Following the 1976 US presidential election, conservative political fundraisers Paul Weyrich, Richard Viguerie, and Terry Dolan saw an opportunity: according to one poll, 70% of “evangelical Christians”—fifty to sixty million people— had not voted.[1] Jimmy Carter snagged the Oval Office by under two million ballots. That gave them an idea.

These men, and a few colleagues like future Constitution Party presidential candidate Howard Phillips, approached the Southern Baptist Convention (which had just had its own “conservative resurgence”) and began to strategize. This was an odd pairing, since, as Baptist pastor Richard Grant remarked at the time, this was “a sham […] controlled by three Catholics and a Jew.”[2] Even though three of these four were not themselves even Protestants (Phillips was Jewish by birth but later converted to Evangelical Christianity), they formed the core of what became “the New Right.” American Christianity would never be the same. We live in the world they were only then beginning to conceive.

In the late 1970s, Weyrich was fresh off founding both the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a shadowy organization that drafts conservative legislation to be sent to state legislators. Both, in other words, were deeply enmeshed in the workings of the post-Nixon Republican Party (they had, in fact, met working on Goldwater’s presidential campaign). Weyrich and Viguerie’s plan was simple: targeted advertising and “non-partisan” advocacy group formation to turn apathetic Christians into culture warriors. Southern evangelicals, left politically adrift by the partisan shifts of the Johnson and Nixon years, were prime targets. Jerry Falwell, for example, noted that heading into the 1980 election, only 55% were registered (compared to 72% nationally).[3] Seeing an opening, he and the Moral Majority signed 8.5 million voters up in the next five years.[4] From the Family Research Council to the Christian Coalition and the Eagle Forum, such groups proliferated, hiding naked advocacy behind a legal veneer of non-partisanship. United under the umbrella of Weyrich’s Council for National Policy (CNP), evangelicals would be activated—and reformed—to become loyal Republican voters.

Viguerie, meanwhile, would handle the marketing strategy. He had to find a way around the “liberal media.” Having previously steered the rollout for John Birch Society sympathizer and radio evangelist Billy James Hargis’ The Negro Question: The Communist Civil War Policy,[5] he hit on an idea: targeted marketing, whether by mail or over the airwaves. The strategy relied on making information available to broad swathes of the country ignored by more mainstream media outlets, effectively circumventing mainstream gatekeepers. He started with lists pilfered from the Goldwater campaign.[6] While today we know Fox News, far before they entered the scene, Viguerie’s approach bore more obscure fruit. Enormous media groups like Salem, American Family Radio, and the Christian Broadcasting Network worked to disseminate politically orthodox conservative sermons while also directly advertising various non-profits and interest groups, including many with links to the CNP. To this day, their reach extends far further than most imagine. In 1980 for instance, Jerry Falwell bragged that he had fifty million monthly viewers (the combined audiences of ABC, CBS, and NBC news at the time added up to only forty-two million!).[7] In the same year, the Christian Science Monitor estimated that Christian broadcasters controlled around 1,300 radio stations in the US (that’s about one out of every seven) along with roughly one-third of commercial publishing. Even today, of Nebraska’s 220 radio stations, 50 are religious, with most of these evangelical-leaning and connected to the CNP. The state has, by contrast, 11 NPR stations.[8] Driving across huge portions of the country, drivers of all sorts, from truckers to families, make prime targets for just this sort of preaching. New converts are won and old ones return, day in and day out, to drink from the fount and rejuvenate their belief in “Biblical principles.”

Although these political forces started out with roots in variant versions of evangelical anti-Catholicism (including, notably, R.J. Rushdoony’s Christian Reconstructionism), they began to exert considerable influence on American Catholicism. Weyrich, who we might call the mastermind of this ideological shift, was himself a staunchly anti-Vatican II Catholic, so much so that in 1968 he transferred from the Latin Church to the Melkite Church, hoping to get away from “Modernism.”[9] Initial polling showed that evangelicals would make the best marks and so, ironically, his constant enrichment of, and support for, the infrastructure of the Religious Right worked to empower just the sorts of organizations who went out “saving” Catholics in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. His own Church suffered at the hands of such evangelization; as time went on, some of those raised within these Right-wing Protestant environments began to swim the Tiber. They brought with them this set of ideological principles and, combined with the many cradle Catholics of a similar persuasion who had become involved in conservative ecumenism through the pro-life movement, began to found their own media sphere within the Church. The scandals and vicious fights of the Francis papacy are the fruits of this decades-long operation. Contra Taylor Marshall, the infiltration of the Church has not come from Communists or gay people but rather from those whose version of “orthodoxy” is coterminous with the capitalist ideology of the evangelical New Right.

Take, for example, the Acton Institute. While technically non-denominational, it is named for a nineteenth-century English Catholic aristocrat and its current president is Fr. Robert Sirico, a regular guest on EWTN and sometime tweeter of culture wars talking points. Acton has become a go-to source for Catholics invested in not just a market economy, but in its most draconian form. It  is dedicated to, in its own words, “[e]xhort[ing] religious leaders to embrace the principles of economics as analytic tools in the consideration of economic issues that arise in their ministry.”

