Baltimore Archbishop Bill Lori is the face of the Catholic Church's biggest U.S. campaign in a generation, what he calls a fight against a war on religious freedom. (Doug Kapustin/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

If Baltimore Archbishop William Lori has a hobby, it’s reading books about modern American history. He even named his golden retrievers Barnes and Noble. A few years ago, that inclination merged with another: pent-up anger at a culture he feels ridicules his church.

An effort by Connecticut lawmakers to reorganize the church, jokes about priests on “Saturday Night Live,” a legal climate that has forced the church in some cases to choose between serving same-sex couples and its own teachings — the insults mounted. He finally decided he needed to take a stand.

Now Lori — who worked in the Washington Archdiocese for more than two decades — is at the helm of the Catholic bishops’ nationwide “Fortnight of Freedom” campaign, two weeks of events focused on religious freedom beginning Thursday. Punctuated by a rally hosted by the Archdiocese of Washington at George Washington University on Sunday, the campaign will culminate with a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine in the District on Independence Day.

As the leader of the church’s largest — and perhaps most controversial — effort in a generation or more, the archbishop’s task is to convince Catholics that religious freedom is under attack in the United States and that religious traditionalists, in particular, are victims of something akin to racism and xenophobia. The campaign’s main rallying cry has been an Obama administration mandate requiring most faith-based employers to make contraception available to employees.

“Aren’t we 40 percent of the population?” Lori asked during an interview this week at a retreat center in rural Maryland. “Don’t we provide more health care, more social services, than any other non-governmental organization? Why are we always in the crosshairs? Let us alone. Let us do our job. Let us be Catholics. Let us make our contribution to the common good according to our own likes. That’s what America is about.”

A lot is at stake for the bishops, who have seen their authority severely eroded in recent decades amid the clergy sexual abuse crises and Catholics publicly ignoring church teaching on contraception, among other things.

Polls show many Catholics are unconvinced of the idea that religious liberty is under assault. Even some supportive bishops have worried publicly about the appearance of partisanship in an election-season movement that has encouraged priests each Sunday to sermonize against President Obama’s policies.

The bishops’ “reversal of fortune” over the past decade may be at the root of some of the public’s skepticism, said University of Notre Dame historian R. Scott Appleby.

“Their social standing, social capital and overall credibility as public figures has taken a serious hit,” Appleby said. “Now, when they need to rally Catholics to support their position on this crucial issue of religious freedom, the PR problem is exacting a cost. Many Catholics hear their message only through the filters of the sexual abuse scandal, the investigation of the [nuns] and other controversial issues.”

Lori’s focus on the issue of religious freedom began well before recent differences between Catholics and the Obama administration over the birth control mandate. It began in 2009, when Lori was a bishop in Connecticut.

In response to financial scandals, two prominent Catholic lawmakers in the state proposed a billto make laypeople, not priests, the heads of Catholic churches. Known until then for his attentive, pastoral nature, Lori took umbrage immediately.

He plunged more deeply into reading American religious history and subsequently launched the religious freedom campaign. “I think people said: Where is this all leading?” and became alarmed for the church, Lori said, referring to the Connecticut measure, which was withdrawn before having its first committee hearing.

As a result of his Connecticut activism, Lori went on to become head of a new, top-priority committee the bishops created on the issue last fall.

“Maybe his experiences in Bridgeport changed him. Events there kind of forced him into a confrontational style,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University, who remembers Lori as a caring priest when the now-archbishop worked in Maryland parishes years ago.

“My sense is not that he picked today’s religious liberty fight, but rather that a movement formed around him in Connecticut — a movement with powerful allies — and it’s this movement and those allies that have swept him into his current role,” Schneck said. “Underneath it all, though, I think that the caring, pastoral man that we knew in D.C. is still there somewhere.”

Lori isn’t seen as someone looking for a culture war, but he’s had a lifetime to prepare for one.

Lori worked for years in the Washington Archdiocese under his mentor, Cardinal James Hickey, who was a leader in controversial causes of the left and right. Hickey was a vocal opponent of President Ronald Reagan on military spending, particularly in Central America. He also made orthodoxy a priority, sending Lori to investigate the liberal Holy Trinity parish in Georgetown and overseeing the ouster of a Catholic University theologian who argued against some church teachings.

Lori has gone on to become spiritual leader for the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic lay group, devoted to promoting church priorities.

To some church observers, the religious freedom issue is something that may bring a divided American church together, uniting those most concerned with social justice with those most concerned with unity on issues such as abortion and the definition of marriage.

The Fortnight campaign “is a way of shoring up — and not in political terms, in inside-church terms — the base. There is something for everyone under the umbrella in this issue,” said Rocco Palmo, a writer who focuses on covering Catholic clergy.

Meanwhile, fans and critics of the bishops’ two-week campaign are revving up.

Traditional Catholics have launched an organization focused on concerns about the Obama administration’s approach to religious freedom. The Catholic Association on Thursday is sending 1 million Catholics suggestions for supporting the effort, including prayers, Twitter hashtags and petitions.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United For Separation of Church and State, issued a news release Wednesday saying, “It’s hard not to see this whole campaign as a partisan attempt to unseat President Obama. . . .America is a secular democracy, and public policy should reflect the public interest, not the teachings of one religion.”

Lori seems to be relishing the fight, including the time he’s spent delving into books about American religious freedom.

“You’ll forgive me,” he said, laughing, “but I had a great time doing it.”

He recalls the details of when Cardinal Timothy Dolan, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked him last fall to chair the religious liberty effort. A tall, thin man with an easy smile, Lori was exercising on his elliptical machine when he got the call, he recalls.

“And we were off to the races!” he said.

Just before the interview, Lori launched a Mass service at the retreat center in Sparks with a prayer from the Book of Matthew.

“You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” he said, standing in front of a huge wall of windows.