Disingenuous Pleas for “Common Ground” on Religious Liberty Aren’t Likely to Find Any

Tamesha Means.

If you were to skim John Gehring’s latest piece for Commonweal, you might think he’s taking the religious right to task for having radically redefined religious liberty at the expense of women and LGBT people.

In fact, that’s mostly what he does, writing that the “perversion of religious liberty into a bludgeon against women’s health, workers’ rights, and LGBT equality has caused some progressives to forget that religious freedom is a fundamentally liberal value.” The Catholic Church, which has played no small part in damaging the brand of religious liberty, should “lower the temperature and elevate the conversation,” says Gehring, Catholic program director for Washington-based nonprofit Faith in Public Life.

But then, in a slippery Beltway appeal to the center, Gehring quickly adds: “If conservatives need to do some soul searching about how they often set back the important cause of religious liberty, progressives also need a better approach that fosters dialogue and common ground instead of division.”

Yet Gehring offers just one example of that purported divisiveness. And, in order to give this single example even a chance to act as a counterweight to the others, he uses the deeply misleading language of the defendants, that the ACLU “is suing Catholic hospitals for not performing abortions.” In fact, the ACLU suit alleges that a Catholic health care system illegally denied women medically necessary reproductive health procedures, like emergency abortions, which have led, as in the case of Tamesha Means, to the death of the patient. But hey, he says, Catholics supported health care legislation. So lighten up on them when it comes to actual medical care, won’t you, liberals?

After that, he lays out nine beautiful paragraphs detailing the dangerous expansion of RFRA, the overreach of the Hobby Lobby court, and the abusive use of state religious freedom laws to limit LGBT rights. Ok, but it’s still a story about how the religious liberty campaign has gone totally off the rails, right?

Nope. Gehring still wants us to meet in the middle:“Progressives and conservatives squaring off in public debates have a choice. We can continue to exchange dueling press releases and self-righteous tweets—or sit down, humble ourselves, and search for common ground.”

Everything about this piece leads to one very obvious conclusion, but Gehring still manages to miss it. The center isn’t always the answer.