National Review Online, the flagship right-wing site, has seen less and less in the way of heated debate in recent years, as writers not fully on board with conservative movement orthodoxy have been pushed out or left of their own accord. So NRO readers may have been startled to witness a rare bout of public discord these last few days, prompted by Matthew Schmitz’s article denouncing Kansas’s new anti-sharia legislation and casting a skeptical eye at the broader anti-sharia movement in general. Schmitz, an editor at the conservative religious journal First Things, suggested that those peddling alarmism about “creeping sharia”

embarrass the very name of “religious liberty” and endanger our national security. Anti-Muslim bigots and their public apologists must be vigorously opposed by Americans who recognize the value of a religious voice in the public square and the imperative that all Americans be treated equally under the law, whether they are religious or irreligious, Christian, Muslim, or Jew.

What made Schmitz’s article rather awkward was the fact that many of these sharia alarmists — Mark Steyn, Andy McCarthy, and Daniel Pipes, to name only three — are among the most prominent writers for National Review. Predictably, anti-Islam activist Andrew Bostom took to the NRO‘s blog to denounce Schmitz as “willfully uninformed,” although his intervention consisted of a set of standard-issue talking points giving no indication that Bostom had even read the original piece. (As Schmitz noted in his reply, Bostom didn’t seem to notice that some of his talking points had already been rebutted in the piece.) This led Bostom to issue a second, more ill-tempered response in which he accused Schmitz of trafficking in “shallow, non-sequitur argumentation” and being “well marinated in cultural relativism.”

In the meantime, other NRO writers had gotten in on the fracas, with David French — a hawkish Christian Zionist lawyer and leader of the group Evangelicals for Mitt — providing a rambling defense of Bostom, while Ramesh Ponnuru — among the smartest and most prominent conservative pundits — attacked French and defended Schmitz’s original piece.

Why is any of this important? Simply because the controversy provides a hopeful (albeit highly tentative) indication that some on the religious right — and particularly the Catholic right — may be starting to stand up to the Islamophobic hysteria that has taken over much of the conservative movement. Perhaps uncoincidentally, both Schmitz and Ponnuru are Catholic, as is Robert George, the right-wing academic and movement power broker who has similarly called on Christians to “defend religious liberty for Muslims”. Prior to Schmitz’s article, his magazine First Things — which has no formal religious affiliation but has always been primarily Catholic in orientation — recently published another attack on anti-sharia laws by Robert Vischer.

Of course, it is nothing new to see religious Catholics, or the Church itself, take positions far to the left of the American conservative movement on foreign policy or economic issues. But the First Things crowd is notable in that it has always skewed to the right of most American Catholics and cultivated close ties with the conservative movement. Richard John Neuhaus, the magazine’s late founder, went from a left-wing opponent of the Vietnam War and campaigner for civil rights early in his career to a right-wing supporter of the Iraq War and proponent of a “clash of civilizations” between Christendom and Islam by the end of his life. Similarly, Robert George has all but urged fellow Catholics to abandon their (often-left-leaning) views on war or social justice and focus exclusively on issues related to abortion and sexual mores. (Rick Santorum is perhaps the classic example of this combination of conservative Catholic social mores and ultra-hawkish neoconservative foreign policy.)

In recent months, this group has raised an enormous outcry over the alleged violation of religious liberty inherent in the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. I confess that I have always been skeptical about whether their primary concern was really for “religious liberty” in general as opposed to Christian values in particular, and whether they would support the same sweeping conscience exemptions for Muslims that they were espousing for Christians. The current pushback against sharia hysteria on the right doesn’t provide a full answer to these questions — but it is at the very least a hopeful sign that the Catholic right might be willing to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to defending believers of other faiths.