‘When the president is being sued by dozens of religious institutions and businesses and turning around and making videos telling the public he is a stalwart defender of religious freedom, someone needs to make plain the facts,” Ashley McGuire, a senior fellow at the Catholic Association, tells me about the group’s religious-liberty voter-education scorecard. As two Catholic vice-presidential candidates prepare to debate Thursday, McGuire talks about the effort and why religious liberty matters so much this election year.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What are conscience rights anyway? Why are they important?
ASHLEY MCGUIRE: I was mentored by the great Seamus Hasson, the founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. He likes to say that all of us are born with “our eyes fixed on the horizon.” We humans are truth seekers. It’s in our bones. Actually it’s in our souls. The desire to know the truth, that is. And it’s also deeply human to want to express the truth, or our grasp of it. That is our most sacred human right: the right to pursue truth and live accordingly.
Clearly, not everyone can be right. But, as Seamus would say, we have the “right to be wrong.” Laws that trample on conscience rights rob us of our starting point as human beings. Our “selves” begin in our consciences and emanate outwards.
This is what is so sinister about the Health and Human Services abortion-drug, sterilization, and contraception mandate. To tell a businessman, “Sorry, you can’t bring your religious values to the office” is like telling him to leave his “self” at home. Laws that target conscience rights target human beings in their most sacrosanct domain.
LOPEZ: What’s the goal of the scorecard?
MCGUIRE: The purpose of the scorecard is to provide voters with the facts about President Obama and Governor Romney with regards to religious freedom. When the president is being sued by dozens of religious institutions and businesses and turning around and making videos telling the public he is a stalwart defender of religious freedom, someone needs to make plain the facts. Our system of government only works with an informed citizenry, and this country was founded on the notion that religious freedom is our first freedom. Anything we can do to help voters see how these two men fare on this most crucial of issues, we at the Catholic Association will do.
LOPEZ: What’s the difference between freedom of religion and freedom of worship and why is it important?
MCGUIRE: Beginning a few years ago, the president and important members of his administration such as Secretary Hillary Clinton have been replacing the phrase “freedom of religion” with “freedom of worship.” The space between these two phrases is enormous. Freedom of worship implies that religion is something that belongs within the four walls of a church, mosque, synagogue, etc., or around the dinner table in one’s home. The phrase “freedom of worship” treats religion as if it were something unsavory to be kept indoors.
But all people of faith know that religion is about much more than worship. It’s about the freedom to preach religious doctrine, to minister to the poor and needy, to wear religious attire, and to try to convert others to your faith. These are all things that are banned in places around the world. In France, a Jewish boy cannot wear a yarmulke to a public school. In India, anti-conversion laws prohibit one from evangelizing. In Indonesia, preaching a religious doctrine that offends someone else is illegal.
And now, welcome to Obama’s America: Ministering to the poor and needy according to the dictates of your conscience is punishable by fines.
Faith is, by nature, evangelical with a little “e.” It cannot be contained by human structures, and any effort to do so distorts the very meaning of religion. But if the view of President Obama, Kathleen Sebelius et. al. is that freedom of worship is enough, then one can see how they would find their mandate acceptable.
LOPEZ: Why note that Mitt Romney has won a religious-liberty award?
MCGUIRE: Governor Romney won the Becket Fund’s Canterbury Medal long before America became mired in a nasty fight over religious freedom in the wake of the HHS mandate. That award shows that he has been a leader on this issue long before it was in the national spotlight. I think that’s important because it dispels any notion that he is just pandering to people of faith upset over the way President Obama has treated them.
Romney was given the award for being the anti-JFK when it came to faith in the public square. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president, tried to compartmentalize his faith to win public favor. Mitt Romney, the first Mormon to become a major party’s nominee for president, did not throw his faith under the bus. Instead, he embraced the notion that faith belongs in the public square and that religion plays an important role in guiding the decisions of those leading this great nation.
LOPEZ: Do you mean to make the case with the scorecard that the president is anti-religion? Is that believable given he invokes God in speeches, seems to respect religious people, and is religious himself?
MCGUIRE: The president earned the big fat “F” we gave him on religious freedom. Again, this is a man who is being sued by more than 80 business and institutions and counting because he has forced them to choose between violating their consciences and crippling fines. Even the justices he nominated to the Supreme Court expressed shock and outrage at his lawyers’ argument in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC that houses of worship should be treated no differently from any other institution in matters of employment. He has been protested by hundreds of thousands of people in religious-freedom rallies and will be again in a few weeks. This is a man who promised the American people and religious leaders such as Timothy Cardinal Dolan on multiple occasions that he would preserve all existing federal conscience rights in his health-care law.
He has not kept his word there, or the oath he took to protect this constitutional freedom when he took office in 2009.
Where he stands with God is between him and God. But where he stands on the First Amendment is between him and the American people. And we give him a failing grade.
LOPEZ: Is there a single most important point in the Catholic Association scorecard?
MCGUIRE: I think the freedom of religion versus freedom of worship distinction may be the most important thing because it gets to the trend underlying all of Obama’s actions. His administration just told Tyndale Publishing, a Christian publishing company, that they are not a “religious” organization and therefore must comply with the HHS mandate right away. What an insult! But again, if your view is that religion is about worship only, then sure: a publishing house doesn’t qualify as religious.
Try applying the freedom-of-worship test to every instance where Obama has violated religious freedom. A real trend starts to appear.
LOPEZ: How important is the Catholic vote in this election cycle?
MCGUIRE: Catholic voters could be the kingmakers in this election. In the key states such as Ohio, Colorado, and Florida, their votes alone could decide the election.
LOPEZ: What is the Catholic vote exactly?
MCGUIRE: The Catholic vote is this: American men and women who, like everyone else, want to wake up every morning not worried about how to buy their son soccer shoes or daughter a backpack. American men and women who want to know they will go to Church on Sunday without having to hear their priest explain the soup kitchen needs more money to pay fines to the federal government for refusing to violate Church teaching. American men and women who love this country as much as their Protestant, LDS, Muslim, Hindu neighbors do and want to see her remain a beacon of freedom and hope throughout the world.
LOPEZ: What should Catholics be looking for in the debate between two Catholic vice-presidential candidates?
MCGUIRE: Catholics will see two very different approaches presented as to how to deal with economic issues. The Church teaches that these are matters of prudential judgment about which well-meaning Catholics can disagree. But there are other issues about which there is not room for Catholic leaders to disagree with Church teaching, such as the inherent human dignity in every life, born or unborn, or the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman. Catholics will no doubt see a clear distinction between the candidates on these issues as well.
Catholics will decide for themselves how the candidates measure up. Our hope is that the voter guide helps Catholics and all voters who value religious liberty to cut through the noise as the election draws nearer.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online.