Antonio Spadaro SJ has coauthored an essay for the publication he edits, La Civiltà Cattolica, in which he and his Protestant coauthor, Marcelo Figueroa, take aim at certain strains of fundamentalism in the United States and their influence on both American politics and American Catholics. The essay is critical of many ideas and groups that are very much deserving of criticism, but in the end it sheds almost no light on the actual dynamics shaping the American religious and political landscape.
To begin with, fundamentalism is not the mainstream of American Protestantism, nor does it have the influence in American politics that the authors imagine it does. The notion, for example, that George W. Bush is a fundamentalist with a Manichean worldview is patently false. So is the suggestion that there’s some close affinity between the Biblical literalism of fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the God-wants-you-to-be-rich hucksterism of the Prosperity Gospel. That Donald Trump has been deeply shaped by some confluence or conspiracy of the two is ludicrous.
To these bizarre and hackneyed assessments of the Protestant religious scene in America, our authors add an attack on a fringe Catholic media outlet called Church Militant. The primary connection between the aforementioned problematic Protestants and the Church Militant seems to be that the Church Militant and Christian fundamentalists 1) both think they’re right and other people are wrong, and 2) really don’t like abortion. (Prosperity Gospel types don’t go in much for culture wars; they’re too busy praying their way to payday.)
In attacking Church Militant, the authors aren’t erecting a straw man; the outfit is real, and a problem. (Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit forbade them to use the word “Catholic” in their name and Archbishop Charles Chaput had to kick them out of Philadelphia in the run-up to the World Meeting of Families in 2015 because they were being so obnoxious.) But Church Militant is so far out on the right-wing fringe that in calling attention to it, the authors are either radically overestimating its actual influence, or using it as a convenient whipping boy—a stand-in for everything they don’t particularly care for in American Catholicism.
Sadly, that seems to be the recipe for most of the piece: present a parade of horribles in a way that suggests to the reader that they’re related even if they’re not, drop in a gratuitous jab at George W. Bush for zest, sprinkle Donald Trump’s name generously, add one dash of Steve Bannon, and then contrast the whole thing to Pope Francis and voilà!
All of this is too bad, really. For one, America’s maddeningly complex religious landscape needs thoughtful analysis and critique. And theological trends have a way of bleeding from one denomination to another. American Catholicism has surely been influenced—for the better and also the worse—by the fact that America is overwhelmingly Protestant.
The Jesuits have a long history of protecting the Catholic faith from the more problematic aspects of Protestant Christianity—for the benefit of Catholics and Protestants alike. That’s still a worthwhile endeavour. Unfortunately, the essay in La Civiltà Cattolica is not.