Friday, October 31, 2008

Fear or Hope? The Path Before Us

I talked yesterday about the tension between fear and hope in our democratic society—about the possibility that we may retrieve hope and that fear will lose its power as a tool of manipulative interest groups (including some church leaders) to undermine healthy participatory democracy.

Since I posted those reflections, I’m hearing echoes everywhere. This theme—hope pitched against fear—is emerging strongly in many folks’ thought as the election nears.

For instance, in an article entitled “Too Much Fear” at Huffington Post today, Sophia Carroll explores the way in which the use of fear by right-wing interest groups (including religiously based ones) has been undermining our democracy ( Carroll asks, “But can a people remain democratic and self-reliant when its choices are dictated by fear?”

Such questions are important to ask, as we try to reorient ourselves culturally and politically at a crucial transition point in our history. As a tool of control, fear pits us one against the other. It enchains our minds, making us suspect each other.

As I noted yesterday, I have learned this through bitter experience in the workplace. I have had the unpleasant experience of working for people who actively prided themselves on having no trust of others, and who were gifted about playing colleagues against each other in order to assure their domination. I’ve worked for leaders who, even as they talked about transformative leadership and empowerment of others, proclaimed with pride that they cannot and will not trust others—as if lack of trust is a virtue rather than a moral and psychological pathology.

These were folks who have also found a comfortable niche in neoconservative power structures. Their belief that no one is trustworthy and their willingness to exploit fear as a tool of control and domination allow them to fit right into the worldview of the men who have ruled us in the long nightmare of neoconservative domination of our culture and politics.

Sad to say, some of these “leaders” have even been African-American women who have learned that they can advance themselves and secure their power by doing the bidding of the men (largely white) who have been ruling us. To move beyond the politics of fear and division such folks have created, we need to turn now to folks like Mary McLeod Bethune. We need to heal our wounded democracy by re-appropriating and re-applying the insights of prophetic leaders such as this African-American educator who battled on multiple fronts to make the democracy of her day more inclusive.

At a time and in a place in which black and white people did not mix, Dr. Bethune brought the races together for dialogue and created an interracial leadership team for the school she founded. In a period and culture in which women were second-class citizens, she advocated for women’s rights.

At a period in which African Americans and women paid a real price by marching to vote, Dr. Bethune led the way. I have no doubt at all that she would have been right beside Coretta Scott King at the dawn of the 21st century leading the way towards inclusion of gay Americans, when there is a particularly steep price to pay if one advocates for this form of inclusion, both in the African-American community and in society at large.

Another commentator who is urging us to move beyond fear to hope is evangelical activist Jim Wallis. In an article entitled “Be Not Afraid” in today’s Huffington Post, Wallis notes,

Fear has always been the dark side of American politics, and we are seeing its resurgence in the campaign's final days. Demagoguery has come from both the right and the left in America, and the most dependable sign of it is the appeal to fear over hope. Facts don't matter when fear takes over (

Wallis is frank about the source of much of the fear mongering in our political life at present: it comes from the religious right, and it arises from the perceived sense of that movement’s leaders that they are about to lose a control of others that they’ve worked hard to establish:

Some of the worst fear-mongering has sadly come from leaders of the Religious Right who are worried about losing their control over the votes of the evangelical and Catholic communities, especially a new generation of believers . . . . When religious leaders sound so desperate and seek to stoke fear and hate, they have lost their theological perspective by putting too much of their hope in having political power. It is that loss of power and control which seems to be motivating the current campaign of desperation and fear now being waged by so many conservatives.

They have lost their theological perspective: how does it happen that people who tell us they are on intimate terms with God, and who tell us to trust God, have invested so largely in power and control? What really does count in the end for the men who rule us in the religious right: power and control? Or God? Why are these men so confident at this point in history that renewing threats of damnation will motivate people politically?

As Wallis concludes, “It is always better to live (and to vote) in the light of hope than in the darkness of fear. It is always an act of faith to believe that, in the end, hope will prevail over fear.” (For more analysis of how the religious right has been fear-mongering in this election, see Wallis’s analysis of James Dobson’s recent statements at

Alternet today carries a particularly sobering article on the negative role religion has sometimes been playing in our democratic society. This is George Monbiot’s “The Triumph of Ignorance: How Morons Succeed in American Politics” ( Monbiot notes that, in recent political analysis of how our democracy has been dumbed down (e.g., in Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Religion), “One theme is both familiar and clear: Religion -- in particular fundamentalist religion -- makes you stupid. The United States is the only rich country in which Christian fundamentalism is vast and growing.”

Overcoming fear-based ignorance and reviving hope is not easy. Religious groups have a unique ability to reach into our psyches. Their influence begins in childhood, and is shored up through the bold claim that they oversee a reward-punishment system with eternal results. When religious groups have actively worked to instill fear into a whole populace for decades, retrieving hope demands work.

As Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez noted at a conference called “Transformed by Hope” in Chicago yesterday, hope is not a matter of waiting for a better future to fall into our hands—it requires collaboration with others who share our vision of a better world, to begin building such a world: “This is the future, not waiting for beautiful reasons to hope, but to try to do something to create that hope” (

The work of rebuilding hope is going to require, on the part of people of faith who want to build a society energized not by fear but by hope, critique of the religious forces that brought us to the place where we now find ourselves. We are going to have to ask now, as Douglas Kmiec asks in a commentary today on why Archbishop Chaput’s abortion stance is wrong, how some of our religious leaders have allowed themselves to become “trapped within the narrative framework of one political party” (

Becoming trapped within the narrative framework of one political party; becoming so partisan that we can no longer see the growing gap between a party’s ideology and the values we profess to cherish: this is a form of what the Judaeo-Christian scriptures call idolatry. No political party or no political leader deserves that kind of slavish devotion. This devotion has cost the Christian churches a tremendous amount, in a period in which too many pastors have sold their souls to one party.

And “sold” may be the operative word. In trying to understand how it happens that some pastoral leaders have so blindly divinized one political party, we cannot discard the influence of money. As we try to undo the damage that this kind of partisan politics has done to communities of faith, we are going to have to follow the money.

Who are those anonymous donors to the homophobic state amendment in Florida, whose identity Mr. Stemberger has sought to shield? Who’s been funding those thinly veiled “religious” ads for the Republican party like the ones in Colorado about which I’ve blogged? Who paid for the pro-Republican video that Bishop Martino of Scranton was able to produce with breathtaking speed for this last week before the election? Where is the money for homophobic robo-calls like the ones associated with the campaign of Catholic Mick Mulvaney in South Carolina coming from (though Mulvaney is denying that he is responsible for the calls)?

Inquiring minds want to know. We need to know because a healthy democracy requires transparency, in which we can see who is trying to influence our political process and for what reasons. One of the huge wounds inflicted on our body politic in recent years is the breach of the wall of church and state. If churches are now allowing themselves to be used as overt political tools of one political party, is it not time to tax the churches?

It has just been revealed that a secret donor who recently gave a million dollars to the campaign for the homophobic proposition 8 in California is Alan Ashton ( Alan Ashton of Lindon, Utah, not of California. Alan Ashton, a devout Mormon whose grandfather was once the President of the LDS Church.

One has to wonder about the lavish funds some churches and some people of faith are investing in these political battles to keep hatred alive. In a world of such pressing need, something seems downright obscene about spending money to remove human rights from a despised class of citizens.

For many of us who are Catholic, it is obscene that the Knights of Columbus also gave a million dollars to this homophobic initiative. It is equally obscene that the Vatican chooses to announce right at the same time that it wants seminaries to screen candidates for the priesthood for “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”

This is an ugly political move designed to deflect attention from the bishops’ (and the Vatican’s) mishandling of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, by insinuating that the crisis is due to the large proportion of gay men in the priesthood. As anyone studying the abuse crisis quickly learns, it is about pedophilia, not homosexuality. The sexual orientation of the priest abusing children is not the problem; the problem is the desire and willingness of a significant number of priests to act on their desire for sexual contact with children—who include both male and female minors.

The problem is also about power and the abuse of power. Pedophilia is rooted in the desire to have power over others. Clericalism, as a system of church governance, is about the same kind of power. There are deep, undeniable links between the abuse crisis and clericalism. This is the secret that church authorities do not want ordinary people to discover, since it means that, if we are serious about changing the abuse situation, we have to change the clerical system in the church. And that would require substantial change.

