WASHINGTON — It was a rough week for religious believers caught in the crosshairs of the amped-up culture wars of the digital age.

On Jan. 18, Catholic high-school boys were condemned as racists in national news after an online video suggested they had disrespected a Native-American elder during a trip to Washington, D.C., for the March for Life. And Lady Gaga, the pop megastar, interrupted a Jan. 19 set in Las Vegas to denounce Karen Pence, the vice president’s wife, for teaching art at Immanuel Christian School, a private institution that upholds biblical norms on marriage and sexual ethics.

During the same week, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, also accused Sen. Ben Sasse, R- Neb., a committed Christian, of “embrac[ing] the alt-right position.” Sasse had sponsored a resolution that barred religious tests for judicial nominees, after Hirono and other senators had repeatedly questioned jurists about their membership in the Knights of Columbus.

These recent flashpoints are discrete news stories and require a range of responses from faith communities.

But legal and religious commentators and experts also see a disturbing pattern of attacks, fueled by explosive uncritical headlines that effectively stigmatize Catholics and Christians as moral outliers.

“Political campaigns are decided in the ballot boxes,” R.R. “Rusty” Reno, the editor of First Things, told the Register. “But … it’s the cultural politics that defines what is mainstream and what is outside the mainstream, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, what is civil and what is uncivil.”

“Right now proponents of abortion and LGBT rights are working overtime in cultural politics. Their goal is to put an end to the cultural wars by declaring their opponents racists, bigots and ‘haters,’ and thus illegitimate voices in public life,” Reno asserted.

 

‘Profoundly Troubling’

Earlier in January, a coalition of U.S. religious leaders singled out the hostile treatment of Catholic and Christian judicial nominees in a letter to U.S. Senate leaders.

“From its inception, the United States Constitution expressed a commitment to religious freedom, both in the religion provisions of the First Amendment and in Article VI’s ban on religious tests for public office,” read the Jan. 16 letter signed by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and representatives of other major faith traditions. “That senators otherwise supportive of civil rights have sought to question the qualifications of nominees on the basis of their religion is profoundly troubling.”

“To call out the Knights of Columbus, who have been stellar in their commitment to good citizenship, developing and fostering good contributions to communities” across the nation, “is especially appalling,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, the U.S. bishops’ point man on religious-liberty issues, told the Register.

The political tactics that alarm Catholic thought leaders like Reno aren’t new, of course.

Back in 2012, the U.S. bishops and other opponents of the Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate, including the Register’s parent company, EWTN, were accused of waging a “war on women.” And after the legalization of same-sex “marriage,” legislation designed to secure conscience rights for believers was repudiated as a “license to discriminate.”

In 2017, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., famously questioned whether Amy Coney Barrett, a pro-life Catholic judicial nominee, was fit to serve on the appellate bench because of her religious beliefs. “The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern,” Feinstein told Barrett.

 

Partisan Agendas

But the tempo of attacks has increased over the past year.

Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network, and a veteran of Supreme Court confirmation battles, has reported that at least five judicial nominees have been questioned about their membership in the Knights of Columbus or related religious activities.

It’s clear that Sens. Hirono, Feinstein and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., each of whom have raised questions about judicial nominees’ beliefs, are worried that President Trump will have the chance to select another jurist who could help overturn Roe v. Wade — possibly Barrett.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders also oppose the president’s school-voucher campaign at the state level, and so the bashing of Catholics and Christians could serve another partisan agenda.

In a recent post on the “Mirror of Justice” legal blog, Richard Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, framed the campaign against Catholic jurists and Karen Pence as  “tactical moves” that are designed to  “condition the environment.”

The goal, he suggested, is to trigger public outrage when a judicial nominee is “revealed to have been involved with/sent their children to schools” that adhere to Christian teaching.

Likewise, the claim that church schools discriminate against “LGBTQ” teachers, parents and students is designed to weaken support for school-choice legislation at the state level, he said.

Garnett predicted that a concerted effort to exclude Catholic and Christian schools from these initiatives would “cripple” school-choice programs.

 

Defending Catholics

Some legal analysts who oppose Trump’s policies also repudiate the hostile treatment of Catholic jurists.

“Attacking a nominee for being a member of the Knights of Columbus is wrong as a matter of religious liberty,” said Douglas Laycock, a leading specialist on religious-freedom issues at the University of Virginia Law School. “It is fair to question nominees about legal issues, including abortion and gay rights. But it is unfair and stupid to use their religion as a proxy for those legal issues.”

And Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, criticized the recent treatment of Brian Buescher, who was nominated to serve as a U.S. district judge in Nebraska.

