Rev. Gaddy Embarrasses Himself

The President of the Interfaith Alliance, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, issued a statement yesterday expressing his “disappointment” at the USCCB’s document on religious liberty. I do not know the Rev. Dr. Gaddy, and now I am glad that I don’t. Here is the text of his statement and my comments will follow:

It is with great disappointment that I read the proclamation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on religious freedom. While I believe there are real threats to religious freedom in our nation today, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Catholic Church’s definition of religious freedom is one that is only concerned with its own beliefs and practices and makes no room for those whose views differ. In the democratic society in which we live, we are fortunate our government makes accommodations when necessary to protect our beliefs and practices, but the Constitution still trumps scripture in every case. In fact, it is because of this understanding that religion – all religion – has been able to flourish in the United States.
The doctrine of the Catholic Church should be given no more weight in the creation of public policy than should the views of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or any of the many other religions that can be found in this country. This includes the many Christian denominations that hold a different interpretation of the teachings of Jesus than the Catholic Church.
As I read the Bishops’ Proclamation, there are points with which I agree and areas where I disagree. I agree that legislatures should not be able to require a church to alter its governance structure. I strongly disagree with the Bishops’ stance on the current Department of Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate. I believe it does provide enough of an accommodation to protect religious freedom.
To allow an exception to those rules is to enshrine one religious group’s theology in the policy of a non-sectarian government. In a document such as the Bishops’ Proclamation, we as Americans have a right to pick and choose with which parts we agree and follow. But the same cannot be said of the U.S. Constitution; it is what unifies us as a nation and protects our rights against all else.

Hmmm. The phrase “but the Constitution still trumps scripture in every case” rings in one’s ears, and not because of the felicity of its phrasing. This, from a minister? Instead of thinking about what does and does not “trump” perhaps the good Rev. Dr. should think about why and how a Constitution that guarantees the right to free exercise of religion should or can “trump” religious expression. (Obviously, I set aside the fact that the USCCB document was not solely reliant upon the scripture.) It is, of course, the same reason we have courts with the power to conduct judicial review: The Constitution’s various parts are not always easy to align, their meaning is not always self-evident, many of the clauses in the Constitution’s text reflect an agreement on the part of the Founders to leave some things inexplicit, lest consensus on the text as a whole break down. Surely, the USCCB is within its right to put forward its understanding of the Constitution and to humbly decline to accept Gaddy’s views on the matter.

Gaddy then puts forward a related claim, writing, “In fact, it is because of this understanding that religion – all religion – has been able to flourish in the United States.” This sounds remarkably like one of the paragraphs in the USCCB document:

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In 1887, when the archbishop of Baltimore, James Gibbons, was made the second American cardinal, he defended the American heritage of religious liberty during his visit to Rome to receive the red hat. Speaking of the great progress the Catholic Church had made in the United States, he attributed it to the “civil liberty we enjoy in our enlightened republic.” Indeed, he made a bolder claim, namely that “in the genial atmosphere of liberty [the Church] blossoms like a rose.”

So, perhaps Gaddy and the bishops agree on this point, although I think in both cases, such a view of the relationship between the U.S. Constitutional framework and the flowering of religion is a bit facile. I suspect that religion has flourished in America for a variety of reasons, and many of those reasons have nothing to do with the First Amendment.

But, my principal objection to Gaddy’s statement is his claim that, “it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Catholic Church’s definition of religious freedom is one that is only concerned with its own beliefs and practices and makes no room for those whose views differ.” Did he miss the part of the document that cites a statement from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations? I am not much of a fan of the group Catholics and Evangelicals Together, but the USCCB document cited a statement of theirs too. And, there was that long treatment of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was not a Catholic.

Gaddy’s statement is precisely the kind of thing I warned against in my earlier post this morning – people are bringing their pre-ordained narratives to this discussion, whether there is evidence to support those narratives or not, and instead of seeking common ground, they are digging in. Isn’t it time that religious leaders start thinking about digging out of this mess rather than digging in?


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