The Vatican document scapegoating gay seminarians and priests comes out on almost the same day in which the current pope, as Cardinal Ratzinger, issued his infamous Halloween Letter in 1986. That letter has caused a world of woe to gay Catholics and their families and friends, by defining gay human beings as “intrinsically disordered.”

One has to wonder about the wisdom (or better, lack of wisdom) of church leaders who continue to expend valuable resources to promote an agenda that is increasingly seen by people of good will as hateful. One has to wonder about the lack of wisdom of pastoral leaders who continue to rub salt into wounds they have inflicted, especially when many Catholic leaders live in glass houses when it comes to the issue of sexual orientation.

Is it any wonder that a large majority of Catholics in the United States are simply choosing not to listen to bishops who continue to promote a political agenda that, in the view of many of us, is allied with hate? Is it any wonder that, as of February this year, weekly Mass attendance by American Catholics had dropped to 23%?

We who continue to believe that faith has the potential to be a powerful force for good in the world, an energizing force for those building participatory democracy, and a source of hope that trumps fear, have work to do now. It is not just our democracy that needs to be rebuilt, but our churches, too.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Rebuilding Hope: The Task Ahead

I’m thinking these days of the need to rebuild hope. To be specific: I’m thinking that, if our culture and political process truly are undergoing the monumental shift many observers believe is taking place, we will need to find resources to help us build hope anew. As individuals and as a society.

An interesting article on the Alternet site today addresses this issue. Mark Klemper asks how much damage eight years of neoconservative rule has done to Americans’ psyches (
(In my view, the span of neocon rule is actually longer—back to Reagan in the 1980s.)

From the viewpoint of someone whose father escaped the Holocaust, Kemper reminds us that our participatory democracy was founded on the notion of people’s fundamental goodness. This is not starry-eyed utopianism. It is Martin Luther King’s “deep and abiding faith in humanity”—the faith that, when we collaborate and draw on the energies provided by the best angels of our nature, we can build a better, if never perfect, society.

Kemper thinks that, as individuals and as a culture, we have been damaged by those who have worked on our fears for far too long now. And so we now face the task of rebuilding hope, a task he describes as follows: “A crucial part of our work will be to resurrect our essential vision of human goodness, and specifically our own goodness as a nation.”

As I say, I’ve been thinking along the same lines, and have been noting resources that help feed my starved sense of hope. They’re all around, if we push ourselves to look for them. Quite a few of the sites to which this blog is linked provide those resources.

For instance, on my friend Colleen Baker’s Enlightened Catholicism blog this week, I read a powerful document about alternative liturgies being employed in an inclusive Catholic parish in South Brisbane, Australia. And, any time I need a reminder of what the human heart is capable of when it allows itself to open to anyone and everyone in need, I turn to the resources on the Saint Mychal Judge blog linked to this site.

These are only two of a vast number of such hope-sustaining resources. Some days, simply googling images of natural beauty helps revive my hope. Other days, going someplace—the hot water fountains in Hot Springs are a place I’ve learned to count on—where I encounter somebody “different,” a bit off the grid, with a perspective on life I don’t usually hear, helps me remember how amazingly rich the spiritual lives of others can be. Every voice and every perspective counts, and we need to build a society that remembers this.

I have to admit that I’m among the walking wounded about whom Kemper writes. My own hopes have flagged during the long years of neoconservative dominance of our political process and culture. I have worked with and worked for too many people who found a comfortable niche in that neoconservative world, and whose technique of personnel management consisted of playing team members against each other, and distrusting all of them.

I’ve worked with and for too many people who, even while spouting the humanistic ideals of a Dr. King or a Dr. Bethune, nonetheless live out of the neoconservative belief that everyone is an enemy to be combated, to be put in his or her place, to be overcome. Or to be banished from community when he or she became too inconvenient or too insistent on continuing to speak out about what is good and what is true.

Such experiences rob the soul of hope. They’re designed to do that. They’re designed, in the final analysis, to fragment, to set us against one another, to set our better and baser angels against each other in the hope that the baseness will keep the better in check, while those manipulating our fears consolidate their power and control. They're designed to make us doubt our best instincts, to make us doubt and fear others. They're designed to inject poison into our psyches, for the benefit of the power-hungry person at the top playing us against each other.

One of the most hopeful signs I see in our culture today is the dissolution of the religious right as the driving force of neoconservative politics. Poll upon poll and article after article demonstrates the emergence of a new religious coalition in which younger people of faith are playing key roles.

This new coalition is driven by hope and not by fear. It is repudiating the fear-based politics (and religion) of the religious right and its political bedfellows for a new hope-based religious and political worldview.

Nothing could be healthier for our political process, in a time of seismic shift. Nothing could be better for our churches, to the extent to which they have bought into the fear-based religion and politics of the right, which use religion only to betray its most fundamental values.

Because those are centered around love and hope, not fear and hate.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bishops Throw a Party, No One Comes

Today’s Los Angeles Times carries interesting commentary by Tim Rutten on the end of “the” Catholic vote in this election (,1,3091816.column). Rutten notes that a recent New York Times/CBS poll shows Obama now with a commanding 59%-31% lead over McCain among Catholics nationwide. This despite a quarter of the U.S. bishops instructing their flocks to vote solely on the basis of abortion . . . . In heavily Catholic Pennsylvania, a key battleground state where the Catholic vote is crucial, all polls show Obama with a double-digit lead over McCain.

Whispers in the Loggia is reporting today that, as North Carolina also becomes a toss-up state—with the senate seat of the former senator Jesse Helms up for grabs!—North Carolina bishops Peter Jugis and Michael Burbidge have taken it on themselves to issue a joint letter insisting that their flocks vote on the basis of abortion—codespeak for vote Republican ( Whispers in the Loggia has a link to the text of the joint letter.

The letter was issued under the auspices of one of those mysterious quasi-Catholic, quasi-political websites whose funding is not immediately apparent—Catholic Voice NC ( Click to the site and one finds it “operates under the authority” of the two bishops—but nary word about its funding sources or status as a 501(c)(3) or PAC or anything else. The site contains the predictable list of the “non-negotiable” issues that Catholics are supposed to consider paramount as they vote, with immigration thrown in for good measure.

The site claims to be “non-partisan.” Yet I find it being linked to by a current Republican candidate in NC, Paul Terrell, whose website lists the Family Research Council and the American Family Association alongside Catholic Voice NC as resources for voters (

The bishops are doing almost everything including standing on their heads to throw this election to “the” “pro-life” party. And Catholics aren’t listening.

The bishops have a problem on their hands. Bishops should not ever place themselves where their voice becomes extrinsic to the lived experience of their flock. Bishops should not court irrelevance by diminishing their moral authority. That authority has already been seriously strained by revelations about how a large percentage of American bishops have handled the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of minors.

Now it is being strained further—I would argue to the breaking point—by the bishops’ undisguised partiality for a political party that does not, in the estimation of an increasing number of Catholics, in any shape or fashion adequately represent Catholic values, including Catholic values regarding the sanctity of life. By clinging obstinately to that single party and the single political option it represents, the bishops are giving many Catholics the impression that, in the final analysis, they don’t really care whether there’s concrete evidence of their party’s commitment to life or not. Which is to say, they are leading us to wonder if they are actually so gung-ho about the value of life as they keep telling us they are.

Or whether their commitment to “the” “pro-life” party is primarily ideological, and based on ideological considerations transcending the life issue . . . . As the latest editorial of the National Catholic Reporter puts the point, the bishops’ narrow anti-abortion effort hurts the pro-life cause ( The bishops’ one-cause, one-party politics is hurting the pro-life cause the bishops claim to hold most dear. Through their single-issue politics, the bishops are militating against the values they claim to serve, rather than effectively proclaiming those values.

Predictably, this editorial is provoking shouts of outrage from true believers who have swallowed the bishops’ ideological line for several decades now. And predictably, the well-orchestrated campaign of blog comments blasting NCR only serves to underscore the editorial’s point: if this is what a “pro-life” politics is all about, this stream of endless bile, of calumny and hatred, then what on earth have we been building through our alliance with “the” party of life?

In the name of life, in the name of the “non-negotiables,” Catholicism is coming to be viewed as a religion rabidly opposed to those core values necessary to sustain a healthy civil society—values like tolerance, respect for diversity, willingness to entertain differing viewpoints, fidelity to the truth. Values like love and affirmation of those who are hurting.

