Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times. — Niccolo Machiavelli
At a gathering of Catholics in his archdiocese last year, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, uttered a strategic point that would have done Machiavelli proud. The bishops, he said, are perhaps not the church’s best messengers.
“In the public square, I hate to tell you, the days of fat, balding Irish bishops are over,” he told his flock, according to the New York Times, at a diocesan convocation on public policy. Reporting for the Times, Tim Stelloh and Andy Newman wrote of an example he gave the crowd, an apparent reference to the hiring of Helen Alvaré by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1990:
[Dolan] told a story about bishops hiring an “attractive, articulate, intelligent” laywoman to speak against abortion and said it was “the best thing we ever did…”
Dolan, as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), decided this week to operationalize his assessment by hiring Kim Daniels, a former operative for Sarah Palin’s political action committee, as his spokesperson — a new position with a much broader mission than that covered by Alvaré in the 1990s.
An attorney and youthful mother of six who echoes the bishops’ disdain for contraception and abortion, Daniels is a smart cookie with an appealing personality. In other words, an “attractive, articulate, intelligent” laywoman.
When the USCCB announced Daniels’s appointment, the thing that grabbed reporters’ attention was her work in 2010 as an operative for Sarah Palin’s political action committee, SarahPAC — a résumé entry conveniently omitted from the bishops’ announcement about their new hire. If there was any doubt remaining of the bishops’ total alignment with the most right-wing part of the Republican Party, that data point should lay it to rest. But the rest of Daniels’ career is far more interesting — and troubling.
The Reframing of Religious Freedom
Over the course of the last several decades, as reasonable people, including most lay Catholics, increasingly rejected the church’s medieval worldview on women’s rights, human sexuality, and LGBTQ rights, the political power of U.S. bishops has been on the wane. During the debate over health-care reform, President Barack Obama went around the prelates in order to confer some Catholic buy-in on the deal, ultimately winning the approval of a number of highly placed nuns, who signed a letter to that effect, as well as the head of the Catholic Health Association, who also happens to be a Catholic sister.
The bishops were incensed. At that moment, their lack of sway over their own people was revealed for all to see. They needed a new angle, one that could also speak to the hearts of those ordinary Americans who, in the wake of the church’s massive child-sex-abuse scandal, now judged them to be mere mortals, and deeply flawed mortals at that. Enter the Red, White, and Blue.
The success of the Tea Party movement, with its bigoted and misogynist underpinnings dressed in the regalia of patriotism, was apparently not lost on the bishops. On the heels of their humiliating defeat with the Affordable Care Act, the bishops found a new, patriotic-sounding cause to wrap around their attempts to codify prejudice and discrimination as secular law: religious freedom, which is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Summon the fife and drum!
Trouble is, the bishops’ notion of religious freedom differs a bit from that of the founders, who sought to avoid the establishment of a state religion by promising Americans freedom of worship. What the bishops seek, on the other hand, is the right to impose their religious views on those who do not subscribe to their theology. Any impediment to their totalitarian view is now framed as a breach of their religious freedom. And Kim Daniels has been deeply involved in the advancement of this strategy.
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