The Paranoid Style of Church Politics

In 2010, director Deal W. Hudson asked, “Is It Time for A Catholic Tea Party?” Whatever the answer might have been then, today it seems to be “Yes,” but on terms very different from those Hudson envisioned. Instead of a grassroots movement pressuring the Catholic bishops to marshal their authority in support of pro-life candidates, we now have the bishops themselves preaching to the faithful in the fearful, combative tones of grassroots right-wing activists.

Oh, come on. Yes they are. When Illinois legalized civil unions for same-sex couples, Cardinal George predicted: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” Last summer, Cardinal Dolan drew a broad comparison between gay marriage supporters and communist dictators. Just last month, Dolan accused the White House of “strangling” the Catholic Church, the silken cord being the Affordable Care Act. The Church’s official voice has come within a sound byte of death panels and birtherism.

None of this is to suggest that the institutional Church fits hand-in-glove with the Tea Party in ideological terms. The bishops did protest Representative Ryan’s budget plan, and filed an amicus curiae brief against SB 1070, the Arizona law aimed at curbing illegal immigration. No, the resemblance is mainly stylistic — in the doomsaying, in the quick evocation of totalitarianism, in the ascription to the Obama administration of the darkest possible motives. By calling on the faithful to “witness to the truth by resisting the law and incurring its penalties,” the bishops seem to be working from the same assumption that made Rick Perry threaten to withdraw Texas from the Union. If the system won’t turn events to their advantage, then it must be irreparably broken.

To maximize their moral leverage, the bishops, like the Tea Party, claim an ancestor in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. As Glenn Beck did in his “Rally to Restore Honor,” the bishops profess to see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a fellow faith-based freedom fighter. Both claims represent a re-writing of history. The libertarIan Beck’s true ideological heritage flows back to Barry Goldwater, who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Plenty of individual Catholics, including members of the clergy, supported King, but the American Church never spoke in a single — or particularly loud — voice on the subject. Hey, I’d love to have flown in the Battle of Britain, but at least I’m big enough to admit I didn’t.

The Church likes to see itself as countercultural, anchored in eternal verities and unswayable by trends. By taking their cues from a phenomenon so dependent on the culture and the moment as a political movement, its leaders looks seem to be admitting they’ve reached the end of their moral ammo. When Bishop Jenky of Peoria called on members of his diocese to form a “fearless army of Catholic men” and fight Obama — whom he listed alongside Hitler, Stalin and Bismarck as an implacable laicist — I sighed. “Yeah, yeah,” I thought. “Water the Tree of Liberty — I’ve heard it all before.”

It’s not hard to understand why the bishops would be moved — consciously or not — to steal the Tea Party playbook. What distinguished Tea Party candidates was their ideological purity. They were more consistently and thoroughly conservative than the candidates endorsed by the GOP’s so-called elites. Though the 2010 midterm elections brought only 32% of these candidates into office, the movement changed the boundaries of the mainstream, at least temporarily, to the point where Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann were able to pass as serious contenders for the presidency. To orthodox Catholics, scrambling for traction in a pluralistic society that increasingly rejects their views, the affinity is natural.

But the Tea Party, as many observers have noted, makes liberal use of what Richard Hofstadter terms “the paranoid style.” The style, which dates as least as far back as the anti-Illuminist movement of the early 19th century and went on to influence anti-Catholic nativists, involves rhetoric that “traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds.” It transforms the opposition into “a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman.”

Consider “The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama,” a proposal for a negative ad campaign recently compiled by Republican strategists. After observing, a little ruefully, that swing voters may not be “ready to hate” the president, the proposal promises that a five-minute “unusually unique video, bringing his tutorship under Reverend Wright and others to the forefront of popular discourse” could succeed in “hitting Barack between the eyes.” That’s what the paranoid style looks like when it’s up for sale.

To their credit, the bishops have yet to go the full monty in that direction. (When referring to the president in official statements, they tend to omit his middle name. Those who include it rarely do so in consideration of those who might confuse him with Barack Donald Obama.) But in his condemnation of Obama’s revised health care mandate, Archbishop Chaput accused the administration of an “aggressive attack on religious freedom.” Warning his audience that hashing over the details of the mandate would mean “wandering into the weeds,” he concluded that the affront to the Church was “measured and deliberate.” “It’s impossible,” Chaput said, “to see this regulation as some happenstance policy. It has been too long in the making.” Without actually using the words anti-Catholic conspirator to describe the president, Chaput was clearly leading people toward that judgment.