One of the truly frightening developments in the Catholic political world in the United States in recent years is the extent to which the most ardent pro-life Catholic political leaders are also turning out to be the most hateful homophobes around. I talked yesterday about Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, an ardent pro-life Catholic whose homophobia eventually became too toxic even for his conservative supporters to stomach. Hard to find love and affirmation of those who are hurting, in what Santorum and his clones holding Catholic Republican seats around the nation stand for. Hard to see core Catholic values at all in their positions.

To their discredit, this alliance between hate and pro-life politics is one the bishops have carefully cemented through the tunnel-visioned pastoral strategy they have pursued for decades now. The connection between hate and pro-life politics is something the bishops have worked for. It’s something they’ve created, and which they aren’t decrying in this election in any way that salvages their already badly damaged credibility as pastoral leaders.

The bishops have work to do. We people of faith have work to do.

This is a conclusion that NCR reporter John Allen is also reaching as the election cycle ends. Allen’s recent article “Serious Catholics Wind Up ‘Politically Homeless’ in America” comments on the serious problems facing Catholics at the close of this election ( Interestingly enough, at the same time that Allen’s article appeared on the blog café of NCR, several of the rabid bloggers attacking NCR for its editorial suggesting the bishops are hurting the pro-life cause praise Allen as the only credible reporter at the publication.

And that praise is indicative to me of something troubling in Allen’s analysis, which I’d like to discuss now. I want to do so because I suspect Allen’s analysis will be very influential in coming weeks, as Catholics dissect the election and as the bishops meet following the election. And, though I think Allen’s analysis makes important point, I propose that it does so from a rightward-tilting direction masquerading as centrist, and thus compounds rather than offers viable solutions for the deep problems of American Catholicism it notes.

Allen’s thesis is that “serious Catholics” are now finding themselves without a political home, since neither party adequately represents core Catholic values. Allen asks, “What would happen if a serious candidate came along who's pro-life, pro-family, anti-war, pro-immigrant, anti-death penalty, pro-sustainable development, and a multi-lateralist in foreign policy concerned with religious freedom and a robust role for believers in public life?”

He concludes that, “In some ways, we are at risk of becoming two separate churches.” In Allen’s view, the communion of the American church is in danger of being so fractured by political factionalism that preserving communion may be the most serious issue American Catholics face after the election: “The challenge of fostering communion may, in fact, be the deepest question posed by the '08 elections for American Catholics, even if it's not one given much space on political blogs or newspaper op/ed pages.”

While I agree with much that John Allen says here, I have serious reservations about his argument. I wonder why he is only now discovering the political homelessness of many American Catholics—now when, for several decades, almost all American Catholics who have not toed the one-party, one-issue political line have been made to know that we are not welcome in our religious family.

It’s not as if this problem of homelessness for some American Catholics is only now surfacing. It’s been there for some time, and for those of us who have actively been made to feel unwelcome, it has been painful and serious for decades now. We have already been crying out—or trying to do so, in a church that does not ever hear our voice—about breach of communion. We have offered testimony that has fallen on deaf ears, about how we have been shoved from the table, tacitly expelled from communion.

Why the sudden interest in politically homeless Catholics now? Why a focus on the problem of American Catholic homelessness only after the futility, the moral bankruptcy, of the bishops’ single-issue political and pastoral strategy is finally definitively apparent? As “the” “pro-life” party no longer easily commands Catholic loyalty . . . .

Something in the way John Allen sets up his plaintive argument calling for attention to politically homeless Catholics and the problem of broken communion suggests to me that this problem is a new problem primarily for those who are only now seeing the limits of the Catholic alliance with the Republican party. That is, the problem is now real, since it affects those who have followed the one-issue party line up to now, and who find themselves unable to do so since they have not been offered a viable pro-life candidate in this election. This is an analysis of the homelessness of politically disenchanted Republican Catholics, who are facing the end of their dreams to control American culture and political life through theocratic means.

This interpretation of Allen’s argument is reinforced by his insistence that it’s “serious” Catholics who are now feeling politically homeless. So the rest of us are, what, unserious Catholics? The chopped liver of the American church? Why were the problems of being made homeless and of being shoved from the table not apparent when we lax Catholics noted them over and over, with much pain, in recent years?

Allen notes, vis-à-vis the current election, “For disenfranchised Catholics, the road ahead is far less clear.” Yep. Been there. Done that. Many of us have been saying this for years now. So, once again, why now? Why is this recognition only now grabbing the attention of mainstream Catholics like John Allen? Now, when the party they have given a free ride to for far too long is suddenly in danger of losing?

Allen’s rhetoric about pro-life, pro-family political leaders in the quotation I excerpt above also sets my teeth on edge. As I’ve noted previously on this blog, the pro-life battle cry has to all intents and purposes been evacuated of serious significance by those who have turned it into a slogan to bash others over the head with.

And when I hear the phrase “pro-family,” I can only hear “anti-gay.” As a slogan in Catholic political rhetoric, this battle cry has come to be another of those stand-against rather than stand-for phrases. Those of us who are the object of the battle cry know in our bones that it’s not so much about building healthy families as it is about bashing us and our families. We have long wondered why “the” “pro-life,” “pro-family” party, whose policies do far less to meet the needs of real American families than do the policies of the party some bishops call the party of death, has earned a pro-family star in Catholic circles.

I have to wonder about John Allen. Where does he really stand, while he reminds us he’s objective and centrist in his approach? I’ve noted on this blog his attempt to whitewash the homophobic Vatican witch hunt to expel gays from seminaries, and the negative reaction that attempt elicited from some very good American theologians and from major superiors of Catholic religious orders.

I have even begun to wonder about Allen’s reported ties to Archbishop Chaput. Earlier this year, Allen was identified by one Catholic bogger as a friend of Chaput ( When Chaput invited him to speak in Denver, Allen himself noted in a 2004 article that “. . . I share a connection [with Chaput] through the Capuchin Franciscans. (Chaput is a Capuchin, while I grew up in Capuchin schools in Western Kansas)” (

The company we keep provides a powerful frame through which we see and interpret the world. The connections we make may blind us to the deleterious effects of some of our hidden political alliances.

My concerns about the tenor of Allen’s analysis only deepens when I read his comments the Spanish government in the article on the homelessness of “serious” Catholics in America. Allen notes,

The Vatican has centuries of experience in dealing with regimes that, in one way or another, are hostile to church teaching. When Pope Benedict XVI travelled to Spain in July 2006, for example, many analysts expected an Ali/Frazier-style prizefight with Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who has done battle with the Catholic church on every imaginable front: same-sex marriage, divorce, abortion, stem cell research and more.

Regimes that are hostile to church teaching? Spain? Zapatero? This is a one-sided analysis of the relationship between Zapatero’s government and the Spanish Catholic church.

After the Spanish bishops orchestrated an anti-gay marriage demonstration at the end of last year, 150 grass-roots Catholic communities in Spain issued a statement accusing the bishops who orchestrated the event of ignoring the will of the vast majority of Spanish Catholics, who are strongly committed to human rights for all (

And theologians in Spain, including the John XXIII Association, have repeatedly noted that the battle is not between secularism and Catholicism, as the Vatican (and Allen) like to depict it, but between two very different notions of Catholicism: the pre-Vatican II fascist Catholicism of the Franco regime and a lay-oriented Catholicism in line with Vatican II that strongly supports the current Spanish government (

The problems in American Catholicism are, indeed, serious as the bishops prepare to meet in November. This election is bringing them to the front, but they have been there for some time. I do not think that Allen’s analysis will help us face them squarely and solve them, though I suspect his analysis will be welcomed by not a few bishops who are only now beginning to wonder about the wisdom of their political and pastoral agenda for the U.S. church, now when the party they have anointed no longer commands Catholic allegiance.

As I noted in my post-Katrina essay cited on this blog several times, as the bishops continue to natter on about the sanctity of life while supporting political leaders who are anti-life, it’s entirely possible that, one day, they’ll give a party and no one will come (

I’m afraid that day is here. A February 2008 survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) shows weekly mass attendance among American Catholics at 23%—an all-time low (
And that was in February, before this election with its continued demonstration that the bishops are simply not capable of offering the American church sound pastoral leadership, as an episcopal body.

Wise pastoral leaders would face such a serious problem squarely. They would also ask about their complicity in creating it. Somehow, I doubt the U.S. bishops will do either of those things as they meet following the election. I expect them instead to continue their one-issue politics, and to deepen the breach of communion in the American church.

