White Christian Americans are “dangerous;” Islam is non-violent.
In July, 2017, La Civilta Cattolica published an article entitled “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism,” a.k.a. “An Ecumenism of Hate.” La Civilta Cattolica is Italian for Catholic Civilization. This publication is prestigious and long-lived. It was founded in 1850 and it is vetted by the Vatican. The authors of “An Ecumenism of Hate” are Antonio Spadaro a 51-year-old, Italian Jesuit and editor-in-chief of La Civilta Cattolica, and Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian, Argentinian theologian. Both are close associates of Pope Francis.
“An Ecumenism of Hate” identifies Trump voters, Protestant and Catholic, as in need of correction, as they diverge from true Christian faith, and pose a threat to American democracy and world peace. These Trump voters are wrong about, or are handling in an incorrect way, the following: abortion, same-sex marriage, the environment, education, welfare, immigration, the current influx of migrants into Europe, and Islam. Given that the article was understood as a papally-endorsed, full-frontal attack on the president of the United States and his supporters, it received wide attention.
New York Times‘ readers exulted. “Glory hallelujah,” says the reader response voted most popular by other readers. “I am not a Catholic but I believe Pope Francis is a true disciple of Christ,” reads the second most popular response. “I wholly support Pope Francis’ crusade against greed and exploitation… and hate-inspired exclusionary policies,” “I am CHEERING,” “Pope Francis … is the true moral leader of the world,” read subsequent popular responses.
The Economist calls the article “startling.” In Commonweal, author and theology professor Massimo Faggioli calls “An Ecumenism of Hate” a “must-read,” because, inter alia, it shines a light on Vatican response to “Trump’s Islamophobic remarks and advocacy for the deportation of undocumented immigrants.” Trump voters and their ilk, Faggioli writes, are responsible for “new barriers … between Christianity and Islam.”
Luis Badilla, editor of a popular Italian Catholic website, Il Sismografo, asks why Rome had to produce such an article. Why hadn’t American bishops said, sooner and more emphatically, what the article said? American Catholic leaders were guilty of an “embarrassing silence.”
There were some similar outpourings of joy at the Civilta Cattolica site. “My Muslim friends say that Francis is the one man on earth who is uncorrupted and can speak the truth. They love him,” writes one reader.
John L. Allen writes in Crux that Spadaro and Figueroa “clearly reflect the kind of views held by the pontiff.” Trump supporters hated the article, and Trump critics loved the article, Allen writes: “immediate reaction here mostly broke down along pro- or anti-Trump lines. If you’re inclined to give the president a break, you probably hated the article, and vice-versa.” The article deserves attention, Allen writes, because it breaks precedent. “This is not just business as usual. It’s rare for a Vatican media outlet, even one that’s only semi-official, to comment directly on the politics of another nation, especially in a fashion that can’t help but be seen as fairly partisan.”
A subsequent Crux article presents a “Latino / Latina take” on the article. “Underrepresented” Latinos and Latinas feel like “aliens in this Promised Land.” Latinos and Latinas voted for Hillary Clinton. (The article really does insist, throughout, on referring to male and female Latinos and Latinas separately.)
The Jesuit magazine America‘s coverage features a photo of a sincere looking, attractive young woman holding a sign in front of the White House. Her message: “Resist Islamophobia.”
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a critical response, calling the article “bad but important.” The National Catholic Register condemns the article as “a collection of uninformed assertions spiced with malice.” Spadaro and Figueroa attacked an obscure website, Church Militant. That website responded sharply, suggesting that the article might be “promoting positions contrary to Catholic teaching.” In CatholicPhilly,Archbishop Charles Chaput likens Spadero and Figueroa to Lenin’s “useful idiots.”
I am a proud and lifelong Catholic, author of a book defending my faith. I am not a Trump supporter. Reading Spadaro and Figueroa’s reflection of my pope’s thinking about my country and my fellow citizens enrages and disgusts me, and tempts me to despair. The article epitomizes the ignorant, arrogant liberal stance that got Trump elected in the first place. Spadaro and Figueroa, and, by extension, Pope Francis, have, in this article, not only failed to meet the challenge presented by the Trump phenomenon, they have taken giant steps in the wrong direction.