If Buescher is “‘unqualified’ because of his Catholicism and affiliation with the Knights of Columbus,” said Gabbard, “then President John F. Kennedy and the ‘liberal lion of the Senate,’ Ted Kennedy, would have been ‘unqualified’ for the same reasons.”

But the effort to stigmatize religious believers is not limited to Capitol Hill. Major news outlets and social media have also piled on.

Karen Pence Is Teaching at Christian School That Bars L.G.B.T. Students and Teachers,” read a New York Times headline on the brewing controversy. The Times’ story cited one scholar who equated school policies anchored in 2,000 years of biblical teaching with Trump’s brand of “exclusionary nationalism.”

William McGurn, an opinion writer for The Wall Street Journal, challenged that judgment, but noted that the lopsided debate over Mrs. Pence’s employment didn’t augur well for religious believers.

“[H]er experience surely tells us which orthodoxies today are truly sacred and beyond question,” said McGurn in a Jan. 21 column titled, “The Shaming of Karen Pence.”

 

The Covington Controversy

Meanwhile, the controversy over the alleged racist behavior of the high-school boys from Covington Catholic remains at a full boil, with school officials, the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, and other Church leaders delaying any further public statements until an investigation of the event is complete.

A short video that purported to document a hostile standoff between the Covington high-school boys, who were waiting for their bus at the Lincoln Memorial after attending the March for Life, and Nathan Phillips, a Native-American elder and activist, provoked denunciations of the boys’ apparently disrespectful behavior.

Critics singled out the fact that some students wore pro-Trump, red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps and were enrolled in an “all-male,” “predominantly white” school.

Liberal and conservative pundits attacked the boys, and their school and the Diocese of Covington condemned their actions.

The following day, a longer video provided a fuller picture of the disputed events. It showed that as the boys waited for their bus, they had already been harassed by members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, a Washington-based fringe religious group, who, without apparent provocation, taunted and shouted expletives at the students. 

And it was Phillips, not the boys, who initiated contact.

Banging his drum, he walked up to the large group of students who were passing the time with school cheers. While it’s possible the students could have defused the situation by walking away, the longer video offered no clear evidence of actively disrespectful behavior toward Phillips.

 

Hateful Tweets

Yet by the close of the weekend, the damage had been done. The students, their families and their school faced death threats, fueled by a storm of hateful tweets that shook Catholic parents across the country.

Some critics on social media said the students should be assaulted or even executed. Others saw a link between the boys’ behavior and the allegations of sexual assault against Catholic Justice Brett Kavanaugh that surfaced during his 2018 confirmation hearing. Former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean tweeted that the boys’ Catholic school was a “hate factory.”

The students’ March for Life participation was another major factor animating the hostile reaction of many of the social-media detractors, such as freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who in a Jan. 22 tweet criticized the boys for “protesting a woman’s right to choose,” among other things.

As the dust settled, some issued apologies to the students. Others sought to explain the extreme behavior of so many adults in 2019 America as a function of rapid-fire digital media, which rewards click-bait headlines and allows users to confirm “negative stereotypes about people you don’t know.”

“The Covington case was … powered by crude prejudice and social stereotyping,” concluded David Brooks in a New York Times column entitled, “How We Destroy Lives Today.”

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights agreed with this assessment, but said Brooks should have been more specific.

“It was Catholic males who were the victims of prejudice and stereotyping,” said Donohue.

In his annual World Day of Social Communications message, released Jan. 24, Pope Francis warned that online interactions are “too often based on opposition to the other,” which can result in an “unbridled individualism which sometimes ends up fomenting spirals of hatred.”

Indeed, this   cautionary tale included another disturbing twist: Twitter suspended one of the main accounts that posted the Covington Catholic video, amid fresh questions about the user’s actual identity.

Twitter said its guidelines bar “deliberate attempts to manipulate the public conversation on Twitter by using misleading account information.”

 

Catholic Leaders Criticized

In the days ahead, Covington Catholic administrators and officials in the Diocese of Covington will be conducting their own review of the incident before taking further action, or retracting their own earlier statements condemning the students’ behavior.

During his interview with the Register, Archbishop Kurtz — who had also condemned the students’ behavior after the first video was released — said he would defer further statements until local Church and school authorities completed their investigation.

That delay underscores the seriousness of the initial allegations and the high standard of conduct expected from Catholic school students.

But it also shows the high stakes for Catholic leaders, who are struggling to navigate a complex, often-hostile, landscape and have already faced pushback for their own rush to judgment.

“The first principle must be ‘Do no harm,’” said First Things’ Reno, who criticized Church leaders’ handling of the controversy. “This means Catholic leaders must not allow themselves to be strong-armed into passing judgment.”

“The second and more important principle is protect and defend those whom you mentor, guide and lead,” he said. “That means presuming their innocence and good intentions, not their guilt and racist motives.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.