Kinsley: Christians are being oppressed in the U.S.? Hardly

The Roman Catholic Church feels oppressed. Religious liberty is under siege. At this week’s meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the group’s president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, declared, “We see in our culture a drive to neuter religion,” which he attributed, ambiguously and ominously, to “well-financed, well-oiled sectors.” Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia gave a speech to college students declaring that the “America emerging in the next several decades is likely to be much less friendly to Christian faith than anything in our country’s past. It’s not a question of when or if it might happen. It’s happening today.”

Religion: In a Nov. 18 Op-Ed about the supposed oppression of Christians, the U.S. Muslim population was misstated. Muslims make up about 0.6% of the total population, not 2%. —

When the Catholic Church declares that everything’s going to hell, you have to take it seriously. Nevertheless, complaints about oppression of Christians in American society always amaze me. Practically everyone in the country is a Christian. (Jews are about 2%, Muslims the same.) Yes, of course, Chaput is referring to believing, or at least to observant, Christians. But the United States is the most observant country in the world. Almost half of all Americans tell pollsters that they go to church at least once a week.

If anyone is trying to oppress Christians, he or she is doing a pretty lousy job of it. Christians — believing Christians — are everywhere you look. And even if you limit the discussion to oppression of Roman Catholics, I defy Chaput to find much of this in our country in 2011.

There was a time, of course, when Catholics were quite openly discriminated against and the church was the focus of all sorts of conspiracy theories (not unlike the Mormon Church today, but on a far grander scale). In 1960, John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was a big issue. In 2011, I don’t even know which, if any, of the presidential candidates is Catholic. (Well, I guess I know that Mitt Romney isn’t. And Rick Santorum is. But only because they have chosen to make a point of it. )


But did you know that four of this year’s Republican candidates were personally recruited by God to run for president? The Week magazine has counted them up: Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Santorum. God also told Romney to run, then told him not to bother, then told him to run after all. Actually the Romney stuff is made up, but the four others each have detailed stories about where they were and what they were doing when God gave them the nod.

What kind of game is God playing here? He’s told four people to run for president, but (barring a miracle, I guess) three of them are going to end up disappointed. Imagine the situation: God himself has told you to run for president. Did he tell you that you’d win? Possibly not, but he strongly implied it. Why else would he want you to run? What an endorsement. What a boon to your fundraising. And what a downer when he fails to deliver. It will be a test of faith for three or them, for sure.

As you may have surmised from the previous paragraph, I’m a nonbeliever. That puts me in the only religious grouping in America whose members are effectively barred from any hope of becoming president, due to widespread public prejudice against them. That group is atheists. There will be a Mormon president, a Jewish president, an openly gay president before there will be a president who says publicly that he doesn’t believe in God. But I don’t think that’s what worries the bishops.

Six of the nine members of the Supreme Court are Catholics. What better assurance could there be that Catholics’ rights are going to be protected than a two-thirds majority in the institution empowered to provide the definitive interpretation of the Constitution, including the clauses protecting religious freedom? And what better evidence could there be of how little anti-Catholic bias remains in American culture than the utter lack of fuss over this fact? No one cares. And no one cares that the other three justices are Jewish, which means that there are no Protestants on the Supreme Court.

So what are the bishops so alarmed about? I would say they have one legitimate complaint: Too many people believe that religion and politics must remain completely separate, and that any political position that derives from a religious belief is therefore illegitimate. Ironically, it was Kennedy’s famous speech to the Protestant ministers in 1960 (which Romney aped this year) that popularized this notion of two separate spheres as the standard response to people suspicious of religion’s role in politics.

But it’s not that simple. The spheres aren’t and needn’t be separate. The Catholic Church, like any citizen or institution, has every right to take a position on political issues, and to use its influence as vigorously as it can. And no political position is invalid simply because it derives from religious belief. But there’s a catch: The church cannot then complain of prejudice against Catholicism or, even more absurd, prejudice against Christianity when other people just as vigorously disagree with it.

One of the social developments that the bishops are most upset about is gay marriage. This is not like abortion or even birth control: Arguably, the church could have gone either way. It seems to me that it has chosen the losing side in a battle in which it could have been the hero, as it has been on issues such as high-quality education and foreign aid. But then, it’s their religion, not mine.

Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.