The Catholic Church Has a Visible White-Power Faction | Sojourners

The Catholic Church Has a Visible White-Power Faction

Once persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan, some Catholics now embrace the most extreme forms of racial hatred. 
Michael Heimbach, far left, a white nationalist who grew up Catholic, was featured speaker at a neo-Nazi rally in Knoxville, Tenn. / Photograph by Mike Bellame

Editors’ Note: As a matter of editorial policy, Sojourners does not grant take-down requests from outside parties. In the case of "Harboring A Culture of Hate" by Eric Martin, Sojourners then-editor-in-chief and then-president Jim Wallis felt the correction below called into question the entire substance of the article and made the decision on July 28 to take down the article from Sojourners website. You can read past statements on that decision here. Sojourners believes that the significant conversation this article has generated, along with the decision to remove the article, should be conducted as part of an open and transparent public conversation. For that reason, on Aug. 14, Sojourners reinstated the article with the correction below.

Aug. 14, 2020, 5:02 p.m. Correction: An earlier version of this article claimed that the writers of the document Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love - A Pastoral Letter Against Racism, developed by the Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), were silent on three extreme symbols of racism: swastikas, Confederate flags, and nooses. This is not true. The final language of Open Wide Our Hearts includes the sentence “The re-appearance of symbols of hatred, such as nooses and swastikas in public spaces, is a tragic indicator of rising racial and ethnic animus.” The document did not condemn these symbols, but did address them. The final document does not address Confederate flags. We apologize for this error and thank readers at the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Charities USA for pointing it out.

WHEN THE U.S. Catholic bishops gathered to draft a document on race in the wake of the 2017 white terrorist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock, Ark., submitted an amendment to condemn the imagery of swastikas, Confederate flags, and nooses. The U.S. bishops deliberated and voted to reject it.

The document, “Open Wide Our Hearts,” was billed as “a pastoral letter against racism,” making its writers’ inability to adopt the amendment condemning three famously extreme symbols of racism a curious one. The bishops explained themselves by arguing that swastikas and nooses were already “widely recognized signs of hatred,” which would seem to make them all the easier to condemn. (Interestingly, they eschewed this logic when issuing their only condemnation, against violence toward police.) As for the Confederate flag, “some still claim it as a sign of heritage,” they argued.

While this logic indefensibly hand-waves the history of slavery, murderous opposition to civil rights, and violence such as the 2015 shooting at a Black church in Charleston, S.C., as a vaguely benign “heritage,” it also fails to account for the flag’s use among those with no ties to the Confederacy. Take, for example, U.S. Rep. Steve King. While most widely known for asking what’s so wrong with white supremacy and white nationalism, King, who is Catholic, has also displayed a Confederate flag on his congressional desk. The quite obvious meaning of the flag’s presence on the desk of King, who represents a district in Iowa until January, is apparently lost on the bishops, given their claims about “Southern” heritage.

The decision to avoid condemning swastikas, nooses, and Confederate flags would be troubling under any circumstances. But this moral failure is compounded by the fact that Catholics are among the most integral groups that rally behind these symbols. From the highest reaches of government to the lowest depths of social media, many members of hate groups and politicians who model their talking points are part of the bishops’ flock. Catholics not only contributed to the platform for the so-called alt-righters who terrorized Charlottesville and killed Heather Heyer but are leaders and even founders of the most dangerous neo-Nazi groups in existence.

The Catholic Church, once persecuted by the Ku Klux Klan, today has a visible white-power faction. As long as the bishops actively refuse to condemn its banners, they give white supremacists space to embrace their anti-Black and anti-Semitic work free of religious dissonance.

“No cultural Christians allowed”

WHILE THE PROBLEM starts at the top, it is impossible to ignore how it has manifested on the streets. In 2017, an alliance of the KKK, neo-Nazis, and the alt-right did much of their planning for the Unite the Right rally in chat rooms that have since been made public by the media outlet Unicorn Riot. One of the more popular chat rooms was designated specifically for Catholics to explore the connections between their church and the rally. “No cultural Christians allowed,” its heading read. It was reserved for “dedicated” Catholics only and named after Nicholas J. Fuentes, a Catholic member of the neo-Nazi group Identity Evropa. Fuentes is an online influencer with 90,000 followers on social media; he was present at Charlottesville. Across all servers, more than 14,000 posts related to Catholicism were released in the aftermath of the event, and an early post captures their spirit: “I’m baptized Catholic [and] ready for a crusade.”

