White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is known to have cultivated ties with far-right parties in Europe, like the National Front in France. He also seems to have forged an alliance with Vatican hard-liners who oppose Pope Francis’ less rigid approach to church doctrine. The New York Times reported this week on Bannon’s connections at the Vatican.
Before becoming White House chief strategist, Bannon — who is Catholic — was the executive chairman of Breitbart News, which he called a “platform for the alt-right.” That’s a movement associated with white nationalism.
During a visit to Rome a few years ago, Bannon struck up a friendship with the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, a traditionalist who has emerged as one of Pope Francis’ most vocal critics.
Bannon hired Thomas Williams, an American former priest, as Breitbart’s Rome correspondent. Williams belonged to the conservative Legion of Christ, which was roiled by scandal when it was revealed its founder had been a pedophile.
Williams recently told his own story on an Italian TV talk show: In 2003, he fathered a child, but he kept it secret until he was outed by a news report. He then left the priesthood and married the child’s mother — who is the daughter of the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Mary Ann Glendon.
In July 2014, Bannon addressed a conference that was held inside the Vatican but was sponsored by a conservative Catholic group. Speaking via Skype, Bannon painted an almost apocalyptic vision of the state of the Western world.
“We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which, if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting.”
A barbarity, Bannon added, that would completely eradicate “everything we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years,” and which he clearly spelled out a few minutes later: “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.”
This is language that Pope Francis has never used. The pope has repeatedly urged European countries to welcome migrants — who are, in the majority, Muslim — and he has championed the rights of the poor.
A year ago, Francis criticized candidate Donald Trump for wanting to build a wall along the border with Mexico, saying, “A person who thinks only about building walls … and not building bridges is not Christian.”
But that’s not Bannon’s worldview. While most Breitbart reports on the pope have been neutral, headlines about the pope when Bannon was in charge included:
- “Seven Ways Pope Francis Slapped Conservatives in the United States”
- “A Vatican Expert: Pope Francis a ‘Friend of Islam’ “
- “Pope Francis Slams Capitalism, Death Penalty, Immigration Law; No Real Mention of Abortion, Gay Marriage”
- “Pope Francis Threatens Legacy of Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan”
While Breitbart and Bannon seem to be making common cause with Roman Catholics who are on the outs with this pope, these Vatican hard-liners are not very powerful.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis’ supporters inside the Vatican worry that following Trump’s election victory, the pope is a little more isolated — a lonely progressive on the global stage. They say this has emboldened his critics both within and outside the Vatican, who have become more vocal.
For example, just last week, mysterious anti-Francis posters cropped up around Rome. The photo showed the pope looking uncharacteristically very grouchy, and the unidentified author — using a Roman street dialect — accused him of acting in an authoritarian manner and showing lack of mercy, despite the fact that Francis has made “Mercy” the unofficial slogan of his papacy.
Francis has not reacted. But in a surprising move, on Sunday, he issued the very first papal blessing for the Super Bowl. It was a video message in his native Spanish — not in Italian, which he usually uses for official messages — in which he said such a sporting event “shows that it’s possible to build a culture of encounter and a world of peace.”
The Italian media labeled the message “anti-Trump.”
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until his protests turned violent.
“Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.”
Gospel of John, chapter 2, verse 15.
By Marian Ronan
In a blog posted soon after the presidential election, I argued that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops colluded in the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. But that’s not all there is to Catholic collusion in the Trump phenomenon, not by a long shot.
In a preliminary analysis published on November 9, the Pew Research Center reported that 52% of U.S. Catholics voted for Trump. But 60 percent of white Catholics voted for Trump. And while only 26% of Latinx Catholics voted for him—67% went for Clinton—the percentage of Latinx voters going for Clinton was an 8% decline over the percentage that went for Obama in 2012. This was another component of the Trump victory
And when we examine the individuals central to Trump’s campaign, the picture is no less disheartening. Though I could find nothing about her current religious affiliation, if she has any, Trump’s campaign manager and current top advisor, KellyAnne Conway (née Fitzgerald) graduated from a Catholic high school and from Trinity College, once a leading Catholic women’s college.
