The Role of the Church in Bannon’s White Nationalist Movement

As it became clear that Steve Bannon is the man behind the throne in much of what Trump has undertaken in the first weeks of his presidency, a lot of attention was paid to his remarks to a conservative group inside the Vatican with connections to Cardinal Burke – one of the most vocal critics of Pope Francis.

In his presentation, Mr. Bannon, then the head of the hard-right website Breitbart News and now Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, called on the “church militant” to fight a global war against a “new barbarity” of “Islamic fascism” and international financial elites, with 2,500 years of Western civilization at risk.

As Jason Horowitz notes, Bannon has a lot in common with that faction of the Catholic Church. Here is how he described a meeting between the president’s chief strategist and Cardinal Burke.

In one of the cardinal’s antechambers, amid religious statues and book-lined walls, Cardinal Burke and Mr. Bannon — who is now President Trump’s anti-establishment eminence — bonded over their shared worldview. They saw Islam as threatening to overrun a prostrate West weakened by the erosion of traditional Christian values, and viewed themselves as unjustly ostracized by out-of-touch political elites.

As Horowitz chronicles, Bannon continues to develop ties with this faction in the Vatican on behalf of the Trump administration, taking charge of who will eventually be named as the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.

It is interesting to note the similarity between the worldview expressed by people like Bannon and Cardinal Burke with what Russian President Vladimir Putin has been saying.

 He warned against the fetishization of tolerance and diversity. He described the West as “infertile and genderless,” while Russian propaganda derided Europe as “Gayropa.” At the heart of Putin’s case was an accusation of moral relativism. “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization,” he said at a conference in 2013…By succumbing to secularism, he noted on another occasion, the West was trending toward “chaotic darkness” and a “return to a primitive state.”

As Casey Michel demonstrates in a must-read article today titled, “How Russia Became the Leader of the Global Christian Right,” that is no accident. In order to understand the significance, it is important to know about an organization called the World Congress of Families (WCF).

Based out of Rockford, Ill., the WCF is an outgrowth of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society. Claiming that it wants to “help secure the foundations of society” by, among other things, defending “the natural family founded on marriage between a man and a woman,” the WCF is run by Brian Brown, who also acts as the co-founder and president of the far right, and vehemently anti-gay, National Organization for Marriage…

…the WCF is a product of joint Russian-American homophobic ingenuity. As Christopher Stroop, a postdoctoral student at the University of South Florida, recently detailed, the WCF was the brainchild of Anatoly Antonov and Viktor Medkov, a pair of sociology professors at Lomonosov Moscow State University, and Allan Carlson, WCF’s current president emeritus.

As Michel says, all of this fit quite well with Putin’s move toward the hard right in an attempt to “return to Tsar Nicholas I’s triumvirate of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.” And it has been welcomed by many on the American religious right.

…it’s not as if it’s difficult to unearth the fundamentalists fawning over Putin’s putative turn toward God. For instance, according to Bryan Fischer, who until 2015 was a spokesman for the American Family Association, Putin is the “lion of Christianity.” Evangelical Franklin Graham has likewise lauded Putin as someone “protecting traditional Christianity,” while Buchanan only continues praising Putin.

The focus on a “cultural war” has been melded in these various factions of the religious right with a fear-mongering about Islamophobia that is being spread from church pulpits and has obviously been central to the actions of the Trump administration.

This combination of fear-mongering, anti-liberalism and white nationalism is nothing new to Christianity – whether Protestant or Catholic. We’ve seen these strands emerge in the Church throughout history from the Crusades to the KKK in this country. It has almost always been coupled with vicious violence. So it is important to note the confluence as it is currently taking shape – not only in this country – but in other places around the globe. That is the movement Steve Bannon is tapping into and attempting to build.

But it’s also important to note that there are countervailing forces. The Black Church has always been a strong force in this country against these movements and Pope Francis is beloved around the world, with a special connection to Catholic Latinos both here and abroad. Beyond that, a group of White Evangelicals are making their voices heard when it comes to the actions of the current administration.

In a highly unusual move, several conservative evangelical leaders took out a full-page advertisement in Wednesday’s Washington Post to denounce President Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees, saying they are “deeply concerned.” The ad includes the signatures of evangelicals considered to be more conservative and represent large churches and institutions, including New York City Pastor Tim Keller and his wife, Kathy Keller, Southern Baptists Ed Stetzer and Daniel Akin and popular author Max Lucado.

The ad shows how the issue of refugees, which was once not considered divisive in evangelical circles, has become polarizing in recent years. The evangelical ministry World Relief, which is behind the ad that lists 100 evangelical leaders, said that more than 500 evangelical pastors and ministry leaders have added their signatures to the letter that will be delivered to Trump.

That is the form the resistance is taking in the church.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.