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U.S./ More on religious freedom, the Bishops, politics, and the Commonweal editorial

RICHARD GARNETT discusses the Bishop’s statement on religious freedom, and whether or not it is, or can be perceived as, partisan, responding to reactions from the public. 

Head of the Statue of Liberty Head of the Statue of Liberty

I like and respect Paul Baumann, and it is in part because of this respect that I find the editorial response to the Bishops' religious-freedom statement by our friends at Commonweal to be disappointing. As I noted earlier, I believe that the charge that the statement is or can reasonably be perceived "partisan" misses the mark.  (For more on this point, see Rob Vischer's recent post.) I also note -- by way of disclosure, and not as a claim to any authority -- that I serve as a lay consultant to the Committee that produced the statement.

Let's start with common ground: The cause of religious freedom, and the Bishops' efforts to stir Americans generally, and Catholic specifically, to a renewed appreciation for the importance of that cause, are not well-served -- they are undermined -- if the cause or these efforts are perceived as merely partisan, or as election-season ploys to help one "side" in the election. So, those who are committed to this cause, including the Bishops', should take special care to avoid saying or doing things that could, in the minds of reasonable people of good will, feed such a perception. In my view, the Statement does take appropriate and commendable care in this regard. It emphasizes that the cause of religious freedom should not be, and should not be regarded as, a partisan issue; it cites examples of threats to religious freedom coming from both the "right" and the "left; and it insists that -- in accord with the Council's Declaration -- religious freedom is the dignity-based right of all human persons, because they are persons. Suggestions that Muslims or others are omitted from the Statement's concern are not plausible (even though it seems fair to note that the Statement could have been improved by noting the troubling interest, in some jurisdictions, in "anti-Sharia" laws. Rob Vischer's recent First Things essay on these laws is important.)

In Paul's view, my impression that the critical reactions to the Statement seem more "partisan" than the Statement itself reflects a "tiresome rhetorical tactic." While, because of my respect for him, I regret being tiresome to him, I continue to believe that at least some of the accusations that the Bishops' religious-freedom efforts, and the Statement in particular, are "partisan" reflect something of a double-standard, and a selective concern about the Bishops' interventions in public-policy matters. As Rob suggests, it does not seem right or fair to say that the Bishops' responsibility to avoid diluting their witness and voice by engaging, or even appearing to engage, in (low) politics requires them to avoid addressing matters they otherwise would and should address simply because of the timing (i.e., it's an election year) or because the matter in question is associated (at the moment) with one political party. The Bishops are not criticizing the Administration because they oppose President Obama generally (and certainly not because they have any particular loyalty to or affection for Republicans) but because it was this Administration that, for example, filed the extremely troubling brief in Hosanna-Tabor.