WASHINGTON — When Rob Schwarzwalder, senior vice president at the Family Research Council, criticized evangelical groups for ignoring threats to religious freedom, he got some pushback.

“[T]o say that these organizations have not spoken out is not true,” concluded one article in the Christian Post, though it also acknowledged that Schwarzwalder might be looking for a “more robust and vocal outcry” than the organizations had provided.

The dispute was aired in online posts on the website of First Things, the journal that offers ecumenical and interreligious commentary on the role of religion in the public square. It signaled that some leading evangelicals have begun to reassess their response to a developing political issue.

The debate has surfaced during a sea change in evangelical political leadership, following the retreat of Focus on the Family’s James Dobson. Some evangelical activists contend that no other leader has been able to match Dobson’s ability to catalyze churches throughout the nation to register their concerns on Capitol Hill.

Now, as New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, leads a rearguard effort to stem attacks on the free exercise of religion at Catholic institutions, evangelical activists like Schwarzwalder contend that their organizations must step up their activity in Washington.

On Nov. 28, Schwarzwalder and his co-author, Julia Kiewit, an associate editor at the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, posted their commentary “Will Evangelicals Stand Up for Religious Liberty?”

“The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has responded vigorously to the restrictive and unworkable ‘conscience regulations’ being imposed on health-care providers by the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services (HHS) Department,” they stated. “The Catholic Archdiocese for Military Service has said ‘No’ to allowing priests in the Armed Forces to perform homosexual ‘weddings,’ now that the historic prohibition on homosexuals in the military has been lifted.”

This week, the Obama administration confirmed that a religious exemption would allow military chaplains to refuse to participate in same-sex “weddings.”

Schwarzwalder and Kiewit noted other USCCB initiatives and applauded the role of the Catholic bishops “with a certain measure of consternation. As evangelical Protestants, we wonder: Why is organized evangelicalism so silent?”


Then, two days later, they issued an update, which acknowledged, among other developments, that “the National Association of Evangelicals and the Council of Evangelical Colleges and Universities have, in fact, sent letters to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) protesting the insufficiency of the conscience protections provided in the new rules.”

Further, the National Association of Evangelicals “has also joined in numerous amici briefs on important religious-liberty cases, has joined in several groups working to defend religious liberty overseas, and has discussed other matters of significance to evangelicals with leading policymakers.”

Yet, despite the formal apology, Schwarzwalder didn’t entirely disavow his original position. The former chief of staff to two members of Congress and a political appointee at HHS during the George W. Bush administration issued a blunt judgment: “Private meetings and letters from interest groups not buttressed by strong support from the grassroots usually are of limited consequence.”

Asked to comment further on the dispute, Schwarzwalder noted in an interview that “without grassroots efforts, few letters have the full impact they otherwise would. … Part of the issue we are discussing is the means by which a particular argument is advanced.”

That view is challenged by Bryan Fischer, the director of issue analysis at the American Family Association, a leading evangelical organization that focuses on restoring Judeo-Christian values to America’s public life. During an interview, Fischer contended that his organization and its membership have been active on religious-liberty issues.

The American Family Association is based in Tupelo, Miss., and was established in 1977. It boasts an Internet-based network of 2.5 million Christians who receive regular action alerts on key political issues and often respond by communicating with their representatives in state capitals or in Washington, D.C.

In recent years, Fischer said, the group has been primarily engaged in “a defense of natural marriage. Action alerts slow down and stop the gay agenda.” This fall, his organization was “the largest single contributor to the personhood-amendment campaign in Mississippi.” That amendment was defeated.

“We’re extremely concerned about the erosion of religious liberty for all followers of Christianity. We will weigh in on any issues that represent a threat to religious freedom,” he said.

Large-Scale Activism?

The group sought to defend Christian graduate students in a counseling program “who were expelled because their religious convictions will not allow them to counsel people to improve their homosexual relationships, though they were willing to refer (them) to counselors who had no issue with this.”

“If that were allowed to continue, then Christians would be excluded from the counseling profession all together,” he said, noting that his organization emailed action alerts urging the membership to contact the counseling program administrators.

