Knights of Columbus' Carl Anderson on the Catholic Vote

The faithful’s religious liberty is being eroded very subtly, the Knights of Columbus leader says.

Carl Anderson
Carl Anderson (photo: Knights of Columbus)

The political season in the United States will begin in earnest Jan. 3, with the Iowa caucuses. A lot of questions remain, however.

Who will be the Republican Party nominee to face off against President Barack Obama? Who will secure the slot of vice president? What will be the key moments at the respective party conventions? And, in November, who will be the next U.S. president?

What should Catholic voters be most concerned about? For Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus and a former adviser to President Ronald Reagan, it’s important to see what the U.S. bishops are most concerned about — and, at this time, judging from a slew of public statements, their greatest concern is about religious liberty.

Anderson spoke with the Register shortly before Christmas.

What key issues should be in the minds of Catholic voters as the 2012 election looms?

The insightful Catholic voter will pay close attention to what the bishops are saying. One of their principal concerns is reflected in the establishment of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

No. 1: The establishment of an ad hoc committee indicates a pressing, strong concern because it’s outside the ordinary procedural model.

No. 2: The [U.S. bishops’] conference has just gone through a restructuring in which they consolidated and got rid of a number of committees. So the tendency of the conference is to streamline greater efficiencies, making the size of the staff into a manageable, efficient model. So this is going against the recent trend, which means they see it as an extremely important issue.

So, if Catholics want to know what’s really important, they ought to consult the bishops. They are acting in a way that suggests religious liberty is a very important concern to them. And I think if you look at what’s happening in, maybe, the last two years, it is very significant.

We’ve always had some organizations that have sought to exclude religious organizations from public life or exclude religious influence in the public square. What appears to be happening now is that the effort has got the power behind it of the federal government on more and more occasions, and it’s being done in areas that are difficult for the public to understand.

It’s being done very subtly?

Very subtly and on some very technical and legal points like the “ministerial exception,” like the “conscience-clause exception.”

We’re going to have a conscience-clause exception, but nobody can qualify, or very few. We’re going to have a conscience-clause exception for Catholic hospitals and institutions, except almost none will be able to qualify.

Hill-Burton [a 1946 law designed to provide grants and guaranteed loans to improve the nation’s hospitals] funding requires that anyone taking Hill-Burton money from the government provides services to indigent people in their emergency-care facilities when they show up and say, “I cannot afford care, but I need care.”

At the same time, the conscience-clause exception for Catholic hospitals says if you treat a significant number of non-Catholics you don’t qualify for the exemption. So it’s almost a Catch-22; but it’s hard to look at the way these formulations are being drafted without concluding that it is being done in a way to make it very, very difficult for Catholic institutions to qualify.

Many Catholics greeted President Obama’s statement at the University of Notre Dame, when he talked about respect for each other’s positions, needing to have reasonable conscience-clause protection, as going in a different direction to the way his administration appears to be going in. So I would say this is the most important issue now — because it affects the life of the Church to live the Catholic way of life.

Now we can also talk about other important issues to Catholics: the protection of the defense of marriage, the protection of the right to life, in terms of both the question of abortion and the question of doctor-assisted suicide and euthanasia. But, in a sense, those issues — I’m not saying they’re equally important — affect issues of justice or ethics, whereas religious liberty affects the ability of the Church to exist and Catholics to live their faith.

It’s the fundamental human right on which others depend.

Yes, I think the question of religious liberty is the first right in the Bill of Rights — and it’s the first because, without that kind of protection, all the other protections seem to be secondary: freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of speech.

If we don’t have the freedom of conscience and religion, what does it mean to have freedom of the press? So I think that is the most important issue. These other two issues are most important as well.

Yet it’s not much of an electoral issue, with much of the election talk focusing instead on the economy.

This is the perennial question. Because people who don’t want the election to be decided on moral issues such as the right to life always say: “Well, it’s the economy, stupid.” And for the vast majority of people, maybe it is the economy. But if an election is decided by 2%-3% of the electoral vote, working at the margins can make a significant difference to the outcome of the election. So it’s maybe a “Which comes first? The chicken or the egg?” question.

But the fact that it’s not an electoral issue per se doesn’t mean it’s not an important electoral issue for a decisive minority of voters. And, traditionally, the number of voters for whom the pro-life position is decisive is two to three times greater than those who say the pro-choice position is decisive. So, we’ll see, but it’s also up to Catholics to speak out and say this is an important issue to us: “Religious liberty is an important issue — how do you feel about it?”

It needs to be given a higher profile.

Yes, if you look at the [election] cycle we’re in now, .. we basically have the Republican primaries and Republican candidates, who virtually all agree on the pro-life issue. And I think if you ask them about the importance of religious liberty, they’ll tell you they all virtually agree on that.

President Obama doesn’t have a primary opposition, and he’s not going to have a primary opposition on those issues anyway. So, at this point of the cycle, it may not be an issue, because there’s no distinctive element.

But as we get into the fall, and there is a difference between the candidates, I think you’ll see this surface more, because then there’ll be more attention to these issues.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.