“The Ecumenism of Hate” exhibits the intellectual level of a gaggle of scruffy, slightly tipsy graduate students randomly spinning the Google wheel in a futile attempt to support their wobbly positions. Spadaro and Figueroa make sweeping generalizations about what Americans think and how Americans behave, and they cite not one single peer-reviewed social science article or respectable poll. Spadaro is an Italian who has lived in Italy most of his life. His degrees are in theology, and he writes about literature and art. Figueroa is an Argentinian Presbyterian pastor and theologian. What formal education or life experience qualifies these two men to fabricate a hostile, strawman depiction of their boogeymen of choice, Trump supporters, and also, as the authors themselves specify in their bigoted little screed, “whites from the deep American South”?
In fact they have no scholarly support. Rather, their rant is sanctioned by its being obedient to liberal prejudices and pseudo-intellectual smokescreens. Liberalism’s favorite go-to scapegoat for all the world’s ills is the Redneck, the Cracker, the Hillbilly, the Trailer Trash “whites from the deep American South.” This character is as reliable a bete noir to liberals as Shylock is to anti-Semites. Spadaro and Figueroa have not received adulation because they use the tools of scholarship to advance a novel and pertinent paradigm. Their words have been elevated to prophetic status because they exploit their intimacy with the world’s oldest institution to tell liberals that liberal prejudices, liberal blind spots, and progress-retarding liberal hatreds are perfumed with sanctity. The sad irony is that many of those liberals metaphorically spit on the Vatican, on Christianity, and on Western Civilization, and no amount of flattery or gestures at comradeship will budge them from their Christophobia.
Just one demonstration of Spadaro and Figueroa’s intellectual pretensions. They insist that Lyman Stewart and Rousas John Rushdoony contributed to getting Trump elected, and are responsible for the worldview of many Evangelicals and Catholics. I will wait while you Google these two names. I think most readers of “An Ecumenism of Hate” had to Google these two names.
Rousas John Rushdoony was a twentieth-century, Armenian-American Calvinist who is known as the father of Christian Reconstructionism, a fringe movement that recommends that society be governed by divine law. Spadaro and Figueroa make no attempt to support their assertion that Rushdoony’s was the unseen hand, manipulating Rednecks, however remotely, into voting for Trump.
I performed a little experiment. Many of my Facebook friends are members of the groups Spadaro and Figueroa point their accusing finger at. They are white, Christian, Southerners who voted Trump. I asked, “Have you ever heard of Rousas John Rushdoony?” They had not. Yes, a man can be influential but unknown, but the friends I asked are the type of people who support their positions with quotes from their reading. They cite admired sources like Martin Luther, the Bible, C. S. Lewis, Friedrich Hayek and David Horowitz, chapter and verse. Rushdoony was a non-entity to them.
It is easy enough to demonstrate a thinker’s influence. Spadaro and Figueroa could have, for example, shown us where bestselling, contemporary authors cite Rushdoony. No such attempt is made. Spadaro and Figueroa could have toted up the Facebook pages devoted to Rushdoony and the number of fans such pages have. One can find multiple Facebook pages dedicated to C. S. Lewis. Just one such Lewis page has a million and a half fans. I found a couple of pages for Rushdoony with a few thousand fans. Facebook reflects no groundswell of affection for the man. Paul Matzko argues that Rushdoony himself exaggerated his influence by insisting that thinkers were stealing ideas from him without attributing them to him. Perhaps Spadaro and Figueroa made the mistake Matzko describes – insisting that Rushdoony is influential because Rushdoony himself insisted he was.
Too, just because two different people reached the same conclusion does not mean that one influenced the other. They may have reached these conclusions independently. Rushdoony decried the influence of welfare on the work ethic of recipients and he called for homeschooling. Plenty of people have drawn similar conclusions without any contact with Rushdoony or his ideas.
Announcing that Trump voters are following in the footsteps of Rousas John Rushdoony matters. It matters because Rushdoony was close to being a Holocaust denier, and he had other controversial ideas. This is guilt by association, a logical fallacy.
During Barack Obama’s first run for the presidency, video emerged of his friend and mentor Reverend Jeremiah Wright making inflammatory statements, including “God damn America.” As one, the powers that be, from pulpits to senate chambers to editorial offices, drew and quartered anyone who posited any connection between Obama’s close association with Wright and Wright’s calling down hellfire destruction on the nation Obama hoped to lead. Obama’s opponents, John McCain and Mitt Romney, refused to use the Wright tapes in their campaigns.