Of course, if they do want advice, many of us who are on the other side of the breach they have created—those of us pushed outside communion, who are now being joined weekly by over three quarters of our fellow Catholics—could give the bishops an earful. If they want to hear, that is.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Let the Sun Shine: Florida's Homophobic "4Marriage" Campaign

And in the “this just in” folder, Waymon Hudson at Bilerico Florida is reporting today that Florida Red and Blue, a group heading the SayNo2Campaign to oppose Florida’s amendment 2, has filed a lawsuit seeking disclosure of the names of hidden financial backers of this homophobic amendment ( The lawsuit notes that over $750,000 underwriting the homophobic campaign drive has been channeled through a 501(c)3 called Florida Family Action, which is not a registered political action committee (PAC).

John Stemberger, chair of, the group promoting amendment 2, has sent out emails to prospective donors informing them that if they donate through Florida Family Action, their names will not be disclosed. A September email from Stemberger links Florida Family Action to, and states that prospective donors to the campaign would be kept confidential. Stemberger has defended his evasion of Florida laws requiring transparency re: funders of political initiatives by stating that some donors to his campaign wish to remain anonymous.

In a press release about the lawsuit, Florida Red and Blue maintains, “This secret scheme was intended to circumvent Florida's campaign finance laws mandating transparency and disclosure of all contributions and donors.” In a separate statement, Joseph S. Geller and Ben Kuehne, attorneys representing Florida Red and Blue, state,

Secret contributions are a scandal that creates public distrust and deprives voters of significant information identifying the supporters of Amendment 2. That they have need to hide behind violations of the law is indicative of the deceptive nature of the campaign.

As I’ve noted in postings on this blog, in the year in which Steve and I lived in Florida (2006-2007), we found ourselves repeatedly harassed by a neighbor who was ostensibly concerned about our leaving trash on the curb in front of our house, after the city did not pick up the trash on its regular runs. When we checked the Know Thy Neighbor website at, which lists those who signed petitions to place amendment 2 on the ballot in the coming election, we found—surprise, surprise—that this neighbor had signed the homophobic petition.

Since she complained only about our leaving trash by our curb for a few moments before we realized the city had not retrieved it, and since she did not complain when other neighbors did the same—sometime for days—we had to conclude, sadly, that she was harassing us solely and specifically because we were gay and a couple. Interestingly enough, some of those whose names appear on the Know Thy Neighbor website have been outraged to find their identities made public, though Florida law defends the disclosure of names of those who sign petitions to amend the state constitution.

One has to wonder why people promoting what they proclaim to be an honorable, moral cause are so frightened to have their names known. I’m strongly in favor of sunshine laws that make information about donors and supporters of political initiatives public.

In following right-wing Catholic groups in the U.S. for some years now, I have noted an interesting pattern in which organization links to organization, with no public information about the links, and with the same players involved in both organizations. My discussion of the Colorado situation earlier today provides a number of illustrations of this principle, which allows right-wing religious groups and individuals to exercise disproportionate influence on the political process through sheltered contributions, secret funding, and coalitions that are never apparent to the public eye.

Our political life and our culture have suffered as a result of this immoral use of money and power for ostensibly “religious” ends. It’s time to let the sun shine in.

Playing the Race Card: McCain Campaign and the Ashley Todd Story

And a quick addendum to the lengthy post I just made, re: the Colorado Catholic church and its ties to the Republican party.

For those pursuing the other information trails I sketched on Sunday, Huffington Post yesterday carried valuable commentary by Marty Kaplan about clues pointing to the McCain campaign's active involvement in promoting the now-debunked Ashley Todd story before that story had been verified. In his “Move Over, Willie Horton,” Kaplan pursues the involvement of McCain's Pennsylvania communications director Peter Feldman with pushing this story (

Money quotes:

I don't know Peter Feldman, and the only mayhem he's suspected of is metaphorical, and the drip, drip, drip of evidence against him is coming out in the court of public opinion, not in a court of law. I realize that politics ain't beanbag, and I'm familiar with the riptides and undertows that can seize anyone working in a presidential campaign, especially an apparently losing one, in its final days. Still, for the sake of the reputation of Jewish ethics, and even for the sake of the reputation of Republicans, I sure hope he didn't do last week what it kinda sorta looks like he did.

And "…[I]t appears to be Peter Feldman -- not the police -- who told local reporters that her (fictional) big black assailant said to her, 'You're with the McCain campaign? I'm going to teach you a lesson.' Move over, Willie Horton.'

Selling Out Catholic Values: Archbishop Charles Chaput and the Republican Captivity of the Church

I recently challenged myself (and others) to pursue three information trails that have opened in this election. The public has a right to know 1) to what extent McCain campaign members pushed the Ashley Todd hoax before her story had been verified; 2) the names of secret donors to Florida Family Action, which is promoting a homophobic ballot initiative in that state; and 3) funding sources for the websites set up in recent weeks by the Colorado Catholic Conference to bring in the vote for Republican candidates in the coming election.

I’ve been pursuing the third question since Sunday. What I find is revelatory—and disgusting. It demonstrates that the institutional Catholic church in Colorado is so incestuously tied to the Republican party that Archbishop Chaput’s claim that he is not endorsing John McCain lacks all credibility. The story I am discovering regarding the connection of the Catholic church in Colorado to the Republican party is a parable of a church that has bargained away its soul.

Through its pastoral leaders—above all, Archbishop Charles Chaput—the Catholic church in Colorado has sold its soul. The pastoral leaders of the Colorado Catholic church have now placed themselves in the unenviable position of having mortgaged the church's future to one political party. As that party rises or falls, so does the Catholic church in Colorado.

This is a place churches should never choose to go. No political party ever deserves the endorsement of a church. The goals of all political parties fall short of the biblical vision of the reign of God. The church’s position vis-à-vis the public square should be one of constant critique of all political platforms, insofar as they do not move towards that normative vision of God's reign. The attempt to establish theocracy through one political party or a single political movement inevitably sells the church out, and places its soul in the hands of politicians and their monied backers—nonied backers who use the church as a shield for their sordid ends, and whom the church permits to buy and sell God.

As readers know, my interest in the Colorado story began with announcements on the Clerical Whisper blog last week of two new websites closely connected to the Colorado Catholic Conference—Formed Catholics in the Public Square and Voto Catolico ( and

An announcement for the Formed Catholics website appears on the Irish Catholic blog (widely read by Catholics around the world) on October 22 ( This announcement (which was obviously provided to Clerical Whispers by the website's promoters) presents the Formed Catholics website as a treasure trove of “intellectual and spiritual resources for voters.” It quotes Jill Reiff, a researcher for the Solidarity Institute sponsoring the website, as follows: “Unfortunately, not everyone has the time or access to the information necessary for voting responsibly. This website presents the most prominent information in an easy to use manner.”

Easy to use—you betcha! Information, resources: the website and its sponsors claim they are not endorsing any single party, but merely providing Catholics with the facts they need to become informed voters: “The Institute notes on their site that the facts that they present are objective and from reliable sources.”

These claims are reiterated two days later in the Clerical Whispers’ blog’s announcement of the Latino website Voto Catolico, a clone of Formed Catholics
( Citing material provided by Voto Catolico’s sponsors (which are not ever identified on the blog itself, though the blog clearly links to the Colorado Catholic Conference), Clerical Whispers states, “The site does not endorse a particular candidate but rather reminds believers of the higher values that should be considered when casting their vote, such as the defense of life from the moment of conception and marriage as a union between one man and one woman.”

Facts, resources, information, objectivity, no endorsement of a particular candidate or party: here’s what I’ve found as I have pursued information trails about the involvement of the Colorado Catholic Conference in politics. It puts the lie to the claim that these websites are objective presentations of the “facts” to inform Catholic voters. They are, in fact, high-powered (and seemingly well-funded) commercials for the Republican party, designed to give voters the impression that this party has a privileged relationship with and the explicit endorsement of the Catholic church.

In my attempt to uncover answers to my questions about these websites, I’ve discovered I’m not the only blogger pursuing these information trails. In two postings last week to the Denver Westword blog, Michael Roberts reports that Bob Beauprez, previously a Republican representative from Colorado, has been bombarding Colorado voters with robo-calls on behalf of the current Republican candidate for Congress Bob Schaffer and against his Democratic opponent Mark Udall ( and

Roberts reports that the robo-calls state that Schaffer stands with Catholic teaching on the “non-negotiable” issues of abortion, gay marriage, human cloning, etc., whereas Udall does not. And, in case those receiving the call are in doubt about this claim, Beauprez then helpfully directs listeners to that brand-new Catholic “resources” website, Formed Catholics in the Public Square—that same “Catholic” website that suddenly appeared last week just as the Beauprez robo-call campaign got underway.

