Politics & Policy

Cardinal Politics

Timothy Cardinal Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
This isn’t about the GOP, it’s about freedom.

The Huffington Post was all atwitter: “GOP Lawmaker Accidentally Reveals Truth behind Solyndra Investigation.”

The lawmaker in question was Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, and he was railing about the administration’s foolish investment of our money in the now-failed solar-panel company. “Ultimately, we’ll stop it on Election Day, hopefully,” Jordan said. “And bringing attention to these things,” he continued, “helps the voters and citizens of the country make the kind of decision that I hope helps them as they evaluate who they are going to vote for in November.”

It wasn’t exactly incendiary stuff. And yet, it was spun into some kind of smoking gun. Solyndra and cronyism aside, Jordan was making a fundamental point: Elections matter. He is right, and perhaps we should look beyond the typical media scrum  — think “war on women” and Etch A Sketch screens — before November and consider the choices facing us and the implications of each one of them. And as we do, also pipe up, educate, encourage, and organize.

#ad#The election does not hinge on solar panels. But our nation itself does on religious freedom. Most of us have only just begun to talk about the Department of Health and Human Services’ “contraception mandate,” but Republican congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska saw this coming and is prepared for this battle. A year ago, he introduced his Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, a direct response to Obamacare. The health-care law that passed two years ago marks a radical expansion of federal power, as is becoming increasingly clear as its associated regulations are issued. This is why Fortenberry’s bipartisan bill has so many cosponsors.

“The White House is creating an unnecessary political firestorm,” Fortenberry has said of the HHS “preventive services” mandate (read: abortion, contraception, and sterilization), which was made public this January. It’s a reminder that all the contraception talk in the news right now is a direct product of this administration’s picking a fight; it is not a matter of theocrats forcing rosaries on women’s ovaries (sorry, I’ve been reading my “fan mail”).

Speaking of rosaries, perhaps the most recognizable face of the opposition to the HHS mandate is Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Like Fortenberry, Dolan has been warning anyone who cared to listen for years. When reporter John Allen asked him for his book A People of Hope, well before the current mandate controversy, “Fundamentally, are you glad health-care reform passed?” Dolan said: “I’m certainly for the idea of reform, but not this particular bill. We bishops found ourselves in a very tough position, because this is something we’ve advocated for since 1919. Now it’s on the brink of becoming reality, and we find ourselves unable to be exuberant about it, because there’s a very fundamental and critical part of it that scares the life out of us.”

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Talking about his beloved niece’s childhood bout with cancer, he said: “I’m a guy who not only is for health-care reform theologically but personally. I don’t want any family to have to go through what my sister’s family went through. I wish I could be jumping up and down right now, but I can’t, because I fear the legislation will also open the door to further assaults on defenseless unborn life.” In a 2009 interview, he cautioned: “We gotta be so circumspect about the how of it, the details. I hate to say it, the devil’s always in the details.”

#ad#Dolan is, of course, not a political but a spiritual leader. Like his fellow Catholic Fortenberry, Dolan is most concerned about a different kind of battleground state — one in a campaign for eternity. But this HHS mandate collides with the cardinal’s vocational call in an unprecedented and radical way, and this is why you’re seeing the Catholic bishops so vocal and adamant in their defense not only of the rights of their institutions, but also of the conscience rights of individual Americans of any or no faith. This White House has put the federal government in the position of defining what is and is not a religious organization and — absent an unexpected rescinding of the mandate — the Fortenberry bill is the best we can do in the short term. (Given that the administration first floated the mandate idea in August 2011, finalized the wording in January, and has doubled down in February and March, it’s clear that rescinding it is not a likely scenario.)

“Excuse me while I save the world,” my late friend Andrew Breitbart would say. I can’t quite hear the cardinal or the congressman putting it that way, but it is nonetheless what they’re doing by defending the religious liberty of all Americans. America has long been a beacon for those who thirst for freedom and seek to live in a society that does not punish obedience to conscience. It is becoming increasingly clear that the upcoming election is going to have something to do with whether or not we preserve our foundational freedoms, not only for future generations but for those of us here now. A bureaucracy in Washington is trying to figure out how to make viable a law that interferes with our most intimate life-and-death decisions. Pointing that out is not “partisan” politics. (Is there a graver sin?) It is not redolent of the “tea party at prayer.”

It’s the reality of American politics in the run-up to a national election that could fundamentally change things, and in which we must ensure that we keep the best of who we have been as a nation. 

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through United Media.

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