to run after all. Actually, that’s not true about Romney, but the four others each have detailed stories about where they were and what they were doing when God gave them the nod.
What kind of game is God playing here? He’s told four people to run for president, but (barring a miracle, I guess) at least three of them are going to end up disappointed. Imagine the situation: God himself has told you to run for president. Did he tell you that you’d win? Possibly not, but he strongly implied it. Why else would he want you to run? What an endorsement. What a boon to your fundraising. And what a downer when he fails to deliver.
As you may have surmised from the previous paragraph, I’m a nonbeliever. That puts me in the only religious group in America whose members are effectively barred from any hope of becoming president, due to widespread public prejudice against them. There will be a Mormon president, a Jewish president, an openly gay president before there will be a president who says publicly that he doesn’t believe in God. But I don’t think that’s what worries the bishops.
So what are the bishops so alarmed about? They have at least one legitimate complaint: Too many people believe that religion and politics must remain completely separate, and that any political position that derives from a religious belief is therefore illegitimate. Ironically, it was Kennedy’s famous speech to the Protestant ministers in 1960 (which Romney aped in 2007) that popularized this notion of two separate spheres as the standard response to people suspicious of the church’s role in politics.
But it’s not that simple. The spheres aren’t separate and needn’t be. The church, like any citizen or institution, has every right to take a position on political issues, and to use its influence as vigorously as it can. And no political position is invalid simply because it derives from religious belief. But there’s a catch: The church cannot then complain of prejudice against Catholicism or -- even more absurd -- prejudice against Christianity when other people just as vigorously disagree with the church position.
One of the social developments that the bishops are most upset about is gay marriage. This is not like abortion, or even birth control, which touch on long-standing Catholic doctrines; on gay marriage the church could have gone either way. It seems to me that they have chosen the losing side in a battle where they could have been heroes, just as they have been heroes on issues such as quality education and foreign aid. But then, it’s their religion, not mine.
(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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