Then there’s Steve Bannon, the former head of the Breitbart News, an unambiguously anti-semitic, white nationalist news site, and soon to be Trump’s chief counsel in the White House. Bannon is a Catholic. In a talk he delivered at the Vatican on June 27, 2014, sponsored by the Institute for Human Dignity, he spoke of “a crisis both of our Church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.” The U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has also recently assured us of Donald Trump’s Christian values, arranged to have Bannon speak at the Vatican conference.
Then there is Paul Ryan. An article I read recently—God knows where— argued that we should be more worried about Reince Priebus, Trump’s soon-to-be chief of staff, than Steve Bannon. Why? Because Priebus will ultimately be more influential than Bannon—having major impact of administration hires, for example. And he is totally on board with Paul Ryan’s campaign to eviscerate the social safety net. And what’s Ryan’s religious affiliation? Roman Catholic, of course. At least the U.S Catholic Bishops did call him out for the cuts to social programs he proposed during the 2012 election, something they hardly did at all with regard to Trump’s threats during the 2016 campaign.
Now this is by no means the first time in U.S. history that white Catholics, and their bishops, have come down on the wrong side of pivotal ethical issues. In his recent book American Jesuits and the World, the distinguished scholar of U.S. Catholicism, John McGreevy, documents how the American church, and the Jesuits, were strongly pro-slavery for a stunningly long time. I believe the church called slavery “just servitude.”
And in the 1950s, the Catholic press, and the highly influential archbishop of New York, Francis Cardinal Spellman, strongly backed anti-Communist and anti-gay “witch-hunts” by the Catholic senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy was eventually censured by the U.S. Senate, and died, probably of alcoholism, in 1957.
But the support of slavery and of Senator McCarthy by American Catholics and the U.S. bishops pales in significance beside their support of Donald Trump. This is so because Trump is a complete climate change denier, pledged to roll back President Obama’s already inadequate climate change initiatives, and restore the fossil fuel industry. And he has already appointed a “notorious climate change denier” and “head of a coal industry funded think tank,” Myron Ebell, to lead the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Some may think this is no more significant than the threat Trump poses to Muslims and undocumented immigrants. But as an editorial in this week’s issue of The Nation argues compellingly, climate change is the “worst crisis that human beings have ever faced.” And as the U.S. Catholics who voted for Trump, and those who work for him, and the bishops well know, this is an increasingly irreversible crisis that the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has called out emphatically in an encyclical, the primary teaching instrument of the Catholic Church.
But who cares about that? What really matters to the majority of white U.S. Catholics, a minority of Latinx Catholics, and the vast majority of the U.S. Catholic bishops, is the “right to life.” And everybody knows that the environment, God’s creation, has nothing to do with life.
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After several years of teaching at a large state school, where my academic work had always focused on race, racism, and religion, I entered into the theological academy. I was making a personal decision, a vocational decision. Nearly ten years ago, I prayed: “God, make me an instrument of your peace.” God answered with a new assignment.
Too often we have demanded that men and women of color teach us both about their own history and about white racism. We have long insisted that unwilling faculty members or church members be teachers when we are too lazy to do the historical and theological work of understanding how racism functions in Christendom. We have cried for more conversation in order to facilitate our understandings of each other, even while always demanding that people of color disproportionately carry the load. But I chose this work.
I chose to go into predominately white spaces–sometimes all white spaces–to teach from my areas of expertise. I offered myself as a professor and a mentor, trying my very best to create an atmosphere where tough issues around race or gender or sexuality could be discussed. Some days I succeeded and some days I failed, but I kept trying. More importantly, I traveled this nation, speaking almost everywhere I was invited, but particularly at white churches and schools. I have written for popular media, facilitated workshops, preached, lectured, appeared on television and radio–all in my quest to be a bridge-builder within the body of Christ.