A transcript of part of the Beauprez robo-call provided by Roberts indicates that Beauprez states the following, "I recently learned through the Solidarity Institute at that Bob Schaffer is in agreement with Catholic doctrine on all five of these issues, while Mark Udall is opposed to every single one . . . ."

Roberts asks, “What's the Solidarity Institute? Fascinating, for one thing.” He notes that, when one visits the Formed Catholics page sponsored by Solidarity Institute, the only issues about which it seeks to inform Catholic voters are “the five non-negotiables,” about which Solidarity expects all Catholics to agree: gay marriage, embryonic stem-cell research, human cloning, abortion, and euthanasia.

As Roberts notes, Formed Catholics rates McCain and Obama on these “non-negotiable” issues, with the following result: “Candidates are awarded red, yellow or green lights depending on their positions, and by this measure, McCain pummels Obama, as Republicans routinely trump Democrats throughout the site.”

Objective, factual information and resources? Hardly. This website and its Latino clone are shameless advertisements for the Republican party. They are Republican campaign promotional materials masquerading as Catholic resources. As I do, Roberts wants to know where the money for these ads is coming from. As he notes,

The “About Us” Page on doesn't specifically reference the Archdiocese of Denver or other Catholic church bodies in Colorado. Yet another section of the main site features “Moral Principles for Catholic Voters,” a guide endorsed by Archbishop of Denver Charles Chaput, Bishop of Pueblo Arthur Tafoya and Bishop of Colorado Springs Michael Sheridan; the text is included below.

The Solidarity Institute webpage at does link directly to the Colorado Catholic Conference, with a statement that Colorado Catholic Conference is “a state-level, public policy agency operated jointly by the Archdiocese of Denver, the Diocese of Pueblo and the Diocese of Colorado Springs” ( Solidarity’s two links to the Colorado Catholic Conference would surely give most visitors to the website the distinct impression that Solidarity—and thus its promotion of Republican candidates—is directly sponsored by the Catholic church in Colorado.

The Archdiocese of Denver is denying any connection to Beauprez’s robo-call campaign, however. According to Jeremy Pelzer, Archbishop Chaput’s spokeswoman Jeanette DeMelo has informed the Denver Post that she had no knowledge of the robo-calls until her office began getting calls about them (

Pelzer notes that the funding source for Beauprez’s robo-calls is a “new group led by Beauprez called Informed Catholic Citizens.” Visit the website for that group at, and one finds that . . . it links directly to the website of Solidarity Institute. And thus to Colorado Catholic Conference, through Solidarity Institute. If one clicks on the “Know Your Vote” section of Informed Catholic Citizens’ website, one is brought immediately to the candidate-ranking page of Solidarity Institute’s Formed Catholics in the Public Square website, that is, to the pro-Republican ranking page of SI's website.

Yet nowhere on the Informed Catholic Citizens’ website is there any indication at all of its sponsorship or funding sources, or its ties to Colorado Catholic Republican interest groups. Its “About Us” link simply states that it’s a grassroots organization who [sic] wants to see Catholics and our Church treated fairly . . . .” The website is, in fact, actively misleading in several respects.

For instance, though Jeremy Pelzer reports that Bob Beauprez informed him that Informed Catholic Citizens is the funding source for his robo-calls campaign, the ICC website carries a disclaimer of sorts about this. Under the heading “Potential for Bias,” it has an unsigned statement suggesting that if Beauprez’s intent is simply to inform voters, he deserves support. But, “If this is just one more misuse of the Church structure and resources, I am offended.”

The statement notes that the ICC website itself appears to endorse only Republican candidates, and then suggests that the bishops’ aim in calling voters to be informed is to provide resources, not to endorse candidates. This is an exceedingly strange—an exceptionally mendacious—claim, when the website is directly linked to the Solidarity Institute website, itself linked to the Colorado Catholic Conference website, which explicitly ranks all Republican candidates as more in line with Catholic values than the Democratic candidates.

And then there’s the misleading link immediately below the “Potential for Bias” link on the ICC website, “Opposition to California Proposition 8: Hate in the Name of Love.” This leads to an op-ed piece by Dennis Prager headed by a picture of a smiling same-sex female couple. On the face of it, this piece initially appears to be a call to Catholics to choose love over hate in the assessment of the anti-gay marriage proposition 8 in California.

In fact, it is precisely the opposite. It is an attack on those who see the anti-gay marriage movement as anti-love, and thus all about hate. Prager’s argument stands reality on its head, thus suggesting that the use of the picture of the smiling couple is a kind of “hook” to get voters confused by the dynamics of love, hate, and religious teaching in the gay-marriage debate to explore resources on this website, where they will be set straight.

Noxious materials. Lies perched on lies. And all directly related, in some way, to the Colorado Catholic Conference—that is, to the institutional Catholic church in Colorado, and to its pastoral leaders, chief among them Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver.

The mess only stinks higher as one delves more carefully into the deep-pocket ties of Chaput to well-heeled Republican Catholic donors in and outside Colorado.

Though Solidarity Institute does not appear to have the official backing of the Colorado Catholic Conference, its website links to the latter entity, as I have stated. In fact, one of two links to the Colorado Catholic Conference on the website of Solidarity Institute advertises the Colorado Catholic Conference as “Other SI Work.”

As I’ve noted, the Colorado Catholic Conference is explicitly sponsored by the three Catholic dioceses of Colorado. As I indicated previously, its mission statement describes the organization as a public policy agency operated by the Denver archdiocese and the dioceses of Pueblo and Colorado Springs. Its “About Us” Statement declares that the Colorado Catholic Conference “interacts with the state legislature, U S Congress and elected officials at all levels in numerous ways.”

Given the mission and self-description of Colorado Catholic Conference, it’s interesting, indeed, that the Solidarity Institute website would characterize CCC—that is, an official arm of the Catholic church in Colorado—as part of the “other work” of Solidarity Institute. Solidarity Institute, whose “Catholic” voters’ guide shows McCain pummeling Obama on “non-negotiable” issues and Republicans routinely trumping Democrats throughout the site, as Jeremy Pelzer notes . . . .

It’s interesting that one cannot easily find a history of Solidarity Institute—a history of its founders, sponsors, members, past and present boards of trustees—online. The Solidarity Institute website itself has a vague “About Us” statement simply identifying the organization as a “Catholic effort” to promote pro-life political positions. The contact page has a phone number and email contact form, but no mailing address.

Financial donations are, of course, welcome, and the website actively solicits them—for instance, for the upkeep of the Denver Catholic cathedral. But nowhere on the website is a statement about current or past members of Solidarity Institute, its sponsoring or affiliated organizations, its board of trustees, its funding sources, its history, etc.

Solidarity Institute was in existence as early as 2002, per the Denver Catholic Register, the newspaper of the archdiocese of Denver. A 20 March 2002 article in the Register notes that its then executive director was Peter Droege, who had formerly edited the Catholic Register (

At the same time that he was heading Solidarity Institute, Droege was media representative for Medallion Enterprises, a Denver-based investment corporation that the Boulder Weekly described in 2002 as “a philanthropic pro-voucher organization founded by multi-millionaire cable magnate John Saeman” ( and "Pro-voucher" refers to a movement sponsored by the U.S. Catholic bishops to have the government provide tax incentives to parents who send their children to Catholic schools.