On Capitol Hill, says Fischer, his organization has expressed opposition to same-sex “marriage,” Obamacare and the HHS contraception mandate.

“We’re disturbed that Catholic Charities has been run out of some states. That’s an enormous threat to religious liberty. Children need to be raised by a mom and a dad,” he said. “If that is allowed to continue, Christian adoption agencies will have no place in American culture.”

Yet for all the hard work and perseverance of key evangelical organizations like the Family Research Council and the American Family Association, Fischer acknowledged that the “powerful voice” of James Dobson is “sorely missed.”

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a leading activist on international religious-freedom issues, expressed similar regret.

During a Dec. 7 discussion with journalists and commentators in Washington, D.C., Congressman Wolf, the new author of Prisoner of Conscience: One Man’s Crusade for Global Human and Religious Rights, argued that the departure of Dobson had created a leadership vacuum. And it was time, he suggested, for Catholic and Christian activists to consider replicating the large-scale demonstrations of the 1960s’ civil-rights movement, when the Rev. Martin Luther King led marches on the National Mall.

Wolf recalled that Dobson possessed the ability “to tie up the phones” on Capitol Hill. No religious leader, Catholic or evangelical, has since matched his ability for drawing attention to religious-liberty threats. The congressman also praised the past leadership and advocacy of Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, President Ronald Reagan and Blessed John Paul II.

New Statement

Part of the problem, suggest some activists and scholars, is the secular current that has reshaped American culture and altered Washington’s political calculus.

“Conservative Christianity in America, both evangelical and Catholic, faces a looming demographic challenge: a rising generation that is more unchurched than any before it, more liberal on issues like ‘gay marriage,’ and allergic to the apocalyptic rhetoric of the Pat Robertson-Jerry Falwell era,” observed New York Times’ columnist Ross Douthat on Dec. 6.

Given the array of emerging threats to the free exercise of religion, public intellectuals like George Weigel and Chuck Colson have sought to advance Catholic and Protestant theological dialogue and practical collaboration on shared policy goals.

Under the auspices of First Things, where Father Richard Neuhaus and Colson first developed a framework for a high-level discussion called Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a group of scholars will soon release a statement on religious liberty in the March 2012 issue of the journal. In the wake of Father Neuhaus’ death, George Weigel has helped to keep this work on track.

“It’s a point of clear harmony between evangelicals and Catholics to affirm the importance of religious liberty internationally, where Christians are suffering with profound threats to their lives, and domestically, in a more subtle, insidious way, with an attack on conscience with health-care law and same-sex ‘marriage,’” said Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things.

The work on this specific document has been led by Father Thomas Guarino, professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University, and Timothy George, the dean of Beeson Divinity School and a professor of church history and doctrine who also serves as executive editor for Christianity Today.

George emphasized that the working group had grappled with both theological and policy issues. “In the long history of Catholics and of evangelicals, there has not been a perfect record. We have all failed on this in the past. But it is increasingly important that we should be together on the matter of religious freedom,” he said in a telephone interview in which he noted the role of Dignitatis Humanae, the groundbreaking declaration on religious freedom issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

George reported that organizations including the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals remained active on religious-freedom issues.

For most evangelicals, he said, “God is the Lord of the conscience. … The state may not impose sanctions on our religious freedom.”

The new statement by Evangelicals and Catholics Together, he said, will also address the plight of Christians across the globe and the “pressing concerns of Christians in North America, in Canada ... without making bland generalizations. We’re for religious freedom for everybody, not only Christians.”

Father Guarino, who has worked closely with George on the statement, noted that “Our public-square witness follows from our common Christian belief. Right from the beginning [Father] Neuhaus and Colson insisted that the two dimensions come together. It’s never intended to be a political platform, but a welling up from the depths of the Christian faith and philosophical reasoning.”

Father Guarino predicted that the document could help advance a more effective collaborative response to threats against religious freedom. Catholics and Protestants “that may have in the past been opponents really share a tremendous amount — of faith in Christ and common witness.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.