In a recent post, “The New Know-Nothings,” the editors of America condemned the incendiary anti-immigration rhetoric that Trump has used to galvanize a reactionary remnant of the electorate. They suggested Catholics be especially appalled since “recycling 19th-century nativist headlines would require little more than the adjustment of a few words: Replace Irish with Mexican, Catholic with Muslim.”
America put American neo-nativism in historical context. They not only suggested that Catholics remember we too were targeted based on our religion, they also laid out what Catholics can do to ensure that neo-nativism does not gain state power in our democracy today:
“Few American institutions can claim the connections with European-descent, Latino and Asian communities that the Catholic Church enjoys. Given its culture of community, theology of unity and practical experience with diversity, the church has a unique capacity to assist in this transition, assuaging anxieties even as it assists newcomers. It can begin that work now by offering a clear, scriptural and consistent condemnation of today’s echoes of nativism, wherever they originate.”
The problem, however, is Trump’s Catholic Advisory Board that consists of a small, but very loud group of activists who are presenting the case that Catholics should vote for him because he promises to appoint pro-life judges.
Joseph Cella, chief liaison to the Trump campaign for Catholic affairs, is misappropriating Catholic social teaching to justify Trump’s neo-nativist rhetoric:
“It’s really an opportunity to address the safety and security of our country, of our communities and civil order, and that’s something consistent with Catholic social teaching. Mr. Trump himself has said that while there will be a wall, a reasonable means of enforcing and tracking the flow of people in and out, there will be a door in the wall as well, meaning a system that is orderly compared to the system we currently have.”
Catholic social teaching does not condone building walls against our neighbors, rather, it denounces the breaking up migrant families by the state. Nor does it accept the degradation of the human person and his or her family in the name of “communities and civil order,” and much less accepts Trump’s ideas on “law and order.”
Law and order is a central theme used by Trump to raise fear of the “disorder” he calls “criminals, murderers, and rapists” crossing the American border. He does so to contrast the “order” he would restore in political strong man fashion.
The Catholic church shares with theologians and social justice advocates the responsibility to preserve the integrity of Catholic social teaching from demagogues that would destroy it for personal political gain. A comprehensive understanding of the social teachings of the church cannot be dismissed in the name of a single issue, in this case, “pro-life judges.”
If we look beyond Trump’s appeal to anti-immigration sentiments, we are witnessing other forms of white supremacy propaganda used by him and his supporters. There is another, much closer history that we as Catholics need recall, when a “creed of tribalism and intolerance” plagued not only our nation, but the world.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, in an interview on National Public Radio this week, told listeners that this election cycle has fueled rabid anti-Semitism, and he described how Jewish journalists are being targeted on social media. Greenblatt announced the ADL would be sending a representative to Silicon Valley to work with social media companies to deal with these threats online.
Jack Jenkins, senior religion reporter at ThinkProgress wrote, “Donald Trump has an anti-Semitism problem.” Jenkins’ article showcases examples of the types of tweets Trump supporters sent out to Jewish journalists these past few months. In one of the worst examples, journalist Julia Ioffe was targeted for writing a piece on Trump’s wife. She received many anti-Semitic tweets, one of which was a cartoon that showed a Jew on his knees being shot in the back of the head, execution style. The tweet read, “They know about you.”
It’s not only Donald Trump’s supporters who are using anti-Semitic threats to intimidate their opponents. In February, in an interview on CNN’s State of the Union, Trump was asked whether he would disavow David Duke’s support, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard. Trump was reluctant to say no, and he didn’t say no until pressure was put on him by not only the media, but his own party. Then in July, Trump was criticized for tweeting a media graphic critical of Hillary Clinton, and in it she was pictured with what looked like a Star of David—a graphic that had been posted to a white supremacist blog just days earlier.
Neo-nativism is indeed alive and well again in American politics, and as Catholics we must condemn it. But neo-Nazism and white supremacy are indeed alive and well too, and Catholics cannot turn a blind eye—in the name of “pro-life judges”—to the fact that these groups are being given a political home in the Trump campaign.
Thomas Edsall wrote an op ed entitled, “Purity, Disgust and Donald Trump.” He had a few conversations with psychologists and political scientists on why Donald Trump was able to mobilize a reactionary remnant of neo-nativists, neo-Nazis, and white supremacy groups in the American electorate unlike Republican candidates before him. Their conversations revealed the “purity-disgust dimension” that the Trump’s campaign was able to tap into.
Jesse Graham, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California and one of Edsall’s interlocutors put it this way:
“More than any other Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump has been appealing to a particular combination of in-group loyalty and moral purity concerns. On the purity side, he often expresses disgust, often toward women and women’s bodies (e.g., Clinton’s bathroom break during a Democratic debate). But his purity appeals are most commonly in the context of group boundaries, like building walls on our national borders to prevent contamination by outsiders, who are cast as murderers and rapists, both morally and physically dirty.”
Graham explains that neo-Nazi literature has planted seeds that Trump has been able to sow:
“The National Alliance and National Vanguard spawned The Turner Diaries, which imagined a dystopian future where America is ruled by lazy and corrupt Jews and Blacks, until a morally pure white resistance group nukes the Pentagon. Trump of course is not advocating anything like these horrors, but the moral intuitions he’s playing on can lead in this direction if unrestrained by other moral concerns, such as injustice and the suffering of out-group members.”
As Catholics we must go beyond neo-nativism and discuss the threat of American anti-Semitism in Trump’s politics, and do so in the memory of our own sins as a church that we still bear today.
The Catholic church’s reluctance to challenge the Nazi regime and its broad inaction leading up to and during WWII was a tragedy. Vatican II can be said to be a self-correction of the church’s spiritual and theological inability to respond specifically to the Nazi regime, and more generally to the pre-WWII world that lead to Nazi state power. Additionally, the German innovation of Catholic political theology was a direct consequence of both the inaction of the Catholic church and the horror of the Holocaust.
These theologies and histories we need recall so that a 21st century Catholicism remember the mistakes of the 20th century church, and ensure that we do not yet again fail to respond forcefully and in unity against “in-group loyalty and moral purity concerns”aka, the social sin of racism and hate.
Today, American Catholicism cannot be reluctant to challenge the threat of anti-Semitism. We must do so in a vigorous effort to stand with those political forces who will take direct action against it. And one direct action that the church must take is to challenge the misappropriations of the social teachings of the church that are used to justify voting for those persons who give cover to neo-Nazi and white supremacists groups.
What America editors said that the church must do to fight neo-nativism and xenophobia holds true for anti-Semitism as well: “It can begin that work now by offering a clear, scriptural and consistent condemnation of today’s echoes…wherever they originate.”
The Catholic church, however, has a history to contend with—a history that was reluctant to respond to anti-Semitism—and so we must ensure that we are super vigilant in publicly condemning not Trump’s public policies per se, but the culture he has unleashed as a presidential candidate. We must do so in the most clear and forceful of ways.
So the first thing that the American church must do to respond to this crisis today is to condemn Trump’s Catholic Advisory Board for misappropriating Catholic social teaching as a cover for the social sin of racism and hate. Cella cannot use the cover of “pro-life judges” to turn a blind eye to the threat we are facing beyond neo-nativism—i.e. the threat of American anti-Semitism—that is given an ideological home in the Trump campaign and then ignored by Trump supporters that claim to represent the Catholic church.
We, as Catholics, cannot let our church and its teachings be sympathetic to Anti-Semitism again.