Maybe it’s because I already have enough enemies — some real, some imaginary — to keep me busy, but this just doesn’t work for me. Bishop Blaire of Stockton, California, recently told America Magazine’s Kevin Clarke that he and his brother bishops “need to continue to seek to persuade others to join us in this just cause through reasoned, civil and respectful discussion.” If the bishops insist on working from a political template, I would put that a little differently. For the bishops, primary season is over. They’ve already established their bona fides with the base. To win over swing voters, it’s time to break out the soft soap. Less paranoia from them could mean more metanoia from us.

Update: Thanks to Kevin Clarke of America for linking to me. By gum, I’m on the map!

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  • joannemcportland

    Last line hits it right out of the park. Even though I support the bishops on the HHS mandate, I am really uncomfortable with the dialectic of paranoia. I’m particularly disturbed by the suggestion that parishes use the Mass for Persecuted Christians during the Fortnight of Freedom (and really, do Americans even know what a fortnight is? I think they just liked the fact that it has “fort” in in it, so it sounds besieged). The Independence Day texts are just fine, but this is not the Middle East or Africa, where Christians can tell you what it’s like to be persecuted. Being mocked by Maureen Dowd doesn’t qualify, annoying as she is.

  • Luna

    Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really after me.

    [Ever hear the expression "adorkable"? You're paranoidable.]

  • Frank Weathers

    I would have read this post, but I have to keep scanning the skies for black helicopters, while at the same time staying tuned to my sonar headphones to detect whether people are tunneling under my house.

    [Ladies and gentlemen, let's give a big Diary of a Wimpy Catholic round of applause to Mr. Dale Gribble.]

  • Luna

    I’m going to Frank’s house. Perhaps he can give me a cookie so I can recover from being called “paranoidable.”

  • Woodeene

    I’ve often been confused between Barak Donald Obama and the President so using the middle name is very helpful. :)

  • Patrick

    I agree with the thrust of this, sadly: and I’m *on the bishops’ side* of things. For anyone with a historical sense, an HHS mandate going against you that will probably be overturned in court isn’t high on the “persecution” scale. And neither, as commenter joannemcportland points out, is the 10,000th Dowd column even a cause for hurt feelings.

    Nevertheless: I’ll still be praying during the fourteen days for the repeal, ’cause that’s what a good soldier does, dag nabbit.

  • Melody

    I read that statement by Cardinal George, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” And I thought “Huh??” It’s a drama-diva statement, almost deserves that picture that was on several sites a few weeks ago of the fat lady in the “Die Valkyrie” outfit. Trouble is, you reap what you sow. By playing up the bipolarism and division, people sometimes help create the atmosphere which nourishes the very intolerance they are decrying.

  • Melody

    I’ll be praying too during the fourteen days, but not for an outcome. Just…..praying. Leaving it in God’s hands, because He’s the only one who can sort it out.

  • Deacon Don

    Mr. Lindeman has said this so much better than many others. This entire episode seems WAY too manufactured for my sensibilities. To call upon us to perform “civil disobedience” (and I’m not sure what the suggestions are) over this is a bit melodramatic when I could list much better candidates that the Bishops missed their opportunity for: Entering the Afghanistan (or at least the Iraq) war; using torture (another intrinsic evil); using weapons that undeniably and unavoidably kill civilians; using drones to wipe out entire households; continuing to cut the tax rate for the wealthy and cut services for the poor; the immoral attacks on human dignity by the immigration laws of AZ, GA, AL….need I go on? These things occurred during both of the last administrations – but apparently an HHS mandate is where ALL our efforts are to be directed. Thank you Mr. Lindeman.

  • Thomas R

    When they bring back the draft and force you to go to Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever then civil disobedience will be warranted. I think the issue was that this would at least allegedly require Catholic organizations to be complicit. That is different, to me so obviously so it almost shouldn’t need stated.

    Still comparing this to being killed or the Cristero War or whatever is a tad melodramatic. But that being melodramatic is new to Catholic history, or something we must have learned from the Tea Party, is more than a little off. From the French Revolution onwards some in the ultramontane party were a tad paranoid. Not saying the French Revolution wasn’t persecution, just that some of the things after even Napoleon was long dead might have been overhyped.

