Martin Luther King led the movement for civil rights and was clear he was doing this out of religious conviction. Could a bishop or evangelical say they are doing exactly what King did?Freedom of conscience is exactly NOT the point the Bishops made. Their argument was quite simple. Governments and their laws are instituted to establish justice (a slippery concept, yes, but check out the Preamble to the US Constitution as a reference). Legislators who enact laws are free to do so as they are guided by their own consciences, their constituents, or whatever. They cannot make choices that are diametrically opposed to fundamental points of Church doctrine (such as the right to life) while at the same time maintaining that they are in full communion with the Catholic Church. There are many points of view, but only a subset of them can be labeled as Catholic. Freedom of conscience does not permit any idea to be defined as Catholic. Who is allowed to determine what constitutes one’s standing within the Catholic church, the individual or the Church? That is a question that we have wrestled with since Martin Luther posed it.
The difference is that King was basing his views not only on his Christian faith, but also on the Constitution and the promise of equality. That was something on which people could get on board, whether or not they were involved with his particular church.
What we have been seeing is the deliberate use of the institutional church for party politics. Communion [for] Kerry would be a perfect example. This drags up the issues that stimulated anti-Catholicism in the 19th century, the sense that a good Catholic couldn't be a good American because they didn't have freedom of conscience. A public leader is elected to represent not just the people of a single church, but the people of many churches and the people who voted for that person who don't consider themselves religious. The idea that a church should say a public figure doesn't represent all of our doctrines is not what America is about.
Since the Democratic party platform explicity endorses abortion as a right, Democratic legislators have straddled this point for the 30+ years since the Roe vs. Wade decision. The sidestep always begins by reciting the worn cliche “While I am personally opposed to abortion…[I will now vote in a way that nobody whose personal conscience was deeply opposed to abortion would vote]”. Note that this question does not concern the rule of law, because legislators are creating new law, not enforcing existing law. Thus officials of the executive branch get a pass here, because they are not legislating.