The Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica has just published an essay on US religious politics that beggars belief. I cannot comment on the theology, but I know my American history – and this article is full of so many errors that it’s impossible to keep silent about it. It matters because one of the authors, Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ, the magazine’s editor, is said to be a confidant of the Pope.
Where to begin? The essay asserts that an alliance between evangelical fundamentalism and Catholic “integralism” has driven the Republican Party towards a Manichean, materialist, economically regressive Right. There’s a lot of words in that summary. Not all of them are accurate.
Let’s begin with the Catholic bit. I have never once met an American Catholic politician who has described themselves as an integralist. The phrase is European in origin: it refers to a Catholic traditionalism, bordering on fascism, that seeks to close the gap between church and state. To repeat: I have never met an integralist. The essay quotes the website Church Militant, which has attracted liberal criticism for its brand of conservatism, criticism that it rejects, but I strongly doubt that House Speaker Paul Ryan, one of America’s most powerful Catholics, reads it.
We are told there is a “surprising ecumenism … developing between Evangelical fundamentalists and Catholic Integralists brought together by the same desire for religious influence in the political sphere. This is an odd reading of history. Catholic and evangelical alliance-building began openly in the Seventies over abortion – an alliance that fought for the rights of the unborn and which can be credited with reducing sectarian prejudice and tension. That said, the political coalition has been tenuous ever since. The two groups typically divide over immigration; they have very little in common when it comes to economic or health policy. Obama reunited them in defence of free speech, but Donald Trump will slowly divide them over his Mexican wall, Muslim-migration clampdown and reform to Obamacare.
I suspect the essayists confuse Republicans who happen to be Catholics, many of them cradle Catholics rather than fanatical converts, with Catholics who have gone out of their way to hijack the GOP as a vehicle for their theology. The latter are probably few in number, if they exist at all. Even those Catholics who are explicitly linked to social conservatism are difficult to define in black-and-white terms. Do the essayists consider Sarah Palin to be one of these dangerous integralists: born Catholic but converted to evangelicalism? Or how about Vice President Mike Pence, who has become less denominational the further he has moved to the Right? Meanwhile, there are plenty of liberal Catholics who have entered the Democratic Party, stuck with their Church and routinely invoke Catholicism to explain their policy positions. Why do the essayists not condemn Nancy Pelosi or Tim Kaine for engaging in a “surprising ecumenism” with liberal Episcopalians?
My biggest gripe with the article is its lack of clarity. It makes sweeping generalisations that are untrue. Not all evangelicals are fundamentalists, for instance, and not all evangelical fundamentalists are Right-wing activists. Pat Robertson, the charismatic evangelical, certainly is – he even ran for President in 1988. But the essayists tell us that religious conservatives are anti-ecological, which Robertson is strictly speaking not (he once appeared in a commercial with African-American preacher Al Sharpton to warn about climate change – another “surprising ecumenism”).
The essay makes a number of statements about American Protestantism that are inaccurate. It begins its narrative of evangelicalism in the early 20th century, even though most historians would stress the influence of early Calvinist thought and the Great Awakenings that preceded the fundamentalist surge. It highlights Dominionism and the Prosperity Gospel, which really only had serious political purchase in the 1980s and early 1990s. They were influential, it’s true, but also hugely controversial and routinely sidelined. It is implied that Richard Nixon fell under the influence of the fundamentalists, but he came from a Quaker family and reportedly considered conversion to Catholicism. If Nixon is part of this “surprising ecumenism”, I’ll eat my hat. He established the Environmental Protection Agency, desegregated Southern schools and backed the Equal Rights Amendment. The Catholic/evangelical coup in US politics is a pretty ineffectual one. Abortion remains legal; gay marriage is now regarded as a civil right. Its influence is occasionally liberalising. Newt Gingrich, a Catholic convert and former Republican House Speaker, is part of the conservative campaign for criminal justice reform.
The essay betrays a European’s take on America, forcing the template by which we might read European history on to the United States. It doesn’t fit. For instance, far from being a 99 per cent white movement, as the essay suggests, some of the most outspoken religious conservatives in America are black. Fundamentalists in the Twenties often denounced Darwinism because they linked it to eugenics. Until the Seventies, fundamentalists withdrew entirely from politics on the grounds that saving souls was all that mattered; many opposed prayer in schools. And yet, in a fine example of reductio ad absurdum, this essay goes so far as to equate George W Bush with Osama bin Laden, because both were influenced by philosophies that divide the world between good and evil:
“At heart, the narrative of terror shapes the world-views of jihadists and the new crusaders and is imbibed from wells that are not too far apart. We must not forget that the theopolitics spread by Isis is based on the same cult of an apocalypse that needs to be brought about as soon as possible. So, it is not just accidental that George W Bush was seen as a ‘great crusader’ by Osama bin Laden.”
This is offensive. I suspect I know what’s behind it. If the essayists are allowed to engage in corny psychoanalysis, then permit me to do the same. Many Europeans and Latin Americans, ashamed of their countries’ dalliance with fascism, often try to implicate America in the same historical forces. But it’s more a more complex job than they think. There is such a thing as American fascism: slavery and segregation are its most obvious outward signs, and Catholics engaged in both alongside Protestants. But in the Thirties, democracy held out in the US in the way that it didn’t in Europe. And part of the reason for that was a history of resistance to state power and corporatism that is part of the DNA of America’s vibrant, violent, sometimes quite insane religious culture. American history is complicated. It defies lazy caricatures.
Addendum. This piece originally linked the website Church Militant directly to integralism, a statement based upon inference rather than fact. We are happy to correct this mistake.