Evangelicals Hug the Sidelines as Catholics and Mormons Seize the National Stage

Cardinal Timothy Dolan boosts a campaign—his own!

Photo illo by Scott Dvorin

Grab any time machine you can find, take it back to any year from the founding of the Republican party until about 1970, and show the bios of this year’s GOP presidential ticket to the party leaders of the past. No doubt, their first response will be, “Weren’t there any Christians available?”

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After all, the very first Republican party platform grouped the Mormons in with slaveholders, labeling polygamy and slavery “twin relics of barbarism” and calling for their eradication. President Lincoln later tried to do just that, signing into law the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which specifically outlawed polygamy in the frontier territories. Its sponsor, Congressman Justin Morrill, called the practice “a Mohammedan barbarism revolting to the civilized world,” and likened it to “cannibalism or infanticide.”

And that’s nothing compared with what some Republicans used to say about Catholics.

This year marks the first time in the history of the Republic when a major party has not had a Protestant on the ticket. Indeed, the only Protestant left in the race is President Obama, who just four years ago was excoriated for the “fringe” views of his old pastor and religious mentor.

One would think that a candidate from a religion that has preached, say, that all Indians are the wicked and degenerate descendants of ancient Hebrew tribes would be reluctant to spark a culture war. But Mitt Romney went there the other day, pledging that if elected, he, for one, “will not take ‘God’ out of the name of our platform,” or “off our coins,” or “out of my heart.”

He somehow failed to elucidate that, according to Mormon doctrine, ‘God’ is a former man who lives somewhere near the planet Kolob. But never mind. I’m a big-tent Christian myself. About half of my relatives are Catholics, and some of the others are fundamentalist Protestants. I love them all dearly, including the one who told me that the Republican convention in Tampa was likely to be attacked by anarchists with “acid-filled eggs.” (Don’t bother to contemplate the logistics of that too closely. Let’s just say it reflects a strong inclination toward a belief in the miraculous.)

To me, the real story about religion in the campaign has much more to do with the struggle being waged within the Catholic Church.

Speaking before the Democratic convention was Sister Simone Campbell, one of the “Nuns on the Bus” who have toured the U.S. arguing that vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s proposed budget “failed a basic moral test, because it would hurt families living in poverty.” Sister Simone pointedly asserted of herself and her fellow nuns that, “We agree with our bishops” in condemning the Republicans’ favorite choirboy scamp.

Just this spring the Vatican’s conservative hierarchy decided to push U.S. nuns back into line, issuing a report accusing them of straying toward “radical feminist themes” and emphasizing social welfare causes over the church’s anti-abortion, anti-contraception priorities. Sister Simone shrewdly hauled the bishops’ liberal positions on poverty out into the convention spotlight—then went on to defy her bosses by explicitly endorsing the Affordable Care Act.

As head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, New York’s own Cardinal Timothy Dolan has led the fight to amend the act, insisting that allowing the employees of Catholic hospitals, schools and charities to choose a health-care plan that includes contraception—as the care act mandates—is tantamount to religious oppression in “China or North Korea.”

Cardinal Dolan, who it is said would very much like to be the first American pope, has also served as the Vatican’s point man against legalizing gay marriage, dismissing it as a “chic cause.” He has fought against removing the statutes of limitations on child abuse, paid off pedophile priests in his old archdiocese in Milwaukee to leave the clergy (Dolan insists on characterizing these payments as “charity”) and approvingly reprinted a column from longtime Catholic League wacko William Donohue denouncing SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, as “a phony victims’ group.”

On Cardinal Dolan’s watch, the conference of bishops also issued its notorious, 2011 “Blame it on Woodstock” report, which concluded that, among other things, “The rise of abuse cases [by priests] in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by social factors in society generally …”—confirming theories long held by the bishops themselves and by Pope Benedict XVI.

Whatever the excesses of the ’60s, few would argue that they included an endorsement of child rape. And even if they had, since when did the wayward teenager’s excuse, “Everyone was doin’ it,” come to serve as absolution from the age-old Christian concept of personal responsibility? For that matter, the report also claims that most of the abusive priests could not even be considered true pedophiles under the official psychiatric definition, because most of their victims were under 13 years of age … but not under 10.

The report was compiled under the aegis of Dr. Karen Terry, the Cambridge-educated Ph.D. who is the interim dean of research and strategic services at John Jay College, part of the CUNY system. Dr. Terry has since tried to walk back the controversy her investigation ignited, insisting upon her own objectivity. But there’s no getting around the fact that her data was supplied by the church itself, or the damning conflict of interest observable on her John Jay website, which lists all of the funding sources for her reports.

This site puts the total cost of the “Woodstock” job at more than $1.9 million—of which $1 million came directly from the conference of bishops, and almost $500,000 more came from various Catholic charities and foundations. Indeed, of the total amount of almost $3.5 million that Dr. Terry claims to have received in funding to date—primarily for studies of sexual abuse—over $1.5 million came from the conference of bishops and over $2 million from all Catholic sources.

What we seem to have here, in other words, is a publicly funded university operating a cozy little “academia-for-hire” sideline, in which the client provides his own data and his own funding. Belief in Dr. Terry’s objectivity under such circumstances strains my faith to the breaking point.

But Cardinal Dolan’s ability to wrangle the results he wants out of politicians and academics alike continues to impress. Running for pope is an intricate business, infinitely trickier than trying to be a mere president. The cardinal trumped Sister Simone by delivering benedictions at both the Republic and the Democratic conventions, pointedly praising freedom of religion and asking God’s blessing on “those waiting to be born, that they may be welcomed and protected.”

No one was offended, the bishops’ message was delivered, and the nuns got back on the bus. Another day on the campaign trail.

Evangelicals Hug the Sidelines as Catholics and Mormons Seize the National Stage