Because I don’t believe that you can live your faith on the sidelines, I entered into spaces I knew weren’t hospitable. I’ve lectured at churches that don’t ordain women, despite being an ordained clergywoman. I’ve spoken to congregations that don’t support LGBT rights, despite my embrace of them. And I’ve been a guest speaker at far too many places that were deeply suspicious of my frank talk about racism and white supremacy in Christian spaces.
Some invited me back, some did not. Some embraced me as a sister in Christ, some probably considered me a heretic. But I’ve been doing the work to which I’ve been called. And I am grateful for the students, colleagues and friends who support me along the way. I am grateful for my welcoming home in the Black church that has sustained me all my life. The work hasn’t been easy, but sometimes a “thank you” note arrives in my mailbox and I weep in my office.
My years in theological education were at the forefront of my mind while trying to understand the outcome of this historic 2016 election, in which over 81 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for the president-elect.
Last week I watched as 81 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for someone who, on tape, mocked a journalist with disabilities, and who, also on tape, lied about mocking that journalist.
I watched as 81 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for someone who admitted to sexually assaulting women and gleefully affirming that he would face no consequences for doing so.
I watched as 81 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians dismissed his affairs, adultery, multiple marriages, participation in porn subculture, refusals to release his tax returns, failure to donate to charities to which he promised money, mockery of his own supporters (including their wives and parents), participation in racist lies about President Obama, stereotyping of African Americans, Mexican Americans and Muslims–and still voted for him.
I watched as 81 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for someone who lies about even the most trivial things.
I watched as 81 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for someone who conveniently “found religion” just in time to court a voting bloc, but who could not answer even baby questions about this newfound faith.
I watched as 81 percent of white evangelicals and born-again Christians voted for someone who in his acceptance speech did not mention “God.” Not one time. Not even to thank God for his victory or to suggest that “God bless America.”
I lament that, for white evangelicals, my brothers and sisters in Christ (some of whom have joined me in the work of racial justice), the very real lives and experiences of black and brown peoples, Muslims, immigrants, and so many others were apparently not on their radar. People whose highest commandment is to love God and then love your neighbor.
There are real people on the other side of these lies and racism and misogyny. There are Muslims who face physical assault because of an Islamophobia that is being embraced and celebrated in this country. There are women who are raped or sexually assaulted, and who will never seek justice, since sexual assault has been reduced to merely “locker room” antics.
There are children who will endure bullying, and potentially consider suicide, because of the president-elect’s public behavior of bullying and demeaning those with whom he disagrees. There are African Americans living in fear when someone shouts “Kill Obama” during an acceptance speech and the president-elect fails to shut it down–because black folks know we serve as surrogates for racist rage directed against the president.
As my election night tweet clearly shows, I am left with a crisis. How do I continue to build bridges across racial divides with those who have demonstrated, in overwhelming numbers, that they will partner with a person endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan? Or with those who affirm someone who continues to insist, after eight years, that our current president is not a citizen and is therefore illegally occupying office?
How do I continue to be in Christian fellowship with those who embrace a man still calling for the deaths of five innocent African-American men acquitted of a crime by DNA? How can I believe that racial justice is possible when dealing with those who are quick to forgive the president-elect’s egregious moral lapses, while simultaneously supporting his contention that black and brown youth are inherently criminals deserving of constant surveillance?
As a descendent of enslaved persons my ancestors have been in the United States longer than almost any other group besides American Indians. I am not going to leave the country my ancestors built with their blood and uncompensated labor. And I am a Christian–a faith that was birthed in an African cradle. I am not going to leave the faith bequeathed to me by my foremothers and forefathers. But I will always speak truth from my lived experience as an African American living in a nation in which the structural sins of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression are clearly evident even in the body of Christ.
Yet I do not know as I write this whether the work to which I have given my career can continue. I do not know if I can continue to pay the cost of being a peacemaker and a bridge-builder with those who refuse to see how their actions have so deeply wounded minority communities. Something has been broken for me; a fragile hope that the work of racial and gender justice will be embraced by the larger church.
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