The US Conference of Catholic Bishops launched a national campaign this week against President Obama, pushing the Church into politics to an extent the bishops have never done before. At their November 2011 meeting, they voted unanimously to initiate a "religious liberty" campaign, because they wanted to more forcefully oppose civil marriage between same-gender couples and to draw attention to the loss of a lucrative government contract resettling victims of international violence.
But in January this year the fight took on a new purpose, when the Department of Health and Human Services determined that women should be guaranteed equal access to contraceptive care regardless of their employer. Concerned that there wasn't sufficient public sympathy for their argument that Catholic institutions should get special treatment on these several fronts, the bishops have now sought to link their cause with a real crisis of religious liberty: the progressive destruction of Christianity in Iraq since the US invasion there in 2003.
Shlemon Warduni, Bishop of Baghdad
At their meeting last week in Atlanta, the bishops listened as Chaldean Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad told a heart-rending story about the dwindling Catholic population of Iraq, describing the efforts of Muslim extremists who have targeted Christian churches and clergy. Indeed the population of one million Christians living in Iraq under Saddam Hussein has now fallen by more than two-thirds, with refugees streaming to Jordan and other surrounding countries.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, a principal architect of the bishops' "Fortnight 4 Freedom" campaign, sought to link his efforts with the violence overseas in an op-ed piece this week in the Washington Post: "Concern for religious freedom both here and abroad has been growing for years, and now there are calls for immediate action. Stories of people literally dying for the faith in Iraq and Nigeria can be found in daily newspapers. There, churches are bombed and the blood of martyrs runs freely."
The problem with this exercise in hyperbole is that it implies that electing Mitt Romney would somehow help restore Christianity in Iraq. But the bishop from Baghdad made it clear in his remarks that President Bush's invasion of Iraq was the precipitating factor for the bloodshed and massive displacement of the Christians there. By attempting to use every Catholic pulpit in America to condemn President Obama, the bishops are essentially throwing their support to the Republican nominee--one who supported the invasion of Iraq and has complained about the Obama Administration's caution with regard to Iran, with repeated vague spurts of bravado about potentially using the US Military against Iran. In other words, getting in line with the bishops' efforts to elect Governor Romney is a decisive move toward the kind of foreign policy that caused the destruction of Christianity in Iraq in the first place.
No one can deny that the Bush invasion of Iraq precipitated the vast assault on religious liberty that has occurred there, or that the Republican approach to situations like those in Iraq and Iran is more contingent on a willingness to use force to achieve its aims.
Bishop Warduni told the US bishops, "As leaders of the church in the United States, you bear a special responsibility toward the people and Christians of Iraq. In 2003 your government led the war that brought some terrible consequences. The U.S. government can and must do all it can to encourage tolerance and respect in Iraq, to help Iraq strengthen the rule of law and to provide assistance that helps create jobs for Iraqis, especially those on the margins." If the bishops succeed in helping elect Governor Romney, it would be sad to see what the law of unintended consequences has in store for the plight of Christians across the Middle East.