Medallion’s chair John V. Saeman is a big-money player in Colorado (and nationwide) Republican politics, as well as an avid supporter of the Denver archdiocese. In 2006, he donated $10,000 to the Colorado Republican Campaign Committee and $25,000 to the Republican National Campaign Committee

In the same year, Saeman donated as well to the campaign of Bob Beauprez. He also gave repeated donations to the campaigns of embattled Pennsylvania Catholic Republican senator Rick Santorum and of embattled Virginia Republican senator George Allen, both of whom were defeated. Both men have drawn fire for remarks widely considered homophobic or racist: Santorum has implied that acceptance of homosexuality will lead to acceptance of bestiality (, and Allen once referred to an Indian-American photographer in his opponent’s campaign as a “macaca,” a racist term for people of color (

In this election cycle, John Saeman has given $50,000 to the Republican National Campaign Committee, $25,000 to the Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee, as well as repeated donations to the campaigns of Bob Schaffer and Marilyn Musgrave ( Once again, in this election period, records show him giving to embattled prominent out-of-state Republican candidates such as Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Saeman and his wife Carol have thick ties to Archbishop Chaput of Denver. In 2005, Chaput finagled from the Vatican a distinguished award for the couple: they were named Knight and Dame Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great ( John Saeman has chaired the board of the Denver archdiocese’s Catholic Foundation (

As his contributions to Republican politicians outside Colorado suggest, Saeman’s influence as a right-wing Catholic Republican operative go well beyond the boundaries of the state. For instance, in 1999 he collaborated with Domino’s Pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan and David "No Gays in My Papers" Weyrich, CEO of Martin Media, to found Catholic Family Radio ( As commentator David Scott notes, this organization –which has strong ties to the right-wing Catholic EWTN affiliate—was founded to “gain a hearing for conservative Catholic political ideas” ( Saeman is unapologetic about his attempt to influence political decisions in areas beyond his state boundaries: as the PA GOP Insider blog noted in 2006, Saeman gave to the Santorum campaign because he supports Santorum’s purported “pro-family, pro-life” values (

Through the numerous organizations he funds or with which he is affiliated, John Saeman continues to pursue one overriding objective. That objective is described by the organization Colorado Conservative Voters, an initiative to which he has lavishly contributed, as the attempt “to educate Colorado citizens about issues, officeholders, and political candidates that further conservative values,” though, clearly, the concern to “educate” citizens goes far beyond the boundaries of a single state (

Indeed, it does not require any stretch of the imagination to see that the influence of big-pocket Republican Catholic powerbrokers like John Saeman reaches the Vatican itself, particularly when John Saeman’s board biography on the Cable Center website states that he helped to support the educational and charitable efforts of the last pope, John Paul II ( Is it any wonder that John Paul II chose Denver as the site of his 1993 World Youth Day Conference, an event twhose political underpinnings the right-wing Republican National Review trumpeted as follows:

The Pope's visit to Denver was a triumph, demonstrating that millions of people-not only Catholics, or even believers-respond with joy to uncompromising reaffirmations of the morality the modern West so sorely lacks. Even Bill Clinton and Al Gore felt obliged to pay their respects to a man who opposes everything they stand for.

Oh. And Mr. Saeman has long been closely associated with the Daniels Fund of Denver ( Of which the current vice-president of communications is none other than Peter Droege (

Peter Droege, former editor of the Denver archdiocesan paper, the Catholic Register.

Peter Droege, who headed the Solidarity Institute at the same time he was media representative for John Saeman’s Medallion Enterprises.

The Solidarity Institute whose website links to that of the Colorado Catholic Conference.

The Colorado Catholic Conference which is sponsored by the three Catholic dioceses of Colorado.

The Solidarity Institute which is named as a resource for voters in the pro-Republican robo-calls Bob Beauprez has recently been making in Colorado.

The Republican robo-calls implying that the Catholic church supports Republican politicians, calls about which Archbishop Chaput’s spokeswoman Jeannette DeMelo disclaims any knowledge on behalf of the archbishop.

The Solidarity Institute whose website sponsors a "fact-based" "informational" resource guide to Catholic voters that consistently ranks McCain and other Republican politicians as embodiments of Catholic values.

The Denver archbishop Charles Chaput who has repeatedly attacked Mr. Obama in this election while professing that he does not endorse a particular candidate (

The same Charles Chaput who had the pope name the Saemans Knight and Dame Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, and who, two years ago, presented the Saemans with his prestigious Imago Dei award (

After following these information trails, I understand why Catholic theologian Rev. Richard McBrien has said of Charles Chaput that, of a bad crop of bishops appointed by the late pope, Chaput is “one of the worst” (

In the person of Charles Chaput, the Catholic church of Colorado has sold its soul to the Republican party, lock, stock, and barrel—and to the big-money donors that sustain that party in Colorado and elsewhere. Catholic values should not be for sale. In the case of Archbishop Chaput, they clearly have been, to the detriment of the church’s ability to proclaim those values—and the gospel itself.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Trails to Keep Following: The Public's Right to Know

I don't normally blog on Sundays, but I want to do so today--mainly as an aide mémoire to myself not to forget some important information trails that opened in the final days of this national election. With the election, it would be easy for us to forget these trails.

In my view, each of them leads to questions to which we need answers, as we continue building a healthier participatory democracy. Here are the trails I hope the media (and citizen bloggers, and I myself) can keep pursuing, no matter what happens in the election:

1. What role did McCain staffers play in pushing the Ashley Todd story even before it had been verified (see John Aravosis's America Blog on this important question,

The public has a right to know.

2. Now that John Stemberger of, the group sponsoring the anti-gay marriage amendment in Florida, has admitted that Florida Family Action, an umbrella group assisting Yes2Marriage, has hidden the identity of donors to FFA, who are those donors who have wanted to remain anonymous (see Waymon Hudson at Bilerico on this,

Yes2Marriage is violating several Florida non-disclosure laws. If defeating gay marriage is a noble cause, why on earth would anyone want to give to this cause anonymously?

The public has a right to know.

3. Finally, who is providing funding for the various Catholic Answers-type websites that have been cropping up in recent days? I've blogged about one of these sponsored by the Colorado Catholic Conference. I suspect that another about which I also blogged this Latino voters is closely associated with Colorado Catholic Conference.

Given the close ties of Archbishop Chaput in Denver to one of Colorado's leading Republican families, the Coors family, one naturally wonders about Republican funding ties to some of these Catholic Answers websites.

The public has a right to know.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Whose Black Eye? The Ashley Todd Story and Repair of the World

“May we soon behold . . . the repair of the world” (Siddur, Jewish book of daily prayer).

I have hesitated to write about the Ashley Todd story. I’ve kept silent for all kinds of reasons. Chief among them is that it’s a toxic story, and even mentioning it in a critical context—exposing it for the string of lies it comprises—abets the viral dissemination of hate speech.

It’s designed to be that way. In confronting its lies, one spreads them further. In calling for responsibility on the part of those who jumped on this story and ran with it in the face of abundant evidence that it was manufactured, one plays into the hands of those who want to invert core values in our political process and turn Todd into a martyr when she’s been exposed as a liar.

The story is a carefully crafted inverted parable that seeks to take well-warranted criticism of the McCain-Palin campaign for inciting racial hatred in this election, and to turn that criticism on its head, making the object of the hate rhetoric into those whom we are to fear.

Sick. Disgusting. Noxious. Hateful. And, in seeking to combat it, one can focus on hatred to such an extent that one is drawn into the shadows and away from tikkun olam, the repair of the world that is a core obligation of people of faith.

But now that Ashley Todd has admitted she made up her story of being assaulted by a 6’4” “very black” man, it’s impossible to avoid this story and what it teaches us about ourselves on the eve of this presidential election. And though writing about it on the Sabbath is abhorrent to me, perhaps it's appropriate, if we can use the story to teach ourselves how to engage in healing and repair of the world more creatively than we have done in the past.

Here’s what needs to be said about this story.

This is not a story that ought to have been difficult to unravel from the get-go. From my first encounter with it, I sensed something in it so unwholesome that I realized even talking about this story would end up serving ends directly counter to those I’m pursuing on this blog. And if I could sense that, along with countless numbers of bloggers from the moment it broke, the first thing to ask about the story is why the mainstream media immediately ran with it with such alacrity, though the story was clearly off-kilter in all kinds of ways.

Nothing in the account made sense. There were the instant hysterical claims all over the internet that Todd, a McCain campaign volunteer in Pittsburgh, had been mutilated by a very black man who was 6’4”, who robbed her at an ATM and then, pinning her on the ground, fondling her and risking capture by the police, took time to knife a B into her face. For Barack, doncha know.


There was the mysterious picture that suddenly cropped up with viral suspiciousness on right-wing websites, whose origin no one could track, showing the B not carved but scratched into Todd’s face—and backwards, as if she had done it to herself in a mirror.

There was the “black eye” that was clearly dark make-up, with no redness or swelling around the eye or anywhere on her face, though she claimed she had been kicked and pummeled. There was the fact that she refused any medical treatment. And that the ATM cameras did not corroborate her story, though the media tried valiantly to spin that damning fact by stating that she was attacked out of camera range.

There was Ashley Todd’s Myspace site, with its epigraph, “Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her cloths [sic] off.” There was her transparent trail of twitters prior to the alleged incident, asking people to pray for her as she drove into what she claimed was the wrong side of town, but what is actually a stable Italian-American neighborhood. Setting up the story . . . .