Here Catholics discussed everything from their favorite saints to their thoughts on Pope Urban II. They talked of “how to defend proper Catholicism” and shared links to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. They saluted “Sieg heil!” to each other. They went from joking about the murder of Heather Heyer, the anti-racist activist who was run over in Charlottesville by a neo-Nazi, to singing “Ave Maria” together. They discussed the merits of Mein Kampf, identified themselves as “Charles Coughlin Roman Catholics” (after the 1930s Catholic radio demagogue), encouraged genocide against Jews, advertised the anti-Semitic podcast The Daily Shoah, and confessed their allegiance to what they call the “14 words”: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

Augustus Sol Invictus grew up Catholic. Matthew Heimbach was raised in a Catholic family and eventually switched to the Orthodox Church. Both have been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “major players from the ‘Unite the Right’ rally.” Faith Goldy—a Catholic who wrote for The Catholic Register and was banned from Facebook for participating in a neo-Nazi podcast on the most prominent Nazi website, recited the “14 words” online, and advocated white secession from the U.S.—reported on the rally from the ground. Fuentes posted on Facebook, “What an incredible rally here in Charlottesville,” and added that “a tidal wave of white identity is coming,” “the fire rises,” and “you will not replace us,” echoing the anti-Jewish chants in the torchlit rally from the night before, in which attendees stood behind the very symbols the bishops refused to condemn, posting pictures of nooses online and brandishing swastikas and Confederate flags on the streets.

“The most hard-core collection”

AFTER CHARLOTTESVILLE, CATHOLICS have continued to be in the vanguard of neo-Nazi violence. In 2018, Rinaldo Nazarro formed a terrorist training group, modeled after al Qaeda, called The Base. Nazarro, who has fled to Russia, was raised in a family of dedicated Catholics, attended an elite Catholic prep school in New Jersey and Villanova University, and continued donating to his Catholic high school 25 years after graduating. The inaugural online post for Nazarro’s group read, “Führer, you were only the beginning. We will finish what you started,” and he told an infiltrator that “This will be the most hard-core collection of pro-white individuals in the world.” The Base calls for a race war and an all-white Pacific Northwest homeland, plans violence against Jews and Black people, organizes military training camps, builds explosive devices, and pushes for “accelerationist” tactics that seek to usher in catastrophic societal collapse.

Another of the most extreme neo-Nazi organizations today is Atomwaffen Division, whose logo is from the infamous German SS paramilitary. The group’s influences include Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson, and its aim is the violent overthrow of the government by guerrilla tactics. Atomwaffen’s most well-known murder occurred in January 2018. Samuel Woodward, who came “from a devoutly Catholic family” and as a student drew Confederate flags in art class, was charged with stabbing a 19-year-old gay, Jewish college student, Blaze Bernstein, 20 times and hiding Bernstein’s body in an Orange County, Calif. park. Woodward had traveled with an Atomwaffen division leader for a summer, helped organize members in Southern California, trained in weaponry and outdoor survival skills, and posed with other Atomwaffen members while making Nazi salutes. He spoke openly about his Catholic faith on social media and attended Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach, including after the murder. When police arrested him, they found more than 100 pieces of Nazi, anti-gay, and hate group content on his phone. Judging by other Atomwaffen members, including former Catholic Devon Arthurs, charged with two murders, and the Telegram user who goes by “Catholicwaffen,” Woodward is not alone in representing both his church and perhaps the most lethal neo-Nazi group in the country.

Well-dressed Catholic nationalism

THE PROBLEM IS not just in shadowy corners of the internet or terrorist attacks; it appears more respectably in business suits and government appointments. One of the alt-right’s biggest political influences is former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, communications director under Ronald Reagan. He and fellow Catholic Joe Sobran served as inspiration for a blog referred to as “the alt-right’s favorite philosophy instructor,” and his comments on immigration and questioning the Holocaust are the type of kinder, gentler white nationalism that provides oxygen for the more obvious forms. Buchanan has claimed that Jews hold the “real power” in the U.S., that not as many died in the Holocaust as reported, and that “this has been a country built, basically, by white folks.” When an interviewer suggested that white people had held power in the U.S. for years, Buchanan bristled. “I don’t know where you grew up,” he retorted. “I grew up in a Catholic ghetto.”