  • Jo Ann

    Personally, I think you can thank the psychic wounds of the last century for this. At least we have become extremely sensitive to the perils of incrementalism. While the speaches are more than a tad hyperbolic, the bishops are, nevertheless, taking a long view. Call me paranoid, too, but I am skeptical and concerned when the party in power makes a conscious and concerted effort to put in positions of power people who are identified in the media as “Catholic” and yet promote agendas and their own individual beliefs which run completely counter to what the Church has believed and taught throughout Her history. At the very least it is bad PR for the rest of us. I for one am sick of people coming up to me and saying “You Catholics believe …” and none of what they are saying is true, but it is the perception they get from seeing us forced to confront these issues in public with civil servants who seem to be taking delight in their ability to affect what the Church can and cannot do in the public sphere under their watch. Yes, the bishops could have done a better job of protesting the unjust war in Iraq, but does their prior lack of moral courage mean that we should denigrate their attempts to do better in the future? I think not. I have four children that we have sacrificed to adopt and educate in parochial schools. I am also the director of faith formation at my parish. If you think that the bishops are posturing when they identify as counter-cultural, you need to look around you again, my friends. The world my children are moving into is just about the antithesis of what the Kingdom of God should look like. Our parish priest is very concerned with social justice issues and is often dismayed at the politics of pro-life. It is my contention, however, that the ultimate social justice work is working to promote healthy intact family life. It is the heart beat of any societal structure. The HHS mandate thumbs its nose at that idea. That is why I will be praying during the Fortnight for Freedom and promoting events and activities in our diocese to bring awareness to everyone that religious liberty is a tenuous thing — easily snuffed out if people of faith are not vigilant.

  • Tim

    It’s hard to believe that anyone can engage in politics these days without resorting to paranoid rhetoric. Democrats warn of a War on Women and a nefarious 1% and Republicans are preparing for zombie Stalin and his American gulags.

    While the bishops have their conservative style paranoia, I’ve seen more liberal priests resort to the fear of a cabal of old men (aka the Vatican) hoarding power and desiring to insert themselves in every aspect of your life. Here is a recent bulletin from a church in Cleveland, Ohio as example:

    (I never knew John Paul II was so villainous).

    In the church I go to, the bulletin is pretty neutral politically speaking… and it’s extremely boring. I try to read whatever the priest has to say, but my mind just won’t take it in. I’m ashamed to say that if the priest were to use his bulletin messages to warn of evil forces swiftly descending upon us, I would pay more attention.

    Soft soap is probably the right way to go, but “impending doom” is effective.

  • Kevin Clarke

    Dang, that was a good post, wished I’d awrote it. Then again, I like having a job to go to in the morning …

    [See that, everyone? Another real writer likes my stuff. They won't sack you for linking to me, will they?]

  • Kevin Clarke


  • Kristen inDallas

    Meh. Paranoia is “the new pink” these days. Everyone’s doing it. Ron Paul makes me feel like we’ll soon be in the throws of next great depression, sharing one can of watered down soup with 5 neighbors. Obama tells me if his policies aren’t upheld my entire gender will be shoved back into a voiceless, powerless 1950′s-era repression, and his more extreme supporters suggtest I’m going to die on a hospital table bleeding out from complications in my next pregnancy. With Romney, it’s that all jobs will flee the country and my son will live at home sponging off me for the rest of his life. The tea partiers tell me the govt is monitering my emails and because of that one chain letter I forwarded regarding the stupidity of our two party system I am now a valid target for imprissonment without trial under NDAA.

    Between facebook, our i-phones and unlimitted on-demand tv and movie access, we’ve all become a bunch of robots. It’s gotten to the point where someone has to shout fire in a crowded movie theatre just to get one person to stand up long enough for them to get to an open seat. (while everyone else ignores it). (in fact… It wasn’t THAT long ago that I would sleep through 4 out of 5 fire alarms in my colleges dorms, figuring it was just someone being stupid and, “if I die, I die”.) Are the bishops being hyperbolic? Sure, but maybe it takes a little hyperbole to get most of us out of bed in the morning.

