by Kathryn Jean Lopez
“The Church in America bred her own destroyer,” Phyllis Schlafly and George Neumayr write in a new book, No Higher Power: Obama’s War on Religious Freedom.
Yikes. Of course, this struggle is far from over, and it won’t be over without a fight as we’ve seen in recent months, with Catholic business owners, bishops, and colleges going to court, fighting for the religious freedom of all Americans. The Church isn’t going to be destroyed, thanks be to God. It’s frankly and mercifully not ours to destroy. But, of course, we aren’t always the best stewards, or witnesses. And the scandal of bad witness of the past decades has taken a toll on the public perception of the Church and of how seriously Catholics take its teachings. As you can tell by the title, No Higher Power is not likely to attract those who are not already convinced that the president is waging a “war” on religious freedom which is a shame, because there are points to seriously reflect on in the presentation.
The book outlines the hostility to real religious belief in the public square that has manifested itself in current White House policy. It’s a radically secular view of accommodating rather than protecting religious liberty that led the Department of Justice to claim, in the case of a Catholic business-owning family in Denver that sued the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the following: “Once [an organization] enters the marketplace of commerce in any substantial degree it loses the complete control over its membership that it would otherwise enjoy if it confined its affairs to the marketplace of ideas.”
That’s not quite religious freedom as we’ve known it. As America’s founders intended it. As God granted it and we’ve sought to protect it.
The news in No Higher Power is that the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in Chicago and the Archdiocese of Chicago provided funds for Barack Obama in the late 1980s, back when our current president was a community organizer. The reimbursement receipts and checks are there in the book’s appendix. The point of the documentation is to show that the Church contributed to the professional development of a man who would go on to become a president who fundamentally changed the way we treat religion in America. And would go on to declare that some Catholic views are simply not fit for the public square.
No Higher Power is no sober rendition of events “Useful Idiots” being the title of one chapter that talks about some of this “breeding the destroyer” narrative. The sense of outrage in the book represents real concerns, anguish, and hurt from people, including Catholics, asking how could practicing Catholics have contributed to this scandalous situation?
But there can also be a story of redemption here. This moment has forced a tremendous opportunity for renewal among Catholics in the US. What does it mean to be Catholic in the public square? In business? What makes a Catholic school different? Why is this HHS mandate a problem anyway?
As Schlafly and Neumayr point out in that aforementioned chapter, President Obama was also honored at Notre Dame even though his radical views on abortion were well known. Within days of becoming president he had overturned the Mexico City policy that had kept us from funding groups that perform abortions; and he had defended infanticide (partial-birth abortion) while an elected representative in Illinois.
But even here there is reason to be encouraged.
On the Friday in February of this year when the president and the secretary of Health and Human Services announced a so-called accommodation of Catholics’ religious liberty as if religious freedom were merely something to be accommodated one of the first people I heard from was Carter Snead of the University of Notre Dame’s law school, clearly and adamantly protesting the faux compromise. Notre Dame is among the plaintiffs suing the federal government over the mandate. Like a lot of Catholic institutions, it is actually mission territory now reflecting on and renewing its mission, on campus and off, facing issues of orthodoxy and dissent. A lot of prayers and labors are carrying Our Lady’s school closer to Christ, to help it become an ever more grace-filled, clarifying presence in our culture.
“Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse,” President Obama said at Notre Dame. “But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads,” he continued.
“Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt,” he then said. “It’s the belief in things not seen. It’s beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us. And those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.”
“And this doubt should not push us away [from] our faith,” the president continued. “But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open and curious and eager to continue the spiritual and moral debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.”
If the president meant this as a call to a renewal of civil society with faith as its bedrock, whatever yours is, that would be one thing. But the speech went on, and today we see even more clearly what he meant:
For if there is one law that we can be most certain of, it is the law that binds people of all faiths and no faith together. It’s no coincidence that it exists in Christianity and Judaism; in Islam and Hinduism; in Buddhism and humanism. It is, of course, the Golden Rule the call to treat one another as we wish to be treated. The call to love. The call to serve. To do what we can to make a difference in the lives of those with whom we share the same brief moment on this Earth.
The Golden Rule is a beautiful thing. But notice here that President Obama’s definition of the call to love and serve as “mak[ing] a difference” in other people’s lives “on this Earth” ignores the fact that this call has, for Catholic Christians, a deeper content as well: It’s a call to follow the will of God, to love Him as He loves us.
Answering that call requires a total surrender, one that is subject to daily renewal and Divine assistance. We are certainly called to be men and women “for others,” but that’s not the sum total of our calling. Even those corporeal works of mercy the president admires, we do because of God, and through Him. And that love is meant to encompass our whole lives.
At Notre Dame, President Obama also said: “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health-care policies are grounded not only in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women. Those are things we can do.”
That promise was broken when his administration finalized its HHS mandate, disregarding conscience concerns. But it was an easy promise for him to break, because a lot of people agree with this narrow view of religion. One question on Meet the Press during the Republican primary season was particularly telling. Host David Gregory asked Michele Bachmann last August about God: “To what extent is He a motivator for decisions that you make?” He pressed, with a tone of incredulousness: “Would God guide your decisions you would make as president of the United States? There is a difference between God as a sense of comfort and safe harbor and inspiration and God telling you to take a particular action.”
The lesson? Religion is fine when it’s not challenging, when it isn’t at the heart of our lives. When it’s there to help us when we’re down or need a reason to get up in the morning and the smell of coffee isn’t doing it.
When recently asked about the lawsuits filed over the HHS mandate, Nancy Pelosi dismissed them as not “speaking for the Catholic Church.” The self-described ardent, practicing Catholic explained: “You know what? I do my religion on Sunday in church and I try to go other days of the week. I don’t do it at this press conference.” Which is precisely where Obama-administration policy insists religion belongs: within the walls of a place of worship, and to be mentioned politely at the end of a speech. The HHS mandate is an institutionalization of this view.
It’s a view that British historian Edward R. Norman describes well in his aptly named book Secularisation:
The content of the spiritual life is defined for Christians by fulfilling obligations of love towards their neighbor but those obligations do not arise from a doctrine of human rights: they derive from the command of Christ.
“The difference is crucial,” Norman goes on, explaining:
When Christians come to regard the service of their brothers and sisters as a response to their demands and rights as humans (commonly part of the vocabulary of secular social service) they are easily drawn into the vortex of materialist interpretations of life itself and become inseparable from the prevalent moral culture of the Humanists. Alien views of humanity which come in an obvious form are easily identified and assailed; when they come without an ideological label they are really hazardous. If the common agenda of attending to suffering was the only consideration in the modern equation of Christian service with Humanist ethicism, the potential damage to spiritual integrity might perhaps be slight. But it is not. For the Humanist agenda projects human claims … in opposition to the providential scheme ordered by God. The reality is human pursuit of security, and an escalating set of entitlements quite at variance with the Christian insistence that life was not ordained for pleasure or repose.
And so we find a Catholic vice-president and Cabinet secretary, among others, defending a policy that threatens the very existence of Catholic institutions. Because all too many of us have bought into the idea that the heart of the faith-based service is the service, not the faith not the call, not Christ.
“The crudity of modern Humanism could do with more exposure,” Norman continues, speaking to our moment here. Norman writes:
Its central contention is that men and women are justified in their self-declared entitlements. There, however, the matter ends. There is no agreement as to what society exists to promote; what individual lives are for.… [But in] Christian understanding, life is, in all its dimensions, a preparation for eternity, an anticipation of blessedness because it is an education of the soul and the conversion of suffering into authentic spirituality. Then the service of others becomes truly the service of Christ Himself: and that indeed involves the alleviation of suffering, attention to the disadvantaged, and the advancement of science in order that men and women may join with God in the development of the earth. These ends, in truth, are not sought because of any legitimate human entitlements, nor do they establish men and women themselves as the arbiters of their own sense of worth. Before material welfare comes submission to God, and before submission comes confession of sin, and before that comes an acknowledgement of human worthlessness in the face of the Creator of all things.
It’s safe to assume that, among the Catholics he’s met, Barack Obama has by no means encountered only saints. It’s safe to say that some of what he expressed at Notre Dame, a snapshot of a watered-down Catholicism, he learned from Catholics. And we obviously know that his administration offers plenty of Catholic cover. When pondering how we got to this point, it’s not hard to see how we lost our way.
If Catholics don’t live as if we are who we say we are, if being Catholic means nothing more to us than being nice to our neighbor, if we don’t understand conscience like we used to because we have in many ways ceased to fully appreciate the Christian difference, it’s no surprise that we ended up in this fight.
This moment is a tremendous opportunity. Not for recriminations but for renewal. Catholics contributed to the place where we are now, and being Catholic will get us out of the trouble we’re in. It is our moral and civic responsibility to contribute to the recovery by being who we say we are. By voting as if it matters to our souls, because it does. And it matters to the soul of a nation that should be scandalized, not just increasingly uneasy, by the reality of 40 years of legal abortion.
So Schlafly and Neumayr are right but it’s ultimately about so much more than one mandate or one president: We do feed destruction by the choices each one of us makes again and again, day after day. We are all part of this Church. Is it in our lives? Or is it something we do only on Sundays? Do we cooperate with evil by our inaction, indifference, anger?
We must demand better of ourselves. We must look within, every day, and insist that we be who we say we are, who God calls us to be. The daily care and feeding of our souls, our resting in Christ’s mercy, our total surrender: This is how we work toward a real cultural renewal. Insisting that every aspect of our lives is an answer to God’s call. If we do this, people will notice including, maybe, a future president of the United States. The tremendous opportunity this moment in history affords is a renewed dedication to identity: Just who we are and what makes us different. At home. At work. In our civic lives.
The good news, of course, is while we will fall, we can get up again. And with sacramental devotion, we can make a difference as faithful Catholics in our world, not just within the walls of our churches on Sunday, which is what we are called to do.
Are we ready for that?
Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of the National Review Online, and an award-winning journalist whose articles and columns regularly appear in both secular and Catholic publications. She serves on the Pro-life Commission of the archdiocese of New York, and she speaks frequently on faith and public life. She is a graduate of the Catholic University of America, where she studied philosophy and politics.
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