Before the alt-right showed its colors in Charlottesville, the two most prominent writers for the movement’s unofficial website, Breitbart News, were both Catholic. In 2016, Breitbart’s former executive chair Steve Bannon called the site “a platform for the alt-right.” Bannon takes his religion seriously, according to those close to him, and when he listed the six books that most influenced him, the list included the classicsThe Imitation of Christ and The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He has also aligned himself with American Renaissance, a eugenicist think tank expounding the scientific inferiority of Black people, and helped fellow Catholic Katie McHugh get “deeper and deeper into the world of white nationalism,” as she put it. After she retweeted an American Nazi Party member multiple times and posted, “Let’s make Mecca into a strip mall!” Bannon not only shielded her from punishment but later made her producer of his radio show.

Bannon oversaw the rise of his most well-known writer at Breitbart, the Catholic Milo Yiannopoulos, who would become famous for leading a harassment campaign against Black actress Leslie Jones that included unprintable slurs. Yiannopoulos has worked closely with American Renaissance, compared Black Lives Matter participants to “petulant children,” and was filmed singing karaoke with friends giving Nazi salutes. He also calls himself a “Catholic theocrat” and claims that Catholicism is the very basis of a good and true society. “Catholicism is the idea, the West is the practice,” he told an interviewer. Making his thinly veiled racist language explicit, he bragged of white people, “We invented all the good shit.”

Donald Trump hired Bannon to be his chief strategist, welcoming the alt-right movement into the highest circles of power. He tapped another Catholic, Kellyanne Conway, to be his campaign manager and later his presidential counselor. Conway calls Catholicism the “bedrock” of her life, and she cited her religion as she defended Trump’s policy of separating immigrant children from their mothers in detention. “As a mother, as a Catholic ... I will tell you that nobody likes this policy,” Conway said on Meet the Press, but she said family separation was justified because “it is a crime to enter this country illegally.” Conway sought to use her Catholicism as a shield against criticism while stripping Central American children from their families.

The cost of refusing to speak

THE THREAT IS not that white nationalists will take over the Catholic Church. The threat is that the Catholic Church harbors a culture sufficiently friendly to white nationalism that people can comfortably embrace both the faith and the most extreme forms of racial hatred. As long as Catholics can be found in neo-Nazi groups, as long as Atomwaffen members can dub themselves Catholicwaffen or receive Communion after murdering Jewish people, something in the church itself poses a concrete danger to Jews and people of color.

But more serious than foot soldiers are the Kellyanne Conways of the world, who help shape communal thought in ways that make radical white supremacy so pervasive as to turn invisible. Conway, in particular, models the kind of vapid anti-logic based on, in her own words, “alternative facts” that closely mirrors the taunting disdain of the alt-right when they deflect threats as attempts at humor and shed every argument or principle standing in the way of white power.

And yet, there will be more Kellyanne Conways and Steve Bannons as long as the U.S. bishops leave religious space open for them. They did just that by refusing to approve the amendment that clearly condemned swastikas, Confederate flags, and nooses, the three most potent symbols of white terrorism in the U.S. In doing so, neo-Nazis have more leeway to believe their white supremacist actions are done not in spite of Catholicism but in harmony with it.

Thankfully, Catholic social teaching springs up elsewhere. The faithful can read theologians such as M. Shawn Copeland and Bryan Massingale or follow the Black Catholic Theological Symposium. They can turn to Catholic activists among the civil rights and Black Power movements such as Father George Clements and the Black Unity Masses he sparked, as well as Diane Nash, who led the second wave of the Freedom Rides after the first was bombed by whites and began a two-year jail sentence for her witness while pregnant. They might even look across the 2017 Unite the Right rally’s police barricades to see Dr. Jalane Schmidt, founder of the Charlottesville Black Lives Matter chapter and public historian, who since the rally has given public lectures about the real history behind Confederate imagery. Until the bishops join one of her downtown walking tours, it is in Schmidt and people like her that Catholics can find their anti-racist leaders.

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