    [Well, I, for one, will only give up my commitment to sane and reasonable discourse WHEN YOU PRY IT FROM MY COLD, DEAD FINGERS!]

  • DT McCameron

    Gotta say, Kristen, Romney’s doom is certainly the duller of the bunch, which now that I think of it, is one of his principle weaknesses. At least the other doomsayers and keeping it entertaining.

    As to the rest, I don’t mind things getting a lot less polite and lot more honest. Don’t see much point pandering.

    [The bishops couldn't pander more obviously to the Tea Party's base if they flashed guns and whistled "Dixie."]

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    A very good piece, Max, although I must say, I see evidence of paranoia in church politics on all sides, these days, and in our secular politics, as well. Political paranoi: it’s not just for righties anymore.

    [Never was. Hofstadter makes that crystal clear, and nobody who remembers Michael Moore could possibly disagree. But there's a basic difference between bomb-throwing from pundits and bomb-throwing from the people meant to embody the Church's teaching authority. And I can't help noticing that the bishops -- despite their divergence from the Tea Party platform -- are borrowing its tropes, not anyone else's.]

  • Kristen inDallas

    @ DT – “Romney’s doom is certainly the duller of the bunch.” You must not have kids. LOL. That one scares me worse than circus clowns!!

    Haha Max, fair enough. If sane rationality floats your boat, who am I to judge? Fortunately you may not even have to give it up when fingers are cold and dead… the zombie apocolypse is coming, haventcha heard?

  • Holly in Nebraska

    The paranoia must be catching then. This is coming from the man who mourns the heretic LCWR nuns who think the Vatican boogie men are out to oppress them and make them believe what the church teaches.

    But you are well known for expressing your support for contraception (as well as women priests and gay marriage). Each time you accuse the church of playing politics. What you see as politics I see as standing up for and insisting on the truth the church teaches. What else are they suppose to do? Say nothing? Does saying something always amount to politics in your mind?

    Obama expressed his support for Catholics who defy their churches teaching on contraception during his 2008 campaign. And during this business, he only meets with Catholics who support his views, not the bishops. That is BLATANTLY playing politics with the church and interfering in church affairs. Obama is clearing trying to turn Catholics against their own church. It’s a separation of church and state issue, turned upside down. I don’t see how the bishops can remain silent. This is huge in my book. How can it amount to paranoia if what’s being done is done right in front of your face?

    If it doesn’t frighten you, well I’m not surprised. I am beginning to think you are an old liberal nun trapped in a straight man’s body. If you are against the bishops, of course you want them to pipe down. What better way than accuse them of pandering to the Tea Party. Let’s see: “flashing guns”–that’s “clinging to their God and guns” a la Obama; and “whistling Dixie” makes the Tea Party racist. Nicely done.

    [So, coming from you, "liberal" isn't a code word for "Jewish"? You're all right, Holly.]

  • Elizabeth K.

    “And I can’t help noticing that the bishops — despite their divergence from the Tea Party platform — are borrowing its tropes, not anyone else’s.” Perhaps–but the tea Party borrowed their tropes from the lack-a-catchy-name but are-really-really-paranoid lefties of the Bush (W.) era–”he’s going to suspend the Constitution! the U.S. as we know it is over!” If Romney wins, the rhetoric will shift to the left again like toothpaste in a never-finished tube. This could mean everyone is paranoid when it suits them, or it could be mean that we really are seeing an incremental breakdown in culture that transcends party boundaries.

    Given the rhetorical context and your invocation of the Tea Party, I’m not sure I agree the bishops have reached that level yet–I’m on board with what Jo Anne said. She said it so well I won’t say it again, but she raises something I think may be important: the perspective of parents raising kids. I’m sure it happens in every era, but I can only express my own feeling with the following story: I once lived next to a beautiful shore in Long Beach, CA–beautiful, that is, until you put your toes in the water, and they were surrounded by floating condoms and hypodermic needles. In case the metaphor isn’t obvious, the ocean is our American culture and political scene. Somehow, having kids has made it up close and personal to me, I’m up to my neck in that filthy water; maybe it’s the glaring difference between those fresh sweet faces and the sea of crap they have to negotiate by 10 years of age, but it’s harder to be cavalier about what’s going on. Paranoia has the advantage in that it feels like you’re preparing for the worst, and nipping pernicious fascism in the bud. Why wait for it to reach Iraq levels if we can stop it now?