Spadaro and Figueroa insist on smearing all “whites from the deep American South” who voted for Trump with the name “Rushdoony,” a name most have never heard, a name that has had negligible influence on their lives. But associating a liberal person of color, Barack Obama, with Rev. Wright or Obama’s communist mentor Frank Marshall Davis is verboten, a hanging offense. This is a prime example of liberal selective outrage and the liberal ethnic identity hierarchy.
Spadaro and Figueroa remind me much of Michelle Goldberg’s 2006 book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. Goldberg works hard to associate American Christians with Nazis, through her black, white, and red cover photo of sieg heiling Christians to her saying that reasonable people must “Keep a bag packed and your passport current,” so that you can escape the US once the evil Christians take over. Goldberg also waved the dreaded flag of Rushdoony. Goldberg diagnosed of one attorney, presumably an educated man, “whether he knew it or not” Rushdoony had “shaped his thinking.”
As author Charlotte Allen put it in an L. A. Times 2011 op-ed, “Every time a Republican candidate for high office surfaces who is also a dedicated Christian, the left warns in apocalyptic tones that if you vote for him, America will sink into a ‘theocracy’ … but linking Rushdoony to present-day evangelicals involves connecting a dubious series of dots.” If you knew somebody who knew somebody who knew Rushdoony … you were obviously a Rushdoony-ite and mere mortals must shudder in fear before you.
In addition to its intellectual worthlessness, “An Ecumenism of Hate” is a failure for another reason. The authors are guilty of the very crime they impute to others. Spadaro and Figueroa use the term “Manicheanism.” Manicheanism was a religious worldview from Ancient Persia. Its followers viewed the world as locked in conflict between darkness and light. By this reference, Spadaro and Figueroa argue that Trump voters see the world as good v. evil, and in black and white terms, with no nuance, no shades of gray.
Spadaro and Figueroa, and, sadly, their patron, the pope, are the ones thinking in Manichean terms. Spadaro and Figueroa refer to their scapegoats, their bete noirs, “whites from the deep American South,” in the following terms. They are “dangerous” and “vindictive.” They work “to maintain conflict levels,” they want to “conquer and defend” “the Promised Land,” they ignore “the bond between capital and profits and arms sales,” they think of war in terms of “heroic conquests,” they offer a “theological justification” for their “belligerence,” they are “anesthetized” to “ecological disasters,” they perceive their fellow Christians as a “community of combatants,” their religious beliefs are “no different from the one that inspires Islamic fundamentalism,” because “the narrative of terror shapes the worldviews of jihadists and the new crusaders and is imbibed from wells that are not too far apart.” Trump voters’ religious views are identical to “the theopolitics spread by Isis” because both are possessed by the “nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state.” Trump voters are mired in a “xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations.”
In an exclusive interview with America, Spadaro continued in this vein. He accused the targets of his condemnation of “intolerance,” of lacking mercy, of being “warlike and militant.” He said, “Christians are called, together with other people, including those who think differently from them, to build a better society.”
The authors have the audacity and the utter lack of self-awareness to state, “The pope does not want to say who is right or who is wrong for he knows that at the root of conflicts there is always a fight for power. So, there is no need to imagine a taking of sides for moral reasons, much worse for spiritual ones.” The hypocrisy here could burn through lead.
The demonization of whites from the American South, or, by extension, all white, American Christians, like any hate, has consequences. Harvey recently set records as one of history’s most destructive hurricanes. People died. Millions suffered. Vivid images of heroism were broadcast throughout the world. Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, responded by celebrating the death of “whites from the deep American South.” The magazine headline read “God Exists.” Because God killed white Southerners. This is where we are in 2017. Liberals celebrate internationally, and are suddenly ready to admit the existence of God, because white Southerners drowned in Hurricane Harvey. Spadaro and Figueroa, speaking for the pope, are playing their role in this tidal wave of hate.
Also in his interview with America, Spadaro said that his opponents’ thinking imagines that “the church is therefore transformed into a kind of sect, a sect of the pure, the option of the pure, even though numerically small, which then seeks to impose its vision on society, prescinding any form of dialogue.” Christians must “build a better world through dialogue.” Someone really needs to hand Spadaro a mirror. Spadaro and Figueroa exhibit no hint that they had ever engaged in any dialogue with Trump voters. They speak within earshot but over the heads of Trump voters, to condemn them to other liberals. This process is condescending, humiliating, and dehumanizing.
