The Seeds of Theocratic Authoritarianism Are Being Planted

It is a marriage of white nationalism, Christian nationalism, and misogyny.

Since it became obvious that Attorney General William Barr manipulated the release of the Mueller report in an attempt to exonerate Donald Trump, people have been asking the questions posed recently by Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson.

Why would a seemingly respectable, semiretired lion of the Washington establishment undermine the institutions he is sworn to uphold, incinerate his own reputation, and appear to willfully misrepresent the reports of special prosecutors and inspectors general, all to defend one of the most lawless and corrupt presidents in American history? And why has this particular attorney general appeared at this pivotal moment in our Republic?

Initially we heard a lot about Barr being part of a group of Republicans who are dedicated to the concept of a “unitary executive.” That was affirmed by the attorney general’s recent speech to the Federalist Society. It was, however, Barr’s speech at Notre Dame that led many of us to look at little deeper into what motivates this attorney general. He blamed “secularists” for moral chaos and posited that “free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people.” Stewart and Fredrickson point out that these views are foundational for Barr.

This form of “religious liberty” is not a mere side issue for Mr. Barr, or for the other religious nationalists who have come to dominate the Republican Party. Mr. Barr has made this clear. All the problems of modernity — “the wreckage of the family,” “record levels of depression and mental illness,” “drug addiction” and “senseless violence” — stem from the loss of a strict interpretation of the Christian religion.

As Joan Walsh recently pointed out, a look at Barr’s history demonstrates that he has been “neck-deep in extremist Catholic institutions.” One of the more interesting is the Catholic Information Center.

As recently as 2017, he was on the board of directors of the DC-based Catholic Information Center, led by the ultraright and secretive group Opus Dei. He’s not alone in being tied to that center. Its board includes the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo, and White House counsel Pat Cipollone is a former board member. “The small center—its members and its leaders—continue to have an outsize impact on policy and politics,” The Washington Post wrote this year.

Larry Kudlow is another fan of the center. Its longtime president, Father John McCloskey, converted Kudlow from Judaism when he was struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. “I’d like to unleash him on Capitol Hill,” Kudlow told The Washington Times in 2001. “A few doses of Father McCloskey, and we’ll turn this country around. In some ways, the Catholic Church has fallen short in its evangelizing mission, and I think Father John is awakening that.” McCloskey also baptized modern ultraright stalwarts like former Kansas senator Sam Brownback and über–GOP fixer Newt Gingrich, whose wife is now the ambassador to the Vatican. (I kid you not.)

McCloskey left the center in 2003 after two credible allegations of abusing women who went to him for pastoral advice, and the center settled at least one of the complaints for almost a million dollars.

Reading the Washington Post article Walsh linked to about the Catholic Information Center, it became clear that this group appears to be the Catholic version of the Protestant group Jeff Sharlet wrote about in his book, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.” It is especially worth noting that the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo serves on the board of the Catholic Information Center. He is the person featured in a Washington Post report by Robert O’Harrow and Shawn Boberg titled “A conservative activist’s behind-the-scenes campaign to remake the nation’s courts.” All of those extremist judges being nominated by Trump and rushed through confirmation by McConnell are being fed into the system by Leonard Leo, who joins Barr in being affiliated with an extremist Catholic organization.

All of this is why Stewart and Fredrickson point out that Barr’s interpretation of executive power is an “effect, rather than a cause, of his ideological commitments.”

Mr. Barr’s constitutional interpretation is simply window dressing on his commitment to religious authoritarianism….America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system. Though conservatives have long claimed to be the true champions of the Constitution…the movement that now controls the Republican Party is committed to a suite of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution and the Republic that the founders created under its auspices…

Mr. Barr did not emerge in order to serve this one particular leader. On the contrary, Mr. Trump serves a movement that will cynically praise the Constitution in order to destroy it, and of which Mr. Barr has made himself a hero.

With adherents like Attorney General William Barr, Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, this movement is more than simply theoretical. For example:

[T]he President has a growing number of supporters who understand opposition to abortion and immigration as intertwined—as means of preserving a white, Christian America. And the Trump Administration is taking concrete steps to encourage this ideational fusion.

Consider the events of last week. The Trump Administration dispatched officials to the International Conference on Family Policy. There, Trump officials lauded Hungary’s “procreation, not immigration” policies, which oppose refugees and immigration and instead subsidize traditional, nuclear Hungarian families to have more children. These policies coincided with a new Hungarian constitution, which protects fetal life from the moment of conception.

Joe Grogan, an assistant to the president and director of the Domestic Policy Council, praised Hungary for the “courage and creativity” of these policies and said the Trump Administration was “inspired” and came “in support and solidarity.” He took the occasion of celebrating Hungary’s fertility-boosting programs to affirm the Administration’s opposition to abortion.

Hungary’s “procreation, not immigration” policies have their roots in “replacement theory.” This doctrine holds that white women are not producing enough babies and Christian, western civilizations will be “replaced” through the twin forces of falling birth rates and increasing immigration.

Back in March, Trump’s HHS provided $5.1 million Title X family-planning funds to an organization called Obria, which aims to be a pro-life alternative to Planned Parenthood.

In 2015, Obria’s founder and current chief executive explained, “When [Europe’s] nations accepted contraception and abortion, they stopped replacing their population. Christianity began to die out. And, with Europeans having no children, immigrant Muslims came in to replace them, and now the culture of Europe is changing.” She warned that America is “on the same track as Europe” and that “[i]n only two of the past 40 years have we replaced our population.”

Anyone familiar with Margret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale understands that this is what happens when democracy is replaced by theocratic authoritarianism. It is a marriage of white nationalism, Christian nationalism, and misogyny. That is where the current conservative movement is headed in this country.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.