An analysis piece published Thursday in La Civilta Cattolica discusses what it calls a “surprising” and unfortunate alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelicals in the U.S. on issues such as immigration – suggesting the two are in direct opposition to Pope Francis’ message of mercy.
The article, published online July 13, is co-authored by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of the Jesuit publication, and Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian pastor who is editor in chief of the Argentine edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper.
Both men are regarded as confidantes of Pope Francis. La Civilta Cattolica is also seen as a mouthpiece of sorts for the Holy See, as its text is revised and approved by the Vatican Secretariat of State before it is published.
Fr. Spadaro and Figueroa start from the US motto, In God We Trust, saying that for some this “is a simple declaration of faith,” but for others it is “the synthesis of a problematic fusion between religion and state, faith and politics, religious values and economy.”
The authors hold that in recent decades American politics have been shaped by “religion, political Manichaeism and a cult of the apocalypse.”
They cite President George W. Bush’s speaking of the “axis of evil” and the US’ duty to “free the world from evil” as an example of what they call “a Manichaean language that divides reality between absolute Good and absolute Evil.”
Fr. Spadaro and Figueroa trace these to the evangelical-fundamentalist movement which becan in the early 20th century, and tie them to the consideration of the US as “a nation blessed by God.”
“They do not hesitate to base the economic growth of the country on a literal adherence to the Bible,” they write. “Over more recent years this current of thought has been fed by the stigmatization of enemies who are often ‘demonized.’”
Fundamentalism has developed an exegesis which decontextualizes the Old Testament without being “guided by the incisive look, full of love, of Jesus in the Gospels,” they write, adding that “within this narrative, whatever pushes toward conflict is not off limits.”
“Another interesting aspect is the relationship with creation of these religious groups that are composed mainly of whites from the deep American South,” Fr. Spadaro and Figueroa state. “There is a sort of ‘anesthetic’ with regard to ecological disasters and problems generated by climate change. They profess ‘dominionism’ and consider ecologists as people who are against the Christian faith.”
Ecological problems are regarded by fundamentalists as signs of the apocalypse, they write, which “confirm their non-allegorical understanding of the final figures of the Book of Revelation and their apocalyptic hope in a ‘new heaven and a new earth.’”
The authors find a prophetic formula to this worldview, characterizing it as charged to “fight the threats to American Christian values and prepare for the imminent justice of an Armageddon, a final showdown between Good and Evil, between God and Satan.”
They also cite Rousas Rushdoony, a 20th century Protestant pastor, in this regard, and note his influence on Steve Bannon, who is chief strategist in the Trump administration.
Rushdoony supports, they say, the subjection of public norms to religious morals and a “theocratic necessity” which “submit(s) the state to the Bible with a logic that is no different from the one that inspires Islamic fundamentalism.”
Fr. Spadaro and Figueroa then treat of the prosperity gospel and the rhetoric of religious liberty, first citing Norman Vincent Peale, another 20th century Protestant pastor. Peale authored The Power of Positive Thinking and was close to President Donald Trump, as well as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
In the section treating of the prosperity gospel, they also speak about “a particular form of proclamation of the defense of ‘religious liberty.’”
“The erosion of religious liberty is clearly a grave threat within a spreading secularism,” they write. “But we must avoid its defense coming in the fundamentalist terms of a ‘religion in total freedom,’ perceived as a direct virtual challenge to the secularity of the state.”
Next, the authors describe what they call a “fundamentalist ecumenism” developing between evangelical fundamentalists and “Catholic Integralists”, who they say are “brought together by the same desire for religious influence in the political sphere.”
They note that some Catholics “express themselves in ways that until recently were unknown in their tradition and using tones much closer to Evangelicals … Both Evangelical and Catholic Integralists condemn traditional ecumenism and yet promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state.”
For Fr. Spadaro and Figueroa, “the most dangerous prospect for this strange ecumenism is attributable to its xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations.”
They describe this as a paradoxical “ecumenism of hate” which contrasts with Pope Francis’ “ecumenism that moves under the urge of inclusion, peace, encounter and bridges. This presence of opposing ecumenisms – and their contrasting perceptions of the faith and visions of the world where religions have irreconcilable roles – is perhaps the least known and most dramatic aspect of the spread of Integralist fundamentalism.”
“Here we can understand why the pontiff is so committed to working against ‘walls’ and any kind of ‘war of religion.’”
In the article, Fr. Spadaro and Figueroa argue that “(t)he religious element should never be confused with the political one.”
“Confusing spiritual power with temporal power means subjecting one to the other…There is a need to flee the temptation to project divinity on political power that then uses it for its own ends,” they say.
As an example, they point to the “shocking rhetoric” of Church Militant, a website formerly known as Real Catholic TV, which changed its name to in 2012 after being told by the Archdiocese of Detroit that it did not have permission to describe itself as “Catholic.”
Church Militant and its founder Michael Vorris are known for their controversial positions. Vorris has claimed on one of his programs that only faithful Catholics should be allowed to vote. In 2011, Vorris was banned from speaking at any facility owned by the Diocese of Scranton, Penn.
Fr. Spadaro and Figueroa noted that the group portrayed the U.S. elections as a “spiritual war,” creating “a close analogy between Donald Trump and Emperor Constantine, and between Hilary Clinton and Diocletian.” By suggesting that Trump’s victory could be attributed to the prayers of Americans, Church Militant portrayed “a divine election,” they said.
“This warlike and militant approach seems most attractive and evocative to a certain public, especially given that the victory of Constantine – it was presumed impossible for him to beat Maxentius and the Roman establishment.”
A truly Christian theopolitical plan would be eschatological, they said.
“And this is why the diplomacy of the Holy See wants to establish direct and fluid relations with the superpowers, without entering into pre-constituted networks of alliances and influence.”
In contrast, Fr. Spadaro and Figueroa say, Pope Francis “radically rejects the idea of activating a Kingdom of God on earth as was at the basis of the Holy Roman Empire and similar political and institutional forms, including at the level of a ‘party’.”
They also warn that fear of chaos and a breakdown of order is what “underlies the persuasive temptation for a spurious alliance between politics and religious fundamentalism.”
Political success becomes assured by “exaggerating disorder” and “agitating the souls of the people by painting worrying scenarios beyond any realism,” they write. At this point, religion becomes “a guarantor of order.”
Pope Francis, however, is fighting against “the manipulation of this season of anxiety and insecurity,” they say. The Pope “gives no theological-political legitimacy to terrorists, avoiding any reduction of Islam to Islamic terrorism. Nor does he give it to those who postulate and want a ‘holy war’ or to build barrier-fences crowned with barbed wire.”
“(T)he Christian roots of a people are never to be understood in an ethnic way,” Fr. Spadaro and Figueroa write. “Triumphalist, arrogant and vindictive ethnicism is actually the opposite of Christianity.”