There’s the fact—which should have leapt out immediately at the media, given the other reasons to doubt the story—that this nasty little lie is one in a long series of similar lies that constitute a stinky trope of racism running through our nation’s history, in which white women concoct whoppers about assault by big black men when it serves their interests to divert attention from their own unsavory motives or actions.

There was, in other words, every reason in the world not to place faith in this story of brutal assault until it had been verified.

But that is not how those promoting the story behaved. Not at all. I first read of this attack within minutes after the story broke—on websites in which right-wing Catholics were logging in to promote their one-issue approach to voting. Somehow, as the news entered that right-wing Catholic demi-monde, it became a nifty little narrative about how baby-killer Barack would not merely promote abortion but was now provoking knife attacks on good God-fearing Christians trying to save the land.

A nifty little lie that I don’t see any of those good God-fearing Christians retracting now that Ashley Todd has admitted she manufactured the whole malodorous tale.

From those abortion websites, I googled for more information and landed on right-wing political websites immediately high-profiling this story of a white girl assaulted and mutilated by a huge, very black man. I found those websites full of postings about the need for good Americans to stock up on guns now and prepare to defend life and liberty against the assault of Barackian hooligans (presumably tall very black ones).

The Ashley Todd story demonstrates the lengths to which “values voters” will go to distort and invert authentic values—the core values of all major religions of the world; the civic values necessary to bind us together as a body politic—in order to gain political power. The story also reveals a point I keep making on this blog: the inversion of values by some values voters, such that shouting about baby killing becomes equivalent to shouting about menacing gays or hooligan blacks—as religious leaders who claim to be all about repair of the world remain conspicuously silent.

Please note that I’m not talking about Todd herself in making these observations. I’m talking about those who were only too willing to spread her lies around without any fact-checking, when an abundance of evidence suggested reasons for caution before moving ahead with this story.

Not merely the right-wing news sites and websites that immediately jumped on this story and spread it far and wide, but the mainstream media as well, have (with seeming gleefulness) participated in a campaign of lies that turns upside down one of the key concerns we all ought to have as this election season closes: the possibility of real hate-engendered violence as a result of the rhetoric of those using this story to decry fictional violence supposedly arising from those victimized by the hate rhetoric!

This inversion of values is immoral. It should seriously concern people of faith and shepherds of faith communities. It underscores the need of those communities and their pastors to speak out clearly about the inroads hate speech is now making into our political life at the very center.

We should be equally concerned about the fact that news reports are now demonstrating that, even when there were clear reasons to doubt the truthfulness of Ashley Todd’s story and before the story had been verified, the Pennsylvania communications director of McCain’s campaign was informing reporters that the B scratched on Todd’s face stood for Barack ( The McCain campaign is now understandably trying to distance itself from this story, and is seeking to depict those raising questions about the use of the story by the McCain campaign itself as cold-hearted critics of a possibly disturbed young woman.

In my view, one can feel real compassion for a young woman who might be so unhinged (or so indoctrinated?) that she would concoct a passel of toxic lies targeting a racial minority and would mutilate herself, while one continues to hold to the fire the feet of media and political groups who helped disseminate these toxic lies. The level of violence in the rhetoric of too many Americans in this election, and the potential for real violence, coupled with ugly racism, should make us very hesitant to drive social wedges even deeper—and through outright lies.

There is another reason for profound concern both about the Ashley Todd story and the quickness with which mainstream media and some political leaders bought it. This is, as I have noted, that it trades on stereotypes deeply imprinted in our cultural psyche by recurrent narratives that make “innocent” white women the prey of nefarious black men.

It says much about us as a nation that anyone continues to think she can continue to get away with telling such tales. And that, when she is exposed, she is actually somehow the martyr rather than the disseminator of violence. The fact that this narrative is cropping up again in our culture in this election says much about how far we still have to go towards repairing our world, when it comes to confronting the deep roots of our racism.

On the positive side, what happened with Ashley Todd’s story underscores a point I have made repeatedly on this blog: this is the power of good citizen blogging to change the way we do business in our political life. In the past, when false narratives of black men molesting white women have found their way into our political discourse and thus into the media, it has taken quite some time to uncover the lies at the root of these narratives.

In this case, citizen bloggers were all over the story from the beginning, even as the mainstream media gave it viral force. That’s good news. It suggests that, through speedy dissemination of accurate information on the internet, citizen bloggers have the capability of defanging hate narratives before they do all the damage of which they're capable.

Finally, I have to say it again: where are the leaders of our faith communities? This story unfolded in western Pennsylvania, a Catholic battleground area on which I have focused several times in posting this week. This is a state in which cultural and religious battles are being fought in this election, and in which Catholic pastoral leaders are taking a key role.

It is a state in which the voice of pastoral leaders to challenge hate and unmask lies would make a world of difference—as it would at a national level. Any religious leaders who remain silent as hate spikes in a nation deserve to find themselves out of business when those contesting the hate finally push it to the margins and begin building a culture less toxic.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Major Religious and Cultural Shift: The Current Election

Further confirmation of the major cultural realignment going on with the current U.S. presidential election--and the self-marginalization of those religious figures who can only say no to the realignment, and who refuse to engage postmodern culture creatively: a Barma Group poll released yesterday shows Obama and McCain in a dead heat among self-professed "born again" Christian voters (

Why is this big news? Because, until this election, for several decades now this constituency has always voted Republican. Churches aligned with right-wing Republican political platforms have done all they can to bring in the vote for the Republicans. An internal Southern Baptist Convention poll this election shows 80% of Southern Baptist pastors voting for McCain, and only 1% for Obama (the rest are undecided or have chosen a third party) (

People are moving away from the "non-negotiable," naysaying, fear-driven approach of the Christian right, with its overt theocratic agenda. This cultural shift dooms Christian leaders--including a significant proportion of the U.S. Catholic bishops--who continue to shill for the political right to irrevelancy in the culture now forming around a seismic political shift.

That place--that place of irrevelancy--is not a place a religion centered on hope should ever find itself.

And as all this takes place, those "Catholic" websites trying to drive the Catholic vote into the Republican fold continue to spring up like fungi in the night. Clerical Whispers links today to a new website for Latino Catholics, VotoCatolico, that claims not to endorse a candidate but to offer Latino voters intellectual and spiritual resources to choose wisely ( and

And, lo and behold, the "resources" offered by the website are the same old, same old "non-negotiables" about abortion and same-sex marriage. If this website has a sponsor, I can't locate it by clicking on the site. Interestingly enough, it gives Archbishop Chaput a high profile, and looks very much like the website I mentioned yesterday, the one sponsored by the Colorado Catholic Conference.

Once again: I'd dearly love to know where the funding for these "Catholic" websites is coming from. They are an extension of Republican marketing in this campaign.

Finally, in an article yesterday on Huffington Post, CC Goldwater, granddaughter of Barry Goldwater, explains why she is repudiating her grandfather's party in this election:

Myself, along with my siblings and a few cousins, will not be supporting the Republican presidential candidates this year. We believe strongly in what our grandfather stood for: honesty, integrity, and personal freedom, free from political maneuvering and fear tactics.

Honesty, integrity, repudiation of manuevering and fear tactics: the kinds of values one would expect faith-based values voters to endorse in any leader. More's the pity, when some Christian pastoral leaders continue to give the impression of being on the side of dishonesty, lack of integrity, and fear tactics--even as large numbers of their flock look for something new when business as usual is no longer working for us.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Talking Pro-Life or Acting Pro-Life: Informed Catholic Voters

What’s happening to the Catholic vote in this presidential election continues to draw attention. I noticed two noteworthy articles about this topic in the last day, after I posted yesterday. In today’s posting, I’d like to summarize and comment on those articles.

In “Don’t Let the Bishops Swing the Election—Again!” Robert Blair Kaiser reminds us of what happened four years ago ( In the Kerry vs. Bush campaign, the same key bishops who are trying to swing the election for McCain—Chaput and Burke—requested a letter from the Vatican’s Holy Office. They got the document they wanted: it appeared to tell Catholics that it was their religious duty to vote for Bush. Chaput and Burke and their allies disseminated the letter widely, suggesting that the Vatican had weighed in on the election and faithful Catholics should listen and act accordingly.

As a result, Ohio, which had voted overwhelmingly for the Catholic Kennedy in 1960, voted in the same proportion for Bush this time, though his opponent, Kerry, was a Catholic. Kaiser reminds us of who headed the Vatican’s Holy Office in 2004: it was none other than Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Kaiser observes, “In effect, Cardinal Ratzinger, a man who would soon be pope, swung an American election for a Republican who said he was ‘pro-life.’”

