This Is War Print
By Austin Ruse   
Friday, 09 March 2012

TIIME magazine writer Amy Sullivan claims that Republican candidates for president are overheated in their rhetoric about religious freedom and profoundly uninformed about historical assaults on religious freedom in America. She said so last week at a panel discussion sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religious Liberty at Georgetown University.

Sullivan scoffed – ever so thoughtfully, of course – at Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, and their concerns about the HHS contraceptive mandate. She heaped particular snark on Gingrich, who claims the current fight over federally mandated contraceptive coverage for religious institutions is the greatest threat to religious liberty our country has ever known. Sullivan joked that, as a new Catholic, Gingrich has not been fully catechized on Catholic history in America.

Sullivan, a self-proclaimed Baptist, tried to take Newt, again ever so thoughtfully, to school.

She mentioned the Boston anti-Catholic riots in 1834; the Blaine Amendments, which forbade tax money from supporting religious education and were aimed principally at Catholic schools; and finally, she said Catholic education was once banned in Oregon.

Let’s look at each point individually and see if Sullivan herself has been sufficiently catechized.

To be sure, the 1834 riots in Boston were mob violence directed at Catholic institutions, particularly the Ursuline Convent, which was burned down. Was this the work of the local, state, or federal government? Actually, no. In fact, once the mob violence began, the government stepped in to defend Catholic property. Sullivan did not mention similar anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia, but those, too, were mob driven. And once more, the government stepped in to defend Catholic property.

Sullivan mentioned the Blaine Amendment, which was an attempt to change the U. S. constitution to block federal funding of religious education. The amendment failed at the federal level, but Blaine Amendments were passed in several states and some are still on the books.

Sullivan then claimed that Catholic education was once banned outright in Oregon.

Each of these, she asserted, were clearly enough to show Gingrich was not only wrong but also uninformed, overheated and just ridiculous. And, by the way, all those Catholic bishops who agree with Gingrich are ridiculous, too.

In each of these cases, however, the culprits were mobs or they were actions by states and not the federal government. Even where they constituted state action, the Blaine Amendments, for instance, were merely limits on the public purse and in no way banned or limited the free practice of religion or religious education. Only liberals believe that not getting state or federal funds is a violation of the constitution, whether it ‘s funding for the arts or Planned Parenthood.

In the case of Oregon, it’s true the citizens of Oregon passed an initiative that would have not allowed grade school students to attend private schools. This monstrosity was overturned almost immediately in federal court, and then upheld in the seminal Supreme Court case Pierce v. Society of Sisters. It should be emphasized that this was a citizen’s initiative that was overturned by the government, following the pattern of earlier forms of anti-Catholic action being ended by state actors.

The state/federal distinction is crucial here, because state action by definition would only limit religious practice in a discrete part of the United States and, with the brief exception of Oregon, there is little evidence that this has ever happened.

What Gingrich, the Catholic bishops, and religious leaders of all kinds are up in arms about is that this current crisis involves not citizen action, not action at the state level, but the federal government – and, therefore, affects all citizens in the United States. And all religious institutions and would be a part of restrictive federal law going forward.

This is what Sullivan and her ilk do not get. Here we have the federal government telling religious institutions that they must participate in actions that violate their consciences and religious teachings. Moreover, and perhaps worse, it is the federal government taking the power to determine what is and is not a religious institution – and what is and is not a religious practice. If a Catholic hospital run by an order of Catholic nuns hires a Jewish doctor and treats a Protestant patient, then, in the Obama administration’s view, it’s not a Catholic institution.

Nothing in American history quite compares with this.

Sullivan also objects to what she sees as the inflammatory language that Gingrich and the bishops use about the current crisis. She says their penchant for calling it a war on religious liberty is dangerous and is intended not to start a conversation, but to stop one.

To be fair, she did criticize the feminist left for using similar language about a war on women’s rights. But certainly one can still be right and one can be wrong. This is hardly a war on women’s rights. Nothing prevents women from getting contraception. 

According the United Nations, the United States ranks very high in prevalence of contraceptive use among the nations of the world. Not only is our country awash in contraceptives; we are also among the world’s leading suppliers of contraceptives to the rest of the world.

So this is hardly a war on contraception, but it is a war on religious freedom. War is a good word, an accurate word. Cardinal George of Chicago has warned that, if the HHS mandate goes through, all Catholic hospitals and colleges would have to close. The federal government is now threatening to intrude so dangerously into religious liberty that it alone gets to decide what is a religious institution and what is a religious activity.

To us, Ms. Sullivan, this is not ridiculous. This is war. 

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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