- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 25, 2010

There’s this odd sleight of hand going on in the nation’s capital.It used to be that you called the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) or someone at the Vatican to get the Catholic Church’s side of things. With evangelicals - a far more diverse and scattered group - you could call a certain handful of organizations, magazine editors and pastors and pretty much get the drift of what the born-again crowd thought.

That all changed around the time of the 2004 elections. Liberal folks realized that religion was important to the electorate and if you can’t beat them, not only join them but appropriate their brand.

All of a sudden, new groups including the word “Catholic” sprung up like crocuses in March: Catholics United, Catholic Democrats and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Ground.

The emergence of such groups infuriated William Donohue of the Catholic League to no end, as he felt these were faux Catholic organizations that were being showcased to show then-candidate Barack Obama had Catholic support. It didn’t help that atheist billionaire George Soros was donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Catholics in Alliance group.

“[President Obama’s] entire ‘Catholic outreach’ has been toward leftist Catholic groups that say they oppose abortion yet they agree with every decision Obama has made about it,” Mr. Donohue told me.

The same thing happened on the evangelical side of the fence. Liberal evangelicals like Ron Sider and Jim Wallis came out of the woodwork; Mr. Wallis produced a book on moral issues that rose to the top of the New York Times best-seller list and sat there. Folks like former National Association of Evangelicals Vice President Richard Cizik, filmmaker Steven Martin and ethicist David Gushee founded a “New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.”

To some, this felt like a breath of fresh air. But to the stalwarts, it was identity theft.

What has resulted is confusion as to what’s the real McCoy; a drama that played out in spades this month when the USCCB got blindsided by groups of nuns and Catholic hospital directors who implied they, not the Catholic bishops, were closer to the heart of the church’s social-justice doctrine.

Instead of concentrating all their energies on the health bill, Catholic officials had to mount a rear-guard defense. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote a furious March 19 essay on the “First Things” Web site castigating “people who claim to be Catholic and then publicly undercut the teaching and leadership of their bishops.”

That same day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invoked St. Joseph in support of the health care bill.

Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council thinks the divide-and-conquer strategy is how the Obama administration deals with conservative religious groups.

“This is the exact same thing they did during the [2008] election,” he told me. “They knew the Protestant and Catholic votes were important so they planted doubts as to who was what. That is partly what we are seeing now.”

Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America says the religious left will soon tire of Mr. Obama.

“They all felt Obama was a ‘breath of fresh air,’ or ‘hope’ and all those broad themes,” she told me. “But there’s major buyer remorse out there. Remember all those Baptists who voted for Jimmy Carter?”

Julia Duin can be reached at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

• Julia Duin can be reached at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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