The Duck Dynastization of the Bishops’ “Religious Liberty” Meme

What, exactly, have the Catholic bishops wrought by inflaming the religious right with the idea that fundamental religious freedoms are under attack in America because Barack Obama wanted health insurers to give women free birth control?

It was just three years ago that the USCCB introduced the idea that “religious liberty” was imperiled in America because of the contraception mandate and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Fast forward to today, and the “religious liberty” meme is now firmly entrenched throughout the Christian right and, thanks to the Hobby Lobby decision, has come to stand for the widespread, if imaginary, persecution of Christians for being Christian.

As Mariah Blake reported in Mother Jones, Christian right activists used Hobby Lobby to activate conservative religious voters going into the midterms:

In recent months, a coalition of conservative evangelical organizations has been pursuing an aggressive voter mobilization campaign that involves a combination of high-tech tools, briefings for pastors, and rallies simulcast to mega-churches around the country.

The goal of these gatherings is to drum up outrage over recent political skirmishes, including the Hobby Lobby lawsuit, and to persuade believers that their religious freedoms are under attack by ungodly forces. During one recent event, which was shown in churches across the nation, speakers likened the situation of US churchgoers to Christians beheaded by ISIS in Syria.

The capstone event of this effort was the “I Stand Sunday” simulcast rally featuring “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson, who likened the suspension of his television show (for an anti-gay tirade) to Christians in the Bible being imprisoned for their beliefs and “asserted that the same thing could happen in the United States.”

The rally, sponsored by Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, and the National Organization for Marriage, featured former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has been promoting the religious liberty-imperilment narrative on his Fox News show. He warned of an America where people couldn’t “pray and preach and worship and believe as their conscience would tell them to do.”

It’s a big jump to go from requiring religiously-affiliated nonprofits to allow their insurers to provide contraception to asserting that there’s an effort underway to actively prevent people from praying, preaching or worshiping as they believe. But nuance doesn’t matter in politics if it works—which apparently it did.

As my RD colleague Sarah Posner points out, white evangelicals again punched above their weight in the midterms and were critical to Republican victories in at least five key Senate races. And, as she notes, it’s all about turnout; and politically aggrieved voters tend to show up, even if their grievances are imaginary or exaggerated.

RNS’ Mark Silk speculates that the religious liberty meme peeled moderately religious voters off the Obama coalition:

[I]t does look as thought there’s been some shift away from the Democrats of those who attend worship irregularly. Perhaps charges of an Obamaite “war on religion” by evangelical and Catholic leaders have gotten through.

The bishops created the “religious liberty” drive as a political tool to beat back policy initiatives that threatened to usurp their authority over the meaning and content of marriage. But the meme has now metastasized throughout the Christian right and helped catapult to power a slate of candidates who, it’s safe to say, don’t support Pope Francis’ critique of “trickle-down” economics and unfettered markets as a “new tyranny.”