Anti-Catholic Bigotry is Now a Bipartisan Issue

Former White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon is seen at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., Feb. 23. (CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

By now most readers have heard about Steve Bannon’s disgusting comments on DACA. The bishops’ support for DACA, Bannon argues, can only stem from their crass self-interest:

The bishops have been terrible about this. By the way, you know why? Because unable to really – to come to grips with the problems in the church. They need illegal aliens. They need illegal aliens to fill the churches. That’s – it’s obvious on the face of it. They have an economic interest. They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration.

To be fair to Bannon, such self-interest is precisely what drives immigration debates in Washington: both political parties have benefitted from avoiding meaningful solutions to immigration. So it is little wonder Bannon can’t imagine the bishops playing any other kind of game.

But given that Bannon is Catholic, it is sad that the Church has not challenged him to see a vision of something better. And so I actually agree with Bannon: the Church has not “come to grips” with many of its problems, including its poor catechesis of Catholics like Bannon. But speaking out for the dignity of all persons is not one of those problems.

Bannon’s screed shows the difficulty of being Catholic and Republican: the Gospel call to serve the poor isn’t even on his radar. You can argue that Bannon does not represent the GOP, and there’s no confusing him with John McCain or George W. Bush. But his vitriol arises from some of the worst tendencies of the Republican party, especially the new, ascendant parts. That is a problem for Catholics, particularly when we see care for the poor and the marginalized in the crosshairs.

Thank goodness Catholics have another party.

Oh, about that.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior U.S. senator from California, recently questioned a prospective federal judge’s fitness for office. It turns out the nominee, Amy Barrett, is just a little too Catholic for the senator’s taste:

Whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different. And I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country.

This is sad coming from Senator Feinstein. I doubt she has any problem with the Gospel call to serve the poor, and she is known for the strength of her own convictions, convictions that she is generally happy to force on others. But the minute a truth comes up that she dislikes, in this case arguments against abortion, then suddenly conviction becomes “dogma” and the truth loses its right to a public voice.

As if working in tandem, Senator Dick Durbin, himself Catholic, asked Barrett directly, “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?” When did the Democrats start requiring religious tests for public office?

Again, you can argue that these senator’s views don’t represent their party. But at its worst, the Democratic party is deeply skeptical of any claims to truth or authority. And that is bad for Catholics who recognize the salvific truth of the authority of Jesus Christ, and indeed want to assert it on behalf of the poor, vulnerable and marginalized, including the unborn.

You can’t make this stuff up. Completely unplanned, two figures as different as Steve Bannon and Dianne Feinstein – a Trump-supporting Breitbart writer and a progressive California hero – inadvertently teamed up to remind Catholics that anti-Catholic bigotry is alive and well in both political parties.

Every day Catholics argue about which party represents better the Gospel. Have that argument if you like, but don’t forget the bigger picture, a point that we desperately need to remember: neither party can be the home of the Catholic voter. You might vote with a party, you might support parts of its plank, you might donate money and time to it: but you are never really home there. It can never be where you belong, where you discover who you are, what you most deeply care about and what you should do with your gifts for the world.

If you want to object that one party is better than the other for Catholics, you are missing the point. Even if one party were better, the fact remains that neither party is a good source of values and teachings for Catholics engaged in politics. If you are going to be selective about the values and policy preferences you hold within the party, you cannot learn that from the party itself. And you won’t bother to anyway if you find yourself more invested in partisan politics than in the Gospel.

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But what bothers me the most about Bannon’s and Feinstein’s comments is that I fear that many Catholics are not so different from them. I fear that many of us disregard Church teachings because we fundamentally don’t believe that the Gospel is calling us to fight for the Kingdom. I fear that many of us don’t really think our faith should have a public voice because we fundamentally don’t believe that the truth will set us and others free.

Instead, we preach our own political beliefs. Sure, we invoke the Gospel when it conveniently aligns with what we already believe, when we can use the Gospel as a weapon against our enemies. But what if the Gospel is challenging us, too? Is that what we are running away from?

Today is 9/11, and TJP could have run something about the tragic events of 2001. But 9/11 is actually the perfect time to meditate on this bigotry. 9/11 reminded us, albeit in a most unwelcome way, that life and death are bigger than politics. Yet Bannon and Feinstein are asking us to sacrifice what we hold most dear for political expediency.

We can fall into their trap by joining in the ideological warfare that plagues our society, refusing to recognize the humanity of others. Or we might surrender to our frustrated apathy with politics, vaguely accepting that our private selves will never find meaningfully public expression.

But maybe, on this day when so many lost their lives, we can ask what life is, and what makes it worth living. Rather than be discouraged or embittered by hate and violence, we can remember what we hold dear, and feel gratitude for all the people who give us hope that goodness is still possible in the world. Because it is.

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As a “PS,” I invite readers to weigh in on two questions:

How do you maintain hope today? 

Do you identify with a political party? If so, how do you maintain spiritual freedom from the beliefs and practices of that party?

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