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October 12, 2016

The Boston Globes newest “conservative” columnist has not shied away from his role as a Trump apologist. Even Jeff Jacoby, the Globe’s veteran right winger, has been smart enough to turn his attention to less embarrassing topics. It could be that the GOP politico turned Globe columnist is just embarrassed by the recent column in which he predicted that Hillary Clinton’s first debate performance wouldn’t stop her slide in the polls.  Maybe he’s auditioning for a gig in the rightwing media big leagues. Whatever the case may be, Fehrnstrom’s latest take on the leaked John Podesta emails reflects either unmitigated cravenness or serious intellectual shortcomings.

Fehrnstrom is expressing outrage on at least two social media platforms (here and here) over what he calls the “anti-Catholic and anti-American bigotry” evidenced in the leaked emails. His interpretation relies on a story about the emails at this right wing web site. The emails in question include a discussion of irony; the irony of prominent political conservative media figures Rupert Murdoch (Fox News) and Robert Thomson (The Wall Street Journal) claiming to be conservative Catholics. The conversation “leaked” here is actually a pretty thoughtful discussion of the doctrinal conflicts between conservative Catholicism and political conservatism. While Fehrnstrom may well have little or no knowledge of Christian theology, he clearly should be able to distinguish between a thoughtful, yet informal and private, discussion of the intersection between theology and ideology in contemporary American politics. Instead, he engages in petty Trump-like propagandizing by pretending that critical thinking evidenced in these emails is really behind-closed-doors bigotry; a classic example of liberal hypocrisy.  Like many hypocrisy charges, this one doesn’t pass the smell test.

Trump apologists, like Fehrnstrom, have seized on a couple of phrases from these emails to provide the very thin reeds of their smear. The correspondents in the emails characterized above agreed that Catholic Church doctrine regarding the role of women in society is “backwards.” Not surprisingly, this de-contextualized charge (which would likely find agreement with a majority of American Catholics) is getting a lot of attention in Trump-world. The story Fehrnstrom relied on also includes quotes from the emails indicating that the discussants believe that political conservatives who say they are conservative Catholics are themselves relying on “an amazing bastardization of the faith.” This is NOT evidence of anti-Catholic bigotry.  It is, in fact, a very tenable characterization of the difference between a religiously conservative interpretation of Catholic dogma and a politically conservative interpretation of Catholic dogma.

In my considered opinion as a Catholic and a graduate of The Catholic University of America (No, the Pope didn’t sign my diploma), prominent Republicans who portray themselves as devout Catholics are indeed relying on an un-conservative religious interpretation of Catholic doctrine. In important ways, Devout Catholicism is incompatible with modern American political conservatism. It is, in truth, more consistent with modern American liberalism in large part because it is overwhelmingly communitarian in its orientation, while modern political conservatism is decidedly hostile to a communitarian worldview.

Politically conservative American Catholics oppose abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, some types of medical research, and a few other specifically sinful behaviors from the perspective of Catholic doctrine, but they very enthusiastically embrace elements of protestant theology that are anathema to Catholicism. For example, a transactional or reciprocal understanding of justice, which comports well enough with protestant theology, is clearly condemned by a conservative reading of Catholic doctrine.

American Catholics have traditionally fallen on the left side of the political divide, while evangelical Protestants have long tended toward political conservatism. The opinions of average Catholics in America are decidedly less hostile to nominally sinful behaviors that energize politically conservative Catholics. On the other hand, politically conservative Catholics are extremely hostile to the core values and doctrines of Catholicism because they strongly contradict the values inherent in both capitalism and classical liberalism (a.k.a. modern conservatism).  

American Catholics, left, right, and center, practice their faith with flexible interpretations of core doctrine that are only made more complicated by the thorough integration of Protestant theological assumptions into American political thought and culture.  American Catholics are “cafeteria Catholics” who confront immorality the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously confronted the question of what constitutes pornography. Craven and ham-fisted efforts to twist these popular approaches to the practice of Catholicism into prima facie evidence of hypocrisy or bigotry do a disservice to our national political conversation and contribute mightily to the dumbing down of American politics. The discussions revealed in the leaked emails may or may not have fairly characterized the distance between conservative Catholicism and conservatism in politics, but they were unquestionably thoughtful efforts (intended for a private audience) to compare theory and practice with regard to a highly salient issue in modern American life; an issue that has been thrust into the spotlight like never before thanks to the strong support being given to the most transparently immoral and un-Christian presidential candidate in history by those who prominently include their religious devotion in their self-descriptions as well as their political prescriptions.

I can’t help but note here that the idea that one must have identical public and private postures on important and complex social, political, and economic issues really is a very dangerous and anti-intellectual notion that really is belied by the masterful political gamesmanship not only of Abraham Lincoln (whose approach to rhetoric might well consign him to the political sidelines were he around today) but also of America’s Constitutional Framers whose groundbreaking handiwork was conducted entirely in secret. One wonders where we might be today if the critics of the Constitution’s ratification had been able to “hack” into James Madison’s secret notes of the proceedings in Philadelphia in the summer of 1987.

Eric Fehrnstrom, Catholicism, Podesta emails

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