That Spadaro and Figueroa’s article participates in liberals’ longstanding hierarchy of ethnicities is evident in the article itself, in its treatment of Southerners. This liberal ethnic hierarchy is also on display in a response to the article, the above-mentioned Crux piece that offers a “Latino / Latina” “take” on the article. Latinos and Latinas “comprise nearly half of the Catholic Church in the United States.” That statement is triumphalist – our numbers beat your numbers – and it is meant to intimidate – there are more of us than there are of you. This is an anti-Christian and anti-Catholic motivation. The Catholic statement would be that one hundred percent of American Catholics are one hundred percent Catholic.
The author of this article, Miguel H. Diaz, has placed a hand puppet of Catholicism over his real agenda: identity politics, the very identity politics that helped get Trump elected, as Mark Lilla diagnosed in the New York Times within a week of the 2016 election. Steve Bannon recently invited Democrats to continue with identity politics. As long as they do so, people like him, Bannon, will continue to win. He’s right.
Diaz harps on how disempowered he feels as a Latino. He says he is an “underrepresented alien in the Promised Land.” He self-identifies thus: “Miguel H. Diaz holds the John Courtney Murray Chair in Public Service at Loyola University Chicago and is a former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under President Barack Obama.” This is a man who occupies the pinnacle of American society. And yet he playacts at being a marginalized ethnic victim, because it is rewarding to him to do so.
Diaz’ article closes, “What we most need at this unprecedented time in American history is a transfusion of Christian ecumenical love into our veins capable of offering us new life so that each of us regardless of creed, race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, and political affiliation can participate in the great project of making us one nation.” Diaz announces himself as being about transcending identity, but the very point of his piece, its raison d’etre, is to racialize thought, to insist that a Latino, or maybe a Latina, would have a reaction to Spadaro and Figueroa that a non-Latino would not have. Diaz ethnicizes cognition. That is an utterly racist thing to do. The atomization and balkanization that his approach inevitably leads to is hinted at in his insistence, throughout his article, to referring to Latinos and Latinas. It isn’t enough, to him, to put a fence around the identity of those whose ancestors spoke Spanish, and corral them off from those whose ancestors did not speak Spanish. No. He must further cordon off descendants of Spanish speakers by gender. I am shocked, shocked, that Crux did not follow up with an article expatiating on how Latino transgendered differently-abled readers reacted to the Civilta Cattolica article.
There’s something even more nefarious going on. There are concrete reasons why those most dastardly of humans, “whites from the deep American South,” voted for Trump. Spadaro and Figueroa wave the unfamiliar name “Rushdoony” in an act of misdirection. They don’t want their readers to think of the real reasons Trump voters voted Trump.
In addition to its focused demonization of “whites from the deep American South” and other Trump supporters, Spadaro and Figueroa’s article has another agenda. It practices identity politics. It elevates one identity above others. It exists to shield a religion from honest critique. It exists to cushion adherents of that religion from any confrontation with the outcome of their adherence to their religion’s dictates. The shielded religion is Islam. The elevated population are Muslims.
Spadaro and Figueroa accuse Trump voters of investing in “a cult of the apocalypse.” This is a bizarre accusation. I can’t see Trump supporters like the fleshy Sean Hannity or the always exquisitely groomed Ann Coulter indulging in apocalyptic prepping. There is a real apocalyptic cult making headlines in today’s world but apparently the Vatican has adopted a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil stance when it comes to the folks whose acts create a cornucopia of images, worthy of Hieronymus Bosch, for the End Times Catalogue. ISIS publishes a magazine entitled Dabiq, because ISIS members believe that their forces will defeat “The Army of Rome” near Dabiq, Syria, and bring on the end times. ISIS bases this belief on a saying of Mohammed. ISIS uses this belief to justify the selling of Yazidi children as sex slaves. “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women … If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.”
Spadaro and Figueroa quote Pope Francis. “The duty of Christianity for Europe is that of service … The contribution of Christianity to a culture is that of Christ washing the feet … Christians are called, together with other people, including those who think differently from them, to build a better society … to build a better world through dialogue.”
