For anyone trying to minimize the effects of the reckless and irresponsible ‘Stop the Steal’ rhetoric of certain reactionary Catholic public figures, let Wednesday’s deadly events in Washington, D.C. be a wakeup call. Make no mistake: the potent effects of these blogging, podcasting, and tweeting heads have been and are still rippling ‘on the ground,’ even as the smoke and debris continues to clear from Capitol Hill

Taking the pulse of the American Catholic Church at the local, grassroots level yields some truly startling insights even in the most seemingly innocuous circles. I offer as an example just one, primarily email-based Catholic homeschooling group that I joined nearly a decade ago. This group, unfortunately, has been affected by the current Cult of the Faithful Catholic Celebrity to the point where Wednesday’s events were hardly surprising.

The Beginning of November

I think it was the group email immediately post-election advising against practicing demon-binding prayers that first signaled to me things were starting to take a turn for the surreal. While it was unsurprising that many in our group supported Trump, I was startled to learn that members of our group were sharing a “Prayer of Command” by Fr. Chad Ripperger (whose theology was critiqued by Adam Rasmussen on Monday), along with the recommendation that lay people recite this prayer calling on Jesus to banish evil spirits in an effort to ‘Stop the Steal.’

Here are four panels of screenshots from my phone giving an example of what my inbox—and perhaps that of your average trying-to-be-faithful Catholic—looks like in real life.

Prayer of Command

Fr. Chad Ripperger’s “Prayer of Command” that was circulating widely post-election.

In my group’s defense, as seen in the first panel of the screenshot gallery above, it all began with members sharing emails dissuading this practice (which only came to light because an internet-famous priest suggested it on his blog). This would not be the last example of a cleric or lay religious leader giving very suspect, if not potentially dangerous advice to lay people, encouraging them to advance Trump’s political agenda.

As November progressed, prominent lay Catholics began not only praying for but leading and organizing rallies to overturn the election, and the emails in my homeschool group began to include links to livestream these events. Even more importantly, the focus of group discussion had shifted from simply asking others to pray to a more politically based discussion. The topic became mainly about the process for overturning the election results that they perceived to be fraudulent.

Towards the end of November there was a brief respite from election-related topics when it was announced that the Covid-19 vaccine would soon be approved. I don’t know how your own small Catholic circles took that news, but mine responded by systematically excommunicating one another over whether it was morally permissible to be vaccinated. I’ll spare you those gory details, because that was nothing compared to what came next.

If you are still wondering, as I was before January 6 (was that only last week?), whether small Catholic faith-based groups have been infected with reactionary political rhetoric and ideas, allow me to show you exhibits A and B:

Exhibit A

Exhibit B

Exhibit A is a screenshot of my email inbox prior to January 6. Exhibit B is a promotion for a rally to overturn the election that was sent to me by one of the other group members. Slogans such as “This is Our 1776,” and “This is what we’ve been waiting for” clearly indicate that nationalistic Catholicism has gone rabid. You may be asking how such sentiments made their way into a random, small homeschoolers’ group. I know I am. Like many, before Wednesday, I was ignorant of the extent to which those who believed (and still do, in many cases) the rhetoric that it was their patriotic, Catholic duty to fight for Trump.

This is where the true damage caused by reactionary Catholic media can be measured. Under the influence of certain Catholic figures who have strayed from Church teaching, denounced the Holy Father, and imposed their skewed political rhetoric, unsuspecting Catholics have embraced a dangerous amalgamation of an incomplete faith and a radical partisanship that has laid waste to common civility.

I’m willing to bet that my homeschool group is not the only one whose members have begun casually excommunicating each other over politics—not by a long shot.

Right Now

While the mood in the group has become far more muted since the riot, for those who still believe that Trump will be inaugurated, the events of last Wednesday are far from the end. Everyone who underestimated the role played by small groups in the months and weeks leading up to the attempted coup on Capitol Hill should read this as a cautionary tale.

So what’s next?

The screenshot above is of my inbox from the days following January 6. The messages are more conspiracy theories and partisan rhetoric. Additionally, a rumor that Big Tech is taking over the country is being widely circulated, as is another that Trump is planning to override the emergency broadcast system. I am both angry and terrified.  While over the past few months, I felt that my inbox was barraged, the truth is that this is just the tip of the iceberg of inflammatory emails being shared nationwide.

Who knows what other fringe rhetoric is being shared outside my little group, and in more Trump supporting states? This now post January 6 radio silence is even more unnerving than the barrage. On a personal level, I am having trouble understanding how people I’ve known for more than ten years—intelligent people, faithful, Mass-going Catholics—have gotten sucked into the riptide of a volatile political movement? Is there anything I can do besides pray?

One mom, a Trump supporter, reached out to me personally, expressing her fear over retribution from Biden supporters. She and her entire family decided to “hunker down” (stock up and stay indoors all week), based on a tweet that promised Trump will be reascending to take power imminently. Let that sink in: even where I live, in California— which is on the opposite coast from Washington D.C.—and even people here are hiding in their homes.

I am considering going to our pastor to tell him about our homeschool group. I am tempted to hit “reply all” to the subject line “What really happened in DC” and link to the obituaries of the police officers and protestors who died. But honestly, I don’t know if there is anything I can do that will make a difference. Obviously, I’ve chosen to write about it at the very least. But of this, I am certain: it is impossible to downplay how Catholic media, in this perfect storm of pandemic and politics, has deeply wounded us, both as a nation and all the way down to a small group of homeschoolers in Silicon Valley.

Image: Adobe Stock

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Marissa Nichols can be found on Twitter.

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