In a recent issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J. and the Rev. Marcelo Figueroa give us a perplexing piece of writing, in which they diagnose the illness of the American body politic in the present day. They observe:
a mingling of politics, morals, and religion [that] has taken on a Manichaean language that divides reality between absolute Good and absolute Evil. In fact, after President George W. Bush spoke in his day about challenging the “Axis of Evil” [he] stated it was the USA’s duty to “free the world from evil” following the events of September 11, 2001. Today President Trump steers the fight against a wider, generic collective entity of the “bad” or even the “very bad.”
So, Spadaro and Figueroa diagnose a Manichaean dualism that first occasioned, and now is driven by, an unlikely alliance of nominal Christians (they don’t say it, but you can’t be a Christian and a Manichaean dualist) who are political and social conservatives in thrall to a bizarre theory of history imbued with apocalyptic tones.
The authors go on to offer a shocking rehearsal of the origins of fundamentalism. They cite Lyman Stewart, the man who bankrolled the enormous, twelve-volume work The Fundamentals (ninety essays by sixty-odd contributors), as that work’s author. And they cite Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as Stewart’s admirers.
Reagan was a Californian, like Stewart, and Bush is an oil man, like Stewart, but neither Reagan nor Bush was ever an evangelical fundamentalist. Reagan was a Presbyterian (like Figueroa and Trump). The immediate predecessors of Reagan and Bush did belong to denominations that sometimes fall under a broadly cast and loosely woven fundamentalist-evangelical net: Jimmy Carter is a Southern Baptist, and Bill Clinton is a Baptist (formerly a Southern Baptist). Yet Carter and Clinton do not receive mention.
Perhaps this is because those two presidents, who fit the Spadaro-Figueroa bill for religion, do not quite match the policy profile the authors had sketched. This might have given the authors pause, and caused them to revisit their thesis. It didn’t.
Spadaro and Figueroa are prominent public intellectuals: Spadaro’s publication is vetted by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See—which means that each edition may fairly be said to carry the Vatican’s seal of approval—and Figueroa was hand-picked by Pope Francis to head the Argentinian edition of the Vatican newspaper. So, I must be missing something, and will just keep digging into this thing.
Structurally and substantially, the most perplexing part of the essay is its turn to Pope Francis’s geopolitical vision, which comes roughly two-thirds of the way through and seems a departure from the authors’ substantive analysis. After spending several hundred words in denunciation of politics conducted as practical theology, Spadaro and Figueroa propose a remedy: a theological vision of politics.
So, their objection to politics as practical theology is not based on principle. Spadaro and Figueroa simply prefer their own “Franciscan” version of political theology to what they describe as Manichaeism dressed in a Christian vocabulary.
In any case, the authors have mistaken the source and motive of the cooperation many sincere Catholics and Protestants have undertaken in the public space of America. The authors say they are animated by hate:
[T]he most dangerous prospect for this strange ecumenism is attributable to its xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations. The word “ecumenism” transforms into a paradox, into an “ecumenism of hate.”
What are the issues around which this Gnostic cabal has succeeded in creating a mass movement?
This meeting over shared objectives happens around such themes as abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values. Both Evangelical [sic] and Catholic Integralists [sic] condemn traditional ecumenism and yet promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state.
One would think that abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools, and other matters generally considered moral would be just the sort of areas in which new paths for ecumenical cooperation could open and lead far.
Instead, the Spadaro-Figueroa narrative of disgruntled Christians caught in a Gnostic fever dream and united in an ecumenism of hate is of a piece with the established and growing narrative, promoted by radical secularists (most of whom perchance align with the Democratic Party), of religiously committed conservatives as bigoted bumpkins pining for a past that never was, and destined to have no place in any future worth pursuing.
Spadaro and Figueroa do not raise the possibility—not even as a sop—that conservative Christians might be citizens with grave concerns about the health of the republic. For Spadaro and Figueroa, conservative Christians are cartoon characters—either foils, villains, or fools—to be ridiculed, resisted, or cured.
Though one is reluctant to attribute motive, the piece reads as though it could have been written by deeply committed partisans working out of, and speaking to, a partisan bubble. If Spadaro and Figueroa’s goal is to share the outsiders’ perspective, in the hope of shedding light on a complex set of issues and encouraging respectful dialogue, they’re doing it wrong.
Christopher R. Altieri is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.