  • Irene

    I recommend Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion: How We Have Become a Nation of Heretics. He very thoroughly points out the several ways in which orthodox (Nicene Creed) Christian faith has been twisted into something else by both the right and left ends of the political/social spectrum. I especially liked his chapter on the ancient pre-Christian need to make a god out of our particular group, our clan, our political party. We profess a universal God, but we still have that insular need deep inside and it is currently working itself out in a lot of the marriages of politics and religion that are going on for the right, and the replacement of religion with politics on the left. Read this book!

  • Holly in Nebraska

    If Max will permit–Just FYI for anyone interested: The prologue to Bad Religion by Ross Douthat can be read in full at the Catholic Education Resource Center. Here is a link:

  • cowalker

    The word that comes to my mind is “distasteful.” It is distasteful to see comfortable Americans who are allowed to prosyletize as they please, whose religious institution is tax exempt and yet said institution is permitted to use its money to influence the political process, whose representatives (such as the pope) enjoy special recognition from both government and media, and special access to government officials, posturing as members of a poor, pitiful, persecuted institution.

    The Hurtin’ Bishops remind me of those soccer players who turn every innocuous fall into an enactment of “The Horrifying, Excruciating, Possibly Fatal Injury That Might End My Career But Will Certainly Delay the Game.” It’s a tactic that does neither group any credit.

  • Anti-Pope Joan

    There seem to be a lot of comment here about The Church defending the Truth it has always preached. Not so, my friends, simply not so. Women Priests and Bishops were in the early Church until the 4th century. The Church did not have the teaching on abortion it has today until the 16th Century. We have had Councils (Nicene, Trent, etc) throughout Church history to develop Catholic theology. We do not have a tradition of direct divine revelation a la Moses in Judaism and Mohammed in Islam. Church teachings have always been reached through the faithful having a conversation about them. The Bishops reactionary, paranoid, hyperbolic stance shuts down all conversation and so is limiting the work of the Spirit within the Church and it’s faithful congregation.

    The war between the Church and it’s congregation has been waged for a very long time. It was not started by outside influences but by a Church hierarchy that preached lessons that were anathema to many Catholics understanding of their God and their faith. Lessons that were based on hatred and discrimination instead of love and inclusion. It is the hierarchy who started this war. But if it’s a war they want, it’s a war they’ll get!

    Anti-Pope Joan, heretic at large.

  • Elizabeth K.

    Anti-Pope Joan, your claims make me weary–their tiredness is catching. No, there weren’t women priests and bishops before the 4th century. Dan Brown is not real history. As for the abortion teaching changing around–what, the Reformation? LOL–Please go read the Didache, the earliest Christian document ever, to discover exactly the same teaching we have today. Exactly. It was recorded between 40-60 A.D., which, I’m sure you’ll note, is actually before the 1500′s. (Though I’ve never understood why, if this was not the case, people would object–aren’t we supposed to adapt teaching to science? Did we know about DNA in 40-60? I’m guessing no, and yet the Holy Spirit still protected us from error–isn’t that remarkable?).

    Please feel free to go to war with “the hierarchy”, whatever you imagine that to be. But do have actual facts at your disposal when you do so lest we on whom you have apparently declared war find you, in the words of Dogberry, “quite tedious.”

    BTW, “it’s” means “it is.” “Its” is the possessive form.

  • Anti-Pope Joan

    I did not say that no one thought as the Catholic Church now teaches about abortion before the 16th century. What I, in fact, said was that the official teaching of the Church as we have it today was not the official teaching of the Church until the 16th century. That there were many competing views and it took the Church a long time to finally and officially make up its mind.

    And no, the early Church having female priests is not Dan Brown, but based on sound archeological evidence, such as the women whose tombs describe them as “episcopa” or bishop. Such as the early drawings of female priests sanctifying the communion. The women Paul mentions in his Epistles; Pricilla and Phoebe et al.

    But thank you for the grammar lesson. It was very informative.

    Anti-Pope Joan, tedium ad infinitum

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Bravo Max! That was so well put, so very well put.

  • Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    And P.S.- loved that comment thread on Kevin Clarke’s post at America!

  • Elizabeth K.

    Well, there’s history and then there’s “history.” Some of us prefer the former, though it does seem we’re a dwindling group.