Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Folks can disagree about the tone or content of the bishops' statement on religious liberty. I was struck, though, by this component of the "partisan" charge (noted more broadly by Mike Moreland a few days ago) from the Commonweal editors:
Religious freedom “ought not to be a partisan issue,” the bishops declare. They are absolutely right. If defending religious freedom becomes a partisan issue or, worse, an electoral ploy, it will engender enormous cynicism in an electorate in which a significant majority of voters already think religion is too politicized. Unfortunately, the bishops’ statement and proposal for public action are likely to increase that possibility. This initiative is being launched during an election year in which one party has assumed the mantle of faith and charges the other with attacking religion. The bishops need to do much more to prevent their national campaign from becoming a not-very-covert rallying point for the Republican Party and its candidates. If that happens, it is the church and the cause of religious freedom that will suffer.
I'm pretty sure that the bishops would have preferred that 2012 not be a year that has seen the erosion of religious liberty on several distinct fronts. The fact that this is an election year is beside the point, and the fact that one party may have more aggressively claimed the mantle of faith (for good or for ill) does not change the facts on the ground regarding religious liberty. If the bishops take a partisan tone, that's fair game for criticism -- and I agree with the editors that the bishops' failure to flag the recent spate of anti-Sharia initiatives is a regrettable oversight -- but the fact that they saw fit to issue a statement in the same year as a presidential election is a strange objection to raise. Unless legislatures and government agencies are going to avoid actions that encroach on religious liberty in an election year, defenders of religious liberty can't take the year off. If there are specific assertions in the statement that can be construed as partisan, let's talk about them and not rely on vague references to timing as the source of a heightened -- perhaps insurmountable? -- standard for proving nonpartisanship.