Last October in America, Pope Francis warned the church against being “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. Washington, especially the religious right and secular left, shares this obsession.
July brought contradictory actions on these obsessions and religious liberty. The Supreme Court recognized the religious objections of Hobby Lobby to some forms of contraception. The Obama administration rejected pleas for conscience protection for religious groups in its executive order protecting gay and lesbian workers in federal grants. These decisions unleashed outrage and celebration, exaggeration and distortion, political fundraising and posturing.
Religious groups carefully pointed out that Hobby Lobby objects to only four means of contraception while supporting lawsuits to protect groups that oppose all contraception. The administration will not exempt religious groups that uphold the traditional definition of marriage, though this was the president’s position less than two years ago.
Leaders on the political right and left seem “obsessed” with these matters. Where are progressives who clearly defend children fleeing violence in Central America or decry the court’s rejection of mandates for states to expand Medicaid to provide health care for lower income Americans? Many on the right are narrowly focused on the culture war, using scare tactics to raise money and seek votes, but they get less attention from media obsessed with sexual freedom. None of this advances the difficult dialogue on how to reconcile religious freedom with the assertion of other rights in a pluralistic nation.
Half a world away, there is a real war on women and direct attacks on Christians as Iraq falls apart and ISIS advances with horrific violence against Christians and brutal suppression of the rights of women.
Washington plays the blame game. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who claimed we would be greeted as liberators in a short war in Iraq, blames President Obama, who wisely opposed the war and now is dealing with a decade of failed policies. Hillary Clinton says in her recent book Hard Choices that she and leading Democrats made the “wrong choice” in authorizing war.
There were other voices. Pope John Paul II did all he could to stop the race to war. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the war could not be morally justified. I worked for the bishops at that time, and I was with the pope’s emissary, Cardinal Pio Laghi, when he returned, deeply discouraged and angry, from a meeting with President George W. Bush on Ash Wednesday in 2003. The president had set aside unopened the pope’s personal letter and dismissed the warnings the cardinal offered.
Those warnings were well founded. The war turned out to be not short and decisive but long and horribly costly in human, financial and moral terms. Iraq is now not a democracy but a failed state torn apart by violent sectarian conflict. Relations between Christians and Muslims are worse and extremists have been empowered. The Christian community is being destroyed. The patriarch in Iraq called this the “darkest, most difficult period” for Christians, who are forced to convert, flee, pay a punitive fee or die. For the first time in 1,600 years, there are virtually no Christians in Mosul.
Also missing in the blame game are those who paid for these unwise decisions. My son-in-law, who served in Iraq, told me: “Seeing Iraq crumble is disheartening as a veteran and an American. We didn’t feel ‘we were protecting our freedom’ or ‘making Iraq a better place.’ Most people just wanted to do their time, keep from getting killed or wounded, protect each other. We knew the war was not going to be worth it. We lost 4,500 troops, and 32,000 were physically wounded, plus many psychological casualties and high rates of PTSD.”
Imagine how different our nation and our world would be if our leaders had listened to John Paul II and the U.S. bishops. We should also listen and learn from those who are paying for disastrous decisions. Maybe we could even turn away for a moment from our “obsessions” to notice those who are losing their lives and fundamental rights because of our nation’s bad choices and failed policies.