Kaiser notes that there is increasing recognition even among Catholics (including right-wing ones such as Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia) that overturning Roe v. Wade will not significantly affect the abortion rate in the U.S. If reducing abortions is a desirable objective, then attention has to be given to the reasons women choose abortion. Mitigate the needs for making this choice, and you will diminish the abortion rate—something the Democratic platform recognizes, in the view of many pro-life voters this year, better than the Republican one does.

As an aside, I’d like to note what appears to me to be a fallacy in the statements many pro-Republican bishops are making about Roe v. Wade. Many bishops are hinging their argument for electing “the” “pro-life” party on its promise to abolish Roe v. Wade, and on the connected claim that the number of abortions rose dramatically in the U.S. after Roe v. Wade.

I wonder how bishops—or anyone—knows that the number of abortions rose after Roe v. Wade. From all I have learned through my study of American history, abortions occurred outside the scope of public scrutiny in the past. When procuring and having an abortion were criminal activities, abortions took place in back rooms.

To my knowledge, there are no trustworthy statistics for abortions that took place before Roe v. Wade. Criminalizing abortion again could have the effect not of stopping abortions, but of driving them once again into a netherworld that caused tremendous suffering to women who felt they had no choice except to seek an abortion in the past—including in circumstances when their life was endangered if they carried a baby to term.

Kaiser notes the tremendous irony in many bishops’ encouragement of their flocks to vote for “the” “pro-life” party: when these same bishops promoted the “pro-life” administration we have now, and when that administration’s record on life issues is checkered to say the least, bishops appear to be encouraging us to vote “pro-life” regardless of whether those we elect actually behave in pro-life ways. This leads to a certain cynicism among some Catholic voters: is life really the issue on which bishops are hinging their support of “the” “pro-life” party? Or do they find something else in that party, its leaders, and its platform, that they prefer for other undisclosed reasons?

Kaiser notes that an Australian Jesuit, Frank Brennan, a law professor, has critiqued the approach of Burke, Chaput, and others to the public square. In his book Acting On Conscience (Univ. of Queensland Press, 2007), Brennan notes that, during the 2004 campaign, Archbishop Burke argued, "Of course, the end in view for the Catholic must always be the total conformity of the civil law with the moral law."

In Brennan’s view, this attempt to make civil law totally conform with moral law is fatuous—it is not supported by Catholic theology, which has always recognized that civil law does not totally enshrine moral values and never will do so. Brennan calls Burke’s position "a theocratic hope." In Brennan’s view, the U.S. bishops should decisively repudiate the theocratic ambitions of their current “pro-life” pastoral agenda.

(An aside: they don’t appear to be doing so in the person of Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, about whom I blogged yesterday. I’ve just read a news report which states that when Martino barged into a parish’s political forum Sunday night, he announced, “I own this building” [].

Shocking, that statement. If I am not mistaken, God owns the church, not Bishop Martino—and if Bishop Martino has suddenly been divinized, the report of that transformation has yet to reach me. Moreover, since the church is the people of God, the people of God own church buildings every bit as much as a bishop does. It was our money and our labor that built parishes, after all.)

Kaiser ends his discussion with a sane observation from Fr. Brennan: Brennan notes that the U.S. bishops "need to abandon the simplistic hierarchy of political wrongs, giving a preference to politicians who favour the criminalization of acts judged to be intrinsically evil while [ignoring] the direct action of those same politicians who themselves commit criminal acts, such as…committing the nation to war without just cause."

In other words, if bishops are going to encourage Catholics to vote pro-life, let them show at least minimal respect for truth by noting that what “pro-life” leaders actually do—whether they behave in pro- or anti-life ways—needs to be taken into consideration by pro-life voters. The kind of coercion practiced by "I Own This Building" Martino et al. in the name of pro-life politics—the attempt to shut down public forums in which Catholic voters discuss the application of Catholic principles to politics—has no place in the Christian life. It is fascist, not Christian.

The second article to which I’d like to draw attention is Chris Korzen’s “Tough Times for the Catholic Right” at

Korzen notes that the Catholic right had hoped for a reprise of 2004 and what occurred in Ohio. As a result, it has been dumping millions into advertising and other campaigns to promote the tried-and-true agenda of single issue voting.

(A new website purporting to inform Catholic voters about their duty to vote “right” seems to come online every day now. Yesterday, Clerical Whispers noted the appearance a new "Catholic" website that claims to offer intellectual and spiritual resources to Catholic voters [].

Visit that website—“Formed Catholics in the Public Square”—and you’ll find it’s sponsored by the brand-new “Solidarity Institute” . . . of Colorado. In other words, it comes from the Colorado Catholic Conference, presided over by none other than Archbishop Chaput, who recently lambasted Mr. Obama as the architect of millions of “little murders.” The website’s “intellectual and spiritual resources” are those tired old instructions to vote on the basis of the handful of “non-negotiable” issues on which right-wing Catholics fixate.

One has to wonder where the money to set up these “Catholic” websites is coming from . . . .

Korzen notes that this election, Catholics are not buying what the Catholic right is selling. Polls show a majority of Catholics supporting Obama. A few bishops, including Steib and Zavala, have broken with the single-issue approach to remind Catholic voters that there is a range of life issues one must consider as one forms one’s conscience. There is also unanticipated organizing on the part of Catholics who want the entire range of life issues to be part of our political dialogue.

And then there’s that inconvenient reality question, the question of whether our pro-life votes have really resulted in pro-life actions on the part of the “pro-life” leaders bishops have bullied us to elect. As Corzen says,

Like so many things, saying that a candidate's position on abortion makes him or her unfit for the Catholic vote works better in theory than practice. The Catholic right's message loses its effectiveness when voters realize it uses the same logic that impelled Catholic voters to re-elect Bush in 2004 - whose presidency turned out to be a disaster for Catholic values and the nation as a whole.

This is why I wrote my essay entitled “Remembering Katrina,” which I uploaded to this blog on August 28—as the election cycle unfolded and as I knew in my bones we’d have a reprisal of the “vote-life” argument of some bishops. I wrote that essay in September 2005, just after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans.

I sent the piece to National Catholic Reporter. They chose not to print it. Later, I decided (a year later, actually), to upload the statement to NCR’s blog café ( Despite NCR’s initial negative response to it, it must say something readers think is worth hearing. As of today, it has had 5355 reads.

I wrote “Remembering Katrina” to call the bishops’ hand on pro-life rhetoric. After watching in total disbelief as, day after day, bodies lay unburied in New Orleans, people went without food and water, the elderly and critically ill died like flies in hospitals without medical treatment, human beings were crowded like cattle into the Superdome, I decided that enough was enough.

I wrote with passion. I had friends, some of them elderly, in New Orleans who had not yet been accounted for. I was desperately seeking information about a number of people I knew, who had chosen to stay in their houses during the storm.

I wrote with anger. The scenes we all saw on our television sets in August and September 2005 were brought to us by those same “pro-life” leaders the bishops had done all but stand on their heads to elect. I concluded,

Perhaps those bishops need to re-think their support for “pro-life” politicians who, to all appearances, seem shockingly callous in face of the need of poor, hungry human beings trapped like rats in a bowl in a major American city now lying largely underwater. Perhaps, as they prepare for their big Eucharistic shindigs, they should be pondering the core significance of what they profess about the bread of life. At the very least, perhaps they should be adding to their roster of speakers some who will remind us of the connections between providing daily bread to the hungry and inviting the spiritually hungry to the table of the Lord.

If they don’t do these things, it’s entirely possible that, one day, the bishops will give a party and no one will come. Or that they’ll shake their big sticks to compel the faithful to vote the “right” way, and no one will cower anymore. It’s possible that, having seen how our pro-life leaders have responded to the needs of the people of New Orleans, we will re-think what it means to vote pro-life in future elections, no matter what our bishops tell us.

And I meant every word of that conclusion then, as I mean them now. As Colleen Baker’s perceptive comment on my posting yesterday notes, sometimes you have to keep saying the slogan over and over again—especially when you’re responding to a noxious slogan being shouted at you with the intent of shutting down your critical faculties.

To the bishops who keep shouting “pro-life,” I intend to keep saying, “Remember Katrina.” They may forget. I don't intend to do so.

You can’t claim to be pro-life when you behave in shockingly anti-life ways. My conscience tells me I’d be sinning if I voted for political leaders who continue to endanger life, no matter how loudly they and their religious acolytes shout “pro-life.”