Obama’s Attack on Religious Freedom: It’s Worse Than You Think

It is the election campaign season and all of you need to know that no possible statement from anybody anywhere anytime is free from hyperbole, WORDS IN ALL CAPS, and exclamation marks!  This stricture applies very much to No Higher Power: Obama’s War on Religious Freedom, penned by the 88 year-old conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly and American Spectator contributing editor George Neumayr.  There is first of all the fact that it is a “War” that the President is waging.  His policies “represent the greatest government-directed assault on religious freedom in American history” and the President himself is “at war with Christianity, seeking to defeat it from without through regulatory decrees and from within through ecclesiastical traitors who do his bidding.”  His administration “wants to transfer the American people’s faith in God to unquestioning faith in the state” and children in public schools “may already have been indoctrinated in the cult of Obama-worship” which is directed to a “cosmopolitan dilettante” deity who “see[s] himself not so much as a president, but as a supreme revolutionary leader or head of a church.”  This is a church of secularism that acknowledges “no higher power exists than godless government.”   The cover photograph has the president in profile, gazing sternly off into the east—presumably at the even more godless Europe—as dark storm clouds gather over him.

The rhetoric itself fits with the polemical style of argument that is unrelenting in attacking its target, with nary an admission that the supreme head of this church of secularism may not indeed be all bad or that not every single aspect of his agenda smells of sulphur.  Very serious points about the HHS Mandate and the administration’s active sabotaging of federal law in the case of the Defense of Marriage Act or the 1996 Welfare Reform act bump up against left-wing environmental bias in textbooks which recommend not flushing if one has only urinated.  Documentation of Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) grants to ACORN-type groups is next to a reprinted letter from former bishop Norbert Gaughan the authors tell us is “pressuring” priests to work with socialist organizer Gerald Kellman, one of the young Obama’s mentors and co-workers.  The directive from the bishop—“Please give him your support and cooperation”—does not give even the sympathetic reader that rubber-hose and bright lights feel.

Such a total polemic is thus not really of service if one wants to convince one’s left-wing friends that the danger to religious freedom—and to the freedom and rights of parents to direct their children’s moral and religious educations—in a second Obama term is real.  (A useful comparison might be Mary Eberstadt’s Adam and Eve After the Pill which, while not pulling punches in its attack on the sexual revolution, gives off the distinct impression that she is only dealing with the ten percent of the iceberg that is visible.)  One’s friends will probably be put off by Chapter Six, titled “Useful Idiots,” describing religious supporters of the Obama administration as, well, I guess we already know, don’t we?

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But if it is not a book that is geared toward changing hearts and minds, it is an ideal book to put in the hands of people who are worried about the Obama administration’s approach to religious freedom, but don’t have all the facts at their hands.  In the case of No Higher Power, the reader has been given too much reliably sourced information about the very public record of the current administration to simply shrug and mutter, “Don’t believe the hype.”  The dust jacket’s threatening storm clouds might look cheesy but they are real.

The first chapter uses the very recent controversies over the HHS contraceptive mandate and the 2012 Supreme Court case Hosanna Tabor vs. EEOC, in which the Obama administration unsuccessfully sided against a religious school that believed it could make personnel decisions on the basis of their own religious mission, in order to introduce the much broader category of policies and personnel decisions that have threatened and already effected religious freedom in the United States.  The third chapter, “The Index of Obama’s Hostility to Religion,” is the longest chapter in the book and presents a detailed list of those decisions in enough detail to see a larger pattern of hostility to the free exercise of religion on the part of Christians, including a great number of actions against Catholic organizations.  The throw-everything-at-’em strategy is nowhere more evident than in this chapter, but it must be said that the great majority of the issues are very serious.

In a number of cases, skeptics of the Schlafly/Neumayr case can point to the fact that there were bad decisions that were reversed.  A case in point is the July 2011 Department of Veterans’ Affairs decision to ban the mention of Jesus Christ at Houston National Cemetery funerals.  Vigorous protest on the part of Texas veterans brought the policy to an end.  A similar case was the September 2011 revision of Army guidelines at Walter Reed Medical Center which demanded, “No religious items (i.e. Bibles, reading materials and/or facts) are allowed to be given away or used during a visit.”  Again, reversal came after protest.  But it is somewhat astounding, and indeed revealing, that even though President Obama has a tendency to refer to “freedom of worship” rather than the more robust “freedom of religion,” that such policies could pass through government channels unimpeded.  Even the defense of “freedom of worship” seems to be a rather wispy conception, not something that can pass through any doors marked for government use.

But if some wrongs have been righted, many have not.  The HHS Mandate still stands. (As I write, the Mandate’s provisions have again been re-written slightly, but do not address the substantive religious freedom concerns.) Attached to that controversy a letter against the Mandate from the archbishop for military services, Timothy Broglio, was forbidden to be read from the pulpit by military officials.   And before that incident, the HHS had another controversy.  A long-time grant from that department to the U. S. Catholic bishops for work helping the victims of sex trafficking was denied in 2011 against the advice of both the independent review board that assesses applications and many career HHS staffers.  Many in the latter group refused to attach their signatures to the documents, believing that, as the Washington Post put it, “the process was unfair and politicized.”  Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the USCCB observed that it seems that the Catholic Church’s refusal to use contraceptives, sterilization, or abortion means we have an “ABC Rule, Anybody But Catholics.”

That Catholic and other religious allies of the Obama administration have been all too willing to go along with it on limiting the ability of the Catholic Church and other Christian groups to act in accord with their consciences is actually the theme of the “Useful Idiots” chapter.  While there is certainly some overkill in the presentation of the troubled history of the CCHD and the Chicago archdiocese’s troubled history of co-optation by anti-religious leftists from Saul Alinsky on down, it is nevertheless important for Catholics to know about these events in order to understand why it is that so many Catholics are untroubled by the Obama administration’s own behavior.

The Obama administration has been hostile to many other groups, excluding to some extent Islam, as the authors detail in one chapter.  But while the overt hostility to Islam is not as obvious with this administration, it is clear that even with regard to Muslims, the agenda of sexual liberation trumps all sympathies.  Ironically, while President Obama campaigned with a message that he would end the perceived cultural imperialism of the Bushies while then pressing a foreign policy campaign not of religious freedom but of gay rights.

Chapters on the judiciary and Obama’s large use of “czars” who exercise power without any oversight are certainly worrisome, but the most frightening aspects of what has happened in Obama’s first term are the personnel and policy moves in the Department of Education.  Toilet-flushing advocacy is not worrisome, but the support of the concept of the state as parent is.  The rights of parents to control the moral teaching their children receive has been attacked on numerous levels.

The real challenge in the book is not just to the current administration, but to the Democratic Party as a whole.  Many Catholics like to say that neither party fully instantiates the concerns of the Catholic Church in its policies.  While no doubt true, it somewhat misses the point.  Republicans do not perfectly instantiate the Church’s vision, but they have not been in the vanguard of attacking her rights.  Catholics who interpret Catholic Social Teaching as best represented by the contemporary welfare state as defended by Democrats have to question whether that judgment trumps the evidence that their party is actively strangling the other aspects of Catholic life that put flesh on that social teaching.


  • David Paul Deavel

    David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. He earned a Ph.D. in theology from Fordham University and has taught at the University of St. Thomas (MN) and the St. Paul Seminary. His writing has appeared in a number of books as well as a wide variety of popular and scholarly journals.

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