I cannot find any verses in my Bible where Jesus tells his disciples to “build a better society” or to “build a better world.” I cannot find any verses announcing that all Christians are to do is to wash feet. If that’s all Jesus did, he never would have been crucified. No. Christians are to speak their truth: Mark 16:15, John 8:32, Matthew 28 18-20, Luke 11:33. We must speak the truth to Muslims. We must not offer up “whites from the deep American South” as scapegoats for our rage for all that is wrong with the world.
Spadaro and Figueroa accuse Trump supporters of being without mercy. In fact it is they who are merciless. To demonize Trump voters, they refuse to acknowledge any pain that those Trump voters feel, any real threat under which they live. Spadaro and Figueroa castigate President George W. Bush for speaking of an “axis of evil.” They castigate Team Trump for supporting a ban on Muslim immigration. “Axis of evil” talk and Muslim bans have their irrational roots in the delusions of an Armenian-American Calvinist, they insist. Spadaro and Figueroa close their eyes – and their hearts – to the real inspiration for Bush’s and Trump’s statements. Spadaro and Figueroa throw out red herrings in order to deafen themselves and others to the agonizing events that preceding Bush’s and Trump’s comments. On September 11, 2001, three thousand innocent Americans were incinerated for no other reason than their national and religious identity. On December 2, 2015, fourteen innocent people were shot to death at an office Christmas party. One shooter was an American-born Muslim, the son of immigrant parents. The other was a recent immigrant. Spadaro and Figueroa express no concern for the spilled blood of these innocents. There is not a word of compassion or understanding for the victims, their loved ones, the still living wounded, or a terrorized nation. Trump announced his Muslim travel ban five days after the San Bernardino shooting. However one feels about Trump’s proposed ban, it is not just dishonest, it is inhuman, to obscure the event that inspired it. To insist, as Spadaro and Figueroa do, that Trump’s proposed Muslim travel ban or Bush’s talk of an “axis of evil” have their roots in the publications of an obscure, deceased Presbyterian is intellectual perversion and ethical rot.
Spadaro and Figueroa conflate counter-jihad with white supremacy. If you opposed the Civil Rights Movement, they say, you will oppose jihad. Spadaro and Figueroa should meet Lt. Col. and former Congressman Allen West, who rocketed to fame after he spoke frankly about the history of jihad when the white members of his panel sat stone-faced and silent, “Pleading the fifth amendment,” as one put it, afraid to make any peep that might identify them as politically incorrect. That same Allen West went head to head with a lighter-skinned CAIR representative who tried to shout him down. And that Allen West, a black man, did not back down. Perhaps Spadaro and Figueroa have closed their eyes, their ears, and their hearts when confronted with the cries of pain of black Christians in Nigeria, in the Central African Republic, in Kenya, as they are blown up, driven from their homes, and sexually enslaved by jihadis, often lighter skinned than they.
Spadaro and Figueroa claim that Trump supporters work “to maintain conflict levels.” I’d like to hear from Spadaro and Figueroa what, exactly, the fourteen innocents who died at the San Bernardino Christmas Party did to “maintain conflict levels” with their Muslim killers. Spadaro and Figueroa, please tell me what eight-year-old Catholic schoolboy Martin Richard did to “maintain conflict levels.” His little body was ripped to shreds by the Tsarnaev brothers’ pressure cooker bomb at the Boston Marathon.
In his interview with America magazine, Spadaro specifically identifies Pope Francis as deputizing himself to cleanse the good name of Islam. Francis, he says, “gives no theological-political legitimacy to … any reduction of Islam to Islamic terrorism.” In other words, if Francis says jihad is not Islamic, suddenly jihad will stop being Islamic. When a non-Muslim says that jihad is not Islamic, it is “like a pig covered in feces giving hygiene advice,” one ISIS member tweeted.
John L. Allen says that Trump supporters would not like the Spadaro and Figueroa article, and Trump critics would like it. I am a Catholic, and I am a Trump critic. I have debated every flashpoint that Spadaro and Figueroa highlight, from abortion to welfare, from jihad to homeschooling. I have never felt any temptation to take the route that Spadaro and Figueroa take. I have never felt any temptation to compare Trump voters to ISIS or to single out “whites from the deep American South” as being somehow uniquely evil actors on the world stage. In taking this high-profile and papally approved stance, Spadaro, Figueroa, and their supporters are not weakening Trump, they are strengthening him. And they are walking backwards from the teachings of Jesus Christ.