Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The USCCB, the Religious Right, and Political Lobbying: Effects of Increasing Critical Scrutiny

One of the reasons the U.S. Catholic bishops are going to find it increasingly hard to make the argument that they're the underdogs in a battle against ugly anti-Catholicism and secularism in American society is that the cat is now out of the bag about the clout the USCCB exercises in D.C. as it lobbies.  (I'm building here on what I just posted about the bishops' Catholics-as-victim religious freedom arguments.)

As I noted last week, the Pew Forum recently published a report about faith-based lobbying groups in Washington which shows the USCCB occupying the #2 slot among all such groups, with expenditures of $26,662,11 for political lobbying in 2009.  The publication of this report is going to make it more and more difficult for the U.S. Catholic bishops and their friends to paint themselves as the hapless, embattled victims of a powerful anti-Catholic secular media (though centrist Catholic opinion-makers like Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter stubbornly continue to try to push that meme).  

Now that the Pew report has been issued, one news site after another has begun to analyze it.  For instance, Rob Boston summarized its findings several days ago at Alternet, noting that though the religious right continues to claim it's persecuted in American culture, the data compiled by Pew show the religious right having astonishing lobbying power in D.C. via the lavish amounts of money at its disposal for political lobbying.  Boston also notes that the USCCB aligns itself with the political right on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and taxpayer funding of religious initiatives.  The USCCB lobby is, that is to say, part of the religious right lobby in general, when it comes to beltway politics.

And at Salon this past Saturday, Justin Elliott notes that the Pew Forum data show the increasing power of lobbies representing religious conservatives in D.C.  As he notes (interviewing Allen Hertzge, the Pew Forum report's author), judged by their budgets alone, religious-right groups dominate the faith-based political lobbying scene in D.C.  And their influence is growing.

For Catholics and the USCCB's powerful political lobby in D.C., the high-profile role the bishops want to take in the political sphere right now, coupled with the public's heightened awareness of how much money the bishops have at their disposal as they play politics, will have two primary effects, I suspect--even if (as I expect them to do) they force the Obama administration to back down on the recommended HHS guidelines that would require employers to provide access to contraception in their health care plans:

First, the bishops will come under increasing public scrutiny for their mishandling of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church.  There is no way around this hurdle.  The more the bishops put their faces out in the public square and assert their right to issue moral dictates not only to their own religious adherents but to secular society at large, the more the public will ask critical questions about precisely why and how the bishops expect to claim such incredible moral authority, given their behavior in the abuse crisis.

The bishops' moral credibility is shot, to put the point bluntly.  And playing politics--particularly when the politicking involves trying to block or remove rights of various groups of citizens on the basis of faith-based claims peculiar to Catholicism, claims that aren't even supported by a majority of Catholics--is not going to retrieve moral credibility for the bishops.  To the contrary . . . . 

In addition, the intensified critical scrutiny that the bishops will be drawing to themselves, and the intensified awareness of the . . . strangeness . . . of their expectation to be moral arbiters for secular society will also inevitably implicate their high-profile defenders.  More and more critical attention will now be given, as well, to those influential centrist Catholic opinion-makers like Michael Sean Winters at National Catholic Reporter or Margaret Steinfels at Commonweal, who have helped lead the charge for the bishops in the current HHS battle.  And who have long had decisive influence in interpreting matters Catholic for the beltway media and for federal legislators.

So the second effect I see arising out of the bishops' decision to high-profile themselves in the political lobbying scene is this: more and more Catholics who do not buy into the definition of Catholicism mediated to the beltway media and government bodies on our behalf by both the bishops and the centrist commentariat that does the bishops' bidding are going to begin speaking out.  We're going to begin demanding our own voice--as Catholics, but as Catholics who occupy a different space than that occupied by our official spokespersons--in the public sphere.

And we're going to begin calling the bluff of the powerful centrist intellectual and media elite who have long claimed to speak on our behalf in the public square.  We're going to point out, more and more, that while this elite professes to be "liberal," it actually always and predictably takes the side of the hard political right on issues including women's rights and gay rights.  And it uses its status as the official interpreter of matters Catholic in beltway circles as a political bullying stick, to try to force the Democratic party to adhere to the positions of the religious right on these matters, with claims that "Catholics" will stop supporting the Democrats unless the Democrats stop excluding "religion" from the public square.

And so to repeat a point I made last week: if (or when, as I believe) the bishops and their usual water-carriers win the HHS battle, they'll be winning a pyrrhic victory.  Because the claims of both to represent the moral center of Catholicism in the political arena at this point in time are now being given a hard run for their money.

And the bishops and the water-carriers are not winning the moral-credibility race.

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