Robert George’s Bogus Comparison of Herman Cain to Martha Coakley

GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain, who previously has said he wouldn’t hire Muslims in his administration, said this week that he would hire them but require them to submit a loyalty oath. Via Scott Keyes at Think Progress:

On the Glenn Beck Show today, the host asked the Georgia Republican about his refusal to appoint Muslims. Cain told Beck that he would be willing to appoint a Muslim only “if they can prove to me that they’re putting the Constitution of the United States first.” Beck followed up by asking if he was calling for “some loyalty proof” for Muslims. Cain said, “Yes, to the Constitution of the United States of America.” When Beck then asked “Would you do that to a Catholic or would you do that to a Mormon?” Cain told the host, “Nope, I wouldn’t.”

Yesterday, Robert P. George, the Princeton University professor, author of the Manhattan Declaration, and founder of the American Principles Project, brought his conservative Catholic credentials to bear in urging Cain to “do the right thing.” George wrote on his blog, Mirror of Justice:

what he said is wrong, foolish, and unacceptable. It is disrespectful of Muslims, the vast majority of whom in our country are, as Cain himself seems to acknowledge, loyal, honorable citizens; and it is incompatible with a sound understanding of religious freedom (and with the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution’s no-religious-tests clause).

That George, considered a leading intellectual framer of religious right ideas, and in particular an alliance of evangelicals and Catholics around his framing of reproductive and LGBT rights as inimical to opponents’ “religious liberty” (as enunciated in the Manhattan Declaration) would take on Cain is significant. Significant not so much because the Islamophobic elements in the conservative movement would suddenly sit up and say, “gee, all this anti-Muslim stuff is un-American, isn’t it?” but because it demonstrates, once again, that the conservative movement is at war with itself over Islamophobia. (Note that the 2012 presidential aspirants, not just Cain, are pandering to the Islamophobes, which is a pretty good indication of where they think their base — or at least their votes — are. George, for example, may not be a match for Frank Gaffney.)

George, of course, sees himself as a defender of religious liberty, and frames his defense of American Muslims in the face of his conservative brethren’s bigotry as such. But while it is heartening to see a conservative call out another conservative on Islamophobia, it looks like George is setting up the following syllogism: if you don’t like Islamophobia, Peter King-like witch hunts, and demands for Muslims to prove their American-ness, then you also won’t like how those godless liberals are trying to make religious conservatives follow the same rules as everyone else.

Let me explain: George undermines his own credibility as a watchdog of religious freedom by going on to draw a comparison between Cain’s “loyalty proof” and opposition to “conscience” protections for health care workers who refuse, on religious grounds, to perform abortions, dispense birth control, or other procedures. He compares Cain’s statement to what he claims (inaccurately) was the statement of Democrat Martha Coakley when she was running her unsuccessful campaign to fill the Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy:

It puts Cain in a camp with Martha Coakley, the hapless Massachusetts Democrat who, when running against Scott Brown for the United States Senate, infamously said that devout Catholics should not work in emergency rooms inasmuch as they are unwilling to be involved in providing contraceptives and abortions. That is a place Mr. Cain surely does not want to be.

George, though, is wrong about what Coakley said. She did not say devout Catholics should not work in emergency rooms. Media Matters documented how this myth about Coakley’s alleged anti-Catholic sentiment arose:

Fox Nation and Gateway Pundit blogger Jim Hoft have seized on comments made by Democratic Massachusetts Senate candidate Martha Coakley during a January 14 radio interview to falsely claim that Coakley said “devout Catholics” should not “work in emergency rooms.” In fact, as the context of Coakley’s remarks makes clear, she was discussing individuals who would refuse to provide certain emergency medical procedures and treatments — including emergency contraception — to patients on the grounds of their religious beliefs, not all “devout Catholics.”

Unlike Cain, Coakely did not single out a certain religion. (Indeed, Coakley herself is Catholic.) Moreover, she did not demand that Catholics demonstrate proof of their allegiance to America. She merely stated that one’s religious beliefs should not excuse them from administering a perfectly legal and necessary medical procedure, referring specifically to her opponent and now Senator Scott Brown’s support for a measure that would have enabled providers to refuse emergency contraception to women who had been raped. She did not say “devout Catholics” shouldn’t work in emergency rooms; she merely was pointing out that patients expect legal and medically necessary treatment when they arrive at an emergency room, so perhaps if one is unwilling to provide that they should consider whether they are in the right line of work.

Reacting to pressure from the religious right, the Bush administration had attempted broaden “conscience” protections, but earlier this year the Obama administration reversed that rule, keeping in place only protections for providers who refuse to perform abortions and sterilizations. According to the Washington Post:

The decision guts one of President George W. Bush’s most controversial legacies: a rule that was widely interpreted as shielding workers who refuse to participate in a range of medical services, such as providing birth control pills, caring for gay men with AIDS and performing in-vitro fertilization for lesbians or single women.

Friday’s move was seen as an important step in countering that trend, which in recent years had led pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for the emergency contraceptive Plan B, doctors in California to reject a lesbian’s request for infertility treatment, and an ambulance driver in Chicago to turn away a woman who needed transportation for an abortion.

Opposing conscience protections is just like requiring Muslims to sign loyalty oaths, isn’t it? George couldn’t just say Cain is wrong and leave it at that. He had to compare Cain’s McCarthy-esque Islamophobia to opposition to health care providers refusing necessary, legal treatments on religious grounds. He’s claiming that conservative Christians are just as victimized by bigotry as American Muslims, because patients expect treatment at hospitals. It’s one for the Book of False Equivalencies and Persecution Complexes.

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