In 2017, politics influenced religion

Very much like their counterparts on the right, I know of no religious organization on the left that is willing to consistently challenge the secular left on any substantive issue, which further diminishes their distinctiveness and force. This is, I fear, a result of the reality of fundraising needs for religiously-themed organizations that do not have extensive mailing lists of small dollar donors. The amount of time and attention some progressive religious groups have spent on transgender issues is not a function of fidelity to the Christian Gospels. It is a function of satisfying funders.

The most interesting, and potentially far-reaching, development in the religiopolitical estuary came to us from the Fourth Estate, specifically here at the National Catholic Reporter and also at La Civilta Cattolica. Instead of looking at the influence of religion in politics, three stories looked at the influence of politics in religion.

Last May, Tom Roberts filed an extensive report on the Knights of Columbus and the groups they support. He “followed the money,” and looked at their 990s, the tax forms non-profits are required to file. It should not surprise that they fund rightwing groups, but it was surprising that they fund groups that have no particular religious affiliation or agenda. The Supreme Knight, Carl Anderson, is a former Republican political operative so perhaps we should not be surprised. Many people, including prelates, were also shocked to learn that Anderson is paid more than $2 million a year.

Earlier this month, Roberts filed a follow-up story that looked at other wealthy Catholics and the groups they fund. Tim Busch, founder of the Napa Institute, is the most outrageous of the group: He gave a ton of money to Catholic University of America for its business school, which is now named after him and his wife. The school puts the “lazy” back into laissez-faire and recently held a lovefest for libertarian guru and climate change denier, Charles Koch. Sean Fieler funds a wide variety of conservative organizations as does Frank Hanna III. Hanna is a big fan of the Acton Institute, the rightwing activist organization led by Fr. Robert Sirico that is so far astray from Catholic social doctrine, it is a scandal.

And, of course, last summer’s essay “Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism” by Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro and pastor Marcelo Figueroa, in La Civilta Cattolica, examined the alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals around an explicitly political program, as opposed to traditional ecumenism that fosters dialogue between Christian denominations of a more theological nature. The firestorm that erupted after the publication of the essay only proved that Spadaro and Figueroa had struck a nerve.

To be clear: These three articles did not focus on conservative theology becoming dominant within the church. They focused on external political agendas becoming dominant within the church, with the partisan cart overtaking the theological horse. And, in the case of the Napa Institute, Busch school and Acton Institute, this is about ideologies that are inconsistent with Catholic social teaching trying to stake a claim as legitimate expressions of Catholic social thought. They are not.

In ways large and small, a cadre of wealthy and well-connected Catholics have dragged the church down so that our church appears narrow, judgmental, and obsessed with sexual mores, while ignoring other clamant social needs such as preserving the environment, protecting immigrants, and helping the poor. Throughout the 20th century, no one mistook Catholicism for the kind of evangelical politics we associate with the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Moral Majority. In the 21st century, it is six or one-half dozen. That is how many, especially many young people, view religion in the public square. Worse, these conservative politico-Catholics seek to remake the church in their political image too.