The Paranoid Style of Church Politics

The Paranoid Style of Church Politics June 5, 2012

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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