Put more plainly, the organization tries to convince religious leaders to support right-wing economic positions, a fact made only clearer by its financial and geographic (it’s based in her hometown) connections to Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, a member of the CNP’s board of governors.[10] Her husband had previously held the same position. Prince Broekhuizen is, aside from funding many of the sorts of institutions under discussion here, the mother of the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos as well as Blackwater founder Erik Prince. While herself Reformed, Prince Broekhuizen’s actions are instructive: her investments, including in Acton, showcase a desire to build a capitalist ecumenism, one through which Catholics are led by figures like Fr. Sirico into nigh-libertarian policy positions at odds with the statements of pope after pope. Should we be surprised, then, when the institute has run pieces entitledFratelli Tutti is a familiar mixture of dubious claims, strawmen, genuine insights” and “Yet another example of how the Vatican misunderstands America…and economics”?

This is, however, just the tip of the iceberg; there are now many explicitly Catholic-focused organizations devoted to redefining orthodoxy in terms lifted straight from their evangelical analogs. Austin Ruse, president of the Center for Family and Human Rights (C-FAM), while often presenting himself as an independent-minded writer seeking nothing more than the betterment of Holy Mother Church, is, in fact, an operative from within this same shadowy network. His wife is senior legal adviser to the Family Research Council, a culture war organization founded by the fundamentalist Protestant psychologist James Dobson, a figure long associated with Weyrich and the Council for National Policy. Ruse himself is a member of the CNP, an honor he shares with a veritable “who’s who” of early 21st-century right-wing Christians. A leaked 2014 membership directory of lists Ruse in addition to figures including Wayne LaPierre of the NRA, former senator Rick Santorum, the aforementioned Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, Stuart Epperson (founder of Salem Communications), noted opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment Phyllis Schlafly, Kellyanne Conway, and—to top it all off—Tim LaHaye, author of the Left Behind series. Ruse has written for Crisis, First Things, Catholic Answers, and a whole bevy of other publications Catholics turn to for information and guidance. What they meet, upon seeking out his writing, is what amounts to the rehashing of old tropes, cultivated to perfection in the megachurches of yesteryear, repackaged with shiny words like “papal” and “Vatican.”

These figures abound in contemporary Catholic politics. Fr. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, is a CNP member, as is L. Brent Bozell III, whose father was a speechwriter for Senator Joseph McCarthy. CatholicVote, which pitches itself as a faithful voter resource for Catholics is, in truth, one of (mostly Protestant) United in Purpose’s parachurch organizations with but one goal in mind: creating more Republican voters.[11] The list never ends.

There is little reason for me to continue to bombard you with names and titles. The point is that, when we as Catholics faithful to the Holy Father find ourselves surprised by this sudden surge of baldly American-centric theology, we should understand that this is a product of decades of organizing, of a bizarre sort of capitalist ecumenism that puts ideological principles ahead of fidelity to sacred tradition. These organizations represent a concerted effort to squeeze Catholicism into a box originally designed for our evangelical brethren, with nearly limitless funds devoted to transforming the American Church.

This amounts to nothing so much as an effort to redefined orthodoxy. To criticize these people and their work is not to say “to be Catholic you must be on the Left,” or “a liberal,” or “a socialist.” No—the point is that they have decided, at times over and against the Church, what constitutes orthodoxy. Our Church is a big tent, which, yes, requires certain beliefs and asks much of us. Catholicism must have a definition, yes: but why must it be theirs?

I can remember even now as a revert during Benedict’s pontificate how I came across guide after guide shepherding me, beating me over the head again and again with the idea that Catholicism was defined by the five non-negotiables, by this specific (conservative) policy position. I was assured (and truly believed) that this was orthodoxy, plain and simple, that everyone else (including perhaps even the pope) was at best misguided and at worst a heretic. I now know that I was swimming in a sea of information pioneered by these groups and figures: how many others (whether cradle or convert, old or young) turn to the internet seeking answers only to be misled by what amounts to propaganda? People ask: why is Fr. Pavone still not suspended after his putting an aborted fetus on an altar? They wonder: how is it that clergy can effectively announce their political allegiances from the pulpit and demonize everyone who thinks even slightly differently (no matter how faithful!)?

The answer is that the American Catholic Church got “saved”; it has given itself over to a well-funded movement that shows no signs of stopping, that would convince all others—both believers and not—that Christianity can only mean a contingent brand of conservatism: no more, no less. It must be saved again; this time from itself.


Notes:

[1] Nelson, Anne. Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, 12.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 24.

[6] Ibid., 25.

[7] Nelson, 43.

[8] Ibid., 37.

[9] Ebin, Chelsea. “Paul Weyrich: The Religious Roots of a New Right Radical.” American Catholic Studies 131.3 (2020), 33, n.7.

[10] Nelson, 71.

[11] Ibid., 183.

Image: Adobe Stock. https://stock.adobe.com/images/rosary-beads-with-american-flag/56445827?prev_url=detail


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Chase Padusniak is a doctoral candidate in Princeton University's English Department, where he specializes in late-medieval mysticism. His work has appeared in Augustinian Studies, Church Life Journal, Athwart Magazine, and the edited collection Slavoj Zizek and Christianity. Chase is an editor at Macrina Magazine and blogs at "Jappers and Janglers" through Patheos Catholic. He also co-hosts the podcast, Strange Language, on ecumenism and the history of religion.

When the US Catholic Church Got “Saved”
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