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Over the past few decades, there have been numerous attempts by both Religious Right leaders and Republican Party officials to woo Catholic officials and Catholic voters. These days, while the GOP is still paying attention to winning Catholic votes, the Religious Right is spending more time focusing on forging alliances with high-powered Catholic Church officials.
In a new essay, veteran journalist Frederick Clarkson maintains that, "Evangelicals and Roman Catholics have found common ground — and the motivation to set aside centuries of sectarian conflict — by focusing on these issues while claiming that their 'religious liberty' is about to be crushed. The movement is mobilizing its resources, forging new alliances, and girding itself to engage its enemies. It is also giving fair warning about its intentions. It may lose the long-term war, but whatever happens, one thing is certain: It won't go down without a fight."
This time, common ground is being forged through a little known document issued in November 2009, called The Manhattan Declaration: A Call to Conscience. The New York Times religion reporter Laurie Goodstein described it as "an effort to rejuvenate the political alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals that dominated the religious debate during the administration of President George W. Bush."
According to AlterNet's Peter Montgomery, the Declaration signed by several Roman Catholic bishops and "such religious-right heavy-hitters as Focus on the Family['s] ... James Dobson and Prison Fellowship Ministries leader [the late] Chuck Colson, compares pro-choice advocates to eugenicists (and implicitly to Nazis) and equates same-sex marriage with polygamy and a gateway to legalized incest. Its authors promise to defy any law that does not comport with their religious beliefs."
Clarkson, Senior Fellow at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank located in Somerville, MA., told me in an email that 50 Catholic Bishops were "fully a third of the original signers."
A well-traveled road
Right-wing Christian evangelicals and conservative Catholic leaders had been down this road before. In 1995, Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, under the direction of executive director Ralph Reed, was riding high as the most important and influential Religious Right group in the country. Reed wasn't satisfied sitting on his laurels. Always thinking of ways to increase the Coalition's political power, he came up with a diversification plan: go after minority and Jewish voters, and, perhaps more significantly, convince Catholics they had a place in the Christian Right's big tent.
To create a coalition of conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants the Coalition launched what it called the Catholic Alliance, an organization it hoped would become a haven for Catholics alienated by the liberal orthodoxy within the Catholic establishment. Hot button issues of abortion and euthanasia would trump longtime Catholic concerns over economic justice and opposition to the death penalty. The Catholic Bishops opposed the Christian Coalition's co-optation of the word Catholic and The Catholic Alliance never became the powerhouse Robertson and Reed had hoped.
George W. Bush's first campaign for the presidency vigorously targeted the Catholic vote. The thinking was that "compassionate conservatism," as represented by his faith-based initiative, would pry Catholic voters away from the Democrats.
These efforts have led to The Manhattan Declaration.
The Manhattan Declaration and the building a new Catholic-Evangelical alliance
"The integrated three part Manhattan Declaration agenda of life, traditional marriage and religious liberty is already one of the driving ideological elements of our time," Clarkson told me. He pointed out in his piece that the Declaration invokes Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous Letters from a Birmingham Jail, in that it calls for "resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage."
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Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and prominent Roman Catholic neoconservative, originated the Declaration. George is a leading figure in such conservative groups as the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the Witherspoon Institute, the American Principles Project, and America Principles Action. Evidently, according to Clarkson, George "recruited the late evangelical leader Charles Colson and Beeson Divinity School Dean Timothy George as co-authors, and he later helped recruit the document's original 150 signatories." Signatories included "top Catholic prelates and evangelical leaders, notably Archbishop (now Cardinal) Timothy Dolan of New York, and Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals."
Although Manhattan Declaration organizers had hoped to attract one million signatories when it was issued, Clarkson noted that thus far more than 540,000 "people have joined the original signers, primarily via the website devoted to the Declaration, generating a massive email list that may prove useful to the Christian Right."
The Declaration's first section concludes by stating "that its purpose is to both unify and mobilize the Christian Right," Clarkson wrote: "We are Christians who have joined together across historic lines of ecclesial differences to affirm our right—and, more importantly, to embrace our obligation—to speak and act in defense of these truths. We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence."
While it can be safely said that most Election 2012 voters were unaware of The Manhattan Declaration, it nevertheless played a role in the election. According to Clarkson, "in a homily titled 'Godless Secularism Assaults Life and Liberty,' Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who chairs the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCC), described the profound relationship between the three issues of the Declaration. Lori claimed that godless secularism is what led to the legalization of abortion—and that this, in turn, is a source of wider threats to religious liberty."
During the presidential election, Cardinal Dolan -- often seen as the prelate with a smile and a sense of humor – and several of his Declaration-signing colleagues penned an "Open Letter" stating that marriage and religious liberty "stand or fall together." Clarkson reported that they advocated for "laws that uphold the time-honored definition of marriage, and so avoid threatening the religious freedom of countless institutions and citizens in this country."
"By a single stroke," the Open Letter stated, "every law where rights depend on marital status—such as employment discrimination, employment benefits, adoption, education, healthcare, elder care, housing, property, and taxation—will change so that same-sex sexual relationships must be treated as if they were marriage."
Christian and Catholic Right claim their religious liberty is under attack
One of the enduring memes coming out of the Christian and Catholic Right these days is that their "religious liberty" is under attack. Everywhere you look they claim their rights are threatened. Same-sex marriage advances at the peril of their "religious liberty." Striking down of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, is an affront to their "religious liberty." Pharmacists refusing to fill certain prescriptions, bakers declining to bake wedding cakes for same-sex marriage couples, county clerks claiming their religious beliefs forbid them to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples, all fall under the conservative right's "religious liberty" banner. And, according to the Christian Right/conservative Catholic coalition, Obamacare is a major blow to "religious liberty."
Clarkson pointed out that "The question of the rights of individuals to discriminate, based on rights of conscience," is being played out in a number of places across the country. After same-sex marriage became legal in Maine, Maryland and Washington, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal enterprise known formerly as the Alliance Defense Fund, "issued legal memos ... claim[ing] that ... municipal and county clerks responsible for issuing marriage licenses, are not required to do so if it violates their religious beliefs, and may delegate the responsibility to a subordinates."
Hobby Lobby, the privately held arts and crafts supply business founded and owned by David Green, one of the world's richest men, has challenged part of the "law that requires employers to provide coverage for the morning-after pill and similar drugs," the Associated Press reported. According to Clarkson, the Green family hopes "to extend their personal religious views to the corporation, and thus gain an exemption from the law." After initially being rebuffed, Hobby Lobby recently received a favorable ruling United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which "declared, among other things, that the company can be considered the equivalent of a religious person with rights of conscience under federal law, and thus exempt from the contraception provision of the ACA."
Clarkson maintains that "The aggressive, overt political engagement of the Catholic Bishops is an historic shift in American politics and religion. That they would find such fundamental common cause with the likes of Tony Perkins and James Dobson is unprecedented and will have a lasting impact on American public life. "
These "religious liberty" battles are the latest in an ongoing culture war that most Americans appear to have tired of a long time ago. Nevertheless, as Clarkson pointed out, with conservative Catholic leaders joining "the Christian Right [in] increasingly see[ing] the federal government as tyrannical and oppressive, and ... experimenting with a more militant